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In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson to explore the massive new "Louisiana Territory" which had just doubled the size of the United States. For the next two and a half years, Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery party traveled 8,000 miles through present day Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The results of the mission "opened up" the American West and did much to define the nation's character and destiny.
Ascending the Missouri River through present day South Dakota they had their first encounter with the Great Sioux Nation. The expedition wintered in North Dakota, then set out up the river in the spring of 1805. They forged westward through country "on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden" in present day Montana, reaching the headwaters of the Missouri River near Three Forks.
With aid from Sacajawea and her Shoshone people, the party crossed the Bitteroot Mountains into present-day Idaho and secured the services of a Lemhi-Shoshone guide and actually followed portions the northern route of the Nez Perce trail (the trail was an Indian trail before it was the Lewis and Clark Trail). When the Expedition encountered the Nez Perce, Lewis and Clark's men were cold, starving and sick. The Nez Perce fed them, nursed Expedition members back to health and spared their lives.
Navigating down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia Rivers, the explorers reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. On their return, the explorers resided with the Nez Perce Indians, waiting for the snow to melt in the Bitteroots. The party then split near present day Missoula with Lewis exploring the Blackfoot, Sun and Marias Rivers in Northern Montana and Clark heading southeast to the Yellowstone. They met again at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers and continued back east.
Because the 200th birthday of the expedition is approaching, communities along the route are already planning events and building interpretive sites. Modern day explorers can follow the Lewis and Clark route through, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho by car, water, hiking trail or by horseback. Most of the trail is well marked, and there are many interpretive sites, many located within National Forest Boundaries.
In South Dakota, near today's city of Yankton. The Lewis & Clark visitors center at Gavin's Point Dam has exhibits covering the Missouri River and the expedition. The Lewis & Clark recreation area offers canoe and boat rentals, and hiking trails. Chamberlain has one of the finest collections of Lakota art and artifacts. Lower Brule offers tipi stays through the tribal office and heart of the Sioux Nation tours. In Pierre, visit the Cultural Heritage Center and the "Oyate Tawich'an" exhibit that explores American Indian culture. A Jefferson Friendship Medal, which the explorers gave to the tribes they met, is also on display.
Present day interpretive sites in Idaho include Lemhi Pass/Lewis and Clark Backcountry Byway and Adventure Road, Lolo Pass Visitor Information Center, The Lolo Trail, Canoe Camp and Nez Perce National Historical Park. In Montana, the expedition covered more miles than any other state.
Today, you can paddle the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River, perserved as the Corps saw it. In Great Falls, the Lewis And Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center tells the story of the entire 8,000 mile journey with special emphasis on the Indian people they encountered along the way. In Helena, the "Gates of the Mountains" of the Missouris River can be seen via a commercial boat tour, with hiking, history and wildlife viewing available. Travelers Rest State Park, outside Missoula, contains what is believed to be the camps used by the expedition in September 1805 and July 1806. East of Billings, at Pompeys Pillar is the carved signature of W. Clark, the only physical evidence along their journey.