Home Smithsonian: National Museum of Natural History Home
Lewis & Clark as Naturalists
The Corps of Discovery Lewis and Clark as Naturalists

On May 21, 1804, under a threatening sky,

blusterous winds, and later, hard rain, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and 43 men left the town of St. Charles, Missouri on the north bank of the Missouri River. Shoving off to three rounds of cheers from "gentlemen on the bank" (Clark) they began a journey like no other in the short history of the United States, and like none since.

There were many purposes for the expedition, which President Thomas Jefferson handed down to Lewis in a set of charges. Among them was the recording and collecting of plant and animal specimens.

"The soil and face of the country, its growth and vegetable productions . . . The animals of the country generally, and especially those not known in the United States; The remains and accounts of which may be deemed rare or extinct."

In keeping with Jefferson's orders, and through meticulous journal writings, Lewis and Clark have left America with a detailed record of the diversity and vitality of the natural world some 200 years ago.

Their journals provide a view of nature that is as remarkable for their closeness to it as for the unfathomable abundance of wildlife-rivers choked with salmon, thunderous waves of bison, elk, and pronghorn followed closely by ever present wolves. Their journals, too, are a window from which we may see splendors since extinguished, the plains grizzly bear, elk, wolf, and boundless grassy plains and canopied forests now long decimated by an expanding nation.

Specimens collected by the Corps of Discovery have fared no better either. Except for the 238 herbarium sheets housed at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and a few more at the Royal Botanic gardens in Kew, England, nearly all natural history specimens collected by the Corps have since been lost or destroyed. The loss together with the bicentennial commemoration of the expedition led to the idea of constructing this web site, which recreates the plants and animals collected and described by Lewis and Clark and their men, pairing images of each specimen with relevant journal entries. Specimens used in this site are from the collections at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and none are actual specimens collected by Lewis and Clark. Had those specimens endured, the entire collection would resemble the specimens found on these pages.

The Lewis and Clark collection of natural history specimens was the first of its kind for the United States, and as such was also the forebearer for museums of natural history. For this achievement in natural history, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is forever indebted to Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.

Portrait of Meriwether Lewis
Meriwether Lewis

Portrait of William Clark