The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 1

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

ONE. Beginner's Luck

Luck! It began for Captain Meriwether Lewis, paymaster of the First Infantry Regiment, United States Army, when he reached his regimental headquarters in Pittsburgh on March 5, 1801, after a rough trip from Detroit, and found in his mail a letter from Thomas Jefferson, recently elected president of the United States.

His thin, long-nosed face must have shown his mingled delight and astonishment. Jefferson needed a private secretary with unusual qualifications. "Your knolege of the Western country," he wrote, "of the army and of all it's interests and relations have rendered it desirable for public as well as private purposes that you should be engaged in that office." [1]

Pay would be five hundred dollars a year. Not much even then, but Lewis could retain his rank as job insurance and save living expenses as a member of the president's household. Now, that was exciting! Lewis, who was given to quick exhilarations and, balancing them, occasional deep depressions, dashed off a boastful note to an army friend—he would now be in a position to "inform you of the most important political occurrences of our government or such of them as I may feel myself at liberty to give" [2]—and then wrote a more circumspect letter to Jefferson accepting the appointment. After settling his accounts, he requisitioned three fresh horses, one for riding and two for packing, and shortly after March 10 started for the new federal city of Washington. It was a miserable trip. Flat gray skies, leafless trees, the plop-suck, plop-suck of hooves in the thawing mire, followed by long nights in dreary wayside inns.

Some of the phrases in Jefferson's letter kept returning to puzzle him. Knowledge of the Western country, of the army and all its interests and relations . . . He knew army procedures and could get along in the wilderness, but surely there was nothing in that to command national interest. Indian affairs? Hardly. The tribes of the Northwest had been quiet since their crushing defeat at Fallen Timbers in 1794 by General Anthony Wayne. Military defense? That seemed just as unlikely. British fur traders were no longer occupying posts on American soil and stirring up trouble. Another tension had ended in 1795 when Spain had opened the Mississippi to the flatboats of the pioneers surging across the Allegheny Mountains. The undeclared naval war with revolutionary France was winding down. Peace, in short, seemed assured for many years.

Yet Jefferson wanted his special talents. Strange, strange. Well, he'd learn eventually. On he plodded, losing still more time because one of his horses went lame.

He reached Washington shortly after April 1, to find that Jefferson had departed for a short rest at his home, Monticello, in Albemarle County, Virginia. He had left behind, in the leaky, unfinished hull of the President's House (now called the White House), a steward, a housekeeper, and three servants whose chief responsibility, until Jefferson returned, would be taking care of Meriwether Lewis. [3] Gratifying enough after a winter on the Northern frontier. Yet probably Lewis would rather have gone south, too, for Albemarle County was home to him as well as to the president.

The Lewis plantation, Locust Hill, named for the big locust trees that sheltered the main buildings, was only eight or nine miles from Monticello. Meriwether had been born there August 18, 1774, the second child and first son of William and Lucy Meriwether Lewis. He scarcely remembered his father, for William Lewis, a lieutenant in the Continental Army, had died in November 1779 from injuries and exposure suffered when his horse fell in an icy stream while he was homeward bound on leave.

The death left Lucy with three small children to raise, a thousand-acre plantation to manage, additional lands in the wilderness to fret about, and sharp worries over British raiders in the vicinity. She solved the problems in part by marrying, six months after her husband's death, another army officer and a man she had known for some time, Captain John Marks. By him she bore two more children.

In 1784 a friend of Marks's persuaded him and his family to join a speculative land rush to the Broad River in the wilds of northern Georgia. There is no direct evidence that young Meriwether did not get along with the stepfather who had twice changed his life. Still, he became, during those years, a moody lad who often went alone into the woods with his dogs, frequently at night to hunt raccoons and opossums. He had an eye for plants and one way or another taught himself a good deal about the vegetation he encountered. His mother probably encouraged him. She was a noted herb doctor, and it is not hard to imagine them going into the forest together on collecting trips.

Almost certainly Lucy Marks taught her children the rudiments of writing, reading, and doing sums. Within three years, however, Meriwether had surpassed his mother's capabilities and those of the neighborhood schools. Whether at her urging or his, he was sent back to Locust Hill in 1787. For a little more than two years he attended a sequence of schools run by impoverished divines. The uncles who were acting as his guardians then set him to work on the plantation at the age of fifteen or so. It was an exacting practical education—learning to oversee the slaves who performed the labor in the almost self-sufficient plantation. Herding, butchering, milling, planting; spinning thread and making clothes; erecting buildings and fences; extemporizing repairs, hauling. Setting up goals and schedules. Keeping accounts. Learning the jargon of the neighboring planters who stopped by to trade news.

After Marks died either late in 1791 or early in 1792, Meriwether went to Georgia and brought the family back to Locust Hill, using for the journey a carriage said to have been built by Jefferson's slaves at Monticello. [4] Apparently he stayed restless, however, and if Thomas Jefferson is to be believed, he tried to seize the first big opportunity for adventure that came his way.

The circumstances are suggested in a letter Caspar Wistar, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote to the American botanist Moses Marshall. Thomas Jefferson, Wistar said, and "some other gentlemen," mostly members of the American Philosophical Society, were proposing to raise a prize of one thousand guineas to be awarded to anyone who, after following the Missouri River to its source, brought back proof that he had continued to the Pacific. [5]

Years later, on August 18, 1813, the anniversary of Lewis's birth and four years after his death by suicide, Jefferson, then seventy, wrote a short memoir of the young man's life. In it he stated that Lewis, who in 1792 had been stationed in Charlottesville, Virginia, on recruiting service for the army, somehow learned of the transcontinental proposal and "warmly solicited me to obtain for him the execution of that object." Jefferson declined, implying the venture was too dangerous for a youth of eighteen. [6]

There are problems with this recollection. Lewis had not yet joined the army in 1792 and would not be stationed in Charlottesville until 1798. Donald Jackson, who has studied the Lewis and Clark expedition as deeply as anyone, is inclined to believe the aging Jefferson made a mistake and the episode may, in fact, never have occurred. Certainly there is no mention of it in any other surviving document. [7]

Be that as it may, another candidate soon appeared. This was the highly trained French botanist, André Michaux, aged forty-six. Michaux had been in the United States since 1785, searching for useful plants he could introduce into France. He established one nursery near Charleston, South Carolina, and another at Hackensack, New Jersey, and stocked them with specimens he found in the mountains of the Carolinas and the hazardous swamps of Florida. In 1792 he traveled with Montreal fur traders into the harsh lands near the southern tip of Hudson Bay. In Montreal, quite possibly, he learned that Alexander Mackenzie of the North West Company had just passed through the city on an exciting errand—crossing Canada to the Pacific by canoe in order to show that far western trading posts could be supplied from harbors on the distant coast.

The thought was bound to stir a man of Michaux's temperament. And though there is no evidence to prove this, he may well have heard of the thousand-guinea prize from his fellow botanist, Moses Marshall. In any event he applied to Jefferson for the position.

Jefferson and the Pacific: we need to digress in order to place his interest in perspective. Heritage, predilections, and circumstances all inclined him that way, though he himself never traveled physically more than fifty miles west of Monticello. His father had been a pioneer land speculator and mapmaker. The son had touched on the West in one of the few books he wrote, Notes on Virginia. While in France from 1784 to 1789 as American minister to the court of Louis XVI, he began assiduously collecting books on the West until he owned more volumes on the topic than any other collector in the world. [8]

That the West would be peopled by Americans, though Spain then owned almost all of it, Jefferson had no doubt. Even during the Revolution, citizens of the eastern regions and immigrants from Europe had persisted in crossing the Alleghenies in defiance of violent Indian opposition. When the war ended, the stream became a flood. In 1785, for a single instance, a thousand river craft, scores of them huge flatboats loaded with entire families, their goods, and livestock, went down the Ohio. Roads split the forests: the Forbes Road through Pennsylvania, the Wilderness Trail blazed through Cumberland Gap by Daniel Boone, and a dozen more. By 1800, three hundred thousand people lived in the trans-Allegheny region, as compared to thirty thousand at the close of the Revolution.

In Jefferson's fanciful moments the Mississippi disappeared as the boundary with Spain, and the human tide flowed unrestrained. In 1786 he wrote in a private letter, "Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North and South, is to be peopled." Others, stirred by the same prospect, shared the view. Jedediah Morse, writer of geography textbooks, proclaimed in 1789, "We cannot but anticipate the period, as not far distant, when the AMERICAN EMPIRE will comprehend millions of souls, west of the Mississippi." The poet Timothy Dwight sang, "Soon shall thy sons across the mainland roam / And claim on far Pacific shores their home." [9]

Savants of the American Philosophical Society, of which Jefferson was a member, loved to speculate on what venturesome settlers might find in the uncharted landmass. Did mammoths, long extinct in Europe, still wander there? How far north did the strange llamas of Peru range? Were there active volcanoes, as rumored? Mountains of undissolved salt? Above all, was there a central "height of land" from which the West's principal rivers extended like rays—the Red-Nelson system toward Hudson Bay, the Rio Grande southward, the Missouri eastward, and, interlocking with the headwaters of the Missouri, a navigable, west-flowing stream already named "Oregon" by two early army officers and traders, Robert Rogers and Jonathan Carver?

Should members of the Philosophical Society foster private attempts to find a westward crossing? Some thought so. In 1783, when garbled rumors reached Philadelphia that a group of Britons proposed to explore the country from the Mississippi to California, Jefferson wrote George Rogers Clark, the military hero of the trans-Allegheny West and one of William Clark's elder brothers, that "some of us here are talking in a feeble way of making the attempt to search that country. How would you like to lead such a party?" The offer was too feeble, and Clark declined. No Britons appeared, either.

John Ledyard came next. He was a Connecticut Yankee who had been with England's great navigator, James Cook, as a corporal of marines when Cook had visited the Northwest Coast of America in 1778 on his last voyage of discovery. Ledyard had seen how easily sea-otter pelts could be obtained from the natives and then resold in China at an enormous profit. Eager to set up trading posts in the region, he sought backing first in the East and then in France. After every financial prospect had failed him, he sought out Jefferson, then residing in Paris. To the minister the would-be explorer expounded one of the zaniest ideas in the history of exploration. He would cross Siberia to the Kamchatka Peninsula and embark for Alaska on a Russian fur ship. From there he would walk to the Mississippi, buoyed by two large hunting dogs, an Indian peace pipe, and a hatchet for chopping firewood. What he hoped to achieve by the incredible effort, beyond publicity and material for another book, is impossible to say.

There was no chance he could succeed. "He has too much imagination," Jefferson wrote, and added wistfully that if he should get through, "he will give us new, curious & useful information." [10] On Ledyard's behalf he wrote the empress of Russia for a passport. She refused it; the notion, one of her officers explained, was wholly chimerical. Grimly Ledyard went ahead anyway and came within seven hundred miles of the Pacific before he was arrested and dragged back.

Now hardly five years later, here was André Michaux, eager for fame and a thousand guineas. Embarrassed—apparently the talk of the prize had been only talk—a few members of the Philosophical Society scrambled to rectify matters. On January 22, 1793, they drew up an agreement about payments: one-fourth down and other installments according to the explorer's progress. Simultaneously they set about trying to raise the necessary funds. [11]

The arrival of Citizen Edmond Charles Genet, France's new minister to the United States, at Charleston, South Carolina, on April 8, 1793, put a severe crimp in the program. By then it was known in America that France had just abolished the monarchy and war had broken out again between that country and most of the rest of Europe. Genet's assignment was to stir up trouble in the New World for France's principal enemies by outfitting privateers in American harbors to prey on British shipping and by forming an army of insurgents to attack Spanish Louisiana.

The reception Washington and the pro-British Federalists in the cabinet granted Genet, who reached Philadelphia on April 22, was noticeably cool. The Francophile Jefferson, then serving as secretary of state, was more amiable. He listened to the schemer's bombast and, although the Frenchman was already in contact with Michaux, went ahead with plans for the exploration. He drew up, under the date of April 30, detailed instructions, the main one of which was for Michaux to "seek for & pursue that route which shall form the shortest & most convenient communication between the higher parts of the Missouri & the Pacific ocean." Another society member was appointed to collect the first installment of the subscriptions specified in the agreement. Results are suggestive. Only twenty persons paid up. Amounts ranged from $2.00 to $25.00 from George Washington, who had subscribed the previous January. Jefferson paid $12.50, as did his enemy Alexander Hamilton. Total: $128.25. [12] Hardly enough for crossing the continent (he surely planned to take a crew along), and it is difficult to suppose that France's flagrant breaches of neutrality did not help account for the shortage.

On July 15, 1793, Michaux started West to further Genet's plans, not the Philosophical Society's. It was not a fruitful trip. On Washington's demand, the French government recalled Genet, Michaux drifted back to Philadelphia, and the disturbance lost its punch, although George Rogers Clark, whom Genet had commissioned "Major General of the Independent and Revolutionary Legion of the Mississippi," kept fussing with it well into 1794. [13]

The episode left scars, for it exacerbated the feuding between Federalists and Antifederalists (Jeffersonian Republicans) in Congress and in the cabinet. Weary of turmoil, Jefferson resigned as secretary of state on December 31, 1793, and returned home to restore his neglected plantation and to resume work on his domed, pillared, airy mansion. He would not return officially to the capital at Philadelphia until he challenged John Adams for the presidency in 1796.

To jump ahead: In those days voters cast their ballots for electors pledged to the presidentail candidate of one party or the other. Those chosen then met in Philadelphia (later in Washington) and voted according to their pledges. The man who received the most electoral votes became president and the runner-up vice-president. In 1796, John Adams, a Federalist, won. Jefferson, a Republican, became his puntative successor, an uneasy situation. Well, there would be another election in 1800 and Jefferson was determined that then he would be second to no one. That, too, bacame part of Meriwether Lewis's luck.

Lewis, meanwhile had let his yearning for adventure draw him into military service. The proximate cause was an excise tax of seven cents a gallon on distilled spirits, which commonly retailed on the frontier for twenty-five cents a gallon. Since making whiskey was almost the only way backwoods farmers had of disposing of their surplus grain, the West was outraged, particularly since no tax was imposed on any Eastern product. Antitax riots—the so-called Whiskey Rebellion—erupted in western Pennsylvania; revenue agents were tarred and feathered.

To demonstrate that the federal government could not be trifled with, Washington, at Hamilton's behest, asked the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to provide thirteen thousand militiamen for restoring order. Meriwether Lewis joined the Virginia contingent and quickly became an ensign, the equivalent today of second lieutenant. The oversized force—a blunderbuss to kill a flea—marched through the brilliant reds and golds of fall to the Pittsurgbh area. The ringleaders among the insurgents fled. Only eighteen protesters were captured and tried. Two were convicted, and Washington pardoned them. In spite of the clemency, the overkill turned many resentful frontiersmen into voters—Antifederalist voters—for the first time in their lives.

At the expiration of his enlistment, Lewis transferred, still an ensign, into what became the First Regiment of the regular army. Either late that year (1795) or early the next, he served for a few months at Fort Greenville, Ohio, in a rifle company commanded by Lieutenant William Clark, four years older than he and a veteran of the ferocious Indian wars of the first half of the 1790s. A strong friendship developed between them, but actual association ended, except for occasional letters, when Clark left the service to salvage what he could of the muddled affairs of his alcoholic brother George.

Unlike Clark, Lewis saw no action in the army. He drilled his men punctiliously in the Northwest's dreary stockades and supervised the building of Fort Puckering on a bluff above the Mississippi where Memphis now stands. Then in 1798, he was placed on recruiting duty at Charlottesville, Virginia, near his home—and Jefferson's. He stayed there well into 1799. Certainly he saw the vice-president during that period. They could hardly have been close friends, for there was a thirty-one-year difference in their ages. Still, they were neighbors. Jefferson bought beautifully cured hams from Lucy Marks, and the presidential aspirant would have enjoyed talking to the younger man about the mood of the settlers in the Northwest, and about the region's natural history, a subject that fascinated both. Before long Jefferson would have sensed that Lewis was an ardent Republican, though most of his fellow officers were Federalists.

As the new century approached, Lewis was moved back to the Northwest. Late in 1800, aged twenty-six, he was promoted to captain and stationed at Detroit. Shortly thereafter he was made regimental paymaster, an assignment that involved arduous journeys down the Ohio by boat and through the dense forests by horse. Or, more accurately, it would have involved many such journeys if the election of 1800 had not intervened.

When the campaign, the most slanderous in American history, was over the Federalists had been defeated—but two Republicans, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, were tied at seventy-three votes each. This threw the contest into the House of Representatives. Thirty-six ballots, each preceded by intense maneauvering, were cast before the deadlock splintered, with Jefferson as president and Burr as vice-president.

The triumph came February 17, only two weeks before the inauguration. A whole new administration had to be given shape, and yet Jefferson, ignoring qualified applicants near at hand, took time enough to reach out into the wilderness and hire Captain Meriwether Lewis as his private secretary.

For a long time many people have wondered why. Because Lewis eventually did lead the first American expedition to reach the Pacific by land, some historians have assumed the choice was in Jefferson's mind before the election. [14]

The conjecture just won't wash. It is true Jefferson had speculated at length about what lay beyond the Mississippi. It is true he envisioned a continental destiny for the United States. As a private individual, acting generally on behalf of the American Philosophical Society, he had involved himself in three ill-conceived plans. But there is no evidence that as a public leader, whether as secretary of state or vice-president, he had endeavored to set into motion a government-sponsored, carefully prepared enterprise.

Consider. The Spanish empire was losing its grip. Maintaining Louisiana even in a halfhearted way was endured only in the hope that the vast region would serve as a topographical buffer protecting New Mexico and, especially, Mexico, rich in silver. But that hope, Jefferson believed, was fatuous. The Mississippi Valley was filling with aggressive, energetic Americans. Some, taking advantage of Spain's offer of land grants to adult males who would embrace Spanish citizenship and Roman Catholicism (no inconvenient attention was paid to the way the "converts" observed their new faith), were already crossing the river. Daniel Boone's family was among them. So were Moses Austin and his young son Stephen, later the "fathers" of American Texas. Spain hoped, of course, that these and other rugged, naturalized Spaniards would leap to the defense of their property in case of invasion.

Jefferson thought not. The emigrants, he believed, would remember their origins and work for eventual annexation by the United States. So why stir up a hornet's nest by sending a government-sponsored expedition into alien territory? Why rouse French and British curiosity: what were those Americans doing? Better let nature take its course. Let the plum ripen until it was ready to fall without friction into American hands.

Then why did he hire Meriwether Lewis? The reasons were immediate, pragmatic, and political. Dressed in a dark uniform crisscrossed with white belts, and wearing a cocked hat with an eagle medallion in its front, the captain would lend dignity to the confidential messages he carried. He could serve as a decorative and charming host at presidential dinners—a real need, for Jefferson was a widower and his daughters could not often leave their own growing households to help. More important, Lewis was a stalwart Republican. The spoils system of appointing party faithful to government positions had not yet attained the lush growth it would achieve under Andrew Jackson, but it was on the way. The excise tax had provided openings for Federalist agents, and just before leaving office John Adams had created several "midnight" judges. During the expansion of the armed forces while the undeclared naval war with France was under way (1798–1800), most officers had been picked according to party allegiance. Now it was the Republicans' turn. One of Jefferson's campaign promises had been to cut the size of the army, but he wanted to be careful not to remove dependable Republicans. [15] Lewis, whom he knew to be trustworthy, could guide the endeavor and also work over long, dull lists of postmasterships. [16]

Toward the end of April 1801, Jefferson returned to swampy Washington (population 3,210) from Monticello and, with his new secretary, tackled the problem of making the huge, white-painted sandstone presidential mansion habitable. Its twenty-three rooms were big and cold; Abigail Adams had said it was impossible to keep warm in such a place. Because the Adamses had removed most of the furniture—it was their own property—more had to be provided. An unsubstantial partition was built in the East Room, on the second floor, to provide Lewis with two chambers. Jefferson had more suitable quarters in the west wing. The unkempt grounds were tidied up and surrounded by a rail fence, but little could be done about the approach to the entry hall; the outside steps and porch were still made of planks. [17]

Because the new secretary of state, James Madison, and his wife, Dolley, were temporarily without housing, Jefferson invited them to stay in the mansion until their own quarters were ready. Madison was wizened and sharp-eyed; Dolley, plump, pretty, and addicted to snuff. [18] Both were sparkling conversationalists and lent elan to the dinner parties the president launched as soon as a proper cook had been found for him by the Marqués de Casa Yrujo, the Spanish ambassador. Yrujo was a dashing, handsome, curly-haired cavalier given to resplendent uniforms. Fluent in English, he had married the daughter of that sound Republican, Thomas McKean, the governor of Pennsylvania, and was a favorite of Jefferson's.

Though Jefferson, six feet tall, angular, red-headed, and always poised, could have matched the sartorial splendor of some of his guests, he chose not to. He saw himself as the representative of the nation's sturdy tillers of the soil. He dressed accordingly, appearing at his own parties in ordinary clothing, occasionally wearing slippers. The food he served did not match his costume. One diarist, Mahlon Dickerson, who became a close friend of Meriwether Lewis, wrote after one dinner that "however [Jefferson] may neglect his person, he takes good care of his table. No man in America keeps a better." It should have been good. Jefferson, whose salary as president was $25,000 a year, spent that first year $6,508 on groceries and provisions, $2,797.28 on wine, and $2,700 on servants, some of them in livery. [19] Laborers, it might be pointed out, earned, at that period, $10.00 a month.

After several weeks, the Madisons moved to their own house, and the president and his secretary were left, Jefferson wrote one of his daughters, as lonely as two mice in a church. [20] Did that lonesomeness break down some of his habitual reserve? "Secrecy," according to his biographer Saul Padover, "was his strategy and his predilection." [21] Still, it would be strange if he did not let slip, during that summer, occasional remarks that revealed to his secretary some of his uneasiness about French intentions in the West.

The matter began innocuously. Shortly after the inauguration Louis André Pichon, French chargé d'affaires in Washington, told the president that Napoleon was planning to retake the island of Santo Domingo from Toussaint L'Ouverture and black insurrectionists. Could the French government count on American help?

The proposal awoke Jefferson's strongest biases—his love for France, where he had spent some of his happiest years; his desire not to ruffle the new Convention of 1800, which had ended America's undeclared naval war with that nation; and his dread, as a Southern slaveholder, of an independent black republic near the borders of the United States. If the spirit of black rebellion spread . . . Chilled by the thought—his own state of Virginia had just authorized the arming of fifteen thousand men as a defense against possible insurrection—Jefferson told Pichon the United States would halt shipments of food to Santo Domingo, hoping this would help starve Toussaint into submission.

So far, so good. But then rumors leaked across the Atlantic that Spain had retroceded all Louisiana to France! [22] If they were true, America's hope of eventually absorbing the vast territory by slow and peaceful osmosis from moribund Spain was ended.

Rumor. But as Jefferson paced his office, talking to his cabinet members and with Meriwether Lewis quite possibly listening, he found it a rumor all too easy to believe. France had long dreamed of reclaiming her lost colonial empire in the New World. The GenetMichauxGeorge Rogers Clark conspiracy of 1792–93 had been part of the cloak-and-dagger game. Later, in 1796, the French general, George Victor Collot, had traveled through the Mississippi Valley, studying its topography in more detail than befitted an ordinary tourist. And now Santo Domingo.

Plus other matters that Jefferson could not have known at the time, though the outlines soon enough took shape. In 1798, France's lame, shrewd, unscrupulous foreign minister, Talleyrand, had baldly told his Spanish counterpart that Spain could not hold the westward-pushing Americans away from Mexico's silver mines, but France could. So why not let Napoleon take over Louisiana, together with East and West Florida, and create from them "a wall of Brass forever impenetrable to the combined efforts of England [working out of Canada] and the Americans"? [23]

Carlos IV of Spain refused to negotiate—until Bonaparte so thoroughly mauled an Austrian army at Marengo, Italy, in 1800 that the Austrian-Russian-British coalition pledged to subduing him began to break apart. Arrogantly then he put more pressure on Carlos, helped by the Spanish king's wife, who wanted a duchy for her brother's then-propertyless family. At San Ildefonso, on October 1, 1800—one day after Napoleon's ministers had removed another roadblock by signing the convention that brought peace with the United States—he promised to give Carlos the Grand Duchy of Tuscany with its bejeweled cities of Florence, Pisa, and Siena. In exchange he was to receive six warships and the territory of Louisiana, its boundaries only fuzzily known even along the lower Mississippi. (Whether or not West Florida could be considered a part of the territory would trouble American policymakers for years.)

Secretary of State James Madison carried the administration's worries to Louis Pichon. What, exactly, was going on in Europe? The French minister smiled blandly. Why the excitement? Was the United States planning to cross the river into territory it did not own? Not at all, Madison said, just as blandly. He was concerned over the free navigation of the Mississippi and the right of deposit at New Orleans—rights, granted by Spain, that allowed the entire export business of the valley to flow smoothly to docks and warehouses in the southern city. Sailing ships then landed at the same docks to pick up the merchandise for ocean transport. The lifeline was vital. The Mississippi, Madison would write later, was as important in the American view of things as "the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and all the navigable rivers of the Atlantic states formed into one stream." [24]

Would France observe Spain's customs?

Pichon's hands described a Gallic spread. How could Mr. Madison ask such a question when not a Frenchman was anywhere near Louisiana?

The maddening uncertainties were still plaguing Jefferson—and, by association, Meriwether Lewis—when Robert Livingston, the new American minister to France, sailed for Paris on November 11, 1801. His instructions were to block the retrocession if it was actually contemplated. If the exchange had taken place he should try to obtain land in West Florida where an American port could be built. At the very least he should obtain a guarantee of free navigation and unimpeded deposit—all without offending the French.

Confirmation of the retrocession did not have to wait on Livingston's report. Rufus King, minister to Great Britain, passed on the news in a letter to Madison dated November 20, 1801. Two days later General Charles Leclerc sailed for Santo Domingo with twenty thousand soldiers jammed into thirty transports. And England, the last holdout of the coalition that had begun crumbling after the battle of Marengo, signed the Treaty of Amiens with France. At least it was called a treaty, although most observers believed it was a truce only and would end as soon as the British had recuperated. Finally—Jefferson was back in the field of rumor again—fresh reports said that a second French fleet was slowly assembling in Holland. British strategists feared it was aimed at Canada, or perhaps even at England itself. American informants said no: its goal was Louisiana.

Furious, Jefferson realized he had been tricked. France, it seemed now, was attacking Santo Domingo not for itself but for use as a staging area for further adventures in the Caribbean and, probably, for a push against New Orleans. By occupying the city, through which three-eighths of America's commerce passed, Napoleon could make the young United States dance to whatever tune he called. He could push upstream against Canada. He might even persuade the impatient American West to detach itself from the Union and thus destroy one of the world's great experiments in the viability of self-government.

A grim Jefferson worked out his responses slowly, carefully, and secretly—secretly lest his political enemies, the Federalists, disturb the country by crying out that his plans were inadequate and that they could do better. The key element he proposed was a colossal bluff that he outlined on April 18, 1802, in a long letter to Robert Livingston. The minister, Jefferson directed, should convince Bonaparte that France would be sealing her own doom by trying to take possession of New Orleans. For the United States would immediately counter by seeking an alliance with Great Britain and creating a naval force strong enough to keep France from reinforcing whatever settlements Napoleon sought to plant in the New World—a world that was henceforth to be held "for the common purposes of the United British and American nations." The only way out, for France, would be the ceding of New Orleans and the Floridas to the United States. (Other letters suggested that in return for those critical areas the U.S. would assume two million dollars in claims American shipowners held against France for damages sustained in the quasi war just ended.)

Negotiating with the French while groping toward an alliance with the British would take time, the president admitted to Livingston. But time would be available. The French could not move into the Mississippi until Santo Domingo was subdued, and that, Jefferson predicted, "will not be a short work." [25]

Just contemplating an alliance with Great Britain was a wrench for Jefferson, for he despised that nation as an insufferable aristocracy. He could not be certain, moreover, that the self-centered Anglos, as he considered them to be, would play his game for him—or that Napoleon would be swayed by the bluster if a treaty did appear. So, though he was hoping to avoid war with his bluff, he had to prepare for war as best he could—still secretly because of the Federalists.

One of his long-range plans was to gain, as quickly as possible, title to Indian lands bordering the east bank of the Mississippi. White settlers pouring into the vacated areas would automatically create a strong defensive militia and relieve him of the necessity of reneging on his campaign promise to reduce the size of the country's standing army. He also ordered Governor William C. C. Claiborne of newly formed Mississippi Territory to ready other militia units strong enough to swarm across the border and seize New Orleans at the first sign the French were moving into the river. Still other contemplated steps included strengthening Fort Adams, which overlooked the Mississippi just north of the point where West Florida's northern boundary touched the river, and the building of an entirely new fort at Cahokia, across the stream from St. Louis. [26]

So much for a French invasion. But what of the powder keg he was proposing to cuddle up to—Great Britain? Its redoubtable fur traders, turned out of their posts south of the Great Lakes, were finding rich new sources of beaver in what is now the Minnesota-Iowa region and along the upper Missouri in North Dakota. Spain had not been able to check the trespasses, though its governors in St. Louis had tried after a fashion, but the French would have more muscle. To get the jump on them in the event of war, the Britishers might come swarming out of the north, take possession of all northern Louisiana, and then sit back to dicker about territorial divisions.

They'd not use an army for the invasion: logistics were too formidable. Small ranger forces led by men who knew the Indians would be more logical. And so small forces were what Jefferson prepared to meet them with. During the planning, Meriwether Lewis's "knolege of the Western country, of the army and all it's interests and relations" surely proved useful.

First, the secretary of war, Henry Dearborn, was directed to study means of stockpiling supplies and enlisting reinforcements for the forts along the Great Lakes frontier. But the big gap was in the unmapped wilderness farther west. Certainly it would be prudent for the Americans to learn something about its transportation routes, sites for army posts, and places where the topography made ambushes possible. Even more important would be convincing the Indians that the Americans would make better allies than the grasping Britons.

As the talk went on, the president's glance, it can be surmised, rested more and more speculatively on his young secretary. He was aware of Lewis's faults, particularly his tendency to give way at times to deep depressions, a characteristic Jefferson, who knew the Lewis family, attributed to heredity. But he also knew, as he wrote later, that Lewis was "brave, prudent, habituated to the woods & familiar with Indian manners & character." [27] He had served six years in the frontier army. He knew discipline and as a captain could presumably handle a group of soldiers specially selected for a military reconnaissance in foreign territory. Why search farther for a leader? And at that moment the seed that would grow into the Lewis and Clark expedition was planted. [28]

(Assumptions. Nearly three years later, on April 7, 1805, at the beginning of the final push to the Pacific, Lewis wrote exultantly in his journal of what had been "a da[r]ling project of mine for the last ten years." If taken literally "ten years" could not refer to the Michaux scheme of 1792–93, which he supposedly tried to join, but it could refer to his early years in the regular army when he served for a time with Lieutenant William Clark. Probably, though, the "ten" was a general statement. As we have noted, a refrain of the 1790s told of an American nation reaching from sea to sea. As soon as the Spanish barrier vanished, and most people believed the time was near, the army would take its place in the vanguard of the western surge. Speculation filled the barracks, and that may be what Lewis meant. But since neither he nor Jefferson left a word about the actual genesis of the darling project, we can only speculate in our turn. Anyway, Meriwether Lewis was still lucky—the right man in the right place.)

In spite of the leaky post office and slow communications of the time, no political enemy detected what was up. Smugly Jefferson wrote James Monroe some months later, "They [the Federalists] would be truly mortified if they could see our files. . . . They would see that though we could not say when war would take place, yet we said with energy what would take place when it should arise." [29]

The jolt, when it came, was from the outside. On November 23, 1802, couriers raced into Washington with word that the Spanish intendant of New Orleans, Juan Ventura Morales, had revoked the right of deposit the previous October 18. (Spain still held sway; Carlos had refused to sign the treaties of retrocession because of Napoleon's dilatoriness in handing over Tuscany.) Morales justified his action on the grounds of blatant bribery and smuggling by American shippers. Corruption existed, of a certainty. But few Americans accepted the explanation. French trickery, many thought, lay behind the revocation.

The angry surmise was wrong. Many years later scholars learned that Carlos himself had sent the order across the Atlantic to Morales as a final way to embarrass the French before he signed the treaties giving up Louisiana. But at the time no one knew this truth. Roars went up for retaliatory measures—meaning, as far as the more jingoistic Federalists were concerned, an immediate declaration of war against France.

To keep from disturbing the country more than it already was, Jefferson went about his ordinary business as if nothing untoward had occurred. Privately, however, he pushed his defense measures. One of his first moves was to visit his longtime friend, the Marqués de Casa Yrujo (the Spaniard might be more amenable than the French representative who would soon replace him) and ask permission for a small "literary" expedition—today we would call it a scientific trip—to cross Spanish Louisiana to the Pacific slope.

The request, which he had invented to disguise the group's military errand, was logical. Yrujo knew, and so told Spain's minister of foreign affairs in Madrid, that Jefferson had long fantasized about the day when America might extend its influence to the South Sea, as Spaniards often called the Pacific. [30] Immediacy had been lent to the dream by the great accomplishment of Alexander Mackenzie, who had crossed Canada to those distant shores in 1793 with a single canoe manned by eight or ten voyageurs. Since then an account of Mackenzie's voyages had been published, first in London in 1801 and in the United States a year later. Mackenzie closed his narrative by urging the British government to take steps that would place the beaver and sea-otter commerce of the far Northwest firmly in the hands of private Canadian traders, to the exclusion of the Boston seafarers who were already scouring those distant, fog-shrouded waters for pelts that could be sold in China.

One way for Jefferson to hold a line on the British would be to strengthen the American claim to the Columbia River, whose mouth had been discovered in May 1792 by the Yankee sea captain Robert Gray. For that matter, Spain also had shadowy claims to the region, based on a handful of landings made along the coast by its own early navigators. Other nations paid little heed to these Spanish pretensions. Still, Yrujo reasoned, they might be of some deterrence if the British, the Russians (already busy in Alaska), or the Americans developed notions of advancing on Mexico through Spanish-occupied California. Why weaken the Spanish position by facilitating the approach of Americans into the region?

As for letting a scientific expedition thread Louisiana by way of the Missouri River—well, Yrujo was no fool. Whatever scientific knowledge about Indians or geography its personnel gleaned could easily be adapted to military purposes if the need ever arose. Suavely he turned down the president's request.

Jefferson remained unruffled. He had done what protocol demanded. Now he would follow the dictates of necessity. He called Meriwether Lewis into his office and told him the expedition would go ahead regardless, providing Congress appropriated enough money to get it started. Inasmuch as the Constitution gave the lawmakers no expressed right to finance exploration outside the nation's own boundaries, he would lay the project before them as a preliminary step to extending commerce in furs. Lewis should start the ball rolling by drawing up a cost estimate not to exceed $2,500. A larger amount might frighten the legislators and would not sit well with Jefferson's repeated statements about economizing. Both men realized the voyage's costs would soar far higher than $2,500 (eventually the amount reached $38,722.25, not counting services and materials furnished by the War Department) but at the time that was not the point.

Lewis must have felt like a blindfolded child trying to pin the tail on the donkey. He could count on very few givens. For instance, he could avoid paying wages by recruiting army personnel whose pay and rations would continue wherever they were. As far as the Mississippi, army posts would render some assistance in the way of transportation and lodgings. But otherwise . . . what could he draw on, except things he remembered from his experiences as a regimental paymaster and from reading Alexander Mackenzie's book about crossing the continent far to the north in 1793?

Stabbing blindly, the captain produced such items as $217 for scientific instruments, $255 for "camp equipage," $430 for transportation, $696 (the largest item) for Indian presents, $55 for medicine, $87 for contingencies, and so on—$2,500 right on the button.

Congress convened on December 15. Jefferson's original plan had been to spring the adventure on the legislators during his annual message. His secretary of the treasury, the tall, balding, brilliant Albert Gallatin, though enthusiastic about the expedition itself, talked him out of a public declaration. [31] Such exposure would draw the world's attention to the fact that the United States was planning a deliberate trespass on alien territory. Surmise would fly. Would it not be wise to ask for funds behind closed doors? Jefferson complied and presented a public State of the Union address so bland that the leading Federalist war hawk, Alexander Hamilton, denounced it as a "lullaby." [32]

He next placated the angry voters west of the Allegheny Mountains by appointing James Monroe, who was popular in that turbulent region, as special envoy to Paris to help Robert Livingston's quest for the Floridas and New Orleans. The negotiators were authorized to offer France as much as ten million dollars for the desired lands.

He scheduled his secret message for January 18, 1803. He began it with an indirect approach to another of his defensive measures, obtaining more land along the east bank of the Mississippi from the Indians. Some years earlier, he reminded Congress, the government had established trading houses among the tribes. Their purpose was to defend the Indians against unscrupulous white traders. The question now was whether or not the act authorizing the government houses should be renewed.

He recommended an affirmative vote. Augmenting the trading-house program would create a desire in uncivilized breasts for many items of "domestic comfort." The yearners would realize they would have more goods to trade if they embraced agriculture and simple manufacturing. The need for hunting grounds would vanish, and they would be happy to dispose of the excess acres to the government at a favorable price. The U.S. would then parcel out the acquisitions to land-hungry Americans, who would promptly form themselves into militia units. In that way the country could plant "on the Missisipi itself the means of its own safety."

Only a few envious white traders, he continued, would object to this governmental interference with private enterprise, and their losses could be more than offset by extending the fur trade beyond the Mississippi, perhaps as far as the Pacific. The ultimate aim would be to make friends and allies of the far Western Indians while at the same time diverting valuable pelts from the rugged northern routes used by another nation—obviously Great Britain, though not named in the message—and bringing the harvest down the Missouri to the Mississippi and thence eastward by a variety of routes. In the process the explorers would gain much information about the continent's geography.

In this elucidation Jefferson did not say a word about military reconnaissance, and probably none was needed by his listeners. Unctuously he finished, "The nation claiming this territory [Spain] regarding this as a literary pursuit . . . would not be disposed to view it with jealousy, even if the expiring state of its interest did not render it a matter of indifference" [33]—a surprising statement in view of Yrujo's flat refusal only a few weeks before.

Bemused by Jefferson's adroit presentation, Congress overwhelmingly authorized an inquiry whose extraordinary scope they could not yet anticipate. From then on matters would rest largely in the hands of Meriwether Lewis, mostly because good fortune had brought him onto the scene, with his particular talents, when the opportunity was in the making.


Because Reuben C. Thwaites's The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is the basic reference book for the expedition itself, references to it are frequent and therefore limited, in all the following notes, to volume and page number. For an example, see note 12 below.

1. Jefferson to Lewis, February 23, 1801, in Jackson, Letters, 2–3. (back)
2. Lewis to F. Claibourne, March 7, 1801, in ibid., 11, 675. (back)
3. Malone, IV, 40. (back)
4. Dillon, 16. (back)
5. Wistar to Marshall, January 20, 1792, in Jackson, Letters, II, 675–77. (back)
6. Jefferson, "Life of Captain Lewis," in Biddle, xviii. (back)
7. Malone, III, 109. Jackson, Jefferson and Stony Mountains, 157. (back)
8. Jackson, Jefferson and Stony Mountains, 86–96, discusses Jefferson's library. (back)
9. Boyd, IX, 218. Both Morse and Dwight are quoted in DeConde, 39–40. See also Smith, 10–12. (back)
10. Quoted in DeVoto, Course of Empire, 416. For an analysis of Ledyard's proposal, 595–98. (back)
11. Jackson, Letters, 11, 668–69. (back)
12. VII, 204. (back)
13. Bakeless, Lewis and Clark, 86. (back)
14. Ibid., 3–5. Burroughs, 2. DeVoto, Course, 608. (back)
15. The army's authorized strength when Jefferson took office was 5,438 officers and men, but only a few more than 4,000 were actually in office. On March 16, 1802, the authorized strength was cut to 3,312. Malone, IV, 248. Ganoe, 104. (back)
16. Jackson, Jefferson and Stony Mountains, 120. Malone, IV, 248. (back)
17. Malone, IV, 248. (back)
18. Ibid., 40. (back)
19. Jackson, Letters, II, 667. "Jefferson's Analysis of Expenditures ... ," in Mayo (ed.), 236. (back)
20. Malone, IV, 40. (back)
21. Padover, 115. (back)
22. My account of the events leading to the Louisiana Purchase is based on DeConde; Malone, IV; DeVoto, Course; Sprague; Johansen and Gates; Morison and Commager; and McDonald, Decker, and Govan. More iconoclastic is Philbrick. For appropriate pages consult the indexes in the different books. (back)
23. Quoted in DeConde, 87. (back)
24. Malone, IV, 266. (back)
25. The full letter, Jefferson to Livingston, is in Sprague, 362–63. (back)
26. Jefferson's military preparations: Adams; DeConde, 132–37. There is a reference to the proposed fort at Cahokia in Jackson, Letters, 41 n. 4. (back)
27. Jackson to Rush, February 28, 1803, in Jackson, Letters, 18–19. (back)
28. This runs counter to the common convention that the expedition, with Lewis at its head, had been in Jefferson's mind for years. But the first actual step westward was taken as a defensive, not expansionist, measure. To quote Johansen and Gates, 93, "It was to counteract this [British] influence, to win over the Indians, and to conduct a military reconnaissance against a possible war that Jefferson originally projected the Lewis and Clark expedition." See also Adams, 174–75, 184–85. (back)
29. Mayo, 249. Malone, IV, 272–73. (back)
30. Nasatir, Before Lewis and Clark , 712–16. (back)
31. "Jefferson's Message to Congress," in Jackson, Letters, 4–8. (back)
32. Ibid., 12. (back)
33. Ibid., 13. (back)