By Michelle Werts

“Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” by Charles Marion Russell
“Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” by Charles Marion Russell

History books are filled with extraordinary events, fascinating people and unbelievable moments of discovery. Sometimes, all of these things come together, as is the case with one of my favorite moments in history: the westward adventure of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery into uncharted territories and their remarkable return — a journey that began 208 years ago today.

There are many mind-blowing aspects of Lewis and Clark’s famous voyage:

  • The length — 3,700 miles, much of it unmapped, that was navigated solely with the few available maps, a compass and the help of Mother Nature via stars and rivers.
  • The time — 863 days, so long that many feared the explorers died on the journey.
  • The encounters — they met with nearly 50 American Indian tribes, establishing relationships (some for the very first time) and receiving aid during the long voyage.
  • The success — they reached the Pacific as planned and only lost one team member along the way.

But perhaps the biggest long-term impacts were the discoveries: approximately 300 plant and animal species previously unknown to science. And I’m not talking about exotic or uncommon things. Meriwether Lewis, who served as a naturalist on the journey by documenting their scientific discoveries, was the first to describe trees such as bigleaf maple, osage-orange, Pacific madrone, ponderosa pine, Sitka spruce, western red cedar and whitebark pine, among others — not to mention other plant species, like tarragon, a now-popular herb. Then, there are the animals: coyotes; grizzly bears; various woodpeckers; mountain lions; various toads, frogs and snakes; white-tailed deer; American goldfinch’s and other birds; and so many more. The Corps of Discovery introduced the nation to flora and fauna that would become synonymous with the American West. And they did it all without GPS, roads, satellite phones, RVs and other modern luxuries — truly extraordinary. Today, I raise my Lewis and Clark replica compass to these intrepid explorers.

View along the Lewis and Clark Trail
View along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Credit: Dale Chumbley/Flickr

This Week in History
Another historic milestone this week is the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the USDA. While it’s name may imply that it solely deals with farming issues, the USDA is responsible for so much more, from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR). At American Forests, we’re particularly fond of one particular USDA service: the Forest Service! So, this week, we’re also celebrating 150 years of the USDA.