During the winter of 1803-1804, Lewis and Clark camped at the spot where the Missouri River joins the Mississippi.
The expedition included 29 soldiers and 16 helpers who would accompany them for the first year before turning back. The men, food, and equipment would travel in two dugout canoes and a 55-foot boat.
On May 14, 1804, the expedition began to paddle and row up the Missouri River. For weeks, the men made their way up the broad river, avoiding floating logs, snags, and shifting sands.
By mid-July, they had reached the broad, grass-covered land of the Great Plains, which stretched unbroken to the horizon. Over the next two months, Lewis wrote fascinating accounts of the local animal life, including antelopes, badgers, jackrabbits, and coyotes.
Herds of buffalo darkened the plains. Little animals lived by the hundreds in underground burrows. Their high-pitched squeals and calls echoed for miles. Lewis called them “barking squirrels.” A sergeant called them prairie dogs, the name they have today.
By November, the expedition had traveled 1,600 miles. As the weather turned cold, the men began to build a camp on the banks of the Missouri to wait out the winter. Before they finished, a French-Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, offered to join the expedition and act as an interpreter.
Lewis was more impressed with Charbonneau’s wife, a young Indian woman named Sacajawea. She was Shoshone, a tribe that lived in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where Lewis expected to travel. They persuaded Sacajawea to come with them. In the coming months, Sacajawea would be invaluable to the expedition, and not just because of her translating skills.
In February, Sacajawea gave birth to a son. When the expedition met Indian tribes for the first time, the presence of Sacajawea, with her baby strapped securely to her back, calmed the chiefs. No party with a woman and child intended to make war.
“Sacajawea’s presence,” wrote Clark, “reconciles all the Indians as to our friendly intentions.”
This 1797 map is one of seven published in The American Gazetteer, the first comprehensive geography of North America. Created by clergyman, educator, and geographer Jedediah Morse (the father of Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph), the map shows the imaginary “River of the West” and vast areas of blankness west of the Mississippi, revealing the extent of knowledge at the time.