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Meriwether Lewis
Meriwether Lewis

Woolly mammoths, Peruvian llamas, blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking Indians. In 1803, such myths defined the uncharted West. The Lewis and Clark expedition later dispelled such speculations, including the most widely held myth and hope: the existence of a “northwest passage.”

Such a passage -- a river or series of connected rivers that would cross the western mountains and reach the Pacific Ocean -- would have allowed more direct commerce with the Orient. Thomas Jefferson believed the discovery of the northwest passage would break open the wealth of North America.

Living in America

When Jefferson took the Oath of Office as the third President of the United States on March 4, 1801, the nation had 5,308,483 people within its boundaries, which reached from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Mississippi River in the west, from the Great Lakes in the north nearly to the Gulf of Mexico in the south (roughly 1,000 miles by 1,000 miles). Only a comparably small area was occupied, however, and two-thirds of the population lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic.

Jefferson and many of his contemporaries were plantation owners. He and other “Virginia gentlemen” ascribed to a distinct lifestyle. On their vast estates, they led lives of refinement and enlightenment, hosting balls and dinners or discussing politics, philosophy and religion.

A party at Jefferson’s plantation, for example, often followed a day of riding and hunting. Guests feasted on sweet potatoes, peas, corn, breads, nuts, quail, ham, venison, bear, duck, milk and beer. Jefferson personally selected the best wines from France. For entertainment, he often played the violin while guests danced the Virginia reel and other favorites. Choice guests were men of the Enlightenment who conversed in French, Italian and German. They were well-educated and well-read, raptly curious about many topics, especially natural history, geography and the rights of man.

In spite of their interest in personal rights, country gentlemen built their abundant lifestyles with slave labor. Slave life--enforced by the lash-was filled with planting and harvesting. Owners did not perform this manual labor--they managed the details necessary to run the plantation. In that day, plantation owners did not practice crop rotation, so they continually sought more land to cultivate. Thus, as their plantations expanded, the owners’ economic survival hinged on the availability of slaves to work the land.

Other Virginia gentlemen, such as Meriwether Lewis, lacked the higher education and wealth of Jefferson’s peers. Public schools did not exist, so planters often were educated by boarding with teachers-usually preachers or parsons-who would school them in grammar, math, natural science and Latin. Thus, a well-balanced education would complement their expertise in planting.

Since the country estates were so far apart, men such as Lewis acquired distinct wilderness skills. Lewis was, for example, a great horseman, hunter and hiker. And such gentlemen traveling through the region were presumed to know the social refinements of plantation life, such as dancing, boxing and fiddle-playing.

Virginia gentlemen were expected to be hospitable, generous, courteous and kind to their inferiors. Debauchery, sexual liaisons, heavy drinking and other vices were common but condoned, as long as they did not hinder relations among members of the society. Instead, the unpardonable offenses were lying and meanness of spirit.

Not all men were content with or pursued the plantation life, and like Lewis, many sought adventure. One means to find it was by enlisting in the Army, where life often was spent on the frontier. It was the Army’s job to maintain order in the outer U.S. boundaries, usually with small, isolated groups of fewer than 100 officers and men.

The officer corps often struggled with internal conflicts, because it was one of the rare institutions in early America in which citizens from various regional, religious, ethnic, educational, and social backgrounds mingled in close quarters.

Rules for the officers were strict and specific. They were allowed at least one soldier from the line as a personal servant. Officers were not allowed to swear, express disrespect for their commanding officer or federal or state officials, be intoxicated on duty or absent without leave, or participate in duels. They also were forbidden to take mistresses. Despite the rules, many officers on the frontier lived flamboyantly, drank heavily, and were promiscuous.

Flogging and other harsh punishments were commonly imposed on the enlisted men. Many of them deserted, lured by the chance to run off and lose themselves on the frontier, where they could establish squatters’ rights and escape the discipline. Desertion was a serious problem and was severely punished, because the loss of just a few men in the small garrisons would damage fighting capability in the event of an Indian attack.

Most of the soldiers and others who trekked through the frontier ended up in Tennessee or Kentucky. Some traders and trappers went as far as the Missouri River, but the idea of a mass migration further west was still unrealistic.

Navigating Towards Commerce

In 1803, Only four roads crossed the Appalachian Mountains. But the United States had the potential to become a powerful nation if it could add the area west of the Mississippi to its territory. At that time, however, people were skeptical that one nation could govern an entire continent. The distance between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, the limited transportation options, and the unanswered questions about the western land were barriers to westward expansion. Also, horses were the fastest mode of transportation, and the few roads or trails that existed were in poor condition. It was impossible to get anything from the Mississippi to the Atlantic seaboard in fewer than six weeks. These barriers helped quell ideas of spreading national interests further west.

The half-million Americans (one out of 10) who already lived west of the Appalachian Mountains, however, felt they had found their own “national” interests. Since water routes were viewed as a source of commerce, many people along the Mississippi viewed themselves as the seeds of an independent nation that would tap into the world marketplace, not by going east to the Atlantic seaboard, but by following the Ohio and Mississippi river system down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Jefferson knew the inhabitants of this region posed a risk of secession from the United States. After all, the nation, only 18 years old, was born of rebellion. He was determined to obtain the vital trading port of New Orleans for the United States, in part to prevent the West from breaking away.

Other nations also sought to control the West’s destiny but still knew little about the region. Spanish conquistadors had explored the Southwest. French and Spanish fur traders had ventured part of the way up the Missouri River, and the British had visited the Mandan Indians in what is now North Dakota.

The Idea of the West

Like his fellow scholars, Jefferson had many ideas about the unknown areas westward. He was keenly interested in the region, and his personal library at Monticello had more books about the subject than did any other library in the world.

Some of Jefferson’s books described a landmass of erupting volcanoes and mountains of undissolved salt. Other readings led him to believe that Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains might be the continent’s highest. (The Blue Ridge Mountains peak at around 6,500 feet, while the Rocky Mountains in Colorado top out at over 14,400 feet.)

Depictions of land and creatures in the west often came from the imaginations of men who had never been there. Many reports told of western terrain spotted with wondrous creatures: unicorns, gargantuan woolly mastodons, seven-foot-tall beavers, and friendly, slim-waisted buffalo.

Maps of the west proved equally fictitious. European geographers, for example, drew maps depicting California as an island. Other maps showed the Rocky Mountains to be narrow and undaunting.

The lack of detail in maps circa 1803 hinted at the enormous task to be faced by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the journey, Meriwether Lewis had map collector Albert Gallatin make a special map that showed North America from the Pacific coast to the Mississippi.

The map depicted only three points of certainty: the latitude and longitude of the mouth of the Columbia and of St. Louis, and details of what was known of the Missouri River up to the Mandan villages in the Great Bend of the river (today’s Bismarck, North Dakota). The map also estimated how the Rockies might look and the course of the Columbia, which no one had charted beyond its mouth.

But the area that lay between the Mandans west was blank, and the best minds in the world could not fill in that blank until someone had walked the land, taken measurements and described the flora, fauna, rivers, mountains, and people. Observations of the commercial and agricultural possibilities of the regions were equally crucial.

Jefferson: Planning a Nation’s Destiny

On January 18, 1803, President Jefferson sent a confidential message to Congress, stating in part, “The river Missouri and the Indians inhabiting it, are not as well known as is rendered desirable by their connection with the Mississippi, and consequently with us. . .”

Jefferson went on to propose that an “intelligent officer with ten or twelve chosen men . . . might explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean.”

This proposal culminated Jefferson’s long-standing but quiet plans to send a trailblazing expedition into the great void beyond the Mississippi. And although the president was a scholar of the sciences, his push for such an expedition was as much for political reasons as it was for advancing botany or topography. He viewed commercial growth in the west as the key to a United States stronghold in the region.

The political climate in 1803 complicated Jefferson’s request. He had asked Congress to authorize a military reconnaissance into unknown lands that already were claimed by the two most powerful nations in the world, France and Britain, with a third, Spain, clinging to a hold in the south and far west. Jefferson already had approached Spanish officials administering the region on behalf of France, seeking their approval to pass through the Louisiana Territory for the purposes of exploration. Spanish ambassador Don Carlos Martinez objected, but Jefferson pressed ahead with his request to Congress.

Knowing there would be skeptics, especially among his foes in the Federalist party, Jefferson worded his message in a way that minimized military risks and used commercial gains as the bait. He made the temptation cheap, asking only $2,500 to fund the expedition (although actual costs reached $38,722). On February 28, 1803, Congress approved Jefferson’s request.

Jefferson was elated. For nearly two decades he had actively strategized to traverse the west and find the northwest passage to the Pacific. Before becoming president, he had been the force behind at least two other aborted expeditions. Some historians have speculated that when Jefferson was first elected, he already had begun planning for another expedition because he had hired rural Virginian Captain Meriwether Lewis as his private secretary, instead of qualified applicants who lived nearby.

Louisiana

Congress’ approval of the journey was a big step forward, yet within months it would be eclipsed by an agreement that not only transformed the purpose of the expedition but the very destiny of the United States.

It began with a bid from Jefferson’s emissaries in Paris to buy the vital trading port of New Orleans. Negotiations had gone nowhere until Napoleon Bonaparte, preparing for another war with England, suddenly announced that the United States could have New Orleans if it would take the entire 820,000-square mile Louisiana Territory for $15 million (about three cents an acre).

Bonaparte had his own reasons for the dramatic offer. He held title to Louisiana but had little power to enforce it. The Americans, he believed, were sure to overrun the area long before he could get an army there, if he ever could. Further, the land sale would empower a young nation that shared one of France’s common rivals: England.

Amazed by the offer, Jefferson accepted and rushed the treaty through Congress, in spite of doubts about its constitutionality. Federalists attacked the purchase not only as a blatant use of executive power, but as a waste of money. Nevertheless, the treaty was signed on April 30, 1803. In a single stroke, the size of the United States was doubled.

The Louisiana Purchase was not publicly announced until July 3, just two days before Meriwether Lewis left Washington, D.C., for Pittsburgh to begin purchasing supplies and hiring men for the expedition. For Lewis, the purchase changed what would have been a semi-covert mission through foreign territory into a bold survey of American-owned land.

Jefferson sent Lewis off with several pages of specific instructions about what information to collect during the journey: What were the Indians like? What were their languages, their customs, their medical habits? Jefferson craved details of the plant and animal life, the minerals and the mountains. And, of course, he wanted to know the possibilities for trade.

To ensure the expedition’s success in obtaining whatever it would need to meet his goals, Jefferson signed and gave Lewis a one-page letter pledging “the faith of the United States” to reimburse anyone for any goods or services that Lewis needed.

So the expedition had a limitless line of credit, and rightly so, in Jefferson’s view. He was asking Meriwether Lewis and William Clark not only to chart the new territory of the United States, but the nation's destiny.


  GM