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Origins of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

On January 18, 1803, President Jefferson sent a confidential letter to Congress asking for $2,500 to fund an expedition to the Pacific Ocean. He hoped to establish trade with the Native American people of the West and find a water route to the Pacific. Jefferson also was fascinated by the prospect of what could be learned about the geography of the West, the lives and languages of the Native Americans, the plants and animals, the soil, the rocks, the weather, and how they differed from those in the East. Letter to Congress (A transcription of the original letter) "Gentlemen of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives: "As the continuance of the act for establishing trading houses with the Indian tribes will be under the consideration of the Legislature at its present session, I think it my duty to communicate the views which have guided me in the execution of that act, in order that you may decide on the policy of continuing it, in the present or any other form, or discontinue it altogether, if that shall, on the whole, seem most for the public good. "The Indian tribes residing within the limits of the United States, have, for a considerable time, been growing more and more uneasy at the constant diminution of the territory they occupy, although effected by their own voluntary sales: and the policy has long been gaining strength with them, of refusing absolutely all further sale, on any conditions; insomuch that, at this time, it hazards their friendship, and excites dangerous jealousies and perturbations in their minds to make any overture for the purchase of the smallest portions of their land. A very few tribes only are not yet obstinately in these dispositions. In order peaceably to counteract this policy of theirs, and to provide an extension of territory which the rapid increase of our numbers will call for, two measures are deemed expedient. First: to encourage them to abandon hunting, to apply to the raising stock, to agriculture and domestic manufacture, and thereby prove to themselves that less land and labor will maintain them in this, better than in their former mode of living. The extensive forests necessary in the hunting life, will then become useless, and they will see advantage in exchanging them for the means of improving their farms, and of increasing their domestic comforts. Secondly: to multiply trading houses among them, and place within their reach those things which will contribute more to their domestic comfort, than the possession of extensive, but uncultivated wilds. Experience and reflection will develop to them the wisdom of exchanging what they can spare and we want, for what we can spare and they want. In leading them to agriculture, to manufactures, and civilization; in bringing together their and our settlements, and in preparing them ultimately to participate in the benefits of our governments, I trust and believe we are acting for their greatest good. At these trading houses we have pursued the principles of the act of Congress, which directs that the commerce shall be carried on liberally, and requires only that the capital stock shall not be diminished. We consequently undersell private traders, foreign and domestic, drive them from the competition; and thus, with the good will of the Indians, rid ourselves of a description of men who are constantly endeavoring to excite in the Indian mind suspicions, fears, and irritations towards us. A letter now enclosed, shows the effect of our competition on the operations of the traders, while the Indians, perceiving the advantage of purchasing from us, are soliciting generally, our establishment of trading houses among them. In one quarter this is particularly interesting. The Legislature, reflecting on the late occurrences on the Mississippi, must be sensible how desirable it is to possess a respectable breadth of country on that river, from our Southern limit to the Illinois at least; so that we may present as firm a front on that as on our Eastern border. We possess what is below the Yazoo, and can probably acquire a certain breadth from the Illinois and Wabash to the Ohio; but between the Ohio and Yazoo, the country all belongs to the Chickasaws, friendly tribe within our limits, but the most decided against the alienation of lands. The portion of their country most important for us is exactly that which they do not inhabit. Their settlements are not on the Mississippi, but in the interior country. They have lately shown a desire to become agricultural; and this leads to the desire of buying implements and comforts. In the strengthening and gratifying of these wants, I see the only prospect of planting on the Mississippi itself, the means of its own safety. Duty has required me to submit these views to the judgment of the Legislature; but as their disclosure might embarrass and defeat their effect, they are committed to the special confidence of the two Houses. "While the extension of the public commerce among the Indian tribes, may deprive of that source of profit such of our citizens as are engaged in it, it might be worthy the attention of Congress, in their care of individual as well as of the general interest, to point, in another direction, the enterprise of these citizens, as profitably for themselves, and more usefully for the public. The river Missouri, and the Indians inhabiting it, are not as well known as is rendered desirable by their connexion with the Mississippi, and consequently with us. It is, however, understood, that the country on that river is inhabited by numerous tribes, who furnish great supplies of furs and peltry to the trade of another nation, carried on in a high latitude, through an infinite number of portages and lakes, shut up by ice through a long season. The commerce on that line could bear no competition with that of the Missouri, traversing a moderate climate, offering according to the best accounts, a continued navigation from its source, and possibly with a single portage, from the Western Ocean, and finding to the Atlantic a choice of channels through the Illinois or Wabash, the lakes and Hudson, through the Ohio and Susquehanna, or Potomac or James rivers, and through the Tennessee and Savannah, rivers. An intelligent officer, with ten or twelve chosen men, fit for the enterprise, and willing to undertake it, taken from our posts, where they may be spared without inconvenience, might explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean, have conferences with the natives on the subject of commercial intercourse, get admission among them for our traders, as others are admitted, agree on convenient deposits for an interchange of articles, and return with the information acquired, in the course of two summers. Their arms and accoutrements, some instruments of observation, and light and cheap presents for the Indians, would be all the apparatus they could carry, and with an expectation of a soldier's portion of land on their return, would constitute the whole expense. Their pay would be going on, whether here or there. While other civilized nations have encountered great expense to enlarge the boundaries of knowledge by undertaking voyages of discovery, and for other literary purposes, in various parts and directions, our nation seems to owe to the same object, as well as to its own interests, to explore this, the only line of easy communication across the continent, and so directly traversing our own part of it. The interests of commerce place the principal object within the constitutional powers and care of Congress, and that it should incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent, cannot be but an additional gratification. The nation claiming the territory, regarding this as a literary pursuit, which is in the habit of permitting within its dominions, would not be disposed to view it with jealousy, even if the expiring state of its interests there did not render it a matter of indifference. The appropriation of two thousand five hundred dollars, "for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States," while understood and considered by the Executive as giving the legislative sanction, would cover the undertaking from notice, and prevent the obstructions which interested individuals might otherwise previously prepare in its way."."[[Short Title List | Ford]], 8: 192-202. TH: JEFFERSON Jan. 18. 1803
Confidential Message to Congress
On January 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson addressed a confidential message to Congress in which he requested the appropriation of $2,500 to send an "intelligent officer with ten or twelve chosen men (to) explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean."This section is based on Gaye Wilson, Research Report, 2003. This request, when approved, would become the [[Lewis and Clark Expedition]]. Given Jefferson's keen interest in the American West and his belief that it was integral in the future of the United States, it is surprising that he was two years into his before suggesting government-sponsored exploration. Why, then, in January of 1803 did Jefferson initiate this expedition and give it his continued stewardship, prompting expedition captain, Meriwether Lewis, to refer to him as "the author of our enterprise?" The idea of the "West" was a part of Jefferson's boyhood. He grew up in the Virginia Piedmont at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains when it was still the frontier. In his autobiography Jefferson tells us that his father, Peter Jefferson, was the "third or fourth settler" in the region and that he was a surveyor who defined the southwestern boundary of Virginia. For Jefferson to include these points in a very brief profile, he must have viewed his father's involvement in Virginia's western movement as significant. Through his father, Jefferson came in contact with other men who shared an interest in the [[West]]. Peter Jefferson was a founding member of the Loyal Company, chartered in 1749 to petition for land grants west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1753 the Loyal Company organized an exploratory party that, according to member James Maury, was "to be sent in search of the river Missouri, if that be the right name of it, in order to discover whether it had any communication with the Pacific Ocean." Thomas Walker, who had explored west of the Blue Ridge through the Cumberland Gap into what would become eastern Kentucky, was chosen to lead the party. However, what Maury termed this "grand scheme" had to be abandoned due to a flare of hostilities with the French and their Indian allies. Jefferson was ten years old at the time the expedition was being planned, and he continued to have contact with some of the men involved: Walker would become one of his guardians upon Peter Jefferson's death in 1757, and Maury was his schoolmaster for the two years prior to his entrance into the College of William and Mary. Thus, Jefferson had close ties at an early age with men whose investments in the [[West]] were both real and visionary. The [[Lewis and Clark Expedition]] was not Jefferson's first personal involvement with western exploration. His first overture for a western exploratory party was directed to Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. They had become acquainted during the war when Jefferson was Governor of Virginia and Clark was leading a campaign against the British-held posts along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers on territory that, according to the original colonial charter, was still a part of Virginia. Jefferson supported Clark's campaign, as he feared that if the British established themselves along this western line, they would pose a constant threat and curtail American settlement. In a letter to George Rogers Clark in December 1780, he proposed that if the posts along the western frontier could be secured, "we shall be at leisure to turn our whole force to the rescue of our eastern Country from subjugation," and added that "we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile country." He received criticism for giving too much attention to the western theatre and thus, as some believed, endangering the more settled areas along the eastern seaboard. However, it is generally agreed that Clark's victories against the British along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers gave the United States greater leverage in the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris that concluded the Revolutionary War. The war was not officially concluded before Jefferson began to correspond with George Rogers Clark on a very different topic, that of science. He wrote Clark in December 1781, requesting "teeth of the great animal whose remains are found on the Ohio." Clark promised to try and obtain the "curiosities" requested, and he must have peaked Jefferson's interest in the region even more when he added: "You scarcely ride a day through many parts of the Western (country) but you meet with Some Curious work of Antiquity. . . ." Jefferson responded enthusiastically and made a request that would reappear later in the instructions he would give to Meriwether Lewis in 1803, as he asked Clark for "Descriptions of animals, vegetables, minerals, or other curious things, notes as to the Indians, information of the country between the Mississippi and waters of the South sea &c. &c. will strike your mind as worthy being communicated." It is notable that Jefferson had extended his earlier reference from the "great animals whose remains are found on the Ohio" to "the country between the Missisippi and waters of the South sea." as his thoughts appear to be moving further west into the trans-Mississippi region. Jefferson's approach to Clark to lead an exploratory party in the west was sparked by renewed fears of British colonization. In December 1783 he wrote Clark to thank him for sending "shells and seeds" and expressed a continued hope for bones, teeth, and tusks of the mammoth, but then immediately launched into a different request: "I find they have subscribed a very large sum of money in England for exploring the country from the Mississippi to California. They pretend it is only to promote knolege. I am afraid they have thoughts of colonizing into that quarter." Jefferson asked, if the money could be raised for exploration, "How would you like to lead such a party?" Clark declined, primarily for financial reasons. A number of years would pass before, in subsequent correspondence with Jefferson, he would recommend his youngest brother, William, as knowledgeable of the western territory and "well qualified almost for any business." Jefferson's fears of North American colonization by a major European power were aroused again in 1785 when he learned that France planned to enter Pacific maritime exploration under naval captain, the Comte de La Perouse. Jefferson, living in [[Paris]] and serving as United States Minister to France, wrote Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay: "You have doubtless seen in the papers that this court was sending two vessels into the South sea, under the conduct of a Capt. Peyrouse. They give out that the object is merely for the improvement of our knowledge of the geography of that part of the globe. And certain it is that they carry men of eminence in different branches of science." Yet Jefferson was suspicious that they might have some other design, "perhaps that of colonizing on the Western coast of America, or perhaps only to establish one or more factories there for the fur trade." He went on to speculate, "We may be little interested in either of these objects. But we are interested in another, that is, to know whether they are perfectly weaned from the desire of possessing continental colonies in America." France had lost her holdings on the continent of North America with the conclusion of the French and Indian wars, fought as the Seven Years War in Europe. Louisiana and the port of New Orleans were ceded to Spain, while Britain gained control of Canada. Perhaps spurred by the La Perouse voyage, Jefferson, while still in [[Paris]], supported a young American named John Ledyard in a plan to cross Siberia, obtain water passage to the coast of North America, then explore from west to east. Ledyard had sailed with British Captain James Cook and had written and published an account of his experience, A Journal of Captain Cook's lapt Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson's contribution to this plan was to gain permission from the Russian empress, Catherine, through the Russian ambassador to France and her special correspondent, the Baron Grimm, for Ledyard's travel through Russia. The empress refused, yet Ledyard undertook the venture anyway. He was arrested within 200 miles of Kamchatka, escorted to the Polish-Russian border, and advised not to re-enter Russia. Jefferson described Ledyard as a "person of ingenuity and information," but with "too much imagination." Following his failed attempt at North American exploration via Russia, Ledyard left Europe to explore the Nile to its source, promising Jefferson that his next journey would be to Kentucky to explore west to the Pacific. Jefferson's fears that Ledyard would never return from Africa proved true, as he died there in March 1789. After returning to the United States, Jefferson had a more promising opportunity at western exploration, when in 1793 he and fellow members of the [[American Philosophical Society]] engaged a French botanist named Andre Michaux "to explore the country along the Missouri, & thence Westwardly to the Pacific Ocean." Jefferson organized the subscription and with input from other [[American Philosophical Society|APS]] members drafted a set of instructions for Michaux outlining the objectives for the trip west. However, this expedition began to unravel before reaching the Mississippi River, when French Minister Genet recalled Michaux. There were indications, though unclear, of intentions of political intrigues against the Spanish. What remained from this truncated enterprise were the instructions that Jefferson had prepared. They appeared again later as the core of the expanded and detailed instructions given to [[Meriwether Lewis]]. In Jefferson's first inaugural address, he described "A rising nation spread over a wide and fruitful land . . . advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye." These words imply a vision of expanding empire, yet it was still far from inevitable that someday the United States would extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific. To the contrary, maritime exploration of the Pacific rim of North America was being led by major European powers, Spain claimed a vast amount of the southwestern and trans-Mississippi west along with the Floridas, and England was firmly established in Canada. The western boundary of the United States had been fixed by the Treaty of Paris at the Mississippi River. This was still the geopolitical structure as Jefferson prepared his second annual message to Congress in the autumn of 1802. It was in the draft of this message that he first included his request for an appropriation to fund western exploration. As was his custom, he circulated the draft among his Cabinet members for their comments, and it was Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin who responded in detail. Gallatin sent a lengthy letter to Jefferson and on "Point 8, Missouri," he suggested that, "As it contemplates an expedition out of our own territory, to be a proper object for a confidential message." However, he affirmed his own interest in western geography and felt "warmly confident in this plan," then continued with advice on two other points: "1st Louisiana, which might perhaps be removed for the confidential message, but if left in this, I had rather place the taking by the French on hypothetical ground. . . but this being the most delicate part of the speech, will, I presume, be the subject of a cabinet consultation. - Indians who, it seems to me, occupy too much space in the message in proportion to the importance of the subject. . . . On the other hand it might be worth once more to remind Congress that the trading houses law will expire on the 4th of March." Jefferson heeded Gallatin's advice. His December 15, 1802, message to Congress included only one vague and understated sentence regarding Louisiana, discussed the topic of Indians very briefly, and made no mention of an appropriation for an exploratory party. Then he drafted a confidential message to be delivered to Congress on January 18, 1803. In the opening paragraph of his message, Jefferson reminded Congress that in the session they must consider continuing the act for establishing trading houses with the Indians and for about the first third of the message outlined the importance of this trade and the importance of obtaining more land from the Indians along the Mississippi. Due to the "late occurrences on the Mississippi" Jefferson felt it "desirable" to secure the land along this border so that, according to Jefferson, "we may present as firm a front on that as our Eastern border." The "late occurrences on the Mississippi" were a growing concern. Since Jefferson's inauguration in March 1801 there had been rumors that Spain was prepared to cede the port of New Orleans and the vast territory of Louisiana back to France. Jefferson wrote a long and anxious letter to United States Minister to France Robert Livingston in April 1802 to caution, "Every eye in the U.S. is now fixed on this affair of Louisiana. Perhaps nothing since the revolutionary war has produced more uneasy sensations through the body of the nation." Following the Revolutionary War, Americans had continued their western migration in even greater numbers and, with the growth of settlement and commerce in the trans-Appalachian region, navigation of the Mississippi and use of the port of New Orleans became increasingly important. Earlier conflicts with Spain had been resolved with the Pinckney Treaty of 1795, which granted the United States the "right of deposit," which allowed Americans to use New Orleans as a point of storage and to transfer their cargo to oceangoing vessels without tariff. Jefferson did not perceive the presence of Spain in New Orleans a threat, and in his letter to Livingston wrote "Spain might have retained it quietly for years. Her pacific dispositions, her feeble state, would induce her to increase our facilities there, so that her possession of the place would be hardly felt by us, and it would not, perhaps, be very long before some circumstance might arise, which might make the cession of it to us the price of something of more worth to her." This thread of Jefferson's geopolitical thinking was not new. In 1786 he projected that "Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North and South is to be peopled," and went on to say, "We should not press too hard on the Spaniards. Those countries cannot be in better hands. My fear is that they are too feeble to hold them till our population can be sofficiently advanced to gain from them piece by piece." Now with the probable cession of Louisiana to France, Jefferson's fears were becoming a reality. France, under First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, was far more intimidating. The tension rose to crisis level in October 1802, when the Spanish Intendant of New Orleans suddenly revoked the American right of deposit. This caused considerable agitation among Americans dependent upon the Mississippi as a waterway for transporting goods. To quell the hostile feelings and threats of an armed march on New Orleans that could potentially lead to war, Jefferson appointed James [[James Monroe|Monroe]] as Minister Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary with "discretionary powers" to join Livingston in [[Paris]] and negotiate with France and Spain if needed. [[James Monroe|Monroe]] owned a large tract of land in Kentucky and had spoken out on behalf of the rights of these western territories. This made him a popular figure in the [[West]], and, as Jefferson noted, he possessed, "the unlimited confidence of the administration and of the western people." His charge was to negotiate for the purchase of the port of New Orleans and the provinces of East and West Florida, which Jefferson wrongly assumed were being transferred to France as well. [[James Monroe|Monroe's]] appointment was presented to Congress for approval exactly a week before the confidential message requesting funds for an exploratory party up the Mississippi. It was, then, "the late occurrences on the Mississippi" that prompted Jefferson to suggest not only solidifying the United States' western border along the Mississippi River, and brought him to the main point of his confidential message, the exploration of an alternate waterway through the West. He counseled that the Missouri River offered, "according to the best accounts, a continued navigation from its source, and possibly with a single portage, from the Western Ocean." He went on to suggest that to the Atlantic there were, "a choice of channels" naming the major eastern rivers. Jefferson appears to have envisioned a transcontinental waterway that opened the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean by linking the Missouri with a river to the east. But first the Missouri must be explored. The British envoy to the United States, Edward Thornton, reported his observations to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lord Hawkesbury, in March 1803. He had noted that, "The President has for some years past had it in view to set on foot an expedition entirely of a scientific nature for exploring the Western Continent of America by the route of the Great River Missouri. He noted as well, "The apprehended occupation of Louisiana by the French seems to have accelerated the determination of the President, as he thinks it certain that on their arrival they will instantly set on foot enterprises of a similar nature." Thornton was perceptive that the anticipated occupation of much of the West by France pushed Jefferson's exploration agenda, but Jefferson still held suspicions of British intentions for North America as well. Within the confidential message Jefferson made another reference that bears on his request for western exploration. He begins by stating that the Indians along the Missouri are not as well known as "desirable" and goes on to say that they "furnish great supplies of furs and peltry to the trade of another nation, carried on in a high latitude." The inference was to the British fur trading companies headquartered around Montreal. Jefferson's [[American Philosophical Society]] colleague, Caspar Wistar, inquired in a letter dated January 8, 1802, "Have you seen McKenzie's account of his journeys across the Continent and to the Northern Ocean?" Alexander Mackenzie was a Scottish-born British subject active in the Canadian fur trade. In 1793, the same year as the abortive Michaux expedition, he led a party from Fort Chipewyan in present-day Alberta across the continent to the Pacific Northwest and back. (His previous expedition of 1789 ended unsuccessfully at the Arctic Ocean.) Upon reaching the Pacific he took vermillion, mixed it with grease, and wrote on a large rock, "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninetythree." He returned to Fort Chipewyan then on to Montreal with valuable sea-otter pelts, which underscored the commercial possibilities, and in 1801 published his journals in London. The key to his achievement was that he had accomplished this "by land" across the North American continent rather than through maritime exploration. In his published journals. Mackenzie encouraged British settlement through the continent and concluded his account: "By opening this intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and forming regular establishments through the interior, and at both extremes . . .the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained. . . . Such would he the field for commercial enterprise, and incalculable would be the produce of it, when supported by the operations of that credit and capital which Great Britain so pre-eminently possesses." Jefferson's first overture to George Rogers Clark in 1783 came from fear of British encroachment: "I am afraid they have thoughts of colonizing into that quarter." His 1785 letter to John Jay in regard to the exploratory voyages of La Perouse expressed reservations as to whether France was "perfectly weaned from the desire of possessing continental colonies in America." Now in his first term as President he had to contend with two powerful European nations potentially threatening the westward growth of the United States. The confidential message of January 18, 1803, contains just a passing reference to another motivation of or a western expedition, that it should incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent, cannot be but an additional gratification." The instructions Jefferson later drafted for [[Meriwether Lewis]] reflect clearly the importance Jefferson placed on the scientific aspect of the expedition. British Minister Edward Thornton had remarked of Jefferson that, "He is ambitious in his character (as) a man of letters and of science, of distinguishing his Presidency by a discovery." Certainly Jefferson held ambitions as a man of science, and as President he clearly understood the importance of western exploration to the geopolitical and commercial future of the United States. But it was the apprehension of being contained and overshadowed by England and France in the North American West that in January 1803 provoked him to act upon a long-held dream. It was Thomas Jefferson's proposal for a western expedition, which he crafted and then turned over to two very capable men, [[Meriwether Lewis]] and William Clark, which began an era of exploration that pulled the West into the future of the United States.

See Also

  • [[Louisiana Purchase]]
  • [[Lewis and Clark Expedition]]
  • [[Preparations for the Lewis and Clark Expedition]]

[[Category:Science and Exploration]]


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