Modern history

CHAPTER SIX

The Origins of the Expedition

1750–1802

Jefferson’s interest in exploring the country between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean ran back a full half-century. His father had been a member of the Loyal Land Company, which had been awarded by the crown some eight hundred thousand acres west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1750 one member of the company, Thomas Walker, founder of the town of Charlottesville, led a small party over the mountains to locate lands. In his travels, he crossed the Cumberland Gap.

Three years later, ten-year-old Thomas Jefferson’s teacher, the Reverend James Maury, made plans to explore farther west for the Loyal Company. In January 1756, Maury wrote, “Some persons were to be sent in search of that river Missouri in order to discover whether it had any communication with the Pacific Ocean; they were to follow the river if they found it, and exact reports of the country they passed through, the distances they traveled, what worth of navigation those rivers and lakes afforded, etc.” Thomas Walker was once again chosen to lead the expedition, but the French and Indian War intervened before he could get started. Nothing came of the plan after the war.1

In the decade following the winning of independence, there were four American plans to explore the West. Jefferson was the instigator of three of them. Within weeks of the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, Jefferson wrote General George Rogers Clark, the man who had won the Old Northwest for the United States, to report that some British capitalists had subscribed a “very large sum of money for exploring the country from the Mississipi to California. They pretend it is only to promote knolege. I am afraid they have thoughts of colonising into that quarter. Some of us have been talking here in a feeble way of making the attempt to search that country. . . . How would you like to lead such a party?”2

General Clark replied, “It is what I think we ought to do.” Not, however, the way Jefferson proposed to do it. Clark warned that sending a large party, as Jefferson intended, would be a mistake. “Large parties will never answer the purpose. They will allarm the Indian Nations they pass through. Three or four young Men well qualified for the Task might perhaps compleat your wishes at a very Trifling Expence.” He thought it would take four or five years, and regretted that his own business affairs precluded his going.3 Again nothing happened.

Two years later, in 1785, Jefferson was in Paris as minister to France. There he learned that Louis XVI was sending out an expedition to the Pacific Northwest under the command of Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse. The French government said the objective was strictly scientific, but Jefferson knew at once that La Pérouse was looking for something more than the Northwest Passage. He wrote on August 14, “They [the French] give out that the object is merely for the improvement of our knowledge. . . . Their loading and some other circumstances appear to me to indicate some other design; perhaps that of colonising on the West coast of America, or perhaps to establish one or more factories there for the fur trade.” He added that the real question was whether the French were yet weaned from their desire to have colonies in North America. Admiral John Paul Jones reported to him that they had not, that the La Pérouse expedition was preparing the way for French fur trade and colonization on the northwestern coast.4

The following summer, 1786, Jefferson met John Ledyard, who had sailed with Captain Cook and as a consequence was the first American to set foot in the Pacific Northwest. A born wanderer, a great talker, intense, dynamic, he convinced Jefferson that he could travel by land from Moscow to easternmost Siberia, cross the Bering Sea on a Russian fur-trade vessel, then walk across the North American continent and eventually march into the Capitol to announce that he had arrived to report on the West. Ledyard proposed to do this with two dogs. Jefferson was supportive.

Ledyard set forth. He made it to Siberia, where the absurd idea died when Ledyard was arrested by Empress Catherine the Great and sent back to Poland.5

La Pérouse, meanwhile, had sailed around South America, come up to the northwestern coast, taken observations and scouted for trading posts, and set sail for home. In January 1788, he made port in Botany Bay, Australia. When he left Botany, he vanished. The wreckage of his vessels was found forty years later on an island north of the New Hebrides.

In 1790, United States Secretary of War Henry Knox tried to mount a secret Missouri River reconnaissance. In Knox’s view, “An enterprising Officer with a non commissioned Officer well acquainted with living in the woods, and perfectly capable of describing rivers and countries, accompanied by four or five hardy indians would in my opinion be the best mode of obtaining the information requested.” General Josiah Harmar nominated Lieutenant John Armstrong for the command of the expedition, but warned Knox that “it seems very much too adventrous.” The governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, was equally blunt. He told Knox, “It is, sir, I believe, at present, altogether impracticable.”

Lieutenant Armstrong gave it a try, but by the time he reached the Mississippi he was ready to admit, “This is a business much easier planned than executed.” Knox had said that the pocket compasses and pencils and papers would do for making maps and recording discoveries, a mark of how little he understood the problem. Armstrong, after reaching the Mississippi, made a list of items any exploring party would have to have, starting with oilcloth to secure the papers from the elements, and including proper writing instruments and scientific tools for measurements. A tent would also help. He sent in his expense account: “for himself & Servant, totaling one hundred and ten dollars and thirty nine ninetieths of a Dollar.”6 He never got to the west bank of the Mississippi.

In 1792, Jefferson had another idea on how to explore the West. On May 11 of that year, the American sea captain Robert Gray had sailed his Columbia into the estuary of the Columbia River. Later that month, he met and traded information with Captain George Vancouver, who was making an official voyage of discovery of the Pacific Coast for the British government. The discovery of the great river of the West established the mouth of the Columbia at 124 degrees of longitude, and the latitude at 46 degrees. From the results of James Cook’s third voyage in 1780, Jefferson had a rough idea of the extent of the continent; with the Gray and Vancouver information, the knowledge was exact. The continent was about three thousand miles wide.

Jefferson was spurred, not depressed, by the information. He proposed to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia that a subscription be undertaken to engage an explorer to lead an overland expedition to the Pacific. Big donors, led by George Washington, Robert Morris, and Alexander Hamilton, came in on the subscription, ensuring its success. Washington’s pledge came with a matching challenge: “I readily add my mite to the [project] and do authorise you to place me among & upon a footing with the respectable sums which may be Subscribed.”7 With such help, by January 23, 1793, the American Philosophical Society was in a position to offer one thousand pounds to the explorer who could make it to the Pacific and back and report on what he saw.

As noted, eighteen-year-old Meriwether Lewis volunteered to lead the expedition, but Jefferson passed him off as obviously too young and insufficiently trained. He chose instead the French botanist André Michaux.

Jefferson wrote the instructions for Michaux and went over them with Washington. Since Hamilton and other officials were also involved, the instructions can be said to represent the motives, expectations, and hopes of the Founding Fathers toward the North American West, ten years after independence was recognized in the Treaty of Paris and at the beginning of the second term of the Washington administration.

The instructions were dated April 30, 1793. The first purpose, Jefferson wrote, was “to find the shortest & most convenient route of communication between the U.S. & the Pacific ocean, within the temperate latitudes.” Since that was almost certain to be the Missouri River, “It has therefore been declared as a fundamental object of the subscription, (not to be dispensed with) that this river should be considered & explored.”

Because the country belonged to Spain, not the United States, Michaux should cross the Mississippi somewhere far enough north of the Spanish garrison in St. Louis to “avoid the risk of being stopped.” He should then march west until he struck the Missouri, follow it to the mountains, get over them, and descend the Columbia River to the Pacific.

Beyond the search for the all-water route across the continent, Jefferson told Michaux that as he proceeded he should “take notice of the country you pass through, it’s general face, soil, river, mountains, it’s productions animal, vegetable, & mineral so far as they may be new to us & may also be useful; the latitude of places . . . ; the names, numbers, & dwellings of the inhabitants, and such particularities as you can learn of them.”

Jefferson had selected Michaux because he was a trained scientist; botany, astronomy, mineralogy, and ethnology were among the subjects he had studied. Throughout, the instructions emphasized practical, useful knowledge. There was no hint of encouraging exploration for its own sake or merely to satisfy curiosity about what was out there. This was a true Enlightenment venture.

Geography was what most interested the subscribers. “Ignorance of the country thro’ which you are to pass and confidence in your judgment, zeal, & discretion,” Jefferson wrote, “prevent the society from attempting more minute instructions, and even from exacting rigorous observance of those already given, except indeed what is the first of all objects, that you seek for & pursue that route which shall form the shortest & most convenient communication between the higher parts of the Missouri & the Pacific ocean.”8

Beyond the fur trade and other commerce, beyond the acquisition of knowledge, Jefferson and the subscribers wanted to tie the two coasts together, using the Missouri-Columbia waterway to form the knot, in order to create a continent-wide empire for the United States. It was a breathtaking vision.

It had, however, an anticlimactic ending. Michaux got started in June 1793, but he had scarcely reached Kentucky when Jefferson discovered that he was a secret agent of the French Republic whose chief aim was to raise a western force to attack Spanish possessions beyond the Mississippi. At Jefferson’s insistence, the French government recalled Michaux.

Over the following decade, Jefferson neither spoke nor wrote about the West. Partly this was because he was so busy with politics and his other duties, but it had also become obvious that the West could not be explored by private subscription, and that the federal government could not afford to sponsor an expedition. Further, conditions in the country to be explored were so totally unknown that there could be no agreement on how many men it would take, what they would need, how long it would last.

But there was no hurry, for, as long as Louisiana was in Spanish hands and Ohio River Valley pioneers had access to the wharves of New Orleans, the United States could afford to wait. Spain was old and decrepit, growing weaker each year. America was young and dynamic, growing stronger every day. The people who were going to transform the Mississippi Valley, from its source to New Orleans, into farms and villages would come from the United States, not from Spain. Time would come soon enough to take Louisiana from the hapless Spanish.

In the spring of 1801, however, Jefferson learned of the secret treaties between France (read Napoleon) and Spain (read Napoleon’s brother) that had transferred Louisiana from Spain back to France. It was called a retrocession.

Jefferson was greatly alarmed. As he put it in one of his more famous passages, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three eighths of our territory must pass to market.”

As long as the Spanish were in possession, the United States was willing to wait before asserting sovereignty. But revolutionary France? Napoleonic France? Expansionist France? Never. Often derided as a hopelessly romantic Francophile, Jefferson was a hardheaded practitioner of realpolitik on this one. “The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever within her low water mark,” he warned, because “From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.”9

He let the French know of his resolve. He suggested that Napoleon cede Louisiana to the United States, to eliminate the possibility of war between the former allies, a war which Jefferson warned would “annihilate France on the ocean.” And he flatly declared that his government would consider any attempt to land French troops in Louisiana a cause for war.10

That was the kind of blunt talk Americans liked to have their president use when it came to America’s national interests in a clash with any foreign nation. Also persuasive was that it was based on facts. Napoleon’s expeditionary force was being devastated in Santo Domingo. It was obvious France could not reconquer that colony, much less send an army to New Orleans. The British and Americans in combination would have sunk the French navy and merchant fleet. Napoleon could not defend what he owned; he could only lose in Louisiana; why not give it to the United States and be done with the problem, and in the process re-establish the alliance between the two countries?

But Napoleon had not become emperor of France by giving things away. Though he agreed with the logic, he would rather sell than give.

The Spanish, still in command in New Orleans, waiting for the French to arrive and take possession, had meanwhile withdrawn the right of deposit.I The immediate effect was minor. Americans could still offload directly from raft or keelboat to ships in the port, or pay fees. And the Spanish gave a solid reason: smuggling had gotten completely out of hand. But decisions about Louisiana could only be made by Napoleon. Jefferson instructed the American minister in Paris, Robert Livingston, to negotiate for a tract of land on the lower Mississippi for use as a port or, failing this, to obtain an irrevocable guarantee of the right of deposit.

To reinforce Livingston, Jefferson began working on a plan to send James Monroe over to Paris as a minister plenipotentiary with specific instructions for the purchase of New Orleans for two million dollars. As he talked this up among Republican leaders, Jefferson indicated he would be willing to ask Congress for up to ten million for New Orleans. And why not? It would be cheaper than a war, and quicker. It would keep America out of an alliance with the British—the very thought of which to these Revolutionary War veterans was mortifying. It would certainly be constitutional—there was no other single thing the federal government could do that would more exactly meet its charge to improve commerce.

The thought that Napoleon might be willing to sell all of Louisiana had not occurred to anyone.

It was not the French who got Jefferson to start another project for an exploring expedition across the West—the retrocession had nothing to do with it—but the British.

Alexander Mackenzie was a young Scotsman in the fur trade out of Montreal, working for the North West Company. In 1787, he was posted to a wild trading post on the west end of Lake Athabaska, in what is now northern Alberta, at sixty degrees of latitude. Though he imported enough of the comforts of civilization to Fort Chipewyan so that it was called “the Athens of the North,” another part of him yearned not for what had been left behind but, rather, what lay ahead. In 1789, he led a small party to Great Slave Lake. On the river that now bears his name, he set out for the sea. But the river swung to the north, and Mackenzie made tidal water on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, not the Pacific.

Undeterred, the next year Mackenzie tried again. He wintered at the North West Company’s westernmost post—Fort Fork, on the Peace River. From there, on May 9, 1793, he set out. Accompanying him was his fellow Scot Alexander Mackay, six French Canadian voyagers, and two Indians, plus a ton and a half of provisions. Within the month, he had crossed the Continental Divide at a place where it was just three thousand feet high, and easily portaged. Mackenzie reported to the governor general of Canada, “We carried over the height of Land (which is only 700 yards broad) that separates those Waters, the one empties into the Northern [Atlantic] Ocean, and the other into the Western.”

Mackenzie got onto the Fraser River, which he mistakenly thought was the northern tributary of the Columbia, but abandoned it when it became impassable, and struck out overland for the coast. Thirteen days later, he made it to saltwater, in the northern reaches of the Strait of Georgia. He camped that night atop a steep, overhanging rock. Using a makeshift paint of vermilion and hot grease, he inscribed on the rock: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.” The British had their claim on the northwestern empire.

Mackenzie got the latitude and longitude of the place. He worked out the latitude using his sextant, which measured the height of the sun above the horizon. Knowing the moment the sun crossed the local meridian made it possible for him to compute how far north of the equator he was.

Longitude was much more difficult, although easy in theory. The earth turns 360 degrees every twenty-four hours, without variation, meaning that the passage of time is also a measure of distance from some arbitrary starting point. By 1793, Greenwich, England, down the Thames River from London, was becoming firmly established as a conventional marker for zero longitude. In four minutes, the turning earth moves one degree in longitude. It is relatively easy to calculate longitude if the explorer knows precisely when it is noon in Greenwich and what time it is where he is standing. But it is almost impossibly difficult to calculate longitude if you can’t tell the time, in either Greenwich or the wilderness. Englishman John Harrison had invented a clock that was reliable and portable, making it possible to know both times. Captain James Cook had used the Harrison chronometer in the Pacific Ocean in 1775, proving its superiority. But the rigors of overland journeys were too much for such delicate instruments—they got banged around, they got dust in them—so land explorers relied on the telescope and astronomy.

Mackenzie picked out Jupiter with his telescope and noted the time when the moons Io and Ganymede disappeared behind the planet. From tables showing the times of the same events from Greenwich, Mackenzie computed a longitude of 128.2 degrees west, which was almost a degree, or sixty miles, off. He realized he had been “most fortunate. . . . a few cloudy days would have prevented me from ascertaining the final longitude of it.” Clouds were always the bane of the navigator.

Back at Fort Chipewyan, Mackenzie tried to prepare his journal for publication, but he fell into a depression. His biographer writes that this was his second attempt to find a practical commercial route to the Pacific, “and it was at least in part a failure. He had reached the Pacific, but he knew his route could not be used for trade.” He left Canada that year, and never came back.11

Mackenzie’s account was not published until 1801, in London. It was probably ghostwritten, for Mackenzie was not learned enough to have written the book in its published form.12 The title was Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Lawrence, Through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Ocean. Jefferson ordered a copy as soon as he heard of the book’s existence, but did not have one in his hands until the summer of 1802. He was at Monticello, Lewis was with him, and when the book finally arrived, they devoured it.

If the news that the British were exploring overland to the Pacific was a bit of a shock and most unwelcome, it was more than balanced by Mackenzie’s evidence that, although there was only a one-day portage over a low mountain pass to a westward-flowing river, that river was not navigable. But, then, Mackenzie had been five full degrees north of the Columbia when he struck the coast. If the mountains four hundred miles south were similar to those he crossed, the portage would also be similar.

In their minds Jefferson and Lewis saw the Rockies as resembling the Appalachians in height and breadth. That image was greatly reinforced by Mackenzie. Geographer-historian John Logan Allen, in his seminal work Passage Through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest, notes that Mackenzie said in effect that “The way to the Pacific lay open and easy.” According to Professor Allen, “It was this simple fact of imaginary geography that gave birth to the Lewis and Clark expedition.”13

Through those hot August days of 1802 at Monticello, Jefferson and Lewis read and talked about little else than Mackenzie. Although Mackenzie stressed that his had been a “long, painful and perilous journey,” and although things had turned out badly for Mackenzie, Lewis saw a competitive challenge and an opportunity to act out his life’s dream. Anything the British could do, he could do better.

It was easy to point to mistakes or shortcomings in the Mackenzie expedition. He had been on a strictly commercial venture with a single purpose only, to find a practicable route for the fur trade. He had collected few specimens, made few descriptions, in general did not advance knowledge of the plant, animal, mineral, or Indian life of the country.

Although nearly every sentence in the book was a magnet to Lewis, what struck hardest was the line: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land.” This raised the matter of national honor. The name painted on that rock on the Pacific Coast was a direct, open, irresistible challenge. It was also a warning that, if the United States did not get going, it would lose the western empire to the British before the game was well under way.

The sentences that most struck Jefferson were in Mackenzie’s final “geographical review,” in which he urged Great Britain to develop a land passage to the Pacific for trade with Asia. He knew it could not be the Fraser, or any other river north of the Columbia, which was “the most Northern situation fit for colonization, and suitable to the residence of a civilized people. By opening this intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and forming regular establishments through the interior, and at both extremes, as well as along the coasts and islands, the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained, from latitude 48. North to the pole, except that portion of it which the Russians have in the Pacific [in Alaska]. To this may be added the fishing in both seas, and the markets of the four quarters of the globe.”14

No wonder the North West Company liked Mackenzie. He thought big and he thought like a businessman. The fire he lit, however, was not under the company, or the British government, but under Jefferson.

The news that the British were threatening to set up shop in the Northwest galvanized Jefferson into manic activity and changed Meriwether Lewis’s life overnight.

Sometime late that summer or in the fall of 1802—it is impossible to tell even what week, much less the moment—President Jefferson informed Captain Lewis that he would command an expedition to the Pacific. Or Captain Lewis talked President Jefferson into giving him the command. We don’t know when or how Jefferson made his decision that there would be an American answer to Mackenzie and that Lewis would lead it. Evidently he consulted no one, asked no one for advice, entertained no nominees or volunteers, other than Lewis. This was the most important and the most coveted command in the history of exploration of North America. Jefferson was confident that he had the right man under his roof.

Later, Jefferson explained why he chose Lewis rather than a qualified scientist: “It was impossible to find a character who to a compleat science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, & a familiarity with the Indian manners & character, requisite for this undertaking. All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has.”15

That was not to say Lewis was ignorant of science. Further, Lewis had demonstrated a remarkable ability to learn, especially with Jefferson as his teacher. Jefferson’s library at Monticello was the most extensive in the world on the subject of the geography of the North American continent. Lewis had the run of the library. He consulted maps and conferred with Jefferson over them. In Professor Allen’s words, “It must be assumed that he and the President talked at great length about the nature of the country west of the Mississippi and the possible character of the speculative passage to Pacific waters.”16

From his later journals, we know that Lewis read Captain James Cook’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (London, 1784), the account of Cook’s third voyage, to the Pacific Northwest. It almost certainly was at this time that he read it. He also read Antoine Simor Le Page du Pratz’s The History of Louisiana, or of the Western Parts of Virginia and Carolina (London, 1763), and took it with him on his expedition. He read other books and consulted more maps.

He took botany lessons from Jefferson, who taught as they walked through the gardens at Monticello or, later in the season, along the banks of the Potomac. Jefferson once said no country gentleman should be without “what amuses every step he takes into his fields,” and he ranked botany with the most valuable of sciences, “whether we consider its subjects as furnishing the principal subsistence of life to man and beast, delicious varieties for our tables . . . the adornments of our flower borders . . . or medicaments for our bodies.”17 Jefferson introduced Lewis to the Linnaean system of affixing binomial Latin names, and taught him enough to use the system in the field. He taught Lewis how to use a sextant and tried to teach him the use of the equatorial theodolite.18

Lewis rightly believed that he had Jefferson’s complete confidence. They had a cipher so that they could communicate secretly, which might be necessary, since Jefferson had told Lewis, privately, that he would be sending the expedition into foreign territory. The Spanish might protest. They talked about the Indians along the Missouri, of their attachment to the British trading posts north of the Missouri and of the possibility of bringing the tribes into the American orbit. They talked of finding the Welsh Indians on the Missouri. They talked flora and fauna, mountains and rivers. They talked about the size of the party, whether too many would alarm the Indians to the point of active war, whether too few would invite an Indian attack to seize the rifles and supplies. They agreed on the basic need to bring back accurate records, descriptions, and maps.

In short, between the time Mackenzie’s book arrived at Monticello and December 1802, Jefferson gave Lewis a college undergraduate’s introduction to the liberal arts, North American geography, botany, mineralogy, astronomy, and ethnology.

In the fall of 1802, back in the President’s House, Jefferson and Lewis continued their preparations for the expedition. While Lewis drew up an estimate of expenses, to present to Congress as part of a request for an appropriation, Jefferson began to widen the circle of those who knew about the proposal.

The first outsider brought into the plan was Carlos Martínez de Yrujo, the Spanish minister to the United States. Martínez was married to the daughter of Governor Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania and was on friendly terms with Jefferson—in fact, had found a cook for the president. On December 2, Martínez reported to the minister of foreign affairs in Madrid that Jefferson had asked him, “in a frank and confident tone, if our Court would take it badly, that the congress decree the formation of a group of travelers, who would form a small caravan and go and explore the course of the Missouri River [with] no other view than the advancement of the geography.”

Jefferson, Martínez reported, had explained that, as a strict constructionist of the Constitution, he could not ask Congress for an appropriation for a mere literary expenditure, so he intended to lie to Congress and pass the expedition off as one designed to promote commerce—which was a power given Congress by the Constitution.

At this point, Jefferson was into a third or fourth degree of indirection. Martínez cut him off: “I replied to him that making use of the same frankness with which he honored me, I would take the liberty of telling him, that . . . an expedition of this nature could not fail to give umbrage to our Government.”

Jefferson could not see why. The only subject would be to fill in the map, which would benefit everyone.

Martínez did not believe him, any more than Jefferson had believed the British in 1783 about the purposes of their proposed exploration, or Louis XVI about the purposes of the La Pérouse expedition of 1785. Martínez told his government, “The President has been all his life a man of letters, very speculative and a lover of glory, and it would be possible he might attempt to perpetuate the fame of his administration . . . by discovering . . . the way by which the Americans may some day extend their population and their influence up to the coasts of the South Sea [Pacific Ocean].”19 Martínez knew his man.

Undeterred by Martínez’s negative reaction (and his refusal to give Captain Lewis a passport), Jefferson plunged ahead. In the late winter of 1802–3, he got a passport for Lewis from the British minister, and another from the French. Simultaneously he moved forward with the Monroe project to purchase New Orleans from Napoleon.

Lewis meanwhile completed his estimate. He based it on the costs for a party of one officer and ten to twelve soldiers—surely reflecting a decision he and Jefferson had made together about the ideal size—and kept it as low as possible, to avoid congressional criticism. With $696 for “Indian presents” as the largest expenditure, and other large sums for provisions, mathematical instruments, arms, medicines, and a boat, it came to twenty-five hundred dollars on the nose.20

Jefferson put a request for that amount into his first draft of his annual message to Congress in December 1802. When Treasury Secretary Gallatin saw the draft, he suggested that the request be confined to a separate, later, confidential message, “as it contemplates an expedition out of our own territory.” Jefferson agreed and sent up a special, secret message to Congress on January 18, 1803. Even then he buried the request in a discourse on the Indian problem, couching it in terms of commerce.

“The river Missouri, & the Indians inhabiting it,” he said, “are not as well known as is rendered desireable by their connection with the Mississippi, & consequently with us. It is however understood that the country on that river is inhabited by numerous tribes, who furnish great supplies of furs & pelty to the trade of another nation carried on in a high latitude, through an infinite number of portages and lakes, shut up by ice through a long season.” The Missouri, traversing an area with a moderate climate, might offer a better source of transportation, “possibly with a single portage, from the Western ocean.” Those congressmen who were listening hard got the clear message: we can steal the fur trade from the British.

It would not cost much. One officer and a dozen soldiers, who would have to be paid regardless, could explore “the whole line, even to the Western ocean.” They could talk with the Indians, persuade them to accept American traders, agree on the sites for trading posts. They could do all of this in two summers, and for a pittance.

Jefferson concluded: “The interests of commerce place the principal object within the constitutional powers and care of Congress, and that it should incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent can not but be an additional gratification.” He then asked for an appropriation of twenty-five hundred dollars “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the U.S.”21 There was some muttering from the Federalists, who always resented and resisted spending money on the West, but they were too badly outnumbered to be effective. Congress approved the whole package.

The twenty-five hundred went down easy, compared with Jefferson’s request the previous week, which had been for an open-ended (up to $9,375,000) appropriation for the purchase of New Orleans. The Federalists had protested, over the amount of money and because some of the High Federalists were clamoring for war against France. But the Republicans held firm, and the Congress made the appropriation. The president selected Monroe to go to Paris to join Livingston in the negotiations. If Jefferson saw the link between the January 12 and the January 18 appropriation bills, he never mentioned it to anyone, except perhaps Lewis.

As soon as the appropriation for western exploration passed, as Jefferson recalled it, “Captain Lewis immediately renewed his solicitations to have the direction of the party.” Perhaps command really was still an open question; more likely Jefferson was pretending that until Congress had authorized the expedition he had made no choice of a leader.

Whatever his reason for the remark, Jefferson never hesitated to confirm Lewis’s appointment. Jefferson by this time had spent two full years with Lewis on a daily basis, and had taught Lewis on an intense schedule for about four months. He later wrote that, by the beginning of 1803, “I had now had opportunities of knowing him intimately.”

Jefferson gave his reasons for picking Lewis to Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia: “Capt. Lewis is brave, prudent, habituated to the woods, & familiar with Indian manners & character. He is not regularly educated, but he possesses a great mass of accurate observation on all the subjects of nature which present themseles here, & will therefore readily select those only in his new route which shall be new. He has qualified himself for those observations of longitude & latitude necessary to fix the points of the line he will go over.”22

Lewis still had much to learn. To that end, Jefferson had plans for him to do graduate work in Philadelphia, with America’s leading scientists. That Lewis would benefit, Jefferson had no doubt. That Lewis could simultaneously plan the expedition and begin putting it together, Jefferson had no doubts. Some of his advisers did; they considered Lewis not well educated and perhaps too strongheaded and too much of a risk-taker. But Jefferson was sure he had the right man.


I. The right to offload goods at the piers in New Orleans, sell them, and then reload onto sailing vessels.

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