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Political Origins of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

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."1 Jefferson hoped to establish trade with the Native American people of the West and to find a water route to the Pacific. He 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 the natural world westward differed from that in the East.

The President's 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 first term 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 the Piedmont 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.2 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 that river Missouri, if that be the right name of it, in order to discover whether it had any such 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. What Maury termed this "grand scheme" had to be abandoned, however, due to a flare of hostilities with the French and their Indian allies.3

Jefferson was ten years old at the time that the Loyal Company's 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 Jefferson's 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 a Revolutionary War hero, George Rogers Clark. The two men 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 written in December 1780, Jefferson proposed that if the posts along the western frontier could be secured, "we shall be at leizure 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."4 Governor Jefferson 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. It is generally agreed, however, 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."5 Clark promised to try and obtain the "curiosities" requested, and he must have piqued Jefferson's interest in the region even more when he added: "You scarcely ride a day through many parts of the Western Cuntry but you meet with Some Curious work of Antiquity...."6 Jefferson responded enthusiastically and made a request that would reappear in the instructions he gave 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 Missisipi and waters of the South sea &c. &c. will strike your mind as worthy being communicated."7 It is notable that Jefferson had extended his earlier reference from the "great animal 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 Missisipi to California. They pretend it is only to promote knolege. I am afraid they have thoughts of colonising into that quarter." Jefferson asked, if the money could be raised for exploration, "How would you like to lead such a party?"8

Clark declined, primarily for financial reasons.9 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 quallified almost for any business."10 

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 knowlege 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 colonising 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."11 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 Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.12 Jefferson's contribution to this plan was to seek 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.13 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.14 Jefferson described Ledyard as a "person of ingenuity and information," but with "too much imagination."15 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 André Michaux "to explore the country along the Missouri, & thence Westwardly to the Pacific Ocean."16 Jefferson organized the subscription and with input from other American Philosophical Society members drafted a set of instructions for Michaux outlining the objectives for the trip west. This expedition began to unravel before reaching the Mississippi River, when French Minister Edmond-Charles Genêt 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."17 These words imply a vision of expanding empire, yet it was still far from inevitable that some day 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." Gallatin, however, affirmed his own interest in western geography and wrote that he 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."18 

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.19 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 that 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 on our Eastern border."20 The "late occurrences on the Mississippi" were a growing concern. Since Jefferson's first 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 US. 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."21

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 had become 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 as 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."22 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 take care too not to ... press too soon 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 sufficiently advanced to gain it from them peice by peice."23

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 Monroe as Minister Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary with "discretionary powers" to join Livingston in Paris and negotiate with France and Spain if needed. 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 & of the Western people."24 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.

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 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 was "a choice of channels," naming the major eastern rivers.25 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."26 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."27 The reference 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 & to the Northern Ocean"?28 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 ninety three." He returned to Fort Chipewyan then went 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 be 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."29

Jefferson's first overture to George Rogers Clark in 1783 came from fear of British encroachment: "I am afraid they have thoughts of colonising into that quarter."30 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."31  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 for a western expedition, "that it should incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent, cannot be but an additional gratification."32  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."33 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, that began an era of exploration that pulled the West into the future of the United States.

- Gaye Wilson, 2003

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