Understanding The Boats of Lewis and Clark


In 1802, President Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to explore the new West, documenting the flora, fauna, and Native American tribes, and to map a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis accepted, then chose William Clark as his co-commander. Together they enlisted a brave group of Americans that came to be known as the Corps of Discovery. They included an African-American, York; a Native American, Sacagawea (and her infant son, Pomp); men of Native American/French Canadian heritage; and a number of young frontiersmen who became a crew that overcame tremendous obstacles in reaching their goal. In doing so, the Lewis and Clark Expedition wrote a chapter in American history that remains a testament to courage and determination still unsurpassed.


In Jefferson’s era, travel was limited to boats, foot, horseback, and stagecoach. About 5 million people lived in the nation, three-fourths of them within 50 miles of the eastern seaboard. Only four ‘roads’ (for horse and stagecoach) existed east of the Appalachians, and only trails in the West. Travel proceeded at a snail’s pace. Even with a light load, it took a minimum of six weeks to make the journey from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard.


When Jefferson asked Lewis to lead this expedition, the 28-year-old had been living in the White House as Jefferson’s personal secretary. Jefferson had known Lewis since he was a child, as both lived in Virginia. While president, Jefferson shuttled between his large Virginia plantation, Monticello (consisting of five farms and about 170 slaves), and the White House. Jefferson chose Lewis as commander because he was loyal, was an excellent woodsman, had served in the army (the expedition would be a military operation), and was a quick study in natural and cultural history.


Jefferson and Lewis had been researching and planning for the expedition before Jefferson asked a skeptical Congress (many of his opponents thought that it was a waste of time and money) to approve the expedition with a budget of $2,500 (final cost was about $38,000 (one of the first federal budget overruns). At the same time, Jefferson was attempting to purchase the port at New Orleans (owned by France, but administered by Spain), when Napoleon offered to sell (for his own political reasons) the entire Louisiana Territory, consisting of about 820,000 square miles, for $15 million, about three cents an acre. Jefferson knew a bargain when he saw it, and immediately purchased the land, doubling the size of America and providing more impetus for exploring and documenting the nation’s new territory.


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The water route started in Pittsburgh, and went down the Ohio River, up the Mississippi River, and up the Missouri River to its source. The Expedition, with the help of Sacagawea, secured horses from the Shoshones and crossed the Rocky Mountains in winter. They resumed downriver travel on the Clearwater River to the Snake River, and then went down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. On the return trip in the spring of 1806, they split into four groups to explore different areas and later linked up on the Missouri River, returning to St. Louis in September 1806. The expedition covered more than 8,000 miles, mostly on water. About half of the boat travel was upstream, in boats weighing thousands of pounds.


After formal announcement of the Louisiana Purchase on July 4, 1803, Lewis immediately proceeded to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and purchased a multitude of supplies, including 15 long rifles and ammunition, and oversaw the construction of the Ironboat, referred to as the ‘experiment’ in the journals. Jefferson and Lewis decided that a portable, collapsible boat was necessary to replace the carrying capacity of larger boats that could not be portaged around waterfalls or over the Rocky Mountains. This was the first of five types of boats (25 in total) used by the expedition. Lewis spent an extra month overseeing the design and construction of the Ironboat and even built and tested a prototype. He then arranged for transportation of the Ironboat to Pittsburgh–his next stop.

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