Not even 30 years old when the Corps of Discovery headed west, Meriwether Lewis was nonetheless an ideal leader for an expedition that required a variety of learned skills and natural talents. Lewis was born in Virginia, and his father died when he has just 5. But Lewis’s mother, Lucy, taught him many of the skills he would later use in the western lands, including herbal medicine.
Lewis' mother eventually remarried and the family moved to the Georgia frontier, where Lewis learned a variety of backwoods and exploration skills. Finally, when Lewis was 13, the family moved back to Virginia, where Lewis began his formal education.
In 1795, when Lewis was 21 years old, he joined the army as an ensign. After some excess drinking and other problems Lewis was eventually transferred to a unit where he straightened up under the guidance of his commanding officer, William Clark.
By 1801, Lewis was serving in the White House. With his family connections in Virginia and improved military record, he came to the attention of President Thomas Jefferson, who appointed Lewis as his private secretary. Two years later, when Jefferson was looking for a leader for the Corps of Discovery, he turned to Capt. Lewis.
Clark was also born in Virginia, although four years before Lewis, in 1770. The brother of a Revolutionary War hero, his family moved to Ohio in 1785, where he was educated at home by his brothers. He never learned to spell, as his later journals attest, but he became an expert in the variety of wilderness skills he would later need with the expedition.
Clark also joined the military, fighting American Indians in the Ohio country. This is where he met Lewis. But when the war was over, Clark resigned and went home to tend to family matters. Eventually, the entire family moved to the northern side of the river into Indiana. He was living there when Lewis’ letter arrived asking him to co-lead the journey west.
On a journey that lasted two years, four months and nine days through the dangers of unknown wilderness, the expedition only required one funeral. That was for Sgt. Floyd, who died of a burst appendix.
History can thank Sgt. Gass for coining the phrase “Corps of Discovery,” which he used as a title on his published journals from the exploration. As a carpenter, Gass’ skills were invaluable, as he helped build camps and canoes.
Well-educated, Ordway kept a detailed journal about the exploration., which he later sold to Lewis and Clark for $300. Early in the expedition, Sgt. Ordway had trouble establishing his authority in the absence of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clark. Some men defied his orders and were confined for 10 days. Later, John Shields and John Colter threatened Sgt. Ordway’s life and would have stood trial for mutiny, had they not begged forgiveness.
Lewis and Clark waived their rule that only unmarried men could join the expedition for Sgt. Pryor. A cousin of Sgt. Floyd, Pryor was respected and trusted by the captains and often given the duties of army administration.
Clark called Bratton one of the “the best young woodsmen & Hunters in this part of the Countrey” and he lived up to the praise. Bratton’s experience on the expedition included searching for deserters Moses Reed and La Liberte, being chased by a grizzly bear that he had shot, and receiving a sweat-bath treatment for back pains by the Nez Perce tribe.
A hunter for the expedition, Collins, along with Hugh Hall, received a punishment of 100 lashes on his bare back for getting drunk on duty in the summer of 1804.
Colter helped Clark scout passage through the Rockies and venture to the ocean from their camp at Chinook Point on the Columbia River. In 1806, Colter left the expedition to become a fur trapper in Illinois. He later became the first white man to enter Yellowstone National Park, describing the geysers and other geothermal activity in the area.
Fluent in Omaha and sign language, Cruzatte proved indispensable when it came to dealing with American Indian tribes encountered along the journey. It is difficult to say whether Lewis appreciated Cruzatte’s talents after Cruzatte accidentally shot the captain in the buttocks in 1806.
Joseph and Reuben Field
The brothers from Virginia received Lewis’ highest praise when he wrote they were “two of the most active and enterprising young men who accompanied us. It was their peculiar fate to have been engaged in all the most dangerous and difficult scenes of the voyage, in which they uniformly acquitted themselves with much honor.”
Frazer joined the expedition as a replacement for deserter Moses Reed. In May 1806, Frazer traded a razor for two Spanish dollars with a Nez Perce woman, an event recorded in both the journals of Sgt. Ordway and Sgt. Gass.
Valuable to the expedition as a hunter and woodsman, Gibson was also a fiddle player.
Goodrich has the distinction of being one of the best fishermen on the expedition.
Hall, a Massachusetts native and Army veteran, had a fondness for alcohol that got him into trouble.
Thomas Proctor Howard
Howard found himself court martialed after scaling the wall of the Fort Mandan stockade. They charged him with “setting a pernicious example to the Savages” because Howard had demonstrated how easy it was to invade the fort.
Fluent in several languages, including French, LaBiche would translate the captain’s words into French for Charbonneau, who then translated the French into Hidatsa for Sacagawea, who translated that into Shoshone.
Jean Baptiste LePage
A fur trader living with the Hidatsa and Mandan Indians, LePage joined the expedition in October 1804 to fill the vacancy left by John Newman after he was discharged.
There’s more than one way to use a musket. When a grizzly bear caused McNeal to be thrown from his horse, he didn’t have time to steady and aim the weapon properly so he knocked the animal on it’s head with the muzzle. Stunned, McNeal secured enough time to scramble up a tree to safety. Unfortunately, it took three hours for the grizzly to lose interest with the American explorer in the tree.
Although Potts wasn’t a swimmer, he managed to survive an overturned canoe in the Clearwater River during a spring thaw in 1806. After the expedition, he settled into the fur trade but was killed in an ambush by Blackfeet Indians.
Shannon, only 18 years old — the youngest on the expedition — was nearly lost forever in the wilderness when he was sent to recover a couple of horses that had strayed and not returned. The Corps went on without him, and for two weeks Shannon tried to catch up with the boats, except he was actually ahead of the boats. They found him sitting on a riverbank starving, having been missing for 16 days.
Shields, another man exempt from the unmarried rule, was one of three blacksmiths on the exploration. He helped administer Bratton’s “sweat house” treatment.
John B. Thompson
Clark described Thompson as “a valuable member of our party.”
Peter M. Weiser
It is believed the Weiser River, a tributary of the Snake river, was named after him — an honor Clark included in his 1810 map of the territory.
At the beginning of the exploration, Werner proved to be problematic, requiring disciplinary action after a fight with Potts and then being absent without leave while the Corps stayed in St. Charles.
When Whitehouse joined the army, he wrote “I was led at an early period of my life to enter into the Army of the United States, by views I had to acquire military knowledge, & to be acquainted with the Country in which I was born.”
Alexander Hamilton Willard
In the Corps of Discovery, sleeping on the job carried a hefty punishment — death. Fortunately his superiors were lenient, and when he fell asleep during sentry duty in the summer of 1804, they sentenced him instead to 100 lashes. Willard was one of the three blacksmiths on the Corps.
Windsor served as a hunter and woodsman for the Corps.
The nearly 50-year-old French Canadian trader helped the expedition by providing two things: his abilities as a translator and one of his two wives, Sacagawea. Knowing the importance of Sacagawea to the mission, Charbonneau tried to use her to negotiate with the captains, but they called his bluff and sought out a different interpreter. Four days later he recanted, and they joined the expedition.
For this 16-year-old Shoshone woman, the Corps of Discovery proved to be a family affair. Accompanied by her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacagawea gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, in February 1805. While she was serving as interpreter, the explorers ran into a group of Shoshones under the leadership of Chief Cameahwait, Sacagawea’s long lost brother.
Jean Baptiste Charbonneau
The son of Sacagawea was nicknamed “Pomp and Pompy” by Clark, and he beat George Shannon for the record of youngest person on the expedition. Years later, in 1812, Clark adopted Jean Baptiste and his sister, Lisette.