On January 18, 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent a confidential letter to Congress asking for $2,500 to fund an expedition to the Pacific Ocean. "An intelligent officer, with ten or twelve chosen men," the president suggested, "... might explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean .... Their arms and accoutrements, some instruments of observation, and light and cheap presents for the Indians, would be all the apparatus they could carry ...."1Congress appropriated the requested funds on February 28, bringing Jefferson's dreams of western exploration close to reality.
Jefferson's choice to lead the western expedition was Meriwether Lewis, a fellow native of Albemarle County, Virginia. Jefferson had "a personal acquaintance" with Lewis, since the two men came from the same neighborhood.2 As early as 1792, Jefferson was aware that Lewis had a keen interest in western exploration. That year, when Jefferson proposed a western expedition to the American Philosophical Society, Lewis "warmly sollicited" his neighbor for the assignment.3 The project was never launched, but Lewis's interest must have remained in Jefferson's mind. In 1801, Jefferson approached Lewis about becoming his private secretary. He was quick to note that Lewis's "knolege of the Western country, of the army and of all it’s interests & relations has rendered it desireable ... that you should be engaged in that office."4
Having reached the rank of captain in the U.S. Army, Lewis possessed military discipline and experience that would indeed prove invaluable for further exploits. A decade later, Jefferson recalled his selection of Lewis for the western expedition, noting that the latter was a man "of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness & perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from it’s direction ...."5 During his army career, Meriwether Lewis had served in a rifle company commanded by William Clark. It was Clark whom Lewis chose to assist him in leading the army’s unit commonly known today as the "Corps of Discovery."
Lewis's personal preparation for the journey included the acquisition of certain scientific skills. In the spring of 1803, he traveled to Philadelphia to study with the leading scientists of the day. Andrew Ellicott taught Lewis map making and surveying. Benjamin Smith Barton tutored him in botany, Robert Patterson in mathematics, Caspar Wistar in anatomy and fossils, and Benjamin Rush in medicine. During this time, Lewis also addressed equipment needs for the expedition. Many of his purchases could be made in Philadelphia, such as scientific instruments and gifts for Native Americans. He twice visited the arsenal at Harpers Ferry to obtain rifles and other supplies. The equipment was shipped to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to await Lewis's arrival.
Armed with Jefferson's letter of instructions, Lewis traveled to Pittsburgh, where he recruited men and made last-minute purchases. From there, he set out on the Ohio River to meet up with William Clark at Clarksville, in present-day Indiana. The men packed a keelboat, which Lewis had designed, and two pirogues (canoe-like boats) with supplies. The two explorers then headed downriver accompanied by recruited soldiers, Clark's African-American slave York, and Lewis's Newfoundland dog Seaman.
Jefferson's Instructions to Lewis
To Meriwether Lewis, esquire, Captain of the 1st regiment of infantry of the United States of America. Your situation as Secretary of the President of the United States has made you acquainted with the objects of my confidential message of Jan. 18, 1803, to the legislature. You have seen the act they passed, which, tho' expressed in general terms, was meant to sanction those objects, and you are appointed to carry them into execution. Instruments for ascertaining by celestial observations the geography of the country thro' which you will pass, have been already provided. Light articles for barter, & presents among the Indians, arms for your attendants, say for from 10 to 12 men, boats, tents, & other travelling apparatus, with ammunition, medicine, surgical instruments & provision you will have prepared with such aids as the Secretary at War can yield in his department; & from him also you will receive authority to engage among our troops, by voluntary agreement, the number of attendants above mentioned, over whom you, as their commanding officer are invested with all the powers the laws give in such a case. As your movements while within the limits of the U.S. will be better directed by occasional communications, adapted to circumstances as they arise, they will not be noticed here. What follows will respect your proceedings after your departure from the U.S. Your mission has been communicated to the Ministers here from France, Spain, & Great Britain, and through them to their governments: and such assurances given them as to it's objects as we trust will satisfy them. The country of Louisiana having been ceded by Spain to France, the passport you have from the Minister of France, the representative of the present sovereign of the country, will be a protection with all its subjects: and that from the Minister of England will entitle you to the friendly aid of any traders of that allegiance with whom you may happen to meet. The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course & communication with the water of the Pacific ocean may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce. Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take observations of latitude and longitude at all remarkable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognized hereafter. The courses of the river between these points of observation may be supplied by the compass, the log-line & by time, corrected by the observations themselves. The variations of the compass too, in different places should be noticed. The interesting points of the portage between the heads of the Missouri & the water offering the best communication with the Pacific ocean should be fixed by observation, & the course of that water to the ocean, in the same manner as that of the Missouri. Your observations are to be taken with great pains & accuracy to be entered distinctly, & intelligibly for others as well as yourself, to comprehend all the elements necessary, with the aid of the usual tables to fix the latitude & longitude of the places at which they were taken, & are to be rendered to the war office, for the purpose of having the calculations made concurrently by proper persons within the U.S. Several copies of these as well as of your other notes, should be made at leisure times, & put into the care of the most trustworthy of your attendants, to guard by multiplying them against the accidental losses to which they will be exposed. A further guard would be that one of these copies be written on the paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper. The commerce which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue, renders a knolege of these people important. You will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted, as far as a diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with the names of the nations & their numbers; the extent & limits of their possessions; their relations with other tribes or nations; their language, traditions, monuments; their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting, war, arts, & the implements for these; their food, clothing, & domestic accommodations; the diseases prevalent among them, & the remedies they use; moral and physical circumstance which distinguish them from the tribes they know; peculiarities in their laws, customs & dispositions; and articles of commerce they may need or furnish, & to what extent. And considering the interest which every nation has in extending & strengthening the authority of reason & justice among the people around them, it will be useful to acquire what knolege you can of the state of morality, religion & information among them, as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize & instruct them, to adapt their measures to the existing notions & practises of those on whom they are to operate. Other objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country, it's growth & vegetable productions, especially those not of the U.S. the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S. the remains & accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct; the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal & saltpetre; salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last & such circumstances as may indicate their character; volcanic appearances; climate as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion of rainy, cloudy & clear days, by lightening, hail, snow, ice, by the access & recess of frost, by the winds, prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flowers, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects. Altho' your route will be along the channel of the Missouri, yet you will endeavor to inform yourself, by inquiry, of the character and extent of the country watered by its branches, & especially on it's Southern side. The North river or Rio Bravo which runs into the gulph of Mexico, and the North river, or Rio colorado which runs into the gulph of California, are understood to be the principal streams heading opposite to the waters of the Missouri, and running Southwardly. Whether the dividing grounds between the Missouri & them are mountains or flatlands, what are their distance from the Missouri, the character of the intermediate country, & the people inhabiting it, are worthy of particular enquiry. The Northern waters of the Missouri are less to be enquired after, because they have been ascertained to a considerable degree, and are still in a course of ascertainment by English traders & travellers. But if you can learn anything certain of the most Northern source of the Mississippi, & of it's position relative to the lake of the woods, it will be interesting to us. Some account too of the path of the Canadian traders from the Mississippi, at the mouth of the Ouisconsin river, to where it strikes the Missouri, and of the soil and rivers in it's course, is desirable. In all your intercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it's innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S., of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them, & of our dispositions to a commercial intercourse with them; confer with them on the points most convenient as mutual emporiums, & the articles of most desirable interchange for them & us. If a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them, and furnish them with authority to call on our officers, on their entering the U.S. to have them conveyed to this place at the public expense. If any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct & take care of them. Such a mission, whether of influential chiefs, or of young people, would give some security to your own party. Carry with you some matter of the kine pox, inform those of them with whom you may be, of it's efficacy as a preservative from the small pox; and instruct & encourage them in the use of it. This may be especially done wherever you may winter. As it is impossible for us to foresee in what manner you will be received by those people, whether with hospitality or hostility, so is it impossible to prescribe the exact degree of perseverance with which you are to pursue your journey. We value too much the lives of citizens to offer them to probably destruction. Your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorised opposition of individuals, or of small parties: but if a superior force, authorised or not authorised, by a nation, should be arrayed against your further passage, & inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline it's further pursuit, and return. In the loss of yourselves, we should lose also the information you will have acquired. By returning safely with that, you may enable us to renew the essay with better calculated means. To your own discretion therefore must be left the degree of danger you may risk, & the point at which you should decline, only saying we wish you to err on the side of your safety, & to bring back your party safe, even if it be with less information. As far up the Missouri as the white settlements extend, an intercourse will probably be found to exist between them and the Spanish posts at St. Louis, opposite Cahokia, or Ste. Genevieve opposite Kaskaskia. From still farther up the river, the traders may furnish a conveyance for letters. Beyond that you may perhaps be able to engage Indians to bring letters for the government to Cahokia or Kaskaskia, on promising that they shall there receive such special compensation as you shall have stipulated with them. Avail yourself of these means to communicate to us, at seasonable intervals, a copy of your journal, notes & observations of every kind, putting into cypher whatever might do injury if betrayed. Should you reach the Pacific ocean, inform yourself of the circumstances which may decide whether the furs of those parts may not be collected as advantageously at the head of the Missouri (convenient as is supposed to the waters of the Colorado & Oregon or Columbia) as at Nootka sound or any other point of that coast; & that trade be consequently conducted through the Missouri & U.S. more beneficially than by the circumnavigation now practised. On your arrival on that coast, endeavor to learn if there be any port within your reach frequented by the sea-vessels of any nation, and to send two of your trusty people back by sea, in such way as shall appear practicable, with a copy of your notes. And should you be of opinion that the return of your party by the way they went will be eminently dangerous, then ship the whole, & return by sea by way of Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, as you shall be able. As you will be without money, clothes or provisions, you must endeavor to use the credit of the U.S. to obtain them; for which purpose open letters of credit shall be furnished you authorizing you to draw on the Executive of the U.S. or any of its officers in any part of the world, in which draughts can be disposed of, and to apply with our recommendations to the consuls, agents, merchants or citizens of any nation with which we have intercourse, assuring them in our name that any aids they may furnish you shall be honorably repaid, and on demand. Our consuls Thomas Howes at Batavia in Java, William Buchanan of the Isles of France and Bourbon, & John Elmslie at the Cape of Good Hope will be able to supply your necessities by draughts on us. Should you find it safe to return by the way you go, after sending two of your party round by sea, or with your whole party, if no conveyance by sea can be found, do so; making such observations on your return as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey. In re-entering the U.S. and reaching a place of safety, discharge any of your attendants who may desire & deserve it: procuring for them immediate paiment of all arrears of pay & cloathing which may have incurred since their departure and assure them that they shall be recommended to the liberality of the legislature for the grant of a souldier's portion of land each, as proposed in my message to Congress: & repair yourself with your papers to the seat of government. To provide, on the accident of your death, against anarchy, dispersion & the consequent danger to your party, and total failure of the enterprise, you are hereby authorised, by any instrument signed & written in your own hand, to name the person among them who shall succeed to the command on your decease, & by like instruments to change the nomination from time to time, as further experience of the characters accompanying you shall point out superior fitness: and all the powers & authorities given to yourself are, in the event of your death, transferred to & vested in the successor so named, with further power to him, & his successors in like manner to name each his successor, who, on the death of his predecessor shall be invested with all the powers & authorities given to yourself. Given under my hand at the city of Washington, this 20th. day of June 1803. Th:Jefferson, Pr. U.S. of America.6
Lewis' Packing List
In preparation for the journey, Meriwether Lewis wrote a list of necessary items to be taken.
Mathematical Instruments 1 Hadley's Quadrant 1 Mariner's Compas & 2 pole chain 1 Sett of plotting instruments 3 Thermometers 1 Cheap portable Microscope 1 Pocket Compass 1 brass Scale one foot in length 6 Magnetic needles in small straight silver or brass cases opening on the side with hinges. 1 Instrument for measuring made of tape with feet & inches mark'd on it, ... 2 Hydrometers 1 Theodolite 1 Sett of planespheres 2 Artificial Horizons 1 Patent log 6 papers of Ink powder 4 Metal Pens brass or silver 1 Set of Small Slates & pencils 2 Creyons Sealing wax one bundle 1 Miller's edition of Lineus in 2 Vol: Books Maps Charts Blank Vocabularies Writing paper 1 Pair large brass money scales with two setts of weights. Arms & Accoutrements 15 Rifle 15 Powder Horns & pouches complete 15 Pairs of Bullet Moulds 15 do. Of Wipers or Gun worms [do. = ditto] 15 Ball Screws 24 Pipe Tomahawks 24 large knives Extra parts of Locks & tools for repairing arms 15 Gun Slings 500 best Flints Ammunition 200 Lbs. Best rifle powder 400 lbs. Lead Clothing 15 3 pt. Blankets 15 Watch Coats with Hoods & belts 15 Woolen Overalls 15 Rifle Frocks of waterproof Cloth if possible 30 Pairs of Socks or half Stockings 20 Fatigue Frocks or hinting shirts 30 Shirts of Strong linnen 30 yds. Common flannel. Camp Equipage 6 Copper kettles (1 of 5 Gallons, 1 of 3, 2 of 2, & 2 of 1) 35 falling Axes. 4 Drawing Knives, short & strong 2 Augers of the patent kind. 1 Small permanent Vice 1 Hand Vice 36 Gimblets assorted 24 Files do. 12 Chisels do. 10 Nails do. 2 Steel plate hand saws 2 Vials of Phosforus 1 do. Of Phosforus made of allum & sugar 4 Groce fishing Hooks assorted 12 Bunches of Drum Line 2 Foot Adzes 12 Bunches of Small cord 2 Pick Axes 3 Coils of rope 2 Spades 12 Bunches Small fishing line assorted 1 lb. Turkey or Oil Stone 1 Iron Mill for Grinding Corn 20 yds. Oil linnen for wrapping & securing Articles 10 yds do. do. Of thicker quality for covering and lining boxes. &c [&c. = etcetera] 40 yds Do. Do. To form two half faced Tents or Shelters. 4 Tin blowing Trumpets 2 hand or spiral spring Steelyards 20 yds Strong Oznaburgs [Oznaburgs = strong cloth] 24 Iron Spoons 24 Pint Tin Cups (without handles) 30 Steels for striking or making fire 100 Flints for do. do. do. 2 Frows 6 Saddlers large Needles 6 Do. Large Awls Muscatoe Curtains 2 patent chamber lamps & wicks 15 Oil Cloth Bags for securing provision 1 Sea Grass Hammock Provisions and Means of Subsistence 150 lbs. Portable Soup. 3 bushels of Allum or Rock Salt Spicies assorted 6 Kegs of 5 Gallons each making 30 Gallons of rectified pirits such as is used for the Indian trade 6 Kegs bound with iron Hoops Indian Presents 5 lbs. White Wampum 5 lbs. White Glass Beads mostly small 20 lbs. Red Do. Do. Assorted 5 lbs. Yellow or Orange Do. Do. Assorted 30 Calico Shirts 12 Pieces of East India muslin Hanckerchiefs striped or check'd with brilliant Colours. 12 Red Silk Hanckerchiefs 144 Small cheap looking Glasses 100 Burning Glasses 4 Vials of Phosforus 288 Steels for striking fire 144 Small cheap Scizors 20 Pair large Do. 12 Groces Needles Assorted No. 1 to 8 Common points 12 Groces Do. Assorted with points for sewing leather 288 Common brass thimbles - part W. office 10 lbs. Sewing Thread assorted 24 Hanks Sewing Silk 8 lbs. Red Lead 2 lbs. Vermillion - at War Office 288 Knives Small such as are generally used for the Indian trade, with fix'd blades & handles inlaid with brass 36 Large knives 36 Pipe Tomahawks - at H. Ferry 12 lbs. Brass wire Assorted 12 lbs. Iron do. Do. generally large 6 Belts of narrow Ribbons colours assorted 50 lbs. Spun Tobacco. 20 Small falling axes to be obtained in Tennessee 40 fish Griggs such as the Indians use with a single barbed point - at Harper's ferry 3 Groce fishing Hooks assorted 3 Groce Mockerson awls assorted 50 lbs. Powder secured in a Keg covered with oil Cloth 24 Belts of Worsted feiret or Gartering Colours brilliant and Assorted [Worsted feiret [ferret] = woven wool tape, used for embellishment and trade] 15 Sheets of Copper Cut into strips of an inch in width & a foot long 20 Sheets of Tin 12 lbs. Strips of Sheet iron 1 In. wide 1 foot long 1 Pc. Red Cloth second quality 1 Nest of 8 or 9 small copper kettles 100 Block-tin rings cheap kind ornamented with Colour'd Glass or Mock-Stone 2 Groces of brass Curtain Rings & sufficently large for the Finger 1 Groce Cast Iron Combs 18 Cheap brass Combs 24 Blankets. 12 Arm Bands Silver at War Office 12 Wrist do. do. Do. 36 Ear Trinkets Do. Part do. 6 Groces Drops of Do. Part Do. 4 doz Rings for Fingers of do. 4 Groces Broaches of do. 12 Small Medals do. Means of Transportation 1 Keeled Boat light strong at least 60 feet in length her burthen equal to 8 Tons 1 Iron frame of Canoe 40 feet long 1 Large Wooden Canoe 12 Spikes for Setting-Poles 4 Boat Hooks & points Complete 2 Chains & Pad-Locks for confining the Boat & Canoes &c. Medicine 15 lbs. Best powder's Bark 10 lbs. Epsom or Glauber Salts 4 oz. Calomel 12 oz. Opium _ oz. Tarter emetic 8 oz. Borax 4 oz. Powder'd Ipecacuana 8 oz. Powder Jalap 8 oz. Powdered Rhubarb 6 Best lancets 2 oz. White Vitriol 4 oz. Lacteaum Saturni 4 Pewter Penis syringes 1 Flour of Sulphur 3 Clyster pipes 4 oz. Turlingtons Balsam 2 lbs. Yellow Bascilicum 2 Sticks of Symple Diachylon 1 lb. Blistering Ointments 2 lbs. Nitre 2 lbs. Coperas Materials for making up the Various Articles into portable Packs 30 Sheep skins taken off the Animal as perfectly whole aspossible, without being split on the belly as usual and dress'd only with lime to free them from the wool; or otherwise about the same quantity of Oil Cloth bags well painted Raw hide for pack strings Dress'd letter for Hoppus-Straps [Hoppus = might possible refer to an Indian term for knapsack] Other packing7
1. Jefferson to the Senate and the House of Representatives, January 18, 1803, in PTJ, 39:352. Transcription available at "Jefferson's Confidential Letter to Congress." See also Meriwether Lewis: Estimated Costs of Missouri River Expedition, [before January 18, 1803], in PTJ, 39:342-43, 39:343n. Transcription available at Founders Online.
2. Jefferson to James Wilkinson, February 23, 1801, in PTJ, 33:54. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. Jefferson to Paul Allen, August 18, 1813, in PTJ:RS, 6:420-21. Transcription available at Founders Online.
4. Jefferson to Lewis, February 23, 1801, in PTJ, 33:51. Transcription available at Founders Online.