It’s Not Easy Being the First
No one can say this more than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their transcontinental expedition was filled with unpredictability, natural dangers, and Native communities who were not ready to have anyone move into their territory. The story itself, without any embellishment, is dramatic with equally intriguing characters including Thomas Jefferson, a young Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, and a team of men known as the Corps of Discovery who faced a landscape that had never been navigated or mapped.
Why had it taken until 1804 to even start exploring the Pacific Northwest? It was a project that Jefferson had been pondering while living in France in the 1780s, knowing it could lead to huge opportunities for the very young United States of America. He also heard talk that King Louis the XVI of France was interested in exploring the region. While the royal had officially proposed a scientific expedition, Jefferson felt the French King had a political mission in mind.
Knowing the expedition was extremely dangerous, President Jefferson provided peace medals to the Corps to introduce themselves to the various tribes they met along the way. But on the trail, it was Sacagawea and her infant son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who slept wrapped on a cradleboard, that reassured the tribes that the group meant no harm.
Although Lewis and Clark are best known for laying the groundwork for westward expansion and creating the first maps of the region, their observations were also useful to scientists researching the natural wildlife that the Corps of Discovery encountered. Even though they were never intended to be a scientific expedition, their work helps us preserve the indigenous species and natural landscape of the early 19th century.
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