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Westward Ho!

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark faced the adventure of a lifetime. Under orders from President Thomas Jefferson, the two explorers set off to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. They faced an unmapped territory with raging rivers and rugged mountain ranges.

Lewis and Clark led a party of about 40. The group traveled 3,700 miles from St. Louis, Missouri, to the northwestern Pacific coast. They set out in three boats. The boats carried them far up the Missouri River. The explorers, however, found that the boats were too big for the river, which dwindled to a shallow stream in the Rocky Mountains. From then on, they traveled by horse, foot, or dugout canoe to reach their destination.

Corps of Discovery

Lewis, Clark, and their crew called themselves the Corps of Discovery. They were true pioneers. Their assignment was to explore the Louisiana Territory, a huge area that Jefferson had bought from France for $15 million in 1803. The purchase of the territory almost doubled the size of the United States.

Jefferson had hoped the group of explorers would discover a water passage that could be part of a water and land route from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. Jefferson wanted merchants to use such a route for trade and commerce.

The Missouri River provided a good entry to the Columbia River and carried them swiftly to the sea at the end. In between, however, the expedition had to cross some of the roughest land in the country. Lewis and Clark found that there was no unbroken waterway to the Pacific Ocean.

Successful Journey

Yet the long journey was a success. Lewis and Clark met about 50 different American Indian tribes and established peaceful relationships with most of them. Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian, acted as an interpreter and guide for the expedition.

The explorers also saw previously unstudied plants and animals, including grizzly bears, prairie dogs, and bison. The expedition returned to Missouri in 1806 with fascinating stories about the people and places they had seen. These stories helped convince people in coming years to move to the West.

Today, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail begins near Wood River, Illinois, and follows the explorers' route as closely as possible through parts of 11 western states. The trail includes Fort Mandan, in what is now North Dakota, and Fort Clatsop, in what is now Oregon. The expedition built the forts for protection during each winter of the journey.

200 Years Later

Many people are commemorating the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition through 2006. However, many American Indians see this anniversary as marking the loss of much of their land and their population. The National Park Service is holding a traveling exhibit called the Corps of Discovery II: 200 Years to the Future. It is following the explorers' original travel route. Corps II is acting out events from the original journey.