“History by apprising [citizens] of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.” — Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14 — 1781.
206 years ago on this date (September 23, 1806) one of the greatest feats of exploration came to an end. Amid much public excitement, American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned to St. Louis, Missouri, from the first recorded overland journey from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast and back. The Lewis and Clark Expedition had set off more than two years before to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase.
With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States purchased approximately 828,000 square miles of territory (3 times the area of Texas) from France, thereby doubling the size of the young republic. What was known as Louisiana Territory stretched from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west and from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Canadian border in the north. Part or all of 15 states were eventually created from the land deal, which is considered one of the most important achievements of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.
Beginning in the 17th century, France explored the Mississippi River valley and established scattered settlements in the region. By the middle of the 18th century, France controlled more of the present-day United States than any other European power: from New Orleans northeast to the Great Lakes and northwest to modern-day Montana. In 1762, during the French and Indian War (1754-63), France ceded French Louisiana west of the Mississippi River to Spain and in 1763 transferred nearly all of its remaining North American holdings to Great Britain. Spain, no longer a dominant European power, did little to develop Louisiana during the next three decades. In 1796, Spain allied itself with France, leading Britain to use its powerful navy to cut off Spain from America.
In 1801, Spain signed a secret treaty with France to return Louisiana Territory to France. Reports of the retrocession caused considerable uneasiness in the United States. Since the late 1780s, Americans had been moving westward into the Ohio River and Tennessee River valleys, and these settlers were highly dependent on free access to the Mississippi River and the strategic port of New Orleans. U.S. officials feared that France, resurgent under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte would soon seek to dominate the Mississippi River and access to the Gulf of Mexico. In a letter to U.S. minister to France Robert Livingston, America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson stated, "The day that France takes possession of New Orleans...we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation."
Livingston was ordered to negotiate with French minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand for the purchase of New Orleans.
France was slow in taking control of Louisiana, but in 1802 Spanish authorities, apparently acting under French orders, revoked a U.S.-Spanish treaty that granted Americans the right to store goods in New Orleans. In response, Jefferson sent future U.S. president James Monroe to Paris to aid Livingston in the New Orleans purchase talks. In mid-April 1803, shortly before Monroe's arrival, the French asked a surprised Livingston if the United States was interested in purchasing all of Louisiana Territory. It is believed that the failure of France to put down a slave revolution in Haiti, the impending war with Great Britain and probable British naval blockade of France, and financial difficulties may all have prompted Napoleon to offer Louisiana for sale to the United States. In essence Napoleon was in sorry need of cash and needed to sell some of his assets, assets he knew little about or believed he did not need.
Negotiations moved swiftly, and at the end of April the U.S. envoys agreed to pay $11,250,000 and assume claims of American citizens against France in the amount of $3,750,000. In exchange, the United States acquired the vast domain of Louisiana Territory, some 828,000 square miles of land. The treaty was dated April 30 and signed on May 2. In October, the U.S. Senate ratified the purchase, and in December 1803 France transferred authority over the region to the United States.
The acquisition of the Louisiana Territory for the bargain price of less than three cents an acre was among Jefferson's most notable achievements as president. American expansion westward into the new lands began immediately, and in 1804 a territorial government was established. On April 30, 1812, exactly nine years after the Louisiana Purchase agreement was made, the first state to be carved from the territory--Louisiana--was admitted into the Union as the 18th U.S. state.
Jefferson was no fool. He knew we had to expand the United States to the Pacific Ocean and was looking for the legendary Northwest Passage to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans it the United States would be secure and our economy would expand.
Even before the U.S. government concluded purchase negotiations with France, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned his private secretary Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, an army captain, to lead an expedition into what is now the U.S. Northwest. On May 14, the "Corps of Discovery," featuring 28 men and one woman—a Native American named Sacagawea—left St. Louis for the American interior.
The expedition traveled up the Missouri River in six canoes and two longboats and wintered in Dakota before crossing into Montana, where they first saw the Rocky Mountains. On the other side of the Continental Divide, they were met by Sacagawea's tribe, the Shoshone Indians, who sold them horses for their journey down through the Bitterroot Mountains. After passing through the dangerous rapids of the Clearwater and Snake rivers in canoes, the explorers reached the calm of the Columbia River, which led them to the sea. On November 8, 1805, the expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean, the first European explorers to do so by an overland route from the east. After pausing there for winter, the explorers began their long journey back to St. Louis.
On September 23, 1806, after two and a half years, the expedition returned to the city, bringing back a wealth of information about the largely unexplored region, as well as valuable U.S. claims to Oregon Territory.
According to Jefferson himself, one goal was to find a "direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce with Asia" (the Northwest Passage). Jefferson also placed special importance on declaring U.S. sovereignty over the Native Americans along the Missouri River, and getting an accurate sense of the resources in the recently completed Louisiana Purchase.
They were accompanied by a fifteen-year-old Shoshone Indian woman, Sacagawea, the wife of a French-Canadian fur trader. After crossing the Rocky Mountains, the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in the area of present-day Oregon (which lay beyond the nation's new boundaries) in November 1805. They returned in 1806, bringing with them an immense amount of information about the region as well as numerous plant and animal specimens.
Reports about geography, plant and animal life, and Indian cultures filled their daily journals. Although Lewis and Clark failed to find a commercial route to Asia, they demonstrated the possibility of overland travel to the Pacific coast. They found Native Americans in the trans-Mississippi West accustomed to dealing with European traders and already connected to global markets. The success of their journey helped to strengthen the idea that United States territory was destined to reach all the way to the Pacific. Although the expedition did make notable achievements in science, scientific research itself was not the main goal behind the mission.
To lead this expedition Jefferson picked two men, one a scholar and his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis. Lewis was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, in the present-day community of Ivy. He was the son of Lt. William Lewis of Locust Hill who was of Welsh ancestry, and Lucy Meriwether, daughter of Thomas Meriwether and Elizabeth Thornton who were both of English ancestry. After his father died of pneumonia, he moved with his mother and stepfather Captain John Marks to Georgia in May 1780.
During his time in Georgia, Lewis enhanced his skills as a hunter and outdoorsman. He would often venture out in the middle of the night in the dead of winter with only his dog, Seaman, to go hunting. Even at an early age, he was interested in natural history, which would develop into a lifelong passion. His mother taught him how to gather wild herbs for medicinal purposes. In the Broad River Valley, Lewis first dealt with American Indians. This was the traditional territory of the Cherokee, who resented encroachment by the colonists. Lewis seems to have been a champion for them among his own people. While in Georgia, he met Eric Parker, who encouraged him to travel. At thirteen, Lewis was sent back to Virginia for education by private tutors. His father's older brother Nicholas Lewis became his guardian. One of his tutors was Parson Matthew Maury, an uncle of Matthew Fontaine Maury. In 1793, Lewis graduated from Liberty Hall (now Washington and Lee University).
That year he joined the Virginia militia, and in 1794 he was sent as part of a detachment involved in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1795 Lewis joined the U.S. Army, commissioned as a Lieutenant, where he served until 1801. Among his commanding officers was William Clark, who would later become his companion in the Corps of Discovery.
On April 1, 1801, Lewis was appointed as an aide by President Thomas Jefferson, whom he knew through Virginia society in Albemarle County. Lewis resided in the presidential mansion, and frequently conversed with various prominent figures in politics, the arts and other circles. Originally, he was to provide information on the politics of the United States Army, which had seen an influx of Federalist officers as a result of John Adams's "midnight appointments". When Jefferson began to plan for an expedition across the continent, he chose Lewis to lead the expedition.
As co-leader Jefferson picked an Army captain, William Clark. Clark did not have any formal education; like many of his contemporaries, he was tutored at home. In later years, he was self-conscious about his convoluted grammar and inconsistent spelling—he spelled "Sioux" 27 different ways in his journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—and sought to have his journals corrected before publication. The spelling of American English was not standardized in Clark's youth, though his vocabulary suggests he was well read.
In 1803, Meriwether Lewis recruited Clark, then age 33, to share command of the newly formed Corps of Discovery, whose mission was to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, establish trade with Native Americans and the sovereignty of the U.S. Although Clark was refused rank when Jefferson asked the Senate to appoint him, at Lewis' insistence, he exercised equal authority, and continued the mission. Clark concentrated chiefly on the drawing of maps, the management of the expedition's supplies, and leading hunting expeditions for game.
For many years, Lewis' legacy was overlooked, inaccurately assessed, and somewhat tarnished by his alleged suicide. Yet his contributions to science, the exploration of the Western U.S., and the lore of great world explorers, are considered incalculable.
Four years after Lewis' death, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, 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.”
Over the years Lewis and Clark have been given short shrift in our K-12 text books while a minor player, the Native American wife of one of the guides, Sacagawea, has been played up — especially by the women’s movement. The National American Woman Suffrage Association embraced her as a female hero, and numerous stories and essays about her appeared in ladies' journals.
Sacagawea, sometimes called Sakajawea or Sakagawea (c. 1788 – December 20, 1812), was an indigenous woman who accompanied her husband Toussaint Charbonneau on the expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Her son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was born in 1805 with the help of the expedition.
Though she has been discussed in literature frequently, much of the information is exaggerated or fiction. Scholars say she did notice some geographical features, but "Sacagawea was not the guide for the Expedition, she was important to them as an interpreter and in other ways.” The sight of a woman and her infant son would have been a reassuring sight to some indigenous nations, and she played an important role in diplomatic relations by talking to chiefs, easing tensions, and giving the impression of a peaceful mission.
In his writings, Meriwether Lewis presented a somewhat negative view of her, though Clark had a higher regard for her, and later on provided some support for her children in subsequent years. In the journals, they used the terms "squar" and "savages" to refer to Sacagawea and other indigenous peoples.
It has taken years for the story of true value of the Lewis and Clark to be told. These men with little foreknowledge of the route they would traverse did a remarkable job of recording the wonders, natural resources, and the value of the territory Jefferson purchased from France. This was not a romantic tale of a 15-year old Native American girl but a hard-header, tough journey of scientific exploration that would provide valuable information for the expansion of the United States to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps it is time for our K-12 schools to put more focus on the history of our nation and the men who risked life and limb to gather the data and knowledge of this great nation and less on diversity. (See what The Broward school district in Florida has endorsed what is being called a “groundbreaking” resolution encouraging K-12 students to celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History Month this October, as reported by the Sun Sentinel.)
For an excellent interactive Google Map of the route of the expedition click here.