Read CHAPTER II - THE EXPEDITION of Lewis and Clark Meriwether Lewis and William Clark , free online book, by William R. Lighton, on

For almost twenty years prior to the organization of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and long before the general public was more than passively curious upon the subject of Louisiana, Jefferson had nourished the plan for exploring the Louisiana Territory. In the memoir above referred to, he wrote:

“While I resided in Paris, John Ledyard, of Connecticut, arrived there, well known in the United States for energy of body and mind. He had accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and distinguished himself on that voyage by his intrepidity. Being of a roaming disposition, he was now panting for some new enterprise. His immediate object at Paris was to engage a mercantile company in the fur trade of the western coast of America, in which, however, he failed. I then proposed to him to go by land to Kamchatka, cross in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka Sound, fall down into the latitude of the Missouri, and penetrate to and through that to the United States. He eagerly seized the idea, and only asked to be assured of the permission of the Russian government.”

The consent of the Empress of Russia was obtained, together with an assurance of protection while the course of travel lay across her territory; and Ledyard set out. While he was yet two hundred miles from Kamchatka, winter overtook him, and there he was forced to remain through many months. In the spring, as he was preparing to go on, he was put under arrest. The Empress, exercising the inalienable right of sovereign womanhood, had changed her mind. The reason for this change is not apparent. There may have been no reason more potent than international jealousy, which was lively in those days. At any rate, Ledyard was put into a close carriage and conveyed to Poland, traveling day and night, without once stopping. He was left in Poland penniless and broken in body and spirit, and soon afterward died.

Later, in 1792, Jefferson proposed to the American Philosophical Society that a subscription be raised to engage some one to ascend the Missouri, cross the mountains, and descend to the Pacific. In order to preclude alarm to the Indians or to other nations, it was intended that this expedition should consist of only two persons. Meriwether Lewis, then eighteen years of age, begged to have this commission, and it was given him. His one companion was to be a French botanist, Andre Michaux. The journey was actually begun, when it was discovered that Michaux was residing in the United States in the capacity of a spy. Once again the plan was deferred.

“In 1803,” wrote Mr. Jefferson, “the act for establishing trading houses with the Indian tribes being about to expire, some modifications of it were recommended to Congress by a confidential message of January 18th, and an extension of its views to the Indians of the Missouri. In order to prepare the way, the message proposed the sending an exploring party to trace the Missouri to its source, to cross the Highlands, and follow the best water communication which offered itself from thence to the Pacific Ocean. Congress approved the proposition, and voted a sum of money for carrying it into execution. Captain Lewis, who had then been near two years with me as private secretary, immediately renewed his solicitations to have the direction of the party.”

Naturally, Mr. Jefferson was strongly inclined to intrust this work to his friend Lewis. Their official and private relations had been intimate; Mr. Jefferson had had ample opportunities for testing the fibre of the young man’s character under strain; besides, Lewis’s confidential position had no doubt made him acquainted with the inner details of the plan, its broader significance, and the political obstacles to be overcome in carrying it into effect. Aside from his temperamental disposition for such an enterprise, his public service had strengthened his grasp of national interests; enthusiasm for adventure had been supplemented by maturity of judgment in affairs of state. Altogether, a better man for the place could not have been found.

To carry out the work of the organized expedition would consist largely in surmounting physical difficulties; but to organize it and get it fairly started demanded considerable delicacy of diplomatic contrivance. The life of the nation, as it sought to expand and take form, was beset and harassed, north, south, and west, by international complications growing out of direct contact with unfriendly neighbors. In that day the United States did not sustain cordial relations with any of the strong nations of the world. The internal machinery of the new government was not yet in perfect adjustment; domestic crises were constantly recurring; permanence of democratic forms and methods was not by any means assured; the country had not established an indisputable right to be reckoned with in matters of international concern. Russia alone, of all the powers, was considered as friendly. Even in that case, however, there was nothing warmer than watchful neutrality. Russian and American interests had not yet conflicted.

The British, through the strong trading companies of Canada, were hot for getting control of the Indian traffic of the Northwest indeed, their prestige was already quite firmly fixed, and they were on their guard against any semblance of encroachment upon that domain of activity. This condition, coupled with other and acuter differences, made it highly probable that England would not take kindly to the expedition, should its object be openly avowed.

Spanish opposition would be even stronger. Spain had but lately surrendered possession of the Louisiana Territory, whence her agents had for a long time derived large revenues from the Indian trade, after the age-long manner she has pursued in dealing with her colonies and dependencies. Spain still held the Floridas, practically controlling the commerce of the Gulf and the navigation of the Mississippi; so that, while the people of the United States asserted the right of depot at New Orleans and the further right of passage of the river throughout its length, their enjoyment of these rights was precarious. Further, though the crown had transferred the territory west of the Mississippi, its subjects had not quit their efforts for supremacy in trade; their influence long outlived the extinction of territorial rights. Bitterly hostile to the growth of American ideas, they would certainly do what they could to oppose the expedition.

It was with France, however, that our government had to deal directly. In 1800 Napoleon had acquired title to Louisiana, trading with Spain, giving in exchange the little kingdom of Etruria. But his control of the territory was more tacit than actual; he was so busily engaged at home that he found no time to reduce his property to possession; his dominion west of the Mississippi was never more than potential. War between France and England was imminent. Napoleon had in America no adequate means for defending his new domain, which would therefore be likely to fall into the hands of the British at once upon the outbreak of war. He was growing anxious to be rid of the load. Jefferson thought it probable that the territory would one day belong to the United States, indeed, negotiations were pending for the transfer when the “confidential communication” to Congress was written, in January, 1803. Although the outcome was still problematical, Jefferson considered that the proper time for discovering what the land held; and this was the primary purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

For all of these reasons, and more, it was deemed necessary to cover from general view the real character of the enterprise. The appropriation by Congress was made for the ostensible and innocent purpose of “extending the external commerce of the United States.” In his letter to Congress, which was for a long time kept secret, Mr. Jefferson said that France would regard this as in the nature of a “literary pursuit,” and that whatever distrust she might feel would be allayed. But, though his ulterior purposes were sought to be concealed, the powers of France no doubt knew well enough what was in the wind.

It was on June 30, 1803, that Jefferson gave to Captain Lewis detailed instructions for the conduct of his work. In the meantime (on April 30th), treaties had been signed at Paris, ceding Louisiana to the United States. That was a distinct triumph for American statecraft. On the one hand were ranged Napoleon, Talleyrand, and Marbois; on the other, Jefferson, Livingston, and Monroe. The French were at a disadvantage; their position was that of holding perishable goods, which must be sold to avoid catastrophe. Napoleon said, not without reason, that the government of the United States availed itself of his distress incident to the impending struggle with England. However that may be, the territory changed owners for a consideration of $15,000,000.

Formal notification of the transfer was not received in Washington until the early part of July, when active preparations for the exploration were being made. Its receipt did not alter the character of the expedition, though many of the international complications were dissipated. Thereafter the work was purely domestic in most of its aspects.