When the Lewis and Clark Expedition left St. Louis to explore the heart of the continent, the United States was but twenty-eight years old. Thomas Jefferson was the country’s third president.
Half of the citizens, not counting Native Americans, were of English descent. The next largest segment of the population, one sixth, came to the shores of America involuntarily; they were African-born slaves. Most people farmed; the rhythm of American life was drummed out by the demands of work and the changing seasons. The strong backs of men and women, alongside their horses and oxen, powered the nation. The cotton gin, first developed in 1793, was the only significant machine on farms or plantations.
Lewis and Clark, the leaders of the expedition and of our national epic, met before this backdrop. They discovered each other as officers in the militia during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793-94. Congress in 1791 passed an excise tax on distilleries that caused a backlash on the frontier. A number of frontiersmen saw the tax as tyrannical and unjust, like those British measures that sparked the American revolution. President Washington, after calling out 15,000 militia men, quickly squelched the uprising.
That year, Major General Anthony “Mad Anthony” Wayne led American soldiers against several Indian tribes and a string of British-sponsored military posts in the Northwest Territory. The Battle of Fallen Timbers was decisive. For $10,000 in value, the southeast corner of the territory – including present day Detroit and Chicago – was added to the United States. It brought closure to the war for independence.
In Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army defeated Austria, and France began sparring with England. Despite the United States’ position of neutrality, the British navy harassed American merchant ships in the Caribbean because they carried goods for France. War seemed inevitable to the American Federalists who held power, and to that cause the army and navy were expanded.
In addition to domestic strife, America was trying to maintain its nationhood abroad as well. One fifth of the American government’s revenues were being paid to Monaco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli to ransom Americans or pay tribute to allow American ships safe passage in the Mediterranean. Tripoli, not satisfied with its take, declared war on the United States in 1801.
The international pressure to claim the wilderness beyond the American frontier was intense. The British pushed into the interior from Canada, the Spanish controlled the Mississippi River at New Orleans and laid claim to what’s now Texas and Southern California, the French had designs on the Missouri River valley, and the Russians were coming from the Pacific Northwest.
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Jefferson Becomes President
Farmers and merchants from Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and parts of West Virginia found it far more practical to boat their goods down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico rather than haul them over the mountains to the eastern seaboard. However, shortly after Jefferson took office in 1801, the Spanish governor at New Orleans ruled American traders could no longer move their goods through that critical river port.
To complicate matters, the Spanish turned Louisiana over to France.
Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton wanted to take New Orleans by force, securing a trade route to the gulf. But Jefferson believed it was the job of his presidency to seek expansion and growth through peaceful means. He sent James Monroe to France to buy New Orleans and Florida. Bonaparte, due to the failure of French troops to conquer Haiti and because he needed funds to fight the British, was ready to deal. On April 30, 1803, Monroe obtained Louisiana for $15 million.
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Visions of the West
Exploration of the western rivers had been Jefferson’s desire for more than 20 years. However, he had been unsuccessful in several attempts. Alexander Mackenzie, who worked for the Northwest Company in Canada, bridged the continent in 1793. The young Scot’s path proved too far north and rough to be commercially viable. It was not the sought after Northwest Passage. But it did push Jefferson to move ahead with the investigation of the Louisiana Purchase, even before he had legal claim to the unknown region.
Even as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were being written, Jefferson saw the nation stretching from sea to sea – connected by rivers to the Pacific.
The visionary U.S. President thought: “That the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia might be the highest on the continent; that the mammoth, the giant ground sloth, and other prehistoric creatures would be found along the upper Missouri; that a mountain of pure salt a mile long lay somewhere on the Great Plains; that volcanoes might still be erupting in the Badlands of the upper Missouri; that all the great rivers of the West-Missouri, Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande-rose from a single ‘height of land’ and flowed off in their several directions to the seas of the hemisphere. (Most importantly) he believed there might be a water connection, linked by a low portage across the mountains that would lead to the Pacific.”
Congress approved $2,500 to finance exploration of the Upper Missouri, with the hope of finding that water route to the mouth of the Columbia River, giving the United States the upper hand in trading with the British and securing American commerce through New Orleans. Once the purchase was complete, expectations of the Louisiana purchase expanded to include the addition of huge tracts of farm land, as well as the harvest of gold, timber, coal, iron, salt and silver.
Made to Congress in secret, the proposal was for one officer and 10 to 12 soldiers to track the Missouri River to its source. From there, it was believed that a short portage would take the explorers to headwaters of the Columbia River and give easy access to the western ocean.
The expedition would begin at St. Louis on the Mississippi River, not far from the mouth of the Missouri River. It would move up the Missouri to the edge of white knowledge of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mandan Indian villages on the Knife River near present day Stanton, North Dakota. The party would then follow the Missouri into the unexplored interior.
Jefferson chose his secretary, and fellow Virginian, Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition.
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Jefferson wrote, “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 themselves here, & will therefore readily select those only in his new route which shall be new.”
The young woodsman became the President’s star pupil. Lewis had been educated to be a plantation owner, not a scientific explorer. During the winter of 1802-03, he was given crash courses in North American geography, botany, mineralogy, astronomy, ethnology and liberal arts. Jefferson tapped the knowledge of men he knew from the American Philosophical Society for help to educate Lewis and plan the expedition.
Lewis began to gather supplies and equipment. He designed and commissioned a keelboat and a collapsible, iron-framed boat. At the U.S. Army Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, he had 15 U.S. Model 1803 .54-caliber rifles made, each with a 33-inch barrel. These “short rifles” could kill a deer at 100 yards and were capable of two shots per minute. The arsenal also provided three swivel guns – light cannons – which could be loaded with 16 musket balls and produced a hail of maiming lead.
An innovator, Lewis had 52 water-proof lead canisters filled with 176 pounds of gunpowder. When a canister was emptied, it could be melted and molded into rifle balls – the kind of efficiency required for such a monumental expedition.
In Philadelphia, he purchased a gold chronometer, surveyor’s compass and chains and plotting instruments, as well as trade goods for negotiating with Indian tribes. He bought paper, ink and gun powder in great quantities. From his own pocket, he purchased a recently developed weapon, an air rifle. Like the compass and other scientific instruments, the air rifle would impress the Indians.
The cargo would include 193 pounds of dry soup, as well as salt. From his purchases, it was clear Lewis was outfitting more than the dozen men Congress approved. The packing list grew to include spoons, cups, flint and steel sets, needles, awls, lamps, oilcloth sheets and bags.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and medical advisor to the expedition, gave Lewis a brief but intense course in medicine. Together they stocked a medical chest that relied upon opium, Glauber salts, tartar emetic, laudanum, mercurial ointment, Epson salts, borax, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and rhubarb. It included 50 dozen purgative Rush pills, also know as “Thunderclappers,” which the expedition used liberally.
Rush’s concern went beyond the expedition’s health. He also gave Lewis questionnaires to use in gathering information about the Indians that the Corps of Discovery would meet. The questions touched on physical history, medicine, morals and religion. Lewis was to ask about suicide and homicide rates, as well as sex, disposal of the dead and food preservation.
A number of books were selected for the trip: Richard Kirwan’s “Elements of Mineralogy,” Benjamin Barton’s “Elements of Botany,” Patrick Key’s “Introduction to Spheres and Nautical Astronomy,” “Rules of Health,” Mackenzie’s “Voyage,” Antoine Simor Le Page du Pratz’s “History of Louisiana,” “The Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris,” and a four-volume dictionary.
Building the collapsible boat at Harper’s Ferry caused a delay, but nothing like the stalled construction of the keelboat at Pittsburgh. Lewis arrived there July 15 and found the boat builder was behind schedule and in no hurry. The promised completion date was July 20; however, the keelboat did not leave the dock on the Ohio River until Aug. 31, a month after Lewis had planned to reach St. Louis. The late departure from Pittsburgh meant the Corps of Discovery had to spend the winter near St. Louis, delaying the start of the expedition until the following spring.
Meanwhile, on July 29, Lewis received a critically important letter. William Clark wrote: “I will cheerfully join you, my friend, I do assure you that no man lives with whom I would prefer to undertake such a trip as yourself. My friend, I join you with hand and heart.” An incredible American friendship began, one from which the whole nation would benefit.
Lewis also found two men in Pittsburgh who would be part of the expedition: John Colter and George Shannon. And, for $20, he purchased a large black Newfoundland dog named Seaman. Lewis and Seaman became inseparable.
The keelboat began its maiden voyage down the Ohio River, picking up men and experience along the way. On October 15, Lewis tied up at Clarksville, Kentucky, where William Clark waited. The two captains, whose names would become forever connected, finally stood together on the deck of the keelboat. They arrived at the Wood River on December 12, where Clark picked a site for a winter camp, 18 miles from St. Louis and directly opposite the mouth of the Missouri River.
The two captains took advantage of the winter layover. Lewis spent a good deal of time in St. Louis gathering information from the merchants and traders about the land and Indians up the Missouri River. He also added supplies to the cargo, including 20 gallons of whiskey. Clark worked with the men, preparing them for the trial ahead.
Although the Louisiana Purchase had been announced in July of 1803, the actual passing of civil and military authority did not take place until the following spring. Lewis, as a representative of Jefferson, took part in the ceremony on March 9, 1804, in which the Spanish flag came down, the French colors went up; and, the next morning, the Stars and Stripes were raised over St. Louis. Louisiana was officially part of the United States.