In 1801, during a time when the West was anything past the Mississippi River, President Thomas Jefferson asked Congress to fund an expedition. His personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, would command this first operation of its kind. In the spring of 1803, Lewis wrote to William Clark, asking him to join the expedition as his partner. Clark accepted and that summer they prepared for the trip.
On May 14th, 1804, a group of almost 50 people launched an expedition up the Missouri River from Camp Dubois. The Corps of Discovery with Lewis and Clark as leaders, were to find a waterway across the entire continent. Their intention was to continue on until they reached the ocean and record data of everything they saw. On the 4th of July they celebrated the first ever Independence Day west of the Mississippi River. The next few months were spent recording information in their carefully kept journals. They found almost 200 new plants and over 100 animals before they reached the Pacific Ocean.
Aside from encountering many Indian tribes, Lewis & Clark and their crew braved below freezing temperatures. Grizzly bears were nearly impossible to kill and the Missouri falls were difficult to navigate. Sacagawea, a young Indian woman, was an interpreter and guide to the group as she knew the southwest land so well. If it wasn't for her help, the group would have suffered badly.
On September 11th, the Corps of Discovery braved the Bitteroot Mountains and snow. It took them until late November of 1804 to reach the Pacific Ocean. The group finally made the return trip and landed in St. Louis on September 23rd, 1806. They had spent an estimated $38,000, an incredible sum for the time. It took them almost three years to accomplish the feat of traversing the unknown west and successfully documenting the experience.
Meriwether Lewis was a soldier, explorer, governor, and White House secretary. Although he was almost killed several times during the Lewis and Clark expedition, he lived to be governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. He never did finish editing his journals of the expedition for publication. In October, 1809, he was found near death with a bullet wound to his head. Several theories surrounding his death are still bantered about today. He was 35 years old.
William Clark was a soldier, explorer, surveyor, and brother. Clark contributed much to the expedition including maps and illustrations of the territory and its inhabitants. He was governor of the Missouri Territory from 1813 to 1820. He died in 1838 at age 68.
Source: A & E Television Networks, PBS Online