Well before the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson had realized the need for more knowledge of the vast lands to the west of the settled United States. As early as November, 1802, he had inquired of the Spanish minister the official reaction of his country to a suggested investigating party of Americans passing through the Louisiana Territory (which was then Spanish, though, everyone knew, it was about to be given back to France) up to the source of the Missouri River.
Jefferson’s purposes were multiple. In the first place, it was wise, he recognized, for residents of the United States to become more knowledgeable about the vast and largely terra incognita that lay westward to the distant sea, especially since this land was claimed by foreign nations who through its use could wreak great damage to the young republic in case of war. In the second place, information about these lands could always be useful. In the third place, although Jefferson played down this side of his purpose, there was a good possibility that much of the rich trade in furs could be wrested from the Canadian monopoly. In the fourth place, there was great concern over the need for that will-o’-the-wisp that had long haunted people on the eastern seaboard impatient to get to the Western Ocean, a water route across the land, with a minimum of portages; Jefferson conjectured that by going up to the mouth of the Missouri travelers could transfer their loads to a river running to the Pacific Ocean with only one portage, and thus cut immensely the time and expense of going around the Cape by sea. In the last place, there was great need to reach the Columbia River and help establish beyond doubt the authority of the United States on that river basin, the supremacy over which was still in doubt.
With the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson’s plans could be put into motion. For his purpose he chose Captain Meriwether Lewis of the First Infantry, who was at that time serving as Jefferson’s private secretary. Jefferson’s instructions were practically general: “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it’s course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” Numerous side duties and explorations were also to be undertaken. For his aide, Lewis chose William Clark, the youngest brother of George Rogers Clark, who had seen some Indian fighting. Lewis was twenty-nine years old; Clark was thirty-three.
Each man was to complement the other in the enterprise. Both were experienced as rivermen, though Clark was the better. Clark was an engineer, geographer, and frontiersman, and he had had greater skill at handling delicate negotiations with Indians. Lewis was the diplomat and had been trained in botany, zoology, and celestial observation. Both were highly intelligent. Both were to share equally in the responsibility and command of the expedition. In fact, in few expeditions of this complexity and length have two men worked so harmoniously and helpfully together, each ready and able to fill in the speciality of the other when occasion demanded, as it frequently did. Likewise, seldom have two co-leaders been apparently so free of envy and rivalry in their achievements.
The expedition consisted of the two leaders, fourteen soldiers, “nine young men from Kentucky,” plus two French-Canadians engaged as voyageurs, an interpreter, a hunter, and a Negro slave named York, owned by Clark. Never did the group consist of more than fifty persons, though the personnel in the lower ranks changed somewhat. The company, which trained during the winter, was camped on the east bank of the Mississippi close to St. Louis when on March 9, 1804, Louisiana was transferred to the United States. The first entries in the Journals are dated in May, 1804.
Journals were kept by various members of the expedition: by both...
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