Read Chapter II - Beginning a Long Journey of First Across the Continent, free online book, by Noah Brooks, on

In 1803, availing himself of a plausible pretext to send out an exploring expedition, President Jefferson asked Congress to appropriate a small sum of money ($2,500) for the execution of his purpose. At that time the cession of the Louisiana Territory had not been completed; but matters were in train to that end, and before the expedition was fairly started on its long journey across the continent, the Territory was formally ceded to the United States.

Meriwether Lewis, a captain in the army, was selected by Jefferson to lead the expedition. Captain Lewis was a native of Virginia, and at that time was only twenty-nine years old. He had been Jefferson’s private secretary for two years and was, of course, familiar with the President’s plans and expectations as these regarded the wonder-land which Lewis was to enter. It is pleasant to quote here Mr. Jefferson’s words concerning Captain Lewis. In a memoir of that distinguished young officer, written after his death, Jefferson said: “Of courage undaunted; possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction; careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline; intimate with the Indian character, customs and principles; habituated to the hunting life; guarded, by exact observation of the vegetables and animals of his own country, against losing time in the description of objects already possessed; honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves - with all these qualifications, as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.”

Before we have finished the story of Meriwether Lewis and his companions, we shall see that this high praise of the youthful commander was well deserved.

For a coadjutor and comrade Captain Lewis chose William Clark, also a native of Virginia, and then about thirty-three years old. Clark, like Lewis, held a commission in the military service of the United States, and his appointment as one of the leaders of the expedition with which his name and that of Lewis will ever be associated, made the two men equal in rank. Exactly how there could be two captains commanding the same expedition, both of the same military and actual rank, without jar or quarrel, we cannot understand; but it is certain that the two young men got on together harmoniously, and no hint or suspicion of any serious disagreement between the two captains during their long and arduous service has come down to us from those distant days.

As finally organized, the expedition was made up of the two captains (Lewis and Clark) and twenty-six men. These were nine young men from Kentucky, who were used to life on the frontier among Indians; fourteen soldiers of the United States Army, selected from many who eagerly volunteered their services; two French voyageurs, or watermen, one of whom was an interpreter of Indian language, and the other a hunter; and one black man, a servant of Captain Clark. All these, except the negro servant, were regularly enlisted as privates in the military service of the United States during the expedition; and three of them were by the captains appointed sergeants. In addition to this force, nine voyageurs and a corporal and six private soldiers were detailed to act as guides and assistants until the explorers should reach the country of the Mandan Indians, a region lying around the spot where is now situated the flourishing city of Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota. It was expected that if hostile Indians should attack the explorers anywhere within the limits of the little-known parts through which they were to make their way, such attacks were more likely to be made below the Mandan country than elsewhere.

The duties of the explorers were numerous and important. They were to explore as thoroughly as possible the country through which they were to pass; making such observations of latitude and longitude as would be needed when maps of the region should be prepared by the War Department; observing the trade, commerce, tribal relations, manners and customs, language, traditions, and monuments, habits and industrial pursuits, diseases and laws of the Indian nations with whom they might come in contact; note the floral, mineral, and animal characteristics of the country, and, above all, to report whatever might be of interest to citizens who might thereafter be desirous of opening trade relations with those wild tribes of which almost nothing was then distinctly known.

The list of articles with which the explorers were provided, to aid them in establishing peaceful relations with the Indians, might amuse traders of the present day. But in those primitive times, and among peoples entirely ignorant of the white man’s riches and resources, coats richly laced with gilt braid, red trousers, medals, flags, knives, colored handkerchiefs, paints, small looking-glasses, beads and tomahawks were believed to be so attractive to the simple-minded red man that he would gladly do much and give much of his own to win such prizes. Of these fine things there were fourteen large bales and one box. The stores of the expedition were clothing, working tools, fire-arms, food supplies, powder, ball, lead for bullets, and flints for the guns then in use, the old-fashioned flint-lock rifle and musket being still in vogue in our country; for all of this was at the beginning of the present century.

As the party was to begin their long journey by ascending the Missouri River, their means of travel were provided in three boats. The largest, a keel-boat, fifty-five feet long and drawing three feet of water, carried a big square sail and twenty-two seats for oarsmen. On board this craft was a small swivel gun. The other two boats were of that variety of open craft known as pirogue, a craft shaped like a flat-iron, square-sterned, flat-bottomed, roomy, of light draft, and usually provided with four oars and a square sail which could be used when the wind was aft, and which also served as a tent, or night shelter, on shore. Two horses, for hunting or other occasional service, were led along the banks of the river.

As we have seen, President Jefferson, whose master mind organized and devised this expedition, had dwelt longingly on the prospect of crossing the continent from the headwaters of the Missouri to the headwaters of the then newly-discovered Columbia. The route thus explored was more difficult than that which was later travelled by the first emigrants across the continent to California. That route lies up the Platte River, through what is known as the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, by Great Salt Lake and down the valley of the Humboldt into California, crossing the Sierra Nevada at any one of several points leading into the valley of the Sacramento. The route, which was opened by the gold-seekers, was followed by the first railroads built across the continent. The route that lay so firmly in Jefferson’s mind, and which was followed up with incredible hardships by the Lewis and Clark expedition, has since been traversed by two railroads, built after the first transcontinental rails were laid. If Jefferson had desired to find the shortest and most feasible route across the continent, he would have pointed to the South Pass and Utah basin trails. But these would have led the explorers into California, then and long afterwards a Spanish possession. The entire line finally traced over the Great Divide lay within the territory of the United States.

But it must be remembered that while the expedition was being organized, the vast Territory of Louisiana was as yet a French possession. Before the party were brought together and their supplies collected, the territory passed under the jurisdiction of the United States. Nevertheless, that jurisdiction was not immediately acknowledged by the officials who, up to that time, had been the representatives of the French and Spanish governments. Part of the territory was transferred from Spain to France and then from France to the United States. It was intended that the exploring party should pass the winter of 1803-4 in St. Louis, then a mere village which had been commonly known as Pain Court. But the Spanish governor of the province had not been officially told that the country had been transferred to the United States, and, after the Spanish manner, he forbade the passage of the Americans through his jurisdiction. In those days communication between frontier posts and points lying far to the eastward of the Mississippi was very difficult; it required six weeks to carry the mails between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington to St. Louis; and this was the reason why a treaty, ratified in July, was not officially heard of in St. Louis as late as December of that year. The explorers, shut out of Spanish territory, recrossed the Mississippi and wintered at the mouth of Wood River, just above St. Louis, on the eastern side of the great river, in United States territory. As a matter of record, it may be said here that the actual transfer of the lower part of the territory - commonly known as Orleans - took place at New Orleans, December 20, 1803, and the transfer of the upper part was effected at St. Louis, March 10, 1804, before the Lewis and Clark expedition had started on its long journey to the northwestward.

All over the small area of the United States then existed a deep interest in the proposed explorations of the course and sources of the Missouri River. The explorers were about to plunge into vast solitudes of which white people knew less than we know now about the North Polar country. Wild and extravagant stories of what was to be seen in those trackless regions were circulated in the States. For example, it was said that Lewis and Clark expected to find the mammoth of prehistoric times still living and wandering in the Upper Missouri region; and it was commonly reported that somewhere, a thousand miles or so up the river, was a solid mountain of rock salt, eighty miles long and forty-five miles wide, destitute of vegetation and glittering in the sun! These, and other tales like these, were said to be believed and doted upon by the great Jefferson himself. The Federalists, or “Feds,” as they were called, who hated Jefferson, pretended to believe that he had invented some of these foolish yarns, hoping thereby to make his Louisiana purchase more popular in the Republic.

In his last letter to Captain Lewis, which was to reach the explorers before they started, Jefferson said: “The acquisition of the country through which you are to pass has inspired the country generally with a great deal of interest in your enterprise. The inquiries are perpetual as to your progress. The Feds alone still treat it as a philosophism, and would rejoice at its failure. Their bitterness increases with the diminution of their numbers and despair of a resurrection. I hope you will take care of yourself, and be a living witness of their malice and folly.” Indeed, after the explorers were lost sight of in the wilderness which they were to traverse, many people in the States declaimed bitterly against the folly that had sent these unfortunate men to perish miserably in the fathomless depths of the continent. They no longer treated it “as a philosophism,” or wild prank, but as a wicked scheme to risk life and property in a search for the mysteries of the unknown and unknowable.

As a striking illustration of this uncertainty of the outcome of the expedition, which exercised even the mind of Jefferson, it may be said that in his instructions to Captain Lewis he said: “Our Consuls, Thomas Hewes, at Batavia in Java, William Buchanan in the isles of France and Bourbon, and John Elmslie at the Cape of Good Hope, will be able to supply your necessities by drafts on us.” All this seems strange enough to the young reader of the present day; but this was said and done one hundred years ago.