March 23, 2022

The Return of Lewis and Clark

The Return of Lewis and Clark

March 23, 1806. After completing the first U.S. overland expedition to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark begin their return to St. Louis, Missouri.


Cold Open

It’s December 20th, 1803 in New Orleans.

Behind the closed door of a meeting room, three men prepare to seal one of the greatest real estate deals in history.

Commanding general of the US Army, James Wilkinson, watches as Louisiana’s French governor, Pierre-Clément de Laussat, signs a document that will officially transfer the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

The signing done, the men rise to exchange handshakes.

Wilkinson watches as Louisiana’s last French governor shakes the hand of William C.C. Claiborne, Louisiana’s first American governor. With this exchange, the Louisiana Purchase is finally complete.

Wilkinson walks to the nearest window and draws the curtain to peer out at the crowd gathering outside.

He watches as a color guard pulls down a French flag and raises the US flag in its place.

Then as Wilkinson opens the window, he hears cheers erupt from the city’s American settlers. Wilkson can’t help but notice the grim faces of the city’s Spanish and French residents in the crowd. They're not sure what's coming. And Wilkinson isn't smiling either.

Though President Thomas Jefferson himself entrusted Wilkinson to take possession of the Louisiana Territory, Wilkinson does not support American expansion. He doesn't say it out loud. He keeps his true opinion secret because he’s a spy serving the Spanish Empire. And today’s landmark achievement for the growth of American territory spells trouble for the nation he has secretly pledged his allegiance to.

At 530 million acres, the Louisiana Purchase will double the size of the United States. But, the purchase won’t end Jefferson’s expansionist ambitions. In just a few months, news of Thomas Jefferson’s newest exploratory undertaking will reach Wilkinson. The double agent will immediately warn the Spanish of Jefferson’s upcoming westward venture: an expedition that will send Americans all the way to the Pacific Ocean, an expedition led by two men - Meriwether Lewis and William Clark - who will begin their return from exploring the west on March 23rd, 1806.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is March 23rd, 1806: The Return of Lewis and Clark.

Act One: The Expedition Begins

It’s January 18th, 1803, eleven months before France transfers the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

President Thomas Jefferson sits at a desk in the White House, a blank sheet of paper before him. Jefferson’s mind races as he prepares to come up with a way to finance an expedition to the Pacific Ocean.

For decades, Jefferson read about the western frontier and dreamed of its exploration, hoping to build what he calls an “Empire of Liberty.” Now, Jefferson feels like his vision might finally be coming to fruition; negotiations are underway to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France, and so are plans to venture beyond that Territory.

Recently, Jefferson requested permission from Spain for a scientific expedition to cross Spanish territory. Spain rejected the request, but Jefferson remains undeterred; the expedition will go ahead with or without Spain’s approval. All Jefferson needs is money. And so, he sits, trying to craft the perfect words that will help him accomplish his goal.

Jefferson must be careful how he phrases this request to Congress. He knows the Constitution doesn’t give Congress the right to finance exploration outside the nation’s borders, so he needs to frame this delicately. Jefferson decides to describe the enterprise as a step toward extending commerce. The expedition, he writes, will make allies of Western Native tribes, uncover the best trade routes, and reveal the continent’s geography, all in the interests of commerce. Jefferson is confident that no one in Congress will have a reason to oppose such an expedition… unless they know about Spain’s refusal to approve it. So Jefferson decides to withhold that information in his letter to Congress. Instead, Jefferson tells Congress that Spain will regard the expedition as a scientific pursuit, and will take no issue.

Satisfied, Jefferson hands the letter off to a messenger who delivers it to his colleagues in Congress. In the end, Jefferson's deception works. Congress approves the request.

Jefferson will then appoint his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to be the leader of an expedition company they will call the Corps of Discovery. Lewis will bring on board an old friend named William Clark. Together, the two frontiersmen will serve as the expedition’s co-captains. And on May 14th, 1804, after many months of preparation, these two men and their 45-person crew will depart from St. Louis, heading up the Missouri River to begin their long journey west.


It’s August 1st, 1804 in the Spanish territory of New Mexico, three months after Lewis and Clark began their westward trek.

Atop his horse, Pedro Vial looks behind him at the 52 soldiers, mercenaries, and allied Native Americans awaiting his orders to leave Santa Fe. He runs through his mental checklist, making sure no critical supply or person is missing. Vial knows the journey ahead will be a long one.

A French explorer and frontiersman, Vial works for the Spanish government as a guide and interpreter, roles informed by years of living among the Comanche and Wichita Indians. But, today, his job is a little different. Vial has been selected to lead an armed expedition to track down Lewis and Clark.

Five months ago, word came from a Spanish spy named General James Wilkinson that the departure of a U.S. expedition to the Pacific was imminent. To Spain, the expedition does not feel scientific, it feels imperialist. Spanish officials surmise that a successful return by Lewis and Clark could put a target on the territory that Spain has occupied for centuries. And so, they’ve decided to put a stop to it, selecting Pedro Vial as the man for the job.

After finishing his mental inventory, Vial signals his men to begin their pursuit of the American expedition.

One month and 600 miles later, Vial and his men finally reach a large Pawnee Indian settlement in present-day Nebraska. Soon, Vial begins giving presents to the local chiefs. Part of his job is to endear the tribes to the Spanish while instilling fear in them of the land-hungry Americans. Vial hopes the chiefs will be able to steer them toward the Lewis and Clark's expedition. And eventually, Vial learns that a group of American “traders” were in the area two weeks ago, but it’s anyone’s guess where they are now. Unable to predict Lewis and Clark’s location, Vial returns to New Mexico empty-handed.

But the Spanish will not give up on stopping Lewis and Clark. Vial will lead several more attempts to intercept the Corps of Discovery. But all will be unsuccessful. By the time Vial and his men arrive back in New Mexico, Lewis and Clark will be many miles north, beginning construction on a wintertime fort near the villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians. It’s in these villages that Lewis and Clark will find a fateful addition to the Corps of Discovery, a girl named Sacagawea.

Act Two: Fateful Meetings

It’s November 4th, 1804 in present-day North Dakota, six months into the Corps of Discovery’s expedition.

Captain Meriwether Lewis inspects a handful of soil, making note of its properties before returning it to the earth. Lewis jots down a final note, before closing his journal filled with information for President Jefferson. Satisfied with the day’s observations, Lewis is ready to find whatever warmth he can at the expedition’s new campground.

After six months of traveling the Missouri River, the Corps of Discovery began construction on a fort just two days ago. Fortunately for the expedition, the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes have been eager to establish peace. Lewis is therefore thankful that this is the place where they will spend the long months ahead.

As Lewis nears the entrance to the encampment, an unfamiliar man stops him. He introduces himself as Toussaint Charbonneau; he’s a French Canadian trader who lives in the nearby Hidatsa villages, and he has a proposition for Lewis; Charbonneau wants to be hired as an interpreter for the expedition.

Lewis takes a moment to mull this proposal over. They are in need of interpreters, but Charbonneau has nothing new to offer him; they already have a man who speaks Hidatsa and French. But Charbonneau insists he has more talents than that. Lewis’s ears perk up as he hears that Charbonneau’s wife is a Shoshone Indian.

The Shoshone tribe lives in the Rocky Mountains and has many horses. Lewis knows horses are exactly the thing the Corps of Discovery will need to take their baggage across the mountains. And to get horses from the Shoshone, they will need someone who can speak the language.

Soon, Lewis will meet Charbonneau’s wife, Sacagawea, a heavily pregnant sixteen-year-old girl. In three months, Lewis will aid in the delivery of Sacagawea’s son. And, just two months after giving birth – with an infant on her back – Sacagawea will set off with the Corps of Discovery as the expedition’s only woman.


It’s the morning of August 17th, 1805 in present-day Montana.

Sacagawea walks alongside expedition co-captain William Clark. In the river beside her, canoes filled with expedition members follow their lead. Together, they search anxiously for any sign of Captain Meriwether Lewis.

For weeks, morale has been sinking. They needed to find the Shoshone Indians quickly but their travel by water was slow. The fate of the expedition hinges on the Shoshone and their horses. Without them, there’s no way the expedition can cross the Rocky Mountains before winter. Several days ago, Lewis and Clark split up hoping to accelerate their search for the Shoshone, but reuniting has proven difficult.

Members of the expedition are going anxious. But Sacagawea can’t help but savor the slow journey. Though she lives among the Hidatsa, Sacagawea belongs to the Shoshone tribe. When she was 12 years old, a Hidatsa raiding party captured her and took her thousands of miles away to the Hidatsa villages in North Dakota. It’s there that Charbonneau purchased her and she became one of his multiple wives.

As Sacagawea scans the horizon for Lewis, the familiar landscape evokes memories of her childhood, and she wonders how much time she has left here before she will once again have to say goodbye to her native land.

But, the sound of horses interrupts Sacagawea’s reflection. She cheers and breaks into dance as her eyes register several men on horseback; it’s the Shoshone. And as the tribesmen draw near, Sacagawea notices they’re traveling with one of the men Lewis took with him. Soon, Lewis’ man leads Clark, Sacagawea, and the rest upriver where Lewis is waiting to reunite with them and begin negotiations with the Shoshone. 

As they arrive at the Shoshone camp, Sacagawea immediately feels eyes on her. One young Native girl weaves through the crowd of onlookers and walks right up to Sacagawea. As the girl draws near, recognition sets in. It’s Sacagawea’s childhood friend. They were together when Sacagawea was captured during the Hidatsa raid. But the young girl managed to escape. Sacagawea holds her friend tight, determined that this time, she will not let her go. But their reunion is interrupted by voices calling Sacagawea’s name.

Soon, Sacagawea heads to the tent where negotiations between Lewis and the tribe’s chief are underway. Sacagawea quickly sits down to do her job as interpreter. But as she turns to speak to the Chief, Sacagawea finds herself staring into the face of her own brother. Weeping profusely, Sacagawea hugs the first family member she’s seen in years.

Sacagawea’s connection to the tribe will ingratiate Lewis and Clark to the Shoshone Chief who will provide horses and guides to lead the expedition over the Rocky Mountains. On November 15th, 1805, eighteen months after leaving St. Louis, the group finally reaches the Pacific Ocean, but their joy at arriving at their final destination will not last long.

Act Three: The Expedition Returns

It’s the morning of March 22nd, 1806 at Fort Clatsop, the Corps of Discovery’s wintertime fort on the Oregon coast.

Captain Meriwether Lewis walks outside his cabin and looks up at the sky. It’s been a long, miserable winter. Like everyone else, Lewis is eager to return home, but stormy conditions have made departure impossible. But today, the sky is crystal clear.

Encouraged by the weather, Lewis and Clark agree to depart the next day. But Lewis knows the return trip will be dangerous. He fears that should they perish, the world will never know they made it to the coast. But right at this moment, Lewis sees a familiar face enter the camp: the chief of the Clatsop Indians, a tribe native to the region.

The natives in this area have been eager to trade, but not to socialize. Except for Chief Coboway. He’s been kind, friendly, and hospitable. So today, Lewis decides to make Coboway an offer: his Clatsop Tribe can take possession of their camp, and all its furnishings, after they’re gone. But Lewis needs something in return.

Lewis hands Coboway a list of all the names of the expedition’s participants and asks the Chief to keep it safe. Lewis explains that if they don’t make it home, the world needs to know that they reached the Pacific. So with Coboway’s assurance that he will preserve the document, Lewis returns to his cabin, feeling more ready than ever to begin the journey back home.

At noon the following day, the Corps of Discovery will finally leave Fort Clatsop, beginning their trek home on March 23rd, 1806. With endurance and supplies severely depleted, the trek back east will be filled with fatigue and danger. But on September 23rd, 1806, seven months to the day after their departure from Fort Clatsop, the explorers arrive back in St. Louis.

With their return, Lewis and Clark bring home new knowledge of the continent’s geography and the transformative realization that land travel to the Pacific is possible. Soon, traders and empire builders will flood the West. Among them is a prominent fur trader, and captain of the British Royal Navy named Alexander Henry.

In 1813, Henry will visit Fort Clatsop and meet Chief Coboway who will present him with Lewis’s list of the expedition’s members, a document Coboway safeguarded for seven years. But he watches with dismay as Henry throws the carefully-preserved document into a fire.

Henry’s action portends the hostility of the imperial rivalries that will soon dominate the region; rivalries that will cause irreparable damage to the land’s Indigenous populations. Just a few decades after meeting Lewis and Clark, the Clatsop tribe will be forced to cede 90 percent of their land to the U.S. government; a tragic outcome to a story of exploration that entered a new chapter when Lewis and Clark began their return east on March 23rd, 1806.


Next on History Daily. March 24th, 1603. After a reign of 44 years, Queen Elizabeth I of England dies, bringing the Tudor dynasty to its end.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Derek Behrens.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.