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BLOG: Five Lewis & Clark Fun-Facts

Two weeks ago, I sent my manuscript for its first edit. YAY!!! This week's blog will deal directly with two of my novel's supporting characters--two men who paved the way for westward expansion in the early history of the United States. When Americans think of Lewis & Clark, immediately three things come to my mind: adventure, exploration, and friendship.

Many of my readers in Europe will snicker at the thought of the "early history" of America, because in comparison to their own lengthy histories counted in millennia, the US has only 250 years as a nation and but five-hundred or so odd years of colonialism. But however short (in comparison) my country's history is still a rich, adventurous, occasionally hypocritical, gritty, yet inspiring tale of revolution, freedom, slavery, land grabs, native culture, and pioneering. And a lot of it begins in my very own state--Virginia.

Allow me to share five fun-facts about the two men who partnered with Thomas Jefferson to open the west for settlers and inadvertently opened Pandora's box for the inevitable conflict with Native Americans who already held the lands which were then uncharted. And should you enjoy this blog, be sure to give a special thanks to Carlton, my husband, who came up with the idea for it!

Five Lewis & Clark Fun Facts

~How did Lewis & Clark meet?~

Lewis and Clark shared a unique friendship that began way before their famous exploration of the wild West. In fact, since both their families originated in Virginia, I'll state that Clark's parents and the Meriwethers (Lewis's relatives on his maternal side.) were already acquainted.

As far back as 1789, William Clark served in what was Indiana Territory, tracking Indians and becoming a fervent journal-writer. He also showed promise as a cartographer--all of these skills setting him up rather nicely for his future. Around 1795, a young ensign was assigned to Lieutenant Clark's company of crack sharp-shooters. Four years younger than his commanding officer, Meriwether Lewis struck up a fast friendship with his commanding officer--one integral enough that this relationship survived a decade and long-distances, rejuvenated through occasional letters.

~How did they wind up on the Expedition together?~

A third person was a key player in creating the Corps of Discovery--the expedition earning fame for the two friends. When Thomas Jefferson was elected as President, he hired Meriwether Lewis, one of his former neighbors from Albemarle County, Virginia, as his personal secretary. Jefferson became much impressed with the young man and such respect earned Lewis increasing responsibility within the President's administration.

One of Jefferson's goals was to press westward and increase settlement lands for Americans. At the time, the frontier had already swept westward substantially, and at its edge was a tiny town called St. Louis, which was truly one of America's richest melting-pots of Creole, French, Spanish, and Native American inhabitants. When Jefferson began in earnest to propose an expedition to the Pacific, he honored Meriwether Lewis with its command. Lewis was granted the rank of Captain and as he planned and studied up on what was to be America's greatest adventure, he determined that should he become incapacitated on the journey, a second commander was needed. Thus, he turned to his dear friend, William Clark, to which Clark responded: "...I will chearfully join you in an 'official charractor' as mentioned in your letter, and partake of the dangers, difficulties, and fatigues, and I anticipate the honors and rewards of the result of such an enterprise, should we be successful in accomplishing it. This is an undertaking fraited with many difeculties, but My friend I do assure you that no man lives whith whome I would perfur to undertake Such a Trip..." (letter from William Clark to Meriwether Lewis, dated July 18th, 1803)

What were the men's responsibilities during the Corps of Discovery expedition?

If one reads the Journals of Lewis & Clark carefully, there is far less commentary from Lewis in comparison to the many entries from Clark.

Some historians have groused at Lewis's slighting of duty in this regard, but I personally believe that the two men simply focused on personal tasks of importance to which they were best-suited, and journaling/letter-writing was a forte of Clark's; Lewis's strengths being record-keeping, scientific study, and measuring the distances they covered on the trip. I seriously doubt that Lewis neglected responsibilities, but with his other roles, left the journaling mostly to Clark, who (despite creative spellings—this was a decade or so prior to Webster’s Dictionary) was a sound recorder of their experiences. And I’ll add here that some of the other literate members of the expedition provided important references regarding things incidents along the way, as well. Clark also began sketching more maps and keeping record of mileage and landmarks, finding he had a real knack for it which would prove valuable later in his life. The photo above right is in Clark’s original elk-skin journal, and depicts a rough map he drew with the aid of both Lewis and the Shoshone Indians when they all discussed at length the trail beyond the Rocky Mountains.

Ironically, Captain Lewis became his former commander’s commander! Clark had been a Lieutenant, as previously stated, and though assured of a captaincy, that rank was denied him, literally DAYS before the official expedition began. Lewis assured Clark that nobody had to know that Clark hadn’t been granted the rank, and so “Captain” Clark was really Lieutenant Clark during the entirety of the Corps of Discovery years: 1804-1806!

~How did Lewis & Clark meet Sacagawea?~

I've always adored the lovely dollar coin minted with Sacagawea in mind. (see above) Unfortunately, we Americans have held tightly to a cotton-blend dollar, though I personally think this one is far prettier! Thus, its minting was discontinued, but once in a while, one turns up!

Sacagawea, a teen-aged Shoshone girl was smart, helpful, and an active member of the Corps of Discovery, though it was actually her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, a rather lazy lout of a fur-trapper who was hired by Lewis and Clark to help translate Indian languages. The explorers met him when they wintered in what's now known as North Dakota at Fort Mandan--named for the tribe of Indians who welcomed them.

Poor Sacagawea had a troubled past, having been kidnapped by the Hidatsas--enemy natives, and then eventually either sold or awarded to Charbonneau, becoming his merely his "second wife". Considering her tender age and the fact that she carried Charbonneau's baby with her on her back to the Pacific, one gets a taste of how tough the West was, especially for women.

Indeed, Captain Lewis even tended Sacagawea at her son's birth. Evidently, she had a terrible labor and was struggling, when it was suggested that Lewis grind up the rattle of a rattlesnake and mix it with water for her to drink. (I can't make this stuff up, people! History is always far cooler in its realty than anything in a movie!) Anyway, within minutes, little Jean Baptiste (Pomp, as Clark called him) Charbonneau, was born!

~What were Lewis & Clark's opinions on slavery?~

Undoubtedly, one of the most intriguing paintings of the Corps of Discovery is by Charlie Russell (at left). It portrays a moment at Fort Mandan where the Indians first encounter York--Clark's enslaved African. The natives are literally trying to "rub off" some of his "black color" in their curiosity, as they had never before seen an African.

York accompanied the Corps of Discovery the entire way to the Pacific, and both he and Sacagawea were both awarded the right to "vote" on which site the explorers would build their camp on upon reaching the Pacific--an encampment known to history as Fort Clatsop. This event is recorded in Clark's elk-skin journal!!!

So how did Lewis & Clark feel about slavery? Well, I hope that each of you out there will read my story when it launches, so I won't give away EVERYTHING, but know this much: Clark held ownership over York and Lewis employed a free mulatto gentleman by the name of John Pernier.

Five fun-facts on Lewis & Clark!

Here's hoping you enjoyed them and are hungering for more. You'll certainly come to know these two gentlemen a lot better when you read my upcoming book. Theirs is a fascinating story, an adventuresome tale, and a part of American history that deserves another look, all through the eyes of Julia Clark.

Read ON, everybody!


Foley, William E., Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark, University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Jackson, Donald, ed. Letters of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, University of Illinois Press, 1978.

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