Why are Lewis and Clark important to American History? 

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The importance of the 1804-1806 voyage of Lewis and Clark lies in their role as the first explorers in the first major expansion of the territory of the United States. With the addition of the Louisiana Purchase, the United States doubled in size practically overnight. The issue was that few Americans had any idea what this territory contained. It was the task of Lewis and Clark to find out.

One important part of their mission was to establish a relationship with the native peoples who lived in the territory. Most of the contact that the explorers had with Native Americans was amicable. While relationships between the United States and Native Americans would sour greatly over the coming century, this expedition marks the first promising contact between agents of the government and many native groups.

They are also important in that they were the first to catalog many plant and animal species that are found in the American West. They kept a detailed diary and brought back many samples that excited the curiosity of many Americans back east.

Although Lewis and Clark failed to find a water passage to the Pacific (none exists), they did establish a clear route for settlement in the West. Their journey established the sovereignty of the United States over its new territory. This was important to do, as the British also had their eyes on the region. In a sense, they paved the way for the country's expansion. The rest of the 19th century was characterized by thousands of others following in their footsteps as they expanded the country far beyond the Mississippi River and ultimately across the continent.

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Lewis and Clark are important to American History because their efforts defined the expanded United States.

With the Louisiana Purchase from France, President Thomas Jefferson made a significant investment in the nation's future.  The nation nearly doubled in size. However, Jefferson was not clear as to what he purchased. Lewis and Clark were critical in detailing the President's acquisition.

Lewis and Clark are important to American History because of their discoveries on their expedition through the territory that constituted the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson himself highlighted the goal and importance of their mission:

The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, & such principle stream of it, as, by its 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. (National Park Service, "Lewis and Clark")

In traveling thousands of miles in two and one-half years, a relatively small period of time, Lewis and Clark failed to accomplish what the President asked of them.  Their expedition demonstrated there is no viable water path across the continent to the Western portion of the country. 

They forever destroyed the dream of a Northwest Passage (a water route across the continent), but proved the success of overland travel to the Pacific.

Another reason why Lewis and Clark are important to American History is because of the partnership they forged with Sacagawea.  Her role in the expedition was vitally important.  She functioned as guide, diplomat, and translator.  The relationships that both men formed with indigenous people were enhanced because of Sacagawea's presence.  Their association with her represents another reason why Lewis and Clark were important to American History.

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