- The Expedition of Lewis and Clark
- by Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis
America's third president, Thomas Jefferson, had long been curious about
the unexplored wilderness to the west of the Mississippi River. France
owned much of this land, but Jefferson saw that it was economically and
strategically important to the U.S. and hoped that it held the legendary
Northwest Passage-an easy water route to the Pacific Ocean. President
Jefferson decided to launch an expedition to explore the Northwest and
named his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, as its commander. Lewis
asked William Clark, an army officer under whom he had served, to join
the expedition as co-commander.
After months of preparation, as Lewis was traveling west to meet Clark,
Jefferson's envoys reported that Napoleon had agreed to sell France's
land holdings-828,000 square miles of territory between the Mississippi
River and the Rocky Mountains-to the U.S. government. This Louisiana Purchase
cost $15 million, enlarged the U.S. by more than 140 percent, and added
land that would later become Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, North
and South Dakota, most of Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, and
parts of Colorado and Oklahoma. The Lewis and Clark expedition now would
be exploring American territory.
On May 14, 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition of 50 people left St.
Louis in heavy rain. They traveled up the Missouri River in a specially
designed 55-foot keelboat and two dugouts, setting up a winter camp in
November near today's Bismarck, ND. The party included Lewis, Clark, Lewis's
slave, three interpreters, U.S. soldiers, and a group of carefully selected
frontiersmen and French-speaking boatmen and traders. In April 1805, the
expedition resumed their journey, taking along a French fur trapper and
his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea. In July 1805, Lewis and Clark found the
Missouri's headwaters and realized that there was no easy water route
to the Pacific. They then crossed the Rocky Mountains on horseback, traveled
down the Columbia River, and reached the Pacific Ocean on November 8,
1805. In December, they set up winter camp on the Oregon coast near the
Clatsop Indians. After a wet and miserable winter, they were short on
provisions and forced to depart on March 23, 1806. After a difficult return
journey, during which Lewis was mistaken for an elk and shot in the leg
by one of his men, the party managed to make their way home, arriving
in St. Louis on September 23, 1806.
The Lewis and Clark expedition had lasted two years and four months.
The group had traveled 8,000 miles through largely unexplored wilderness.
Thanks principally to Captain Clark's diplomacy, they had had only one
battle with Indians. They had lost only one man, who died in 1804, apparently
of a ruptured appendix. Lewis and Clark had performed an extraordinary
feat of exploration that had profound impact on America's future, since
they proved that the continent was rich in resources and could be traversed
and settled. Lewis and Clark brought back daily journals, highly accurate
maps, and exhaustive information on animals, vegetation, Indians, and
navigation. Theodore Roosevelt later said that this brilliant expedition
"opened the door into the heart of the Far West."
The first of this selection's documents dealing with the expedition is
Jefferson's letter of instruction to Lewis; the second is an entry by
Lewis from the expedition's journal; and the third is Lewis's letter to
Jefferson announcing the successful return of the expedition to St. Louis.
About the Author
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1846) was author of the Declaration of
Independence, an influential political leader, and America's third president.
Jefferson was a country gentleman, a lawyer, an architect, and a scholar.
Before becoming president of the U.S., he was a delegate to Virginia's
House of Burgesses, Virginia's delegate to the Second Continental Congress,
author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, America's
ambassador to France, and U.S. secretary of state and vice-president.
After his retirement from public office, he founded the University of
While serving President Washington's administration as secretary of state,
Jefferson became involved in an intense political battle with Alexander
Hamilton, the U.S. treasury secretary. This led to founding of the first
two U.S. political parties, Hamilton's Federalist Party and Jefferson's
Republican Party. As president (1801-1809), Jefferson's most important
achievements probably were the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Lewis
and Clark expedition (1804-1806). He also resolved a costly ongoing problem
with pirates from the North Africa's Barbary Coast and managed to keep
America out of Napoleon's wars in Europe. While Jefferson was president,
in 1808, Congress prohibited the African slave trade, though not slavery
Jefferson was an imposing, talented, and highly learned man, fluent in
six languages, a practitioner of scientific farming, and an ardent student
of science and mathematics. Passionately interested in architecture, he
designed the beautiful Neoclassical buildings on his Virginia estate,
Monticello, as well as those on the University of Virginia campus.
In 1826, Jefferson and John Adams, another Founding Father and former
president, both were nearing death. According to those close to them,
both men-Jefferson at Monticello, Adams in Massachusetts-wanted badly
to live until the 50th anniversary of America's independence. They both
made it. On July 4, Jefferson died just before 1 p.m. and Adams a few
Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), U.S. soldier, politician, and explorer,
was personal secretary to President Thomas Jefferson and the leader of
the Lewis and Clark expedition. Lewis was born on his family's plantation
in Virginia, near Jefferson's home, Monticello. Lewis's soldier-father
died when he was five years old, but Lewis grew up in comfortable circumstances
in Virginia and Georgia with his mother and her second husband, John Marks.
In 1794, Lewis joined the militia that helped suppress the Whiskey Rebellion
in Pennsylvania. In May, he joined the regular army and by 1800 was made
a captain and paymaster in the 1st U.S. Infantry Regiment. His extensive
service on the western frontier gave him valuable background for his later
wilderness explorations. While in the army, Lewis served briefly under
his lifelong friend William Clark. Clark was brother of George Rogers
Clark, a famous soldier and explorer.
In 1801, Jefferson appointed Lewis as his private secretary and then
appointed him commander of an expedition into the wilderness west of the
Mississippi. Lewis's extensive preparations included scientific and technical
tutoring from professors at University of Pennsylvania. He also spent
months choosing equipment and supplies and studying his expected route.
After Congress approved the trip and authorized its $2,500 budget (the
final cost was about $40,000), Lewis asked William Clark to co-command
the expedition. Though the War Department designated Lewis alone as commander
of the expedition, in practice the two shared leadership.
Lewis and Clark both were highly intelligent and complemented each other
well. Clark was a skilled surveyor, mapmaker, and riverboat handler with
an easygoing temperament, extensive wilderness experience, and great diplomatic
skills. Lewis was more introverted and moody but was a talented naturalist
and astronomer whose plant and animal drawings and descriptions were admirably
After Lewis returned from the expedition, Jefferson appointed him governor
of the Louisiana Territory. Lewis had trouble readjusting to civilized
life in the U.S. He was unsuited to the job of governor and performed
badly. As Jefferson impatiently waited, Lewis began to write the official
account of the expedition but was plagued by severe depression and drinking
problems. In 1809, while traveling from St. Louis to Washington, Lewis
died violently in a tavern on the Natchez Trace. Some thought he was murdered,
but Jefferson, knowing that Lewis was prone to fits of depression, believed
that he had committed suicide.
Nicholas Biddle finally wrote the official account of the expedition,
titled History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis
and Clark (1814). Biddle worked from manuscripts that Clark provided
and consulted with George Shannon, a member of the party. The Original
Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1904-1905), edited
by Reuben Gold Thwaites, totaled seven volumes of text and one volume
of maps. Either Lewis or Clark wrote at least one journal entry for every
day that the party was traveling in the field. Their journals include
astronomical observations, courses of rivers, navigational information,
notes on the weather, incidents of the day, and detailed scientific descriptions
of animals and plants.
- portageground between navigable waterways over which
boats must be carried.
- headsheadwaters; sources.
- endeavormake it a goal.
- domestic accommodationshousing.
- dispositionscharacteristic attitudes.
- pit-coalcoal deposits.
- saltpeterdeposits of potassium nitrate, used in making
- salines and mineral waterssalt deposits and mineral springs.
- kine-poxcoxpox, a mild disease of cattle, caused by a
virus once used to vaccinate people against smallpox.
- perseverancesteadfast continuation.
- parched mealdried corn.
- gesticulationgestures; movements of hands, arms, head,
and so forth to convey ideas.
- CameahwaitShoshone chief.
- inst.abbreviation for instant, which following a date
means "in the present month."
- MandansIndian people with whom the expedition wintered
- navigablecapable of being traveled by boats.
- East IndiasAsia.
- abound inhave plenty of.
- lucrativefinancially profitable.
- quadrupedsfour-legged animals.
- estimableadmirable, praiseworthy.
Use the STUDY GUIDE below as a way to work through the selection and
improve your comprehension of the essay.
Answer the Questions to Consider in the book as a way to deepen
your interpretation of the selection.
1. What purposes did Jefferson give for desiring Lewis to gather information
2. About what types of plants and animals did Jefferson particularly
want the expedition to gather information?
3. Why did Jefferson think it might be wise for the expedition to persuade
some Indian chiefs or young people to accompany them?
4. What does Lewis's journal entry indicate about the source of the horses
possessed by the Shoshone people?
5. From his letter to Jefferson, in what ways did Lewis feel the expedition's
route could be commercially useful?
- The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1905)
- The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1950-1971, 18 vol.)
- Adams-Jefferson Letters (1904-1905)
- Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1904-1905)
The American West
Isabella Bird. A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (reprinted
1987). An adventurous Victorian Englishwoman's journeys in the Rockies,
as told in her vivid letters to her sister.
George Catlin. North American Indians (1841, 1989). Catlin's notes
on and paintings of the Plains Indians between 1786 and 1812, his attempt
to record their dying way of life.
Donald Dale Jackson. Gold Dust (1980). The fascinating story of
the California Gold Rush, 1840 to 1850, and of the people who went to
the West to strike it rich.
Helen Hunt Jackson. A Century of Dishonor (1881). An American
author's history of mistreatment of the Indians by the government and
white settlers in the West.
Lauren Katz. The Black West (1987). The struggles and experiences
of Black Americans who went to the West to take their chances at building
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The Journals of Lewis and Clark
(1981). A shortened version of the daily journals of the West's explorers,
written in 1804-1806.
Franklin Ng. The Asians in America (1998). A six-volume study
of the Asian experience in the United States.
Francis Parkman. The Oregon Trail (1950). A classic text in which
an articulate Harvard-educated lawyer records his adventures on the Oregon
Trail in the mid-1800s.
Joanne L. Stratton. Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier
(1981). Fascinating first-person accounts from 800 women pioneers who
settled in Kansas in the 1800s.
Earl H. Swanson. The Ancient Americas (1989). A survey of the
Indian cultures of North and South America from the pre-Columbian through
New World eras.
Jon Manchip White. Everyday Life of the North American Indian
(1979). An analysis of Indian civilizations with information on the daily
lives of medicine men, hunters, artists, and other tribal social groups.