How they almost didn’t make it back home

Everyone has probably heard the story of Lewis and Clark. The two explorers led the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States. Before them, no one knew what was in the “wild west.” Could they establish a presence in this territory?

One of the most pivotal locations in the expedition was Fort Clatsop, which served as the winter residence for the Corps of Discovery (led by Lewis and Clark). If they had not secured a safe place to live during the cold winter months of 1805-1806, many of the explorers would have died from the harsh environmental conditions.

The reason for the expedition

In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to explore the land west of the Mississippi River in order to hopefully secure it as American property. The U.S. wanted to establish an American presence in the land before opposing powers from Great Britain or France tried to claim the territory.

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Jefferson needed loyal explorers to head the important expedition under the Corps of Discovery, and he ultimately chose U.S. Army Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend, Second Lieutenant William Clark. The explorers were tasked to study the land for useful plant life, animals, and geography. Could they build livable cities in these areas of the country?

Preparing for the expedition

Lewis and Clark both knew the expedition wasn’t going to be easy. They would confront harsh weather, treacherous waters, diseases, and hostile greetings from Native Americans who already claimed the territory as their own. To be fully prepared for the expedition, Lewis studied medicine, botany, astronomy, and zoology. He reviewed every existing map he could find to learn as much as he could about the unfamiliar territory.

Lewis was “in charge” of the expedition, so he knew a lot of the responsibility fell on his shoulders. However, both Lewis and Clark divided their tasks, which included gathering essential supplies for their trip.

Lewis also collected gifts to offer to the Native Americans they would face on their expedition. The men brought along beads, knives, tobacco, ivory combs, bright-colored cloth, mirrors, and more. In addition, Clark recruited more men to join their “Corps of Volunteers for Northwest Discovery.” He selected individuals who had survival skills, including hunting.

And they’re off

On May 14, 1804, Lewis and Clark met in St. Charles, Missouri, and they were ready for their important expedition. They started traveling upstream on the Mississippi River and then moved west.

The expedition lasted a year and a half, and Lewis and Clark faced every condition they feared: bad weather, unforgiving terrain, treacherous waters, injuries, starvation, disease, and hostile treatment from Native Americans. It was a miracle they finally arrived at the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. But before they could leave, they had to rest.

Christmas at Fort Clatsop

Lewis and Clark (and their volunteers) decided to stay in present-day Astoria, Oregon, for the winter. The weather was already too severe for them to begin making their journey back home. They started building a camp, named Fort Clatsop, on December 10, 1805, and they moved in on Christmas Day.

It was a harsh winter at Fort Clatsop. The explorers struggled to find food, keep themselves dry from the weather elements, and the camp was infested with fleas and insects. Men were weak from hunger and other influenza-like symptoms.

As soon as the first signs of spring weather reached Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark probably said, “See you later, alligator.” They left the camp on March 23, 1806, and arrived home on September 23, 1806.

The entire journey was regarded as a huge success for the U.S., but it also provided new information about the West’s geography, ecology, and social life. Lewis and Clark paved the path (quite literally) for future development in the West, as well as many other explorers and pioneers who dreamed of going where no man has gone before.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

Learn more about Lewis and Clark and their historic expedition.

Learn more about how Lewis and Clark returned home from their expedition.