lewis and clark bicentennial


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The Lewis and Clark Expedition:
Blacksmiths in the Corps of Discovery

Arms and Supplies

The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Blacksmiths in the Corps of Discovery, by David G. Allen for the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association © 2003



The expedition left St. Louis in May with every intent of discovering the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean and returning by winter. It had long been rumored that a natural water grade traversed the continent, essentially joining St. Louis with the Pacific. But at the time, the farthest west that white explorers had traveled was the Dakota Territory. Trading ships had sailed into the mouth of the Columbia River, but the interior remained a mystery to everyone.

No human, not even an Indian, had ever traversed the whole of the American West. Thus, the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest were completely unknown to any one man or any one group of men.

On July 12th, Private Willard fell asleep while on guard duty. Such dereliction of duty imperiled the mission and the Captains were harsh in their punishment of him. Willard received 100 lashes of the whip each day for four consecutive days. A military courts martial at that time allowed for a soldier to be put to death for falling asleep at his post. Thus, the Captains were somewhat benevolent in choosing the whip!

Traveling upriver was slow going as the Missouri River ran swift and had innumerable sand bars. For days at a time, the crew pulled the keel boat with ropes. 

On August 20th, Sergeant Charles Floyd died from a burst appendix. He was buried on a hilltop near what is now Sioux City, IA. He is the only crew member to die on the expedition.

In replacing Sergeant Floyd, Private William Bratton was considered for promotion. On August 22nd, Captain Clark “ordered a Vote for a Serjeant to chuse one of three which may be the highest number.” Bratton was one of the three but Private Patrick Gass was selected to fill Floyd’s position (19 votes) while Privates Bratton and Gibson split the rest. 

When winter set in, the Corps found itself no further upriver than the Mandan Indian settlement in present-day North Dakota. Lewis and Clark built Fort Mandan across the river from the Mandan village of sod huts and the two groups maintained friendly contact throughout the long winter.

The winter at Fort Mandan proved to be harsh, and at times, food was very scarce. 

From Captain Clark’s journal: “The blacksmiths take a considerable quantity of corn today in payment for their labor. They have proved a happy reso[r]ce to us in our present situation as I believe it would have been difficult to have devised any other methods to have procured corn from the natives. I permitted the blacksmith to dispose of part of a sheet iron callaboos (cook stove) which been nearly birnt out on our passage up the river, and for each piece about four inches square he obtained from seven to eight gallons of corn from the natives who appeared extreemly pleased with the exchange.”

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