University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

The Healthiest, Strongest and Most Skilled Were Recruited for the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Officers, Privates, and Non-Military Members

Thomas Jefferson found the perfect man to lead the westward expedition in his protégé, Meriwether Lewis. To ensure leadership if Lewis in any way became incapacitated on the journey, Jefferson suggested to Lewis that he recruit a co-leader. On June 19, 1803, Lewis wrote to William Clark asking him to share the command of the expedition. On July 29, Clark responded, “My friend I assure you no man lives with whome I would perfur to undertake Such a Trip & c as yourself.” This marked the beginning of one of the most famous partnerships in American history.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark considered themselves co-captains of the expedition and addressed themselves as captains in front of the men. In actuality, the American government granted Clark only the rank of lieutenant. Nonetheless, the two men complemented each other. Historian Stephen Ambrose observes, “In general, in areas in which Lewis was shaky, Clark was strong, and vice versa. Most of all Lewis knew that Clark was competent to the task, that his word was his bond, that his back was steel. Clark knew the same about Lewis. Their trust in each other was complete, even before they took the first step west together.”

Captain Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), Leader of the Expedition

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis painting by Charles Wilson Peale, from life, 1807. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park

In the fall of 1806 Meriwether Lewis returned from the Voyage of Discovery to a hero’s welcome. The press and the public adorned him with adulation and President Thomas Jefferson rewarded his services with sizable pay, land in Missouri, and an appointment as governor of the Louisiana Territory. Three years later, the hero who had triumphantly led an amazing transcontinental journey met a sad, violent, and tragic death at the age of thirty-five.

Meriwether Lewis was the first-born son of William and Lucy Lewis, a prosperous Charlottesville family. His father passed away when Meriwether was five years old. His mother quickly remarried and the family moved to Georgia, where he learned valuable frontier skills. At thirteen, Lewis returned to Virginia to begin a formal education and to learn the management skills necessary to run the plantation he inherited from his father.

When Lewis turned twenty, he enlisted in the militia in order “support the glorious cause of liberty, and my country.” He was proud of his involvement in squelching the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. By 1800, he rose to the rank of captain and served on the frontier of Ohio and Tennessee. In 1801 Lewis became the private secretary to President Thomas Jefferson, a long-time family friend and personal mentor. Jefferson believed Lewis was the ideal man to lead his much-desired expedition westward. He was in superb physical condition, possessed the discipline of army training, and had a keen sense of observation and a strong writing style. In preparation for the overland journey, Lewis spent the first six months of 1803 training, studying, and preparing provisions. As a leader, his duties were to command the expedition, make scientific inquiries, forge a path for commerce, and develop diplomatic relations with the natives. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a bona fide success and Meriwether Lewis has been called “undoubtedly the greatest pathfinder this country has ever known.”

In direct contrast to the expedition’s success, the last years of Lewis’s life were marked by diminished judgment and disappointments. He failed to find a much-desired wife, had trouble preparing his journals for publication, drank heavily and took opium or morphine-laced medicine, accumulated significant debts, and was continuously embroiled in political quarrels as governor of the Louisiana Territory. In September 1809 Lewis began his journey to the nation’s capital to strengthen political relationships and to work on the publication of his journals. He boarded a riverboat in St. Louis and twice made attempts to end his life. On October 11, in a little cabin near Natchez Trace, Tennessee, Meriwether Lewis committed suicide. With one loaded pistol he shot himself in the head, only grazing his skull. Taking another pistol, he shot himself in the breast. When found, he begged his companions to finish the job saying, “I am no coward but I am so strong, so hard to die.”

In the early morning light Meriwether Lewis died. Travel companions buried him without fanfare along the trail. When his friend William Clark learned of the news, he wrote, “I fear O’ I fear the weight of his mind has over come him, what will be the consequence?”

Second Lieutenant William Clark (1770-1838), Leader of the Expedition

William Clark

William Clark painting by Charles Wilson Peale, from life, 1807-1808. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park

In September 1838 the citizens of St. Louis, Missouri, staged a large, elaborate funeral for one of their most distinguished residents, William Clark, famed explorer and Indian administrator. His death of natural causes at age sixty-eight made Clark among the last members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to die.

William Clark, the ninth of ten children, was born August 1, 1770, in Caroline County, Virginia. When he was fourteen, his family moved westward settling near Louisville, Kentucky. Here the sturdy young man quickly learned to be a skilled hunter and frontiersman. When old enough, he followed in the footsteps of his older brother, celebrated Revolutionary War hero and Indian fighter George Rogers Clark. The younger Clark moved up the ranks as an army officer, and Meriwether Lewis was assigned to Clark’s rifle company at Fort Greenville.

Though they were not intimate friends, Clark made quite an impression on the more junior Lewis. When Jefferson instructed Lewis to find another commander for the expedition, Lewis believed there was “no man on earth” he would rather have join him than William Clark. Clark’s military career prepared him to command military expeditions, construct and supply forts, and familiarized him with the ways of Native Americans. His primary duty was to be the expedition’s chief cartographer. The information garnered on the expedition (and improved upon by verbal reports of subsequent explorers) allowed Clark to draw a “radically new” and “remarkably accurate” map of the American West.

Following completion of the transcontinental voyage, Clark received 1,600 acres of land, double pay for his services ($1,228), and a dual appointment as Brigadier General of Militia and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Upper Louisiana. He married Julia Hancock, and they named a son after Meriwether Lewis. After Lewis’s unfortunate death, Clark oversaw the publication of Lewis’s journals. In 1815 he became Governor of the Missouri Territory. He spent the rest of his life settling disputes between Indian and white settlers and creating treaties to appease both the American government and the Indian nations.

The Volunteers of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

… A judicious choice of our party is of the greatest importance to the success of this vast enterprise … —William Clark, August 3, 1803

Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark desired only the healthiest, strongest, and most skilled men available to aid them in their transcontinental odyssey to explore the American West. Word of this remarkable mission quickly spread through the Ohio territory, and volunteers, excited by expectations of thrilling adventure, lined up to enlist. Lewis and Clark needed men to fulfill certain positions—hunters, blacksmiths, frontiersmen, interpreters, carpenters, and soldiers were all required.

Equally important, the men chosen needed to be in top physical shape. In a letter to Clark, Lewis described the necessary physical characteristics as “stout,” “healthy,” and “capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree.” Private Alexander Hamilton Willard, a lucky appointee, recognized that his fine physique enabled him to pass inspection while nearly one hundred other men failed.

Evidently, Lewis and Clark did their job and chose men healthy and hearty enough to withstand the harsh elements of nature, hunger and starvation, and countless diseases and injuries. In the two years, four months, and nine days of this physically and mentally challenging overland journey, there was only one fatality—Sergeant Charles Floyd died on August 20, 1804, of a probable ruptured appendix. At mission’s end, Lewis wrote that the Corps’s volunteers were entitled to his “warmest approbation and thanks” for the “manly firmness,” “patience,” and “fortitude” with which they “submitted to, and bore, the fatigues and painful sufferings” of the westward exploration.

Non-commissioned Officers of the Corps of Discovery

The Privates of the Corps of Discovery

Non-Military Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Sacagawea, the Only Woman

Sacagawea

Sacagawea sculpted by Charles Keck in 1919, located in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Sixteen years old and mother of a two month-old infant, Sacagawea was the only female on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. At the age of twelve, Sacagawea was kidnapped from her band of Shoshone Indians by a war party of Hidatsa Indians. Taken from her home in the Rocky Mountains to the Mandan villages near modern day Bismark, North Dakota, Sacagawea was sold as a slave to a French Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, and soon became one of his two Indian wives.

The journey could not have been easy for Sacagawea. In addition to caring for a newborn child on the grueling expedition, her duties included digging for roots, collecting edible plants, picking berries, and serving as an interpreter. Lewis and Clark probably did not realize how valuable Sacagawea would be on their enterprise. Many Indian nations, feeling threatened by white invaders, would have been prepared to fight to defend their lands. However, when Indian tribes saw Sacagawea, they often interpreted the explorers as friendly: a war party would never allow a woman in their midst—let alone one with a baby.

Sacagawea died at twenty-five soon after the birth of her second child, Lissette. Lewis, while finding Sacagawea’s husband a “man of no particular merit,” praised her efforts stating Sacagawea “diserved a greater reward for her attention and services of that rout than we had in our power to give her.”

York, the Only African American

York

York painting by Charles M. Russell. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society, Gift of the Artist

York, the only African American on the expedition, was the slave of William Clark. When Clark’s father died, he willed York to Clark. It is possible that Clark and York were childhood companions. Clark brought his trusted “servant” along on the expedition and by all accounts York performed many duties admirably, including preparing meals, hunting, and tending to the sick. Native Americans, who had never set eyes on a black skinned person before, viewed York with great curiosity and amazement. On the trip, York was treated as an equal and he, along with Sacagewea, had voting privileges within the Corps.

At the expedition’s end, Clark resumed treating York as his slave. Clark, relocating with his new wife to St. Louis, forced York to accompany them, even though York’s wife was owned in the Louisville, Kentucky, area. York, desperate to be reunited with his wife, pleaded with his master to free him for his service on the voyage. Clark stubbornly refused. Finding York insolent and sulky, Clark beat him and threatened to sell him to a more severe master. Clark finally granted York his freedom nearly a decade after the expedition.