Prelude: 1803 to May 1804

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Prelude: 1803 to May 1804[1]

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In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson won approval from Congress for a visionary project that was to become one of American history's greatest adventure stories. Jefferson wanted to know if Americans could journey overland to the Pacific Ocean by following two rivers, the Missouri and the Columbia. Both rivers flowed from the Rocky Mountains, he knew; the Missouri flows east from the Rockies and the Columbia flows west to the Pacific Ocean.

If the sources of the rivers were near one another, Jefferson reasoned that American traders could use that route to compete with British fur companies pressing southward from Canada.

On February 28, 1803, Congress appropriated funds for a small U.S. Army unit to explore the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. The explorers were to make detailed reports on the land's geography, climate, plants, animals, as well as to study the customs and languages of the Indians. Plans for the Expedition were almost complete when the President learned that France had offered to sell all of Louisiana Territory to the United States. This transfer, which was completed within a year, doubled the area of the United States. It meant that Jefferson's army Expedition could travel to the crest of the Rockies on American soil, no longer needing permission from the former French owners.

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Jefferson selected an Army captain, 28-year-old Meriwether Lewis, as the Expedition's leader. The Jeffersons and Lewises had been neighbors near Charlottesville, Virginia, where Lewis was born August 18, 1774. As a boy, he had spent time in the woods acquiring a remarkable knowledge of native plants and animals. In 1794, he served in the Virginia Militia when President Washington called it out to quell the Whiskey Rebellion. Lewis had a successful army career when, in 1801, the newly elected Jefferson summoned him to work as his private secretary in the "President's House."
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Lewis chose a former Army comrade, 32-year-old William Clark, to be co-leader of the Expedition. Clark was born August 1, 1770, in Caroline County, Virginia. At the age of 14, his family moved to Kentucky, where they were among the earliest settlers. William Clark was the youngest brother of General George Rogers Clark, a hero of the Revolutionary War. William served under General "Mad Anthony" Wayne during the Indian wars in the Northwest Territory.

In preparing for the Expedition, Lewis visited President Jefferson's scientific associates in Philadelphia for instruction in natural sciences, astronomical navigation and field medicine. He also was given a list of questions about their daily lives to ask the American Indians that they would meet. During these preparations Lewis, for "20$" purchased Seaman, his "dogg of the newfoundland breed" to accompany him to the Pacific.

Lewis and Clark reached their staging point at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers near St. Louis in December 1803. They camped for the winter at the mouth of Wood River, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, opposite the entrance to the Missouri River. The two captains recruited young woodsmen and enlisted soldiers who volunteered from nearby army outposts. Over the winter final selections were made of proven men. In the spring, the Expedition's roster comprised of approximately 45 people, including some military personnel and local boatmen who would go part way up the Missouri with the Expedition. Lewis recorded that the mouth of Wood River was "to be considered the point of departure" for the westward journey.

  1. Adapted from an article by Irving W. Anderson,
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