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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Lewis and Clark image of Lewis and Clark
Commemorating the
Bicentennial
 
Lewis & Clark Expedition

Scientific Discovery

    The Lewis and Clark Expedition was one of the great explorations in American history.  But it was more than a geographic exploration. Lewis and Clark observed and collected plant and animal specimens, studied native cultures, and, by mapping the landscape, put form to the unknown.

"The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purpose of commerce.  Other objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country, its growth & vegetable productions; especially those not of the U.S., the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S.  The remains & accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct . . . "

    In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson gave these instructions to Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  Leaving from near St. Louis on May 14, 1804, their voyage of discovery unfolded into a journey covering 28 months and eight thousand miles. Under orders from Jefferson, Lewis and Clark meticulously recorded observations about the geography, plants, animals and inhabitants of the country through which they passed.

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Lewis & Clark as Naturalists

    Lewis and Clark contributed considerable knowledge about the biological diversity of North America. Both men were skilled in the outdoors, familiar with wildlife, curious about their surroundings, and able to observe what was new or different. They and their men spent most of their time, apart from the daily business of travel and survival, in collecting, pickling, pressing, skinning, drying and crating specimens and writing up journal entries. They implemented a set of world-class standards in the sciences that were the highest of their time. They introduced ecological methods of study to the American West.

    They usually shot or otherwise caught an individual of each species of wildlife, measured and described the specimen, and preserved it for shipment back to President Jefferson. Today, only one animal specimen that might have been collected by Lewis and Clark still exists – a skin of a Lewis's woodpecker at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology

    They also collected plant samples and pressed them. Their plant collection still exists today at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences