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What Is the Lewis and Clark Trail?

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  • Written By: Elizabeth West
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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The Lewis and Clark Trail is the route explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark followed on their famous 1803-1806 journey to the Pacific Ocean. President Thomas Jefferson sent them to explore the western territories and see if they could find the Northwest Passage, a mythical water route across the country. Jefferson also hoped to establish a relationship with the powerful Sioux tribes in the northern Plains. The trail goes through 19 states and covers 4600 miles of the US, and much of it is the same as it was when the explorers’ group traversed it. Travelers may retrace at least part of the Lewis and Clark Trail for an interesting historical adventure.

Lewis and Clark were the chosen leaders of the Corps of Discovery. Jefferson expected them to survey the new Louisiana Purchase, and hoped the American presence would establish claim over the lands before Europe could gain a foothold. Although they never found the Northwest Passage, the explorers made contact with at least 24 Native American tribes and were the first to accurately document the Northwest region of the US. They were the first white men to see the Great Falls of the Missouri River. The Shoshone woman Sacajawea, often fictionalized as their guide, was the wife of a French-Canadian trapper who traveled with them and served as their interpreter.

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Beginning on the Missouri River near St. Louis, the Lewis and Clark Trail meanders up through the Northern Plains and ends at the Pacific Ocean in what is now Oregon. There are 100 historic sites on the trail maintained by the various states and local organizations, but only five are US National Park Service sites. Modern explorers who wish to follow in the footsteps of the Corps of Discovery can plan an auto route along the Lewis and Clark Trail. The expedition traveled on the Missouri and Columbia rivers, which are now flanked by roads marked with signage indicating the trail.

Some historic sites visitors to the Lewis and Clark Trail can see are the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site near Fort Mandan, North Dakota where the group met Sacagawea and her husband. Spirit Mound near Vermilion, South Dakota is another important Native American site. The explorers climbed the mound, and it is one of the places left intact that they actually visited. Southwest of Astoria, Oregon is the Fort Clatsop Historical site, an accurate reproduction of the fort where the Corps stayed during the winter of 1805 to 1806. The US National Park Service and the states through which the route passes have information for travelers who wish to explore all or part of the Lewis and Clark Trail.

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