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Space Exploration in 1803:
The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Lewis and Clark: The Departure from the Wood River Encampment, May 14, 1804, a painting by Gary R. Lucy. The expedition begins its journey up the untamed Missouri River after wintering on the United States side of the Mississippi.



The “Corps of Discovery” dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 was the first scientific expedition ever undertaken by the United States—the prototype of all national scientific enterprises, including today’s missions into outer space. Not surprisingly, the expedition had its critics, and Jefferson had to persuade Congress to appropriate $2,500 for the adventure. He helped select the launch point: Pittsburgh.

This year is the bicentennial of that early exploration into uncharted space, and Pittsburgh’s special day in the national calendar of celebration is August 31, the very day that Captain Meriwether Lewis put his Pittsburgh-built keelboat into the Monongahela River and directed his crew to start rowing west down the Ohio towards the Pacific.

The city’s celebration is being spearheaded by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, which will have a special exhibit (including a replica of the Pittsburgh-built keelboat), and has collaborated with other groups to stage a river flotilla and celebrations at the Pittsburgh Point. Carnegie Museum of Natural History is installing a year-long Lewis and Clark exhibit, and Carnegie Science Center is featuring the expedition at the Rangos Ominmax Theater and in a skyshow at Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium and Observatory.

1803:Politics and a New Frontier
That summer in Pittsburgh, Lewis sup-ervised the building of the keelboat he had specially designed, and collected the tons of supplies and trade goods to outfit the journey. Pittsburgh was the Gateway to the West, but more than a thousand miles away near St. Louis, where the Missouri emptied into the Mississippi, the unknown frontier really began. After wintering across from St. Louis in 1803-04, on the American side of the Mississippi, the Corps of Discovery started the second leg of its journey by rowing up the Missouri on May 14.

The years 1803-04 were a turning point in American history, full of geopolitical pressure, commercial dreams, and scientific promise. The British in Canada had been moving to outflank the United States by exploring and claiming vast tracts of land west of the Mississippi. In France, Napoleon countered the expanding British Empire by suddenly selling the “Louisiana Territory” to the United States. The money helped him finance another war against Great Britain, and when the sale was completed, Napoleon boasted, “I have just given England a rival that will sooner or later humble her pride.”

Jefferson, elected the third president in 1801, quickly borrowed $15 million, a sum nearly twice the American budget, to buy all 820,000 acres from France. With the stroke of his pen he more than doubled the size of his country at three cents an acre. But few Americans knew anything about the land he bought, and his critics called it “shameful gross speculation,” and complained that the United States had no more right to this land than to “land in the moon.” The Louisiana Purchase added a political justification for the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Jefferson, like others, believed there was a Northwest Passage to discover—some river or a series of rivers connected by a short portage over the mountains —-that would take explorers to the Pacific, and make possible direct Amer-ican trade with the Orient. He wanted to expand national commerce, open up the fur trade, and develop new frontier settlements. And he was passionate about scientific discovery—so much so that he had tried several times in the previous 20 years to get scientists to explore the Pacific Northwest, but had always failed.

Jefferson appointed his personal secretary and fellow Virginian, Meriwether Lewis, to be Captain of the expedition, and he had Lewis take crash courses in science in Philadelphia, the American center of science. Lewis was tutored by the nation’s best botanists, astronomers, anatomists, and physicians. He learned
to describe and preserve botanical specimens, to analyze anatomy, to navigate by the stars, to determine latitude and longitude, to identify fossils, and perform basic medical procedures, such as bloodletting.

The Pittsburgh Launch
Lewis had designed a modified keelboat as the vehicle for
his mission, and he oversaw its construction, probably at
the Greenough boatyard near the present Liberty Bridge. Unfortunately, the boat builder was a drunkard and a liar, involved in disputes with his workers, and the construction took a month and a half beyond the scheduled time of departure. Lewis went through an agony of frustration as the Ohio River dried up and became unnavigable in August, seemingly dooming his mission. Local rivermen complained that the river was lower than anyone could remember, and every day Lewis pleaded or threatened the boat builder to complete the job.

View of Pittsburgh in 1797, by Joseph Warin. The keelboat was built on the banks of the Monongahela six years later. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.





To lighten the keelboat, Lewis sent a wagonload of goods ahead to Wheeling. He also bought a flat-bottomed rowboat with a sail—a pirogue—to carry some of the goods. When the keelboat finally slid into the water at 7 a.m. on August 31st,
it was loaded quickly and the explorers left Pittsburgh by 10 a.m. The first day the expedition made 10 miles, after unpacking the keelboat three times to haul it over sandbars.

At the first stop, on Brunot’s island three miles downriver, Lewis took time to demonstrate his new air-gun, a pneumatic rifle made in Philadelphia, that fired without smoke or noise. While passing this amazing gun around, it accidentally went off, wounding a woman slightly in the temple. The explorers never passed the loaded gun around again, and on the rest of the journey they used it to amaze the Indians.

In Pittsburgh Lewis also bought a large dog, recording that it was “of the Newfoundland breed very active strong and docile.” He called it “Seaman” and it became his constant companion on water and land. Seaman caught squirrels and other animals (one time he caught a swimming antelope),
and he guarded the camp at night. Seaman’s barking warned off prowling grizzly bears in the western mountains. Lewis refused to trade him to the Indians who wanted him, and when some thieves stole him, Lewis had them tracked until they released the dog.

A True Voyage of Discovery
Mary Dawson, curator emeritus of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, points out that, scientifically, this was a true “voyage of discovery.” She adds, “Although many animals and plants in the wild had been seen by Native Americans and French explorers, the small scientific community in the United States had never attempted to collect and describe them. A new chapter of natural history science was opened by this expedition, and there were many consequences from the notes and specimens that Lewis and Clark sent back. Within a decade there were many discoveries of new species.”

Dawson heads the museum’s preparation of the bicentennial exhibit Natural History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806: The Corps of Discovery. This exhibit presents ex-amples from the museum’s collections of the species first noted by Lewis and Clark. They described in their journals 178 plants and 122 animals not previously recorded, including animals such as the grizzly bear, antelope, the mule-deer, the kit-fox, coyote, prairie dog, and mountain “beaver” of the Pacific Northwest. Two of the new species of birds identified were “Lewis’ Woodpecker” (Melanerpes lewis) and “Clark’s Nut-cracker” (Nucifraga columbiana), in addition to the Bald Eagle, California Condor, and the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.

Among the trees recorded were the ponderosa pine and the cottonwood, and plants included the bitterroot, common arrowhead, and prickly pear cactus. “The prickly pear is now in full blume and forms one of the beauties as well as the greatest pests of the plains,” wrote Lewis. Its needles tortured men and
animals alike. On one frustrating day, Lewis recorded, “It now seemed to me that all the beasts of the neighborhood had made league to destroy me—I thought it might be a dream, but the prickly pears which pierced my feet severely once in a while, particularly after it grew dark, convinced me I was really awake, and that it was necessary to make the rest of my way to camp.”

Insects were also a problem: “Our trio of pests still invade and obstruct us on all occasions, these are Muskquetoes, eye gnats, and prickly pears, equal to any three curses that ever poor Egypt labored under, except the Mohametant yoke.” The wasps (Vespa diabolica) “are fierce and sting very severely, so we found them very troublesome in frightening our horses as we passed the mountains.”

The explorers also collected fossils and rock specimens. Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Section of Invertebrate Paleontology is planning a virtual tour on its web site to illustrate key fossil collecting sites, and important geologic exposures along the trail of the Corps of Discovery.

By the time they reached North Dakota and built Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark had some 40 men under their command, and traveled in the big keelboat with two canoes and two pirogues. But after wintering there in 1804-05, they returned some men back to St. Louis with the keelboat, which they filled with natural specimens, maps, and reports of their travels. From North Dakota a smaller party headed to the Pacific over the mountains, walking, riding, paddling canoes and boats—whatever would take them to the ocean.

A Report that Sparked Immigration
Jefferson, anxious about the success of the mission, had not heard directly from his Corps for a long time when he finally received back in Washington the evidence of their travels and the first collected specimens. The first report, some 45,000 words, summarized meetings with 72 native tribes, assessments of trading and settlement possibilities, and included four wooden boxes and a large trunk full of specimens such as skins, skeletons, mineral samples, and Indian corn. There were also three cages containing live animals: a prairie dog, four magpies, and a grouse. The boxes had traveled from St. Louis down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and were shipped around Florida and up the coast to Washington.

A sketch of the White Salmon
Trout (Sturgeon acipinser)
in Clark’s journals.

Jefferson was so proud of the discoveries of the expedition that he put up at his home in Monticello a display wall of specimens he had received.
He planted the Indian corn in his garden, hung the elk antlers in his foyer, and sent the surviving animals —a magpie and prairie dog—to a natural science museum in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

He also ordered the first report published, along with William Clark’s maps. The result was that soon, all across America, Britain and Europe, adventurers, entrepreneurs, and scientists began to make plans to go west.

The second report, written in 1806, put an end to the dream of a Northwest Passage, but outlined Lewis’s hopes for American expansion into the West, and for a great fur trade with China. It confirmed the idea of an America extending from sea to sea, which was played out in the 19th century as America’s “Manifest Destiny,” long after Lewis’s own death in 1809.

The high adventure of the Lewis and Clark expedition still captures the public imagination after 200 years, with its compelling and detailed record of the American West as wild, awesome, and pristinely beautiful.

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