(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on September 27, 2021.)
Two hundred fifteen years ago this month, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, leading some thirty men and one woman of the “Corps of Discovery,” completed its expedition from St. Louis, up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean, and returned.
This expedition was the brainchild of President Thomas Jefferson who selected Meriwether Lewis, a fellow young Virginian and former Army officer, to lead the expedition. To help prepare him, Jefferson appointed him his secretary in April 1801. Over the next two years, Jefferson transmitted as much knowledge as possible to him on a variety of subjects relevant to the trip: botany, mineralogy, geography, ethnography, zoology. Also he introduced Lewis to the many experts in these fields whom Jefferson knew.
When a second officer to lead the expedition was authorized, Lewis selected William Clark, who had been his company commander for six months earlier in the Army. In his book, “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West,” Stephen Ambrose describes Clark as “a tough woodsman accustomed to command,” possessing a way with enlisted men, a better surveyor than Lewis, more familiar with the water, and proficient in mapmaking. Ambrose adds: “They complemented each other.” “Their trust in each other was complete.”
Jefferson had many motives for launching this expedition. The most important goal was to determine if an all-water route existed from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, most likely using the Missouri River and Columbia River systems.
In his letter of instruction to Lewis, Jefferson continued. Learn about the routes British traders, coming south from Canada, used to trade with the Missouri tribes, their methods and practices. How could the fur trade dominated by the British be taken over by Americans?
Good maps for the future were essential. Jefferson stated: “Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take careful observations of latitude and longitude, at all remarkable points on the river ….”
Of the many Indian tribes, he instructed Lewis to learn the names of the nations, their numbers, possessions, their relations with other tribes, languages, traditions, monuments, lifestyles, implements, food, clothing, housing, diseases and remedies, laws, and customs. Last on his list but first in importance was “articles of commerce they may need or furnish ….”
Beyond commerce, the expedition was to discover and detail flora and fauna, soil and minerals, dinosaur bones, and volcanoes.
Shortly before the trip began, the Jefferson Administration concluded the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon’s France for about $15 million. By buying this huge tract of land of 830,000 square miles, the U.S. doubled its size from the Mississippi River west to the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains.
This acquisition had great significance for the expedition in that the majority of the area it would now explore belonged to the U.S. As Jefferson indicated, this “lessened the apprehensions of interruption from other [European] powers” and it also “increased infinitely the interest we felt in the expedition.”
Of course, it also changed the relationship to the Indigenous Americans. Through the lens of great power politics and in the eyes of the United States, these tribes were now on American territory. Their “Great Father” was now Jefferson and not a Spanish or French ruler. He instructed Lewis to foster peace among them and to bring them into the American trading network.
Lewis’ first journal entry for the expedition was dated August 31, 1803. On September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery paddled into St. Louis to conclude their epic journey. Depending on where one decides to begin their journey, it covered some 8,000 miles traveled by keelboat, pirogue (large canoe), canoe, horse, and on foot.
Among other accomplishments, they confirmed that there was no all-water route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, made the first detailed maps of the regions, met and established relations with some two dozen Indian nations, at times almost coming to blows with some but without whose help the expedition would have faced starvation and become lost. They discovered and described 178 new plants and 122 species and subspecies of animals.
After Lewis’ premature death on October 11, 1809, Jefferson described him as a man “of undaunted courage.”
Americans of European descent celebrate this expedition; American Indigenous would have quite a different view. In our standard U.S. history books, it receives two or three paragraphs. The Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, who took part, served as an interpreter, and gave birth to a son during the expedition, may get one sentence. York, the enslaved person of William Clark, is probably not mentioned. Part II of this essay will deal with these two members of the Corps of Discovery.
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.