Jump to Navigation

Lewis and Clark in Kansas

Independence Creek painting showing Lewis and Clark in Kansas, by Michael HaynesIn 1803 President Thomas Jefferson asked Congress for funds to send an expedition from the Missouri River to the Pacific Northwest. This was in anticipation of the acquisition of Louisiana Territory. France sold the 828,000 square miles in this territory to the United States for 60 million francs ($15 million).  Of this, $11,250,000 was for the land and the remainder covered debts France owed U. S. citizens.  This purchase doubled the size of the United States. 

The funding for the expedition was approved and President Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead the Corps of Discovery.  Their mission was to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis spent months preparing observation skills to document the natural resources that the expedition encountered. Lewis and Clark's route to the Pacific Ocean and back took them through areas that would eventually become 11 states. The group spent the most time in North Dakota, even though the longest part of the trail is in Montana. One of the shortest parts of the trail is in Kansas—just 123 miles.

Lewis and Clark, with 43 men, began their descent of the Ohio River on August 31, 1803.  They began their ascent of the Missouri River on May 14, 1804, with St. Louis as their starting point. 

On June 26, 1804, the expedition reached Kansas on three boats, with four horses and a dog. For three days, they camped at Kaw Point, where the Missouri and Kansas Rivers meet. Today this is Kansas City. They built a small fort of logs and brush to protect themselves from native people. It was here that they first saw buffaloes.

The men spent three days in the area cleaning their boats, exploring the land, and resting. Since they were traveling up the Missouri River, they were going against the current. Clark wrote, "rowing the boats on the Missouri River was like trying to ride a wild animal." At times they had to tow the boats, using long ropes pulled by men walking along the shore. On June 29 they camped on the north bank of the Missouri and on June 30 they spent the night on the Kansas side. By July 1 they were opposite the site of Leavenworth and on July 3 they stayed in what became Atchison County.

Lewis and Clark liked what they saw in Kansas. They commented on the abundance of game and the beauty of the prairie. Clark wrote about seeing great quantities of grapes, raspberries, deer, and turkeys. This would be useful information for future settlers. Lewis and Clark also took special note of plants and animals, since one goal was to discover new specimens.

On July 4, 1804, the Corps of Discovery celebrated the first Independence Day west of the Mississippi River. They began the day by firing a small cannon and ended the day the same way.  They wore their dress uniforms at the morning and evening ceremonies, and received an extra ration of whiskey. They named two creeks near Atchison—Independence Creek and Fourth of July Creek. A private named Joseph Fields had the misfortune of being bitten by a snake. Captain Lewis doctored his wound with bark.

On July 5, 7, and 9, they camped on the Kansas side of the Missouri.  Their time in Kansas was short, just 14 days going up river. The men were learning to work together as a crew.  Their knowledge, strength, and courage would be put to many more tests before the journey ended.  While in the area that became Kansas, Lewis and Clark gathered considerable information about eastern Kansas and its inhabitants. While they saw no native people in the area, they were able to observe a Kansa campground that was abandoned or vacated. They documented the rivers, flora, fauna, and geography of the area.

The Lewis and Clark expedition continued to follow the  Missouri River and they spend the winter with Mandan Indians, near present day Bismarck, North Dakota.  In the spring they resumed their journey, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and sighted the Pacific Ocean on November 7, 1805. The expedition returned to Kansas September 10-15, 1806, arriving in St. Louis on September 23, 1806.

Entry: Lewis and Clark in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2004

Date Modified: July 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.