The Journey of the Corps of Discovery


Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Copyright © 1997 GeoSystems Global Corp.All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-679-45450-0


Look Forward to Distant Times

However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole ... continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms and by similar laws.

First Inaugural Address

WHEN THOMAS JEFFERSON became President in 1801, two out of every three Americans lived within fifty miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Only four roads crossed theAllegheny Mountains. The United States ended on theeastern banks of the Mississippi River.

To the southwest, stretching from Texas to California, lay New Spain. England controlled Canada; its traders were expanding southward into what is now Minnesota and the Dakotas for valuable furs, and its ships were dominating the Pacific Northwest. Russia, with outposts in Alaska, would soon erect a fort on the northern coast of California. And from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains was the vast French territory called Louisiana, where Napoleon Bonaparte hoped to reestablish an empire in the New World.

But while many nations dreamed of controlling the West's destiny, they still knew very little about the place itself. Spanish conquistadors had explored the Southwest. French and Spanish fur traders had ventured partway up the Missouri River, and the British had visited the Mandan Indians in what is now North Dakota. Ships from various countries were plying the northern coast of the Pacific to trade for sea otter pelts, which commanded exorbitant prices in China. Robert Gray, an American sea captain, had discovered and mapped the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, followed by his English counterpart George Vancouver. And in 1793 the Scotsman Alexander Mackenzie had crossed Canada by land, and then had urged Great Britain to take over the entire North American fur business by establishing a string of forts and trading posts across the continent.

For those who coveted its fabled treasures, however, the bulk of the West remained an immense blank--a void on their maps and an awesome gap in their knowledge, filled only by rumor and conjecture.

No one was more anxious to change that than the new President, Thomas Jefferson. Though he had never traveled more than fifty miles west of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Jefferson had always been fascinated by the West. His personal library at Monticello contained more books about the region than any other library in the world.

Some of them told him that woolly mammoths and other prehistoric animals still roamed there. Others described erupting volcanoes and a mountain of pure salt, 180 miles long and 45 miles wide. On the basis of his reading, Jefferson believed that Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains might be the continent's highest and that somewhere in the West was a tribe of blue-eyed Indians who spoke Welsh, descendants of a fabled Prince Madoc who supposedly had settled in the New World three centuries before Columbus.

Above all, like everyone else at the time, Jefferson believed in the Northwest Passage--a river, or a series of rivers connected by a short portage,that would cross the western mountains, make direct trade with the Orient easier and more profitable, and unlock the wealth of North America. Whichever nation discovered the Northwest Passage, and then controlled it, Jefferson believed, would control the destiny of the continent

For more than a century, the Spanish, French, and British had been searching for the Passage. Three times, Jefferson himself had tried to organize American expeditions to find it--each time in vain. In 1783 he had attempted to interest George Rogers Clark, the revolutionary war hero, in a privately financed exploration. Nothing came of it. Three years later, as minister to France, Jefferson had met John Ledyard, a Connecticut Yankee who dreamed of achieving fame and wealth by being the first to cross the continent. Ledyard's plan was to go through Russia to Alaska, then walk from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi, taking with him only two huntings dogs, an Indian peace pipe, and a hatchet to chop firewood. "He is a person of ingenuity and information," Jefferson wrote at the time. "Unfortunately, he has too much imagination." Nonetheless, Jefferson lent his name and some money, and Ledyard set out. But the adventure ended abruptly when Catherine the Great had him arrested in Siberia.

As Secretary of State under President George Washington, Jefferson and the members of the American Philosophical Society had contracted the French botanist Andre Michaux in 1793 for an expedition to "seek for and pursue that route which shall form the shortest and most convenient communication between the higher parts of the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean." Only $128.50 was raised (Washington donated $25.00 and Jefferson $12.50), and Michaux never made it past the Ohio River.

Now, as President, Jefferson decided to try once more.

January 18th, 1803. Confidential. Gentlemen of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.

The river Missouri, & the Indians inhabiting it, are not as well known as is rendered desireable.... It is however understood that the country on that river is inhabited by numerous tribes, who furnish great supplies of furs....

An intelligent officer with ten or twelve chosen men ... might explore the whole line, even to the Western ocean.... The appropriation of two thousand five hundred dollars ... would cover the undertaking.


In a secret message to Congress to win its support, Jefferson emphasized the potential commercial benefits of the expedition. But he told the ambassadors from France, Spain, and England--whose territories would be crossed--that it would be a purely scientific expedition. The British and French ambassadors wrote out passports assuring safe conduct. Distrustful of American motives, the Spanish declined, but Jefferson simply ignored their objections.

At last, in early 1803, Jefferson's persistent dream of exploring the West--for the sake of science, commerce, and the national interest--seemed about to be fulfilled.

Capt. Lewis is brave, prudent, habituated to the woods, & familiar with Indian manners & character. He is not regularly educated, but he possesses a great mass of accurate observation on all the subjects of nature which present themselves.

to Dr. Benjamin Rush
February 28, 1803

To lead what he called his Corps of Discovery, the President turned to his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis. Lewis had grown up in Jefferson's ownAlbemarle County, the serious-minded son of a planter who had died during the Revolution, when Lewis was only five. By age sixteen, he wasresponsible for the welfare of his mother, brothers, and sisters. At eighteen, he eagerly volunteered for Jefferson's ill-fated Michaux expedition, but was turned down.

Instead, the young Lewis had joined the regular army on the frontiers of western Pennsylvania and Ohio and made a name for himself as a promising officer before Jefferson brought him to Washington in 1801. There, as the new President's sole aide, he drew up a list of army commanders who could be expected to be loyal to the new administration, copied presidential documents, ran errands, and set up residence in what is now the East Room of the White House, the building the two men occupied, Jefferson wrote a daughter, "like two mice in a church."

During his two years of daily association with Jefferson,Lewis had also become intimately acquainted with the President's far-ranging interests in the West--its geography, its plants and animals, its people and their habits, and its potential for the young republic.

Some considered Lewis an unlikely choice to command such an important expedition. "Stiff and without grace," an acquaintance called him, "bowlegged, awkward, formal, almost without flexibility." Levi Lincoln, the Attorney General, worried that the twenty-eight-year-old Lewis might be too impulsive, take too many risks, and endanger this "enterprise of national consequence." Jefferson himself had noted occasional "depressions of the mind" in Lewis (inherited, the President speculated, from his father) but still considered him the best man for the job.

To prepare for the long journey, Lewis was dispatched that spring to Philadelphia, the home of the American Philosophical Society and the young nation's center of scientific learning. On his way, he stopped at the arsenal in Harpers Ferry for a supply of tomahawks and knives and fifteen of the newest weapons being produced there: prototypes of a short-barreled, .54-caliber rifle that was soon to be standard issue for the army. For nearly three weeks, he studied celestial observations in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, under Andrew Ellicott, an eminent astronomer-surveyor.

In Philadelphia, another month was consumed while Lewis was tutored by four scientists at the University of Pennsylvania. Benjamin Smith Barton instructed him on describing and preserving botanical specimens; RobertPatterson added more lessons in determining latitude and longitude; Caspar Wistar, an anatomist and the foremost authority on fossils, explained how to search for signs of ancient beasts, some of which were believed to still be living in the West. And for advice on medicine, Lewis turned to the nation's most esteemed physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush. The doctor assembled a medical kit for the explorer and lectured him on its uses, with heavy emphasis on the preferred treatment for most ills of the time: bloodletting, which Rush favored for everything from fevers to dislocated bones.

Besides these crash courses in science, Lewis spent his time in Philadelphia acquiring supplies--and going through most of the $2,500 Congress had appropriated. He bought compasses, quadrants, a telescope, and a chronometer (costing $250) needed to calculate longitude. For camp supplies, he purchased 150 yards of cloth to be oiled and sewn into tents and sheets; pliers, chisels, handsaws, hatchets, and whetstones; an iron corn mill and two dozen tablespoons; mosquito curtains, 10 1/2 pounds of fishing hooks and fishing lines, 12 pounds of soap--and 193 pounds of "portable soup," a thick paste concocted by boiling down beef, eggs, and vegetables, to be used if no other food was available on the trail.

Some $669.50 went for presents for the Indians he expected to encounter: twelve dozen pocket mirrors, 4,600 sewing needles, silk ribbons, ivory combs, handkerchiefs, yards of bright-colored cloth, 130 rolls of tobacco, tomahawks that doubled as pipes, 8 brass kettles, vermilion face paint, 33 pounds of tiny beads of assorted colors, plus much more.

For the men he expected to accompany him, Lewis bought 45 flannel shirts for $71.10; coats, frocks, shoes, woolen pants, blankets, knapsacks, and stockings; powder horns, knives, 500 rifle flints, 420 pounds of sheet lead for bullets, and 176 pounds of gunpowder packed in 52 lead canisters that themselves could be melted down into bullets when empty. With his own money, he purchased a novelty item to impress the Indians he might meet: a long-barreled rifle that fired its bullet by compressed air (like a BB gun) rather than by flint, spark, and powder.

By mid-June, as the army began transporting the 3,500 pounds of supplies to the Ohio River, Lewis was ready to return to Washington. He had decided he needed a co-commander, and he knew exactly which one he wanted.

June 19th, 1803
Dear Clark,

My friend ... If there is anything in this enterprise, which would induce you to participate with me in it's fatiegues, it's dangers and its honors, believe me there is no man on earth with whom I should feel equal pleasure in sharing them as with yourself.


William Clark, born in Virginia, had spent most of his life on the Kentucky and Ohio frontiers, where he had learned both to fight and to negotiate with Indians, to build forts in the wilderness, and to find his way through unknown territory. He was, one acquaintance said, "of solid and promising parts, and as brave as Caesar."

He was four years older than Lewis, whom he had once commanded in the army; less formally educated, but with more practical experience and a steadier yet more outgoing personality--a friend, but also a perfect complement in both training and temperament to the man who was inviting Clark to make history with him.

In 1783 his older brother had reluctantly turned down Jefferson's first proposal to explore the West. Now William Clark was being offered the same opportunity, and he leapt at the chance.

Dear Lewis,

This is an undertaking fraited with many difeculties, but My friend I do assure you that no man lives whith whome I would perfur to undertake Such a Trip.


Lewis's invitation broke with all military protocol by proposing a dual command of the expedition and promising Clark a captain's commission the same as his own. The War Department refused,and when Jefferson--who always considered it Lewis's expedition--did not intervene, Clark swallowed his disappointmentand agreed to continue.

But Lewis insisted that he and Clark keep the matter secret, and for the next two and a half years Second Lieutenant Clark would be referred to as "captain" and would share every decision equally with his younger but higher-ranking friend.

To Captain Meriwether Lewis.

The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean ... may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.


While Lewis had been studying science, buying supplies, and recruiting Clark, Thomas Jefferson had also been busy preparing for the start of his pet project. He drafted andsigned an extraordinary letter of credit for Lewis to carry along, promising the full faith of the government to repay anyone whose goods or services might be needed in an emergency. Concerned about the possibility of the wrong people intercepting Lewis's reports from territory claimed by foreign powers, Jefferson devised a complicated, secret code for him to use.

And the President also wrote out page after page of precise instructions for the expedition "after your departure from the United States": Find the Northwest Passage and the most direct route to the Pacific; draw maps; make detailed observations of the soils, minerals, crops, animals, and weather; meet the Indians and record their languages, populations, religions, customs, food, clothing, and willingness to trade with the Americans. In his lengthy directions, Jefferson overlooked nothing. He even suggested that one copy of Lewis's notes be kept on birch bark "as less liable to injury from the damp than common paper"--an instruction apparently never followed, since birch was not common along the route the explorers would take.

But on July 4, 1803, the day before Lewis left Washington for the West, news from Europe was proclaimed that dramatically expanded the expedition's importance, adding to its already long list of duties and making any secrecy unnecessary.

Washington City. Monday, July 4. OFFICIAL. The Executive have received official information that a Treaty was signed on the 30th of April, between the ministers ... of the United States and ... the French, by which the United States have obtained full right to and sovereignty over New Orleans, and the whole of Louisiana.

National Intelligencer

In 1802 Jefferson had sent ministers to France, offering to buy New Orleans, the vital port at the mouth of the Mississippi River. But instead, Napoleon Bonaparte, preparing for another war with England, had made a surprising counteroffer: he would sell the entire Louisiana Territory, all 820,000 square miles, to the United States for $15 million. It was a sum nearly twice the federal budget, and although he questioned his own constitutional authority in doing so, Jefferson readily agreed. For just three cents an acre, the President more than doubled the size of his country with a single stroke of his pen.

Not everyone--particularly Jefferson's political opponents--considered the Louisiana Purchase much of a bargain. "A greatwaste, a wilderness unpeopled with any beings except wolves and wanderingIndians," said the Boston Columbian Centinel. "We are to give money of which we have too little, for land of which we already have too much." Federalist Joshua Green called it a "shameful gross speculation, pretending to bring we knew not what, situated we knew not where, and [with] no more right to it than ... to land in the moon."

In Paris, however, Napoleon predicted that the lands west of the Mississippi would "strengthen forever" the young United States. "I have just given to England," he added, a "rival that will sooner or later humble her pride."

At least on paper, half of the West now belonged to the United States. But as Lewis left Washington on July 5 to join Clark and proceed to the eastern shore of the Mississippi to make final preparations for their long journey, no one knew for sure what Thomas Jefferson had just bought.