A Celebration of Women Writers

"Part VII, Chapter 67." by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-)
From: This country of ours; the story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-) New York, George H. Doran company, 1917.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


CHAPTER 67
JEFFERSON–HOW THE DOOR INTO THE FAR WEST WAS OPENED

VERY little was known of this vast territory which was thus added to the United States. For the most part it was pathless wilderness where no white man had ever set foot. Long before the Louisiana Purchase Jefferson had wanted to send out an exploring party into this unknown west. Now he was more anxious for it than ever. And at length he succeeded in getting an expedition sent out.

Louisiana an unknown land

The leaders of this expedition were two young officers, Captain Merriwether Lewis and William Clark. From their names the expedition is usually known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Lewis and Clark expedition

They made very careful preparations and in 1804 they set out with about twenty-seven men to explore the river Missouri.

 

Some years before this a United States Captain, Robert Grey, had discovered a great river in the west coast of America and called it the Columbia, after the name of his ship. And now what Lewis and Clark had set out to do was to reach that river from the east.

 

It is impossible to tell here of all their thrilling adventures, for they would fill a whole book. I can only give you the merest outline. But some day you will no doubt read the whole story as Lewis and Clark tell it themselves.

 

The expedition started from the mouth of the Missouri, and at first the explorers passed by the scattered farms and little villages where white men lived. But these were the farthest outposts of civilisation; soon they were left behind, and the little band of white men were in a land inhabited only by Redskins. The current was so swift and the wind so often in the wrong direction that sails were almost useless, and the boats were rowed, punted and towed upstream with a great deal of hard labour. Some of the travellers went in the boats, others rode or walked along the bank. These last did the hunting and kept the expedition supplied with meat.

 

One of the leaders always went with those on shore. For it was often difficult for the two parties to keep together. Sometimes the river wound about, and those on land could take a short cut, while at other times those on land had to make a wide circuit to avoid marshes or steep precipices. The river was full of fish, and the land swarmed with game. Antelopes, deer, black bear, turkeys, geese, ducks, in fact all sorts of birds and beasts were abundant. There were also great quantities of delicious wild grapes as well as plums, currants and other fruits; so the travellers had no lack of food.

 

They met many tribes of Indians and they nearly all seemed friendly, for both Lewis and Clark knew well how to treat Indians. When they came into their land they called the chiefs together to a council, and made them a speech telling them that the land was no longer Spanish but American. The Indians would pretend to be pleased at the change, but really they understood nothing about it. But they liked the medals and other trinkets which the white men gave them. And most of them were very anxious to have some of the "Great Father's Milk" by which they meant whiskey. But one tribe refused it.

Lewis and Clark make treaties with the Indians

"We marvel," they said, "that our brothers should give us drink which will make us fools. No man can be our friend who would lead us into such folly."

 

Until the end of October the expedition kept on, always following the course of the Missouri, north-west. But the weather now became very cold; ice began to form on the river, and the explorers determined to camp for the winter. Not far from what is now the town of Bismarck, North Dakota, they built themselves a little village of log huts and called it Fort Mandan, for the country belonged to the Mandan Indians.

They camp for the winter

Here they met both French and British fur traders, who in spite of the bitter weather came from Assiniboia, about a hundred and fifty miles north, to trade for furs with the Indians.

 

The weather was bitterly cold, but the men were fairly comfortable in their log huts, and they had plenty to do. They went upon hunting expeditions to get food, they built boats, and they set up a forge. This last greatly interested the Indians who brought their axes and kettles to be mended, and in return gave the white men grain. Soon the smith was the busiest man in the whole company, the bellows particularly interesting the Redmen.

 

Indeed everything about the white strangers was so interesting to the Indians that they were nearly always in their huts. On Christmas Day the travellers only got rid of their inquisitive visitors by telling them that it was a great medicine day with the white people, when no strangers were allowed near them, and they must keep away.

 

The travellers stayed at Fort Mandan till the beginning of April; then the ice being melted on the river they set out again.

They set out again

Game now became more than ever plentiful, and they had several encounters with huge grizzly bears. The Indians had told the explorers terrible stories about these bears. They themselves had such great respect for them that they never went out to hunt them without putting on their war paint, and making as great preparations as if they were going to fight some enemy tribe.

 

The white men too soon came to have a great respect for them. "I find," wrote Lewis, in his journal, "that the curiosity of our party is pretty well satisfied with respect to this animal. He has staggered the resolution of several of them."

 

Later on he added, "I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen, and had rather fight two Indians than one bear."

 

One day Lewis was on shore, and seeing a herd of buffalo shot one for supper. After it fell he stood looking at it, and forgot to load his rifle again. While standing thus he suddenly saw a large bear creeping towards him. Instantly he lifted his rifle, but remembered in a flash that it was not loaded. He had no time to load, so he thought the best thing he could do was to walk away as fast as he could.

Chased by a grizzly

It was in an open plain with not a bush or tree near; and as Lewis retreated the bear ran open-mouthed at full speed after him. Lewis took to his heels and fled. But the bear ran so fast that Lewis soon saw that it would be impossible to escape, for the bear was gaining fast upon him. Then suddenly it flashed across his mind that if he jumped into the river he might escape. So turning short he leaped into the water. Then facing about he pointed his halberd at the bear. Seeing this the bear suddenly stopped on the bank not twenty feet away. Then as if he were frightened he turned tail and ran away as fast as he had come.

 

Lewis was glad enough to escape so easily, and he made up his mind that never again would he allow his rifle to be unloaded even for a moment.

 

Other dangers, too, beset the travellers. One day Lewis and his companions were following the boats along the bluffs which rose high above the water's edge. The ground was so slippery that they could only with difficulty keep their feet. Once Lewis slipped and only saved himself by means of the pike which he carried from being hurled into the river a hundred feet below. He had just reached a spot where he could stand fairly safely when he heard a voice behind him cry out: "Good God! Captain, what shall I do?"

A dangerous walk

He turned instantly and saw that one of his men who had lost his foothold had slipped down to the very edge of the precipice and was now hanging half over it. One leg and arm were over, and with the other he clung frantically to the edge of the cliff.

 

Lewis saw at once that the man was in great danger of falling and being dashed to pieces below. But he hid his fear.

 

"You are in no danger," he said in a calm voice. Then he told the man to take his knife out of his belt and dig a hole in the side of the cliff for his right foot. The man, steadied by his leader's calm voice, did as he was told and in a few minutes was able to drag himself up to the top of the cliff. Then on his hands and knees he crawled along till he was again in safety.

 

After two months the travellers reached the great falls of the Missouri River. Here they had to leave the water, and carry their boats overland until they arrived above the rapids. It was no easy matter and they were all by this time worn and weary. So they camped for a few days, and made a rough sort of cart on which to carry the boats. For they were too worn out to carry them on their shoulders. But the way was so rough that long before the end of the journey the cart broke down.

The rapids are reached

Then began a most painful march. The country was covered with prickly pear, and the thorns of it pierced the men's moccasins and wounded their feet. The sun was so hot that they had to rest every few minutes, and they were so tired that they fell asleep at every stopping place. Yet there were no grumblers, and in spite of the many hardships they went on cheerfully, and after ten days' hard work they were above the rapids.

 

They were now right among the Rocky Mountains. These they crossed, and after many more adventures, dangers and hardships at last–on the 8th of November–they arrived within sight of the Pacific.

The Pacific in sight

"Great joy in the camp," wrote Lewis. "We are in view of the ocean, this great Pacific Ocean, which we have been so long anxious to see."

 

Having at length reached the Columbia River the travellers sailed down it to its mouth, and so reached the shores of the Pacific and the end of their journey.

 

They spent the winter on the Pacific coast and towards the end of March set out again on their homeward way. The return journey was almost as full of hardships and dangers as the outward one had been. But all were safely overcome and on the 20th of September the explorers arrived once more at St. Louis whence they had set out more than two years before.

They return home

Every one was delighted to see them back. They were also surprised, for the whole expedition had long ago been given up as lost. But far from being lost every man of them returned except one who had died not long after they had left St. Louis.

 

Since they set out, these bold adventurers had marched nine thousand miles over barren deserts, across snow-topped mountains, through wildernesses yet untrodden by the foot of any white man. They had passed among savage and unknown tribes, and kept peace with them. They had braved a thousand dangers, and had returned triumphant over them all. The great journey from sea to sea had been accomplished, and the door into the Far West opened.

The door into the Far West opened

Other travellers and explorers trod fast upon the heels of Lewis and Clark. Hunters, and fur-traders, and settlers followed them, and bit by bit the West became known and peopled. But in the story of that growth the names of Merriwether Lewis and William Clark will always be first, for it was they who threw open the door into the Far West.

 

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom