Lower Missouri: May 1804 to April 1805

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The Expedition broke camp on May 14, 1804. Clark wrote in his journal: "I set out at 4 oClock P.M and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missouri." The party traveled in a 55-foot long keelboat and two smaller boats, called "pirogues." Through the long, hot summer they laboriously worked their way upriver. Numerous navigational hazards, including sunken trees called "sawyers," sand bars, collapsing river banks, and sudden squalls of high winds with drenching rains slowed their progress. There were other problems, including disciplinary floggings, two desertions, a man dishonorably discharged for mutiny, and the death of Sgt. Charles Floyd, the only member to die during the Expedition. In modern day South Dakota, a band of Teton Sioux tried to detain the boats, but the explorers showed their superior armaments and sailed on.

Fort mandan 1.jpg
Early in November, they came to the villages of the Mandan and Minitari (Hidatsa) Indians, who lived near present-day Washburn, North Dakota. On the north bank of the Missouri River, they found a grove of stout cottonwood trees for construction of a log fort. Standing close together, the trees also offered protection from the prairie winds.

In four weeks of hard work, the men built a triangular shaped fort. Rows of small huts made up two sides; a wall of upright cottonwood logs formed the front. They named it Fort Mandan, in honor of the local inhabitants. The party was now 164 days and approximately 1,510 miles distant from Wood River.

The explorers spent five months at Fort Mandan, hunting and obtaining information about the route ahead from the Indians and French-Canadian traders who lived nearby. The Expedition's blacksmiths set up a forge and made tools and implements, which were traded for the American Indian's garden crops of corn, melons and beans. A French-Canadian named Toussaint Charbonneau visited the captains with his young pregnant Shoshone wife, Sacagawea.

Teepee 1.jpg
Sacagawea's tribal homeland lay in the Rocky Mountain country far to the west. She had been kidnapped by plains Indians five years before, when she was about twelve years old, and taken to the villages of the Mandan and Minitari, where she was eventually sold to Charbonneau. Sacagawea spoke both Shoshone and Minitari, and the captains realized that she could be a valuable intermediary if the party encountered the Shoshones. They also knew that she and Charbonneau could be helpful in trading for the horses that would be needed to cross the western mountains. In addition, Sacagawea and her baby would prove to be a token of truce, assuring the Indians that the Expedition was peaceful. Clark later noted this while descending the Columbia River, "No woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in this quarter." As a result, the captains hired Charbonneau, who was joined by Sacagawea and their infant son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, born at Fort Mandan, February 11, 1805. The boy became a favorite of Clark, whom he nicknamed "Pomp," citing his pompous "little dancing boy" antics.

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  1. Adapted from an article by Irving W. Anderson.
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