America’s Long Journey: Lewis and Clark

In 1803, as we shall see, Jefferson bought the world’s largest pig in a poke. He needed New Orleans, because our western farmers had to have guaranteed access to the mouth of the Mississippi for their produce. Napoleon, for reasons of his own, threw in the whole Louisiana territory, and the American envoys snapped it up. But what – besides the vital access to New Orleans – had we bought? The president sent Lewis and Clark to find out.

Meriwether Lewis, not quite 30 when the expedition began, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, not many miles from Monticello. When Jefferson entered the White House, he hired Lewis as a confidential secretary, and in 1803 chose him to lead the expedition, knowing him to be a skilled hunter and outdoorsman, with a lifelong passion for natural history. Once Jefferson had decided on Lewis to head the expedition, he had him instructed in medicinal cures by physician Benjamin Rush and the use of navigational instruments by astronomer Andrew Ellicott, and he gave him access to the extensive library of books at Monticello on North American geography.

William Clark, three years older than Lewis (and one of his commanding officers when they were both in the Army), was also born in Virginia, a younger brother of George Rogers Clark, who became the highest ranking American officer on the northwestern frontier. Beginning in 1789, William served with a number of militia and military units, and at age 24, he played a critical role at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in 1794, which successfully ended the Northwest Indian War. Clark exercised equal authority during the mission, concentrating on drawing maps, managing supplies, and hunting for game.

Remarkable men, whose life stories are worth a much closer look than they can receive here. Jefferson, explaining why the supposedly scientific expedition was not being headed by a scientist, said: “It was impossible to find a character who to a complete science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods & a familiarity with the Indian manners and character, requisite for this undertaking. All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has.”

True enough, but there was more to it than that. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, Americans knew nothing about the area west of North Dakota except that the upper Missouri seemed to flow from the reported Rocky Mountains, and that on the other side of the Rockies the Columbia River (discovered in 1792) entered the Pacific. The expedition was tasked with exploring and mapping the territory, finding a practical route across it, and establishing an American presence on the Pacific, goals Jefferson preferred not to state where they could be overheard by foreign powers. Alexander Mackenzie’s book Voyages from Montreal (1801), which he had read in 1802, had convinced him of the importance of anticipating Britain in securing the Columbia River territory, and the best way to do so would be to document a prior American presence.

He charged the expedition thus: “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.”

And, that’s what they did. They went up the Missouri River, and spent the winter of 1804–05 in a camp they built in what is now North Dakota, in Mandan territory. Here they met Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trapper, and his young Shoshone wife, Sacagawea. When Spring came, Charbonneau, with Sacagawea, accompanied the expedition as translator. They journeyed to the Missouri headwaters, crossed the Continental Divide, and took to canoes to descend the Clearwater, the Snake and the Columbia. For its second winter, they camped at Fort Clatsop on the Columbia, at the site of present-day Astoria, Oregon. They passed a hard winter, short of food and many of them sick, but by late March, 1806, they were on their way home. They returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806.

Lewis and Clark met every objective set them. They reached the Pacific, mapped and established their presence, established diplomatic relations and trade with at least two dozen tribes (receiving help from most of them, though coming close to armed clashes with the Sioux), drew about 140 maps — the first accurate maps of the area they travelled through — and gained a general understanding of the geography of the Northwest. They documented more than 200 plants and animals that were new to science, and recorded and noted at least 72 native tribes. All this with only one man dead of disease. By any measure it was a success, a tribute to good leadership, thorough preparation, a decent amount of tact in dealing with natives. They had a bit of luck, too. But luck, Louis Pasteur later said, follows the prepared mind, and prepared they certainly were. All that they were tasked with, they accomplished, and more.

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