Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery

William Clark, ca. 1810 Charles Willson Peale

“To Meriwether Lewis, Esquire, Captain of the First Regiment of Infantry of the United States of America:
. . . . The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, and such principal streams of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan [sic], Colorado, or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water-communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.
. . .The commerce which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue renders a knowledge of those people important.

Meriwether Lewis, ca. 1810 Charles Willson Peale

…The soils and face of the country; its growth and vegetable productions…
The animals of the country generally.. .
The remains and accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct;
The mineral productions of every kind;…
Volcanic appearances;
Climate…the date at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower or leaf; times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles, or insects. . . .
Given under my hand at the City of Washington, this twentieth day of June, 1803.

President of the United States”

National Importance

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in the history of the United States. Between 1804 and 1806, it carried the destiny, as well as, the flag of our young Nation westward from the Mississippi across thousands of miles of mostly unknown land—up the Missouri, over the Rocky Mountains, and on to the Pacific. This epic feat not only sparked national pride, but it also fired the imagination of the American people and made them feel for the first time the full sweep of the continent on which they lived. Equally as important, the political and economic ramifications of the trek vitally affected the subsequent course and growth of the Nation.

In its scope and achievements, the expedition towers among the major explorations of the North American Continent and the world. Its members included the first U.S. citizens to cross the continent; the first individuals to traverse it within the area of the present United States; and the first white men to explore the Upper Missouri area and a large part of the Columbia Basin as well as to pass over the Continental Divide within the drainage area of the two rivers.

Linum lewisii, Copyright ©2001 Charlotte Staub Thomas

Scientific Importance

Although Lewis and Clark discovered 17 plants and 144 animals that were new to Western science, they did not name them. Naming and classifying was left to specialists. The total number of plants collected by Lewis is thought to be between 232 and 238.

In Lewis’s journals, he carefully described the physical characteristics in great detail and drew detailed illustrations. He also collected seeds and roots and preserved pressed specimens, many of which eventually arrived in Philadelphia. An example of one such specimen is the Linum lewisii, Lewis' flax. An illustration of this plant is shown to the right.

New and useful were the criteria that guided Lewis’s collecting. Although he was not a trained botanist, Meriwether Lewis deserves a place in the pantheon of American botany.

Coyotes were new to Lewis and Clark; sometimes they referred to them as wolves and sometimes as foxes.

"I killed a Prairie Wolf," Clark wrote on September 18, 1804, "about the Size of a gray fox bushey tail head & ear like a wolf, Some fur." Later, during the expedition, they realized this animal was a distinct and separate species.