The western frontier in Thomas Jefferson's lifetime moved from the nearby Appalachian Mountains during his childhood to the Pacific Ocean during his presidency. Although Jefferson's travels took him only as far west as Falling Spring Falls, Virginia, near the present West Virginia border, he became one of America's strongest advocates for western exploration. 

Jefferson's initial overture for a western exploratory party was directed to Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. He began a December 1783 letter to Clark with the two topics that pulled his thoughts westward: science and politics. He thanked Clark for sending him shells and seeds and assured him that he would be pleased to have as many bones, teeth, and tusks of the mammoth as Clark might be able to find. Within the same paragraph, Jefferson then revealed his apprehension at the rumor that money was being raised in England for exploration between the Mississippi and the Pacific, fearing the actual intent was colonization. Jefferson wondered, if money could be raised in this country for western exploration, "How would you like to lead such a party?"[1]

Clark declined Jefferson's request for financial reasons. He offered advice, however, on how to best proceed among the Indian peoples. As a hero of the western theater of the Revolution, Clark  was quite knowledgeable of the American Indians of the northwest territory.[2] Jefferson would store away Clark's advice for future use. In later correspondence, Clark recommended his youngest brother, William, as also knowledgeable of the Indian territory and "well quallified almost for any business."[3]

While in Paris as minister to France, Jefferson joined in a plan for an American explorer named John Ledyard to cross Russia, obtain water passage to some point on the North American coast, and explore from the Pacific eastward. Jefferson supported the venture, but noted that despite Ledyard's ingenuity and information, "Unfortunately he has too much imagination."[4] Having embarked on his trip across Russia, Ledyard was arrested within 200 miles of Kamchatka, accused of being a French spy, escorted to the Polish border, and charged not to set foot within Russian territory again.

Podcast: Those Other Western Expeditions

Everyone knows the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But it wasn't the first expedition to explore the American West that Jefferson promoted or devised. And it wasn't the last.

A more promising endeavor was initiated by Jefferson and fellow members of the American Philosophical Society in 1793. They enlisted French botanist André Michaux "to explore the country along the Missouri, & thence Westwardly to the Pacific ocean."[5] Jefferson organized the subscription to finance the expedition, and even though the undertaking was not under government sponsorship, he apprised President Washington,[6] who offered to "readily add my mite" to the project.[7] Jefferson's instructions to Michaux on behalf of the Society reiterated the objective of finding the shortest route to the Pacific, with equal importance given to the gathering of geographic and scientific data. But the expedition began to unravel before reaching the Mississippi River, as it became apparent that Michaux was involved in a French plot to gather support against the Spanish settlements west of the Mississippi. An important remnant of this truncated expedition was Jefferson's written set of instructions to Michaux, which would reappear in a more detailed form when delivered later to Meriwether Lewis.

These failed attempts undoubtedly added to Jefferson's store of information on western exploration, and when circumstances placed him in a key position to act, he was prepared to do so quickly and decisively. In his first inaugural address in 1801, Jefferson envisioned "[a] rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, ... advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye."[8] Less than two years later, on January 18, 1803, he would deliver a confidential message to Congress outlining a plan for exploring to the "Western Ocean," and requesting an appropriation of $2,500 for what would become the Lewis and Clark Expedition.[9] In May 1804, as Lewis and Clark were poised to begin pushing westward along the Missouri River, Jefferson must have felt more confidence in seeing his western desideratum fulfilled, writing: "[W]e shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this great country: those who come after us will extend the ramifications as they become acquainted with them, and fill up the canvas we begin."[10]

-Gaye Wilson, 2000. Originally published as Jefferson and the West: A Chronology, in Monticello Newsletter, 11 (Winter 2000).

Further Sources


  1. ^ Jefferson to Clark, December 4, 1783, in PTJ, 6:371. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Clark to Jefferson, February 8, 1784, in PTJ, 15:609-10. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ Clark to Jefferson, December 12, 1802, in PTJ, 39:141. For a partial transcription of Clark's letter, see James Alton James, The Life of George Rogers Clark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929), 460-61.
  4. ^ Jefferson to Charles Thomson, September 20, 1787, in PTJ, 12:160.  Transcription available at Founders Online.
  5. ^ American Philosophical Society’s Instructions to André Michaux, [ca. April 30, 1793], in PTJ, 25:624-26. The instructions were written entirely in Jefferson's hand. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ Jefferson to Washington, January 22, 1793, in PTJ, 25:85. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  7. ^ Washington to Jefferson, January 22, 1793, in PTJ, 25:85. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  8. ^ First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801, in PTJ, 33:148. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  9. ^ Jefferson to the Senate and the House of Representatives, January 18, 1803, in PTJ, 39:350-53. Transcription available at "Jefferson's Confidential Letter to Congress."
  10. ^ Jefferson to William Dunbar, May 25, 1805, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.