The Lewis and Clark Expedition was approved by the U.S. Congress in 1803 to secure the commercial routes to the West before the Europeans exploited the trade potential of the region. Besides, not much was known about the area's topography and bio-life before the expedition. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were entrusted with making a map of the route and negotiating with the Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the land.
President Jefferson wanted the party to explore a transcontinental water route along the Missouri River. More importantly, this expedition would chart the territory for America and negotiate U.S. sovereignty along the route. The opening up of the Pacific coast depended upon the success of this mission.
The Expedition Party
The two people President Jefferson chose to lead the expedition were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Meriwether Lewis was an experienced naturalist and had worked as his personal aide. In the course of his preparation to lead the expedition party, Lewis studied at the University of Pennsylvania and enlisted the help of renowned cartographers and navigators. Lewis had served a short stint with William Clark in the U.S. Army. Both Jefferson and Lewis found him a suitable candidate to co-lead the mission. Over thirty other men were enlisted to accompany the leaders. Along with the other members of the party, Lewis and Clark also met a fifteen-year-old woman from the Shoshone tribe, named Sacagawea. Sacagawea had given birth to a child about two months before the party set out in 1804. Her presence made the other Native Americans amenable to the party, and she also acted as their translator.
The ExplorationThe Lewis and Clark Expedition party set out in May 1804 from St. Louis. They traveled along the Missouri River and traversed modern-day North Dakota. The early months of 1805 were spent traversing the rugged route across the Rocky Mountains. By November 1805, the expedition party reached Oregon on the Pacific coast. They decided to spend the bitter winter in their Oregon camp. Lewis and Clark then navigated their way back to St. Louis the following year. In all, the party had covered over 8,000 miles of difficult terrain.
AchievementsThe Lewis and Clark Expedition party returned with invaluable information about the terrain, the plants and animals, the geography, and the natives of the regions they had explored. The leaders and other members had maintained detailed journal entries about the people and their culture. The newly established route to the Pacific coast opened up commercial links hitherto unknown. Though many Europeans had already interacted with Native American tribes by that time, the expedition served the cause of chalking out American territory and opening up the West for settlement. It also served the scientific purpose of acquainting the settlers with the flora and fauna of the West.
Recent RecognitionWith continued study of the history of America in the twentieth century, the significance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition has gained appreciation. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 and the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905 were world's fairs and centennial celebrations that drew visitors from all over the world. Gary E. Moulton published the journals of the explorers and the details of the expedition reached a wide audience.
How long is the Oregon Trail ?The Oregon Trail covers a total distance of roughly 2,000 miles (more than 3,000 kilometers). It is actually a series of routes that stretch from the city of Independence, Missouri to various locations in Oregon and California. The Oregon Trail was the primary means by which American settlers reached the Pacific Coast in the nineteenth century.
How long did it take to traverse Oregon Trail ?The journey was difficult and could take anywhere from six months to a year, depending on the circumstances. Emigrants left in groups made up of several families, carrying their belongings in covered wagons drawn by livestock. These settlers would face many dangers along the way, such as injury, disease, bad weather, or raids by Native Americans. Surviving the journey, and the amount of time that it took, was usually a matter of luck.
What was the importance of the Oregon Trail ?Perhaps most importantly, the Oregon Trail was what allowed the massive westward migration of hundreds of thousands of Americans, one that forever changed the character of the entire conteninent. The influx of American settlers also allowed the United States to make a stronger claim on the region, which was in dispute between the U.S., Spain, Canada, and Russia. The United States eventually gained control of the territory through a series of treaties, but this would not have been possible had so many Americans not already been living there. Even a century later, as the national highway system came into being, the routes and towns established during the heyday of the Oregon Trail formed the basis for a pathway that continues to be used by countless travelers.
Why did everybody want to get to the West Coast ?Each settler had their own individual reasons for traveling across the Oregon Trail, but most were looking to make a new life for themselves and their families. Land was cheap and plentiful in Oregon and California, and brought with it the possibility of economic fortune. Many of the emigrants were Mormons fleeing religious persecution, settling in large numbers in what is now the state of Utah. Others were religious missionaries that wanted to bring Christianity to the lawless West. The collective desire among Americans to travel westwards had no one cause or goal, but the promise represented by the American West remains a powerful force in the nation’s culture.
Who created the Oregon Trail ?The first Europeans to explore the territory were the lone explorers and fur trappers that came to the area on their own, looking for trade. Lewis and Clark showed up with a greater cause in mind, and were the first explorers to bring back maps of the region to the East. None of the passes that they discovered through the Rocky Mountains proved to be amenable to large groups of settlers and wagons, however. Over time, thousands of individuals, such as the well-known “mountain men,” developed the area for commerce and wagon traffic.
Who were the mountain men ?The term "mountain man" is used to refer to any of a diverse group of hunters, traders, and explorers that populated the Rocky Mountain area from the late eighteenth century up until the early twentieth century. They flourished during the boom years of the fur trade during the first half of the 1900s, and their discoveries contributed the most to the European-American settlers’ development of the area. When the fur trade began to decline, many mountain men fell into a natural role of helping to guide Oregon Trail pioneers across the Rocky Mountains. They have often been romanticized in the American consciousness, especially figures like Kit Carson and Jedediah Strong Smith (whose rediscovery of the South Pass was partially responsible for the boom in westward expansion).
What was the South Pass ?The South Pass is an area in what is now southwestern Wyoming that provides the least difficult crossing point for land traffic across the Rocky Mountains. The first European-American to discover it was Robert Stuart, as part of an 1812 scouting expedition for the Pacific Fur Company. His discovery, however, was not widely publicized, and the South Pass remained unknown to American settlers until Jedediah Strong Smith found it again in 1824. The pass greatly eased the difficulty of transporting wagons to the Pacific Coast, and made the phenomenon of the Oregon Trail possible.
How long was the Oregon Trail active ?The Oregon Trail was the most active between the years of 1841 and 1848, with the so-called “Great Migration” of over 800 emigrants at once taking place during 1843. Many others followed, and over the course of these boom years, hundreds of thousands of people crossed the Rockies. Emigration slowed after that, but remained active as late as the 1890s. The construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, however, was the main reason the Oregon Trail ultimately became obsolete.
What was the First Transcontinental Railroad ?Railroads were already crisscrossing the eastern United States, profoundly changing the business of transport and travel. After a six-year effort, a railway line was completed that finally connected the Pacific Coast to the American Midwest, making travel and commerce between the two areas easier than ever before. This breakthrough made the long, difficult journey by wagon a far less attractive prospect, and ultimately led to the decline of the Oregon Trail.
Last Updated Date: March 16, 2017