May 31, 2003 -- In the new year of 1803, America consisted of sixteen states. There were no prairie dogs or grizzly bears. No jackrabbits or bighorn sheep. No cutthroat trout. No salmonberries or pawpaw fruit. Sagebrush tumbled elsewhere. All of this would change forever on May 14, 1804, with the beginning of one of America's greatest adventure stories: the Lewis and Clark expedition.
On January 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent a secret message to Congress requesting authorization and funding for a visionary project—an expedition to find a northwest passage along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers that would be part of a land-and-water route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. His plan included gathering scientific information about the uncharted wilderness, to learn "the face of the country, its growth & vegetable productions . . . the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S." Observations would be made of "the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flowers, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects" (Ron Fisher, "Lewis and Clark," National Geographic, October 1998). At the urging of Albert Gallatin, his secretary of the treasury, Jefferson's request was kept confidential because it was deemed imprudent to draw the world's attention to the fact that young, brash America was planning a deliberate trespass on lands west of the Mississippi, through France's Louisiana Territory as well as regions west of it claimed by Spain.
Jefferson's motivations appear multifold. His lifelong love of and scientific interest in the natural world are well documented and underpinned his dreams of a utopian agrarian republic. To accommodate the needs of this burgeoning agricultural nation, more land would eventually be needed. Sensing opportunity in the French, Spanish, British, and Russian failure to explore fully or settle comprehensively lands west of the Mississippi, Jefferson hoped a successful expedition would provide basis for future U.S. claims to regions still under foreign dominion. In more fanciful moments he envisioned "the Mississippi River not as the western edge of the country, but as the great spine that would hold the continent together" (Joseph Harriss, "Westward Ho!" Smithsonian, April 2003). As far back as 1786 he wrote, "Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North and South, is to be peopled." Stirring others with this prospect, geographer Jedediah Morse proclaimed in 1789, "We cannot but anticipate the period, as not far distant, when the American Empire will comprehend millions of souls, west of the Mississippi" (David Lavender, The Way to the Western Sea, Harper and Row, 1988, p. 5). Even poet Timothy Dwight waxed, "Soon shall thy sons across the mainland roam / And claim on far Pacific shores their home" (Lavender, p. 5).
In addition to geopolitics, Jefferson hoped to discover unfound riches before his European brethren did and to gain an early economic advantage, thus enhancing the possibility of political control. This idea dates back to 1785, when, residing in Paris, Jefferson made the acquaintance of John Ledyard (1751-89), an explorer from America who pointed out the immense possibilities of participating in the lucrative northwest trade. The image of an American commercial highway stretching east to west across foreign territories resonated strongly with Jefferson, and in his appeal to Congress he alluded to the benefits of diverting valuable fur-trading routes further south, away from the rugged, more difficult northern routes (now in Canada) that were used by Great Britain—in essence, encouraging a U.S. takeover of the British fur trade in North America. On February 28, 1803, won over by Jefferson's compelling proposal, Congress overwhelmingly passed the measure and $2,500 was appropriated for the Corps of Discovery.
Next, attention turned to selecting a commander capable of executing the expedition as Jefferson visualized it. Jefferson immediately recruited his twenty-eight-year-old secretary-aide, Meriwether Lewis. An army captain and fellow Virginian, Lewis was raised in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he had acquired a prodigious knowledge of native plants and animals. As presidential secretary since 1801, he undoubtedly had had occasion to speak with Jefferson about his vision and plan for western exploration.
In a memoir of this distinguished young officer written after his death—tragically, an apparent suicide—Jefferson noted:
Of courage undaunted; possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction; careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline; . . . of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves—with all these qualifications, as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him (Noah Brooks, First Across the Continent , Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904, pp. 6-7).
Armed with his country's mandate and his president's blessing, Lewis was barely two months into research and preparations for the expedition when an incredible event occurred: the Louisiana Purchase. On April 30, 1803, with a stroke of Napoleon's pen (and $15 million), America nearly doubled in size—and the extraordinary value of its newly acquired resources was yet to be learned. Now the mission took on a decidedly diplomatic importance: to communicate to every Indian tribe and foreign interest then occupying the lands within the entire Louisiana Territory the transfer of sovereignty from the French/Spanish administration to American.
In 1803, America nearly doubled in size—and the extraordinary value of its newly acquired resources was yet to be learned.
With the greatly intensified stakes came the necessity to recruit a co-commander to assist Lewis. William Clark, under whom Lewis had served briefly during his military career, was offered the position, and he enthusiastically accepted. By December they had established winter quarters at Camp Dubois at the mouth of the Wood River near St. Louis, which became the expedition's staging point. Here the two captains gathered equipment and supplies and recruited young woodsmen and volunteer soldiers from nearby army outposts to train for coveted positions in the Corps of Discovery. And then on May 14, 1804, after a cannon salute to local settlers wishing them bon voyage, the expedition's fifty-five-foot-long keelboat and two pirogues, "Set out from camp river a[t] Dubois at 4 oClock P.M. and proceeded on under jentle brease up the Missouri under sail to the first island . . . made 4 1/2 miles. . . . Cloudy rainey day. . . . Men in high spirits" (Tim Cahill, "Lewis and Clark Get Lost," National Geographic, April 2002).
One hundred sixty-four days and 1,510 miles later, the corps came to the villages of the Mandan and Minitari Indians in North Dakota and set about constructing a log fortification named Fort Mandan in honor of the local inhabitants. Here they spent five months hunting and conferring with the Indians and French Canadian traders, planning the arduous push west to the Pacific.
One such trader was Toussaint Charbonneau, accompanied by his pregnant "wife" Sacagawea, a seventeen-year-old Shoshone who had been kidnapped by Plains Indians five years earlier, brought to the Dakotas, and eventually sold to Charbonneau. Contrary to romanticized accounts, Sacagawea was never the brilliant guide and inspirational force that many eulogistic biographers have portrayed. Rather, Lewis and Clark saw her value as an interpreter with the Shoshones in trading for horses needed for the long land traverse from the Missouri to the Columbia watershed. Moreover, she would represent a token of truce to Indian tribes, who considered women, particularly those with a child (she would give birth in February 1805), not to be members of war parties. In the end, she did prove courageous and assisted in negotiations with the Shoshones and other tribes and was helpful digging for roots and collecting herbs that were edible or had medicinal value.
In April 1805, moving upriver from Fort Mandan, they reached the confluence of the Yellowstone with the Missouri and entered Eden-like country, where Lewis observed "immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture" ( Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc. ). As the majesty of the great Rocky Mountains thrust up before them, the Missouri's current grew stronger, until they reached the point where the Mandans had said the river would divide and eventually lead to great waterfalls. Here, in present-day Great Falls, Montana, the expedition had to portage eighteen miles around a series of five cascades. Ultimately, they arrived at the source of the Missouri, where it divided into three tributaries they named the Gallatin, the Jefferson, and the Monroe. Because it flowed west, they advanced as far as they could down the Jefferson until they had to abandon their boats. Using horses obtained from Sacagawea's Shoshones, the expedition tackled the Bitterroot Range following an ancient Indian route, the Lolo Trail. Descending the mountains and reaching the Clearwater River, they entrusted their horses to the Nez Percé Indians, built canoes, and floated down the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers. Finally, on November 18, 1805, standing atop a rocky cape, Clark and others watched in astonishment as the giant breakers of the Pacific exploded against the cliffs. They were 4,132 miles removed from that "gentle breeze" off the Wood River 554 days earlier.
In late March 1806, the expedition started home, splitting up at Lolo Creek—Clark returning as they had come and Lewis traveling by a more southeasterly—then reuniting at the falls of the Missouri. On September 23, after twenty-eight months and 8,000 miles, they "descended to the Mississippi, and round to St. Louis, where we arrived at twelve o'clock; and having fired a salute, went on shore and received the heartiest and most hospitable welcome from the whole village" (Brooks, p. 358).
As astutely envisioned by President Jefferson and brilliantly managed and executed by Captains Lewis and Clark, the Corps of Discovery—with its thirty-three permanent members and an honorary thirty-fourth member, Seaman (Lewis's Newfoundland dog)—answered many questions. Ultimately, there was no navigable northwest passage to the Pacific or practical transcontinental channel of commerce. However, returning with numerous maps; specimens and detailed descriptions of plants, animals, and mineral resources; and voluminous information about the native peoples and cultures of the West, the expedition provided data that kept geographers, cartographers, botanists, zoologists, and ethnologists busy for years. Indeed, many of Lewis's original two hundred plant specimens can still be seen today at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
The Lewis and Clark expedition was one of the most dramatic and successful episodes in the annals of world exploration.
By any measure, the Lewis and Clark expedition was one of the most dramatic and successful episodes in the annals of world exploration. It irrevocably altered the struggle for control of the North American continent and heralded a national destiny, setting the stage for explorers, settlers, traders, ranchers, adventurers, and businessmen to carry American civilization to the shores of the Pacific.
Inherent in this destiny was an America that Jefferson characterized as an "empire of liberty," whose spirit entertained "a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens, resulting not from birth but from our actions and their sense of them" (Daniel Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson , University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 231). Ultimately, America's boundless compass would chart its course by "dreams of the future" rather than "the history of the past" (Boorstin, p. 233).
As the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition draws near, America has cause to celebrate man's need to know the world around him and to remember those who best represent Man the Discoverer.