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Subtopic : Contact and Settlement: Lewis and Clark's Sojourn

Themes: Social Relations, Exploration

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Lewis and Clark Track across
Western North America, 1821
(map detail)
CN 054377

When President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark up the Missouri in 1803 to explore the region west of the Mississippi River, he had in mind more than a scientific expedition. Jefferson had just bought an enormous chunk of real estate from Napoleon, the Louisiana Purchase, stretching from the toe of the Mississippi to the headwaters of the Missouri. He had his eye on the territory that lay beyond it, the Pacific region, and he wanted to challenge claims from the British and Spanish, who were also interested in it. In sending Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean, Jefferson was pursuing his vision of a United States of America that stretched from coast to coast.

That said, Lewis and Clark were also on a scientific expedition. Jefferson directed the explorers to take careful notes of the flora, fauna, and inhabitants of the country they passed through. Lewis and Clark diligently collected specimens of the plants and animals they saw all along their route, including those they encountered during their sojourn at Fort Clatsop at the Columbia's mouth during the winter of 1805-06.

Among the many plants they catalogued were 176 that were new to scientists back home. Some of these are very familiar to residents of the Oregon coast: vine maple, bigleaf maple, Pacific madrone, white and red alder, salal, bracken fern, evergreen huckleberry, Sitka spruce, mountain hemlock, western white pine, and grand fir. One of them, Oregongrape, is Oregon’s state flower.

Lewis and Clark also took copious notes about the Native people. Their impressions were not always favorable — they were often frank in their criticism of the Indians, in part because their relations with the people of the lower Columbia sometimes became tense during their long, tedious winter there, but they noted the Indians’ skill at turning the resources of the land to their use. In their journals, drawings, and maps, Lewis and Clark brought back much valuable information about the landscape and peoples of the Pacific coast.

© Gail Wells, 2006.

Themes: Social Relations,Exploration

Regions: Oregon Coast

Date: 1803-1806

Author: Gail Wells

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent a miserable winter in the Pacific Northwest in 1805-06. They had been sent by President Thomas Jefferson on a geopolitical and scientific mission.

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