The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846

§ 10. The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Wirt’s young nobleman denies to the President the gift of poetical fancy; yet Jefferson allowed such imaginative faculty as he possessed to dally with the theme of western exploration. As early as 1784 he was devising names for ten suggested states to the northwest—“Sylvania,” “Michigania,” “Metropolitamia,” etc.,—after the pseudo-classical taste of the day. He was therefore ready to promote discovery in the far North-west when the moment for action arrived. Indeed, before the Lewis and Clark enterprise, he had twice made plans for the same general undertaking. More particularly, while he was Vice-President of the American Philosophical Society, in 1793, he had arranged with the French botanist Michaux, then in this country, for an expedition which was to follow the Missouri and some tributary therof to a point where these waters might communicate with the Columbia River, opening a way to the Pacific. The scheme fell through when Michaux became involved in a French marauding project against the Spanish, and lingered among the recruits in Kentucky. It seems that Meriwether Lewis, a young neighbour of Jefferson, had desired the position of leader in the great exploration.

Lewis, who in 1801 became private secretary to Jefferson, was born in 1774 of a prominent stock in Virginia. After five years at a Latin school, he studied botany on his mother’s farm, then entered the army raised to quell the Whiskey Rebellion, and, serving as an officer under Wayne, rose to be a captain. In the eyes of Jefferson, Lewis was “brave, prudent, habituated to the woods, and familiar with Indian manners and character,” besides possessing “a great mass of accurate observation all the subjects of nature.” When chosen to pilot the now famous expedition which bears his name, he further prepared himself by studying with competent scientists at Philadelphia; and feeling the need of a companion for the tour, he chose a friend of his boyhood, his elder by four years, Captain William Clark, also a solider under Wayne, experienced in Indian warfare, and practised in the construction of forts. An unpolished, but staunch and friendly man, heartily returning the warm affection of Lewis, Clark accepted the opportunity with spirit, and made ready to join him in seeking the information which Jefferson desired “for the benefit of our own country and of the world.” For a time it was Jefferson’s pretence that the undertaking was “a literary enterprise.” But when the sale of Louisiana was ratified, there was no further need of concealing the interest of the Federal Government in the project.

Lewis left Pittsburgh on 31 August, 1803, to meet Clark in Kentucky. They wintered in Illinois, as Clark writes,

  • at the enterance of a Small river opposit the Mouth of Missouri Called Wood River, where they formed their party, Composed of robust helthy hardy young men.
  • In the spring the detachment of twenty-nine regular members and sixteen supernumeraries began the slow progress up the Missouri. They spent the next winter in a stockade in North Dakota, proceeding in the spring of 1805 to the source of the Jefferson Fork of the Missouri, and under many hardships crossing over the barrier mountains toward the end of summer. Going down the Columbia River, they reached the Pacific at the close of the autumn, to pass the winter in their Fort Clatsop–log huts enclosed by a palisade. Here they had leisure to study the natives and to compile records. In March, 1806, they began the return journey. After surmounting the difficult snow-clad barrier in June, the party divided, Lewis making his way to the Falls of the Missouri, and exploring Maria’s River, Clark returning to the head of Jefferson Fork, proceeding thence to the Yellowstone River, and following this down to the Missouri. Coming together again in August, they went to St. Louis in September, having consumed about two and one-third years in the wilds.

    The subsequent duties of Lewis as Governor of Louisiana Territory, and of Clark as Superintent of Indian Affairs, delayed the preparation of the records, although Jefferson was ardent for their publication. In 1809, Lewis, while on his way to Washington and Philadelphia to take charge of the editing, met his death, probably by violence, in Tennessee; whereupon the unlettered Clark, at the urgent desire of Jefferson, undertook the task with the help of Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia.

    Biddle performed the major part of the editing, and then Paul Allen, a journalist, supervised the printing. After many vicissitudes, the work was published in February, 1814. Much of the scientific material, however, was not included; nor was a strictly accurate account of the expedition and its results ever given to the world until the recent edition (1904–1905) of the Original Journals by Dr. Thwaites. Of the first edition, about 1400 copies were circulated, from the sale of which Clark apparently received nothing. Though the authentic work became popular in America and Europe, being reprinted and translated, the initial delay in publication, and the presence of other diarists in the party, made room for more than one earlier account of the expedition—for example, the Journal of Patrick Gass, of which there were five editions before 1814, as well as a French and a German translation in that year. However made known, the achievement of Lewis and Clark has won greater fame than any other geographical exploration ever undertaken within the United States proper. The Government expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains in 1819, under the command of Major Long, was more fruitful in technical results; and with the vast, though unmethodical, accumulations of Schoolcraft the data on Indians in the records edited by Biddle are not to be compared in value. But the authorized account of Jefferson’s great enterprise, published in the concluding year of the final war with England, marked the fulfilment of Carver’s vision, and betokened the approaching establishment of the United States as the ruling power in the Western Hemisphere.