By Mary Lou Beatty
"As we passed on, it seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never end.”
--Meriwether Lewis, on reaching the White Cliffs of the Missouri River
In January we celebrate the accomplishments of two men named Lewis and Clark. Two hundred years ago, they led a small band of men--and one woman--across the uncharted wilderness of the American West. Among them were a soldier from New Hampshire, an Irish carpenter from Pennsylvania, a tailor from Virginia, and sons of Indian women and French-Canadian men.
They braved the rushing currents of the Missouri and the Columbia. They killed grizzlies. They crossed formidable mountains. They carried medals of peace to the people who inhabited the land and who spoke unfamiliar languages: Mandan and Shoshone and Chinook.
In the end, Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery failed in their primary goal--to find a waterway to the Pacific and the riches of the Far East-- the dream of explorers since Columbus. “No one could have succeeded because the tasks were unrealistic,” says historian Gary Moulton, “that is, find an allwater route and Northwest Passage to the coast. No such passage existed. The geographical conceptions of the time were that the Rocky Mountains were a low-lying set of hills, and that there were connecting streams between the Missouri and the Columbia that were easily portaged; Lewis and Clark disproved all of those ideas under the hardest of circumstances.”
Moulton, who has spent twenty years editing the thirteen volumes of The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, prefers talking about the successes. Just “getting there and back without any great loss of life” was an accomplishment, he says, while other explorers were turning back or dying. Their scientific findings in geology, archeology, ethnology, linguistics, and botany are still under study. “There are more than 240 plants at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia,” he tells NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. “People are taking small pieces of those plants and doing cellular studies to try to get a snapshot of the environmental conditions before industrialization.”
The turn-of-the-century America that Lewis and Clark inhabited was a nation of 5.3 million reaching to the Mississippi and surrounded by the presence of France, Spain, and Britain. Two-thirds of its citizens lived within fifty miles of the Atlantic Ocean. On his Inauguration Day in 1801 President Jefferson predicted that one day the United States would extend beyond the Mississippi and span the entire continent. He was determined to see it through and two years later persuaded Congress to appropriate $2,500 for an exploratory trip west. His secretary, Meriwether Lewis, would command the expedition.
While Lewis was preparing for the journey, an unexpected offer came from France. Napoleon Bonaparte’s military forays in Europe had been proving expensive, and in the Caribbean, an expeditionary force to reestablish French rule in Haiti had cost thousands of lives. At the same time, resumption of war with Britain seemed likely. France made an overture, offering to sell not just the island on which New Orleans was located, which Jefferson had wanted for years, but the entire French territory of Louisiana. A price of $15 million was agreed on; the size of the country was more than doubled. Some were skeptical. One observer, writes John L. Allen, described the acquisition as “all vague conjecture and uncertain calculation,” and another maintained “there are vast regions. . . of which no nations know anything.”
The importance of the acquisition was charted by Lewis and Clark in a journey that took them nearly five thousand miles over two years and four months. “The expedition was a turning point in world history,” historian James P. Ronda has written. “Here are the beginnings of an American empire. That westering would transform the political and cultural boundaries of North America and eventually the wider world.”