The Exploration of Western America, 1800-1850: An Historical Geography

By E. W. Gilbert | Go to book overview

Chapter IX
THE DISCOVERY OF A NORTHERN
TRANS-CONTINENTAL ROUTE

(a) The Expedition of Lewis and Clark, 1803-1806

Thomas Jefferson had long been interested in the exploration of Louisiana. He had been concerned in the abortive expeditions of Ledyard and Michaux, and when, in 1801, he became President of the United States, he determined that the exploration of western America should be carried out. Before the purchase of Louisiana had even been suggested by Napoleon, Jefferson had drawn up a scheme of exploration. On January 18, 1803, in a confidential message to Congress, Jefferson said that "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".2 He proposed that an expedition be sent out to trace the Missouri to its source, and added that "an intelligent officer, with ten or twelve chosen men, fit for the enterprise, and willing to undertake it, taken from our posts, where they may be spared without inconvenience, might explore the whole line, even to the Western ocean, have conferences with the natives on subjects of commercial intercourse, get admission among them for our traders, as others are admitted, agree on convenient deposits for an interchange of articles, and return with the information acquired, in the course of two summers".3 Congress approved this proposal and voted the money to carry it into execution.

Jefferson's private secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis (Fig. 18), was chosen to lead the expedition, and Lieutenant

____________________
1
The routes of the explorers described in this chapter are shown on end Map A, Fig. 32.
2
Annals of the Congress of the United States, 7th Congress, 2nd Session, 1802-3, Tuesday, January 18, 1803, confidential message from the President, Washington, 1851.
3
Ibid.

-105-

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