Lewis and Clark: A Bicentennial of Discovery
Nationwide Celebrations Mark Cross-Country Odyssey
As the saying goes, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. In the case of the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the uncharted wilderness west of the Mississippi River, it was a letter from then-President Thomas Jefferson to Congress, requesting $2,500 to fund what came to be called the Corps of Discovery.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports on a recent ceremony at Jefferson's home, Monticello, to mark the anniversary of that request. The impact of the expedition, Naylor says, is still being felt two centuries later.
200 years later, the journey is now part of American legend. Re-enactors dress up like members of the Corps and hike the Lewis and Clark trail. The expedition opened up the American West to other explorers, and to settlement.
But in 1803, the city of St. Louis was a foreign city, controlled by the Spanish and later, the French. What lay beyond was a great unknown. Dayton Duncan, who collaborated on a book and documentary film about Lewis and Clark with award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, tells Naylor that Jefferson hated not knowing what lay west of the Mississippi.
"They wanted to know what the plant life was like, what the wildlife was like, whether there was a tribe of blue-eyed Welsh-speaking Indians that were rumored to be somewhere over the next Western horizon, mountains of salt, exploding volcanoes," Duncan says.
"Most of all, he wanted the United States to be the nation that found what everyone believed was waiting for someone to find in the West -- an easy water route to the Orient. He believed it was out there, that the Missouri River was the key to it, and that's what he sent Lewis and Clark to find."
But exploration required money. In his confidential Jan. 18, 1803 letter to Congress to ask for funds, Jefferson said it would be worthwhile to convince native Americans to give up their nomadic lifestyle for farming. Without the need for vast hunting grounds, he reasoned, the Indians might be more inclined to sell their forests and "increase their domestic comforts."
Further on in the letter, Jefferson gets around to his main point: that this great uncharted territory might be worth checking out.
"An intelligent officer, with 10 or 12 chosen men... might explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean, have conferences with the natives on the subject 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."
Congress approved the money a month later, and Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis, an Army officer who had served as his personal secretary in the White House, as leader of the group. Lewis asked Army buddy William Clark to go with him.
Louis and Clark's Corps of Discovery -- 27 soldiers, a French Canadian interpreter, and Clark's African-American slave, York -- set out in May 1804 from St. Louis, picking up the Indian guide Sacagawea along the way. By then, most of the territory they would explore had been acquired by Jefferson, in the Louisiana Purchase.