The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Discovering the American West

The Louisiana Purchase and the Corps of Discovery 

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The Louisiana Purchase, I: American Access to the Port of New Orleanssketches1812

Stoddard, Amos, 1762-1813.
Sketches, historical and descriptive, of Louisiana.
Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1812.   Contemporary half calf.

French and then Spanish control over the port of New Orleans had long posed difficulties for American citizens who relied on exporting their products by way of the Mississippi River.  As this account indicates, President Adams had begun planning for seizing the port by force.  The defeat of Spain by Napoleon, and the retrocession of Louisiana from Spain to back to France in 1801, initially offered little prospect for improvement.

The Louisiana Purchase, II: the Treatydebates1804

Debates in the House of representatives, on the bills for carrying into effect the Louisiana treaty.
Philadelphia: Thomas and George Palmer, for J. Conrad, et al., 1804.  Original boards.  Winyah Indigo Library Society, Georgetown, S.C.

What transformed the stand-off and opened the way for a negotiated transfer of power in Louisiana was the French army’s costly attempt to Toussaint l’Ouverture’s slave revolution in Haiti.   In a secret treaty, Jefferson’s envoy to Paris, James Monroe, was able in 1803 to negotiate, not just control of New Orleans, but purchase for $15 million of the whole of greater Louisiana.   The Treaty was ratified on October 31, 1803, and control formally transferred On December 3, 1803.

The Louisiana Purchase, III: occupying a foreign countryaccount of louisiana

An account of Louisiana, being an abstract of documents, in the offices of the Departments of state, and of the Treasury.
Philadelphia: John Conrad [etc., etc., 1803].  Original boards.  Winyah Indigo Library Society, Georgetown, S.C.

This compilation of information about the geography and civil government of Louisiana was an official presidential publication, compiled at Jefferson’s direction from information furnished by Dr. John Sibley, of Natchitoches, La., and others.   It was transmitted to Congress on November 14, 1803. 

The Louisiana Purchase, IV: the Scale of the New Territory

Arrowsmith, Aaron, 1750-1823, and Samuel Lewis, d. 1865.
A new and elegant general atlas, comprising all the new discoveries, to the present time; containing sixty-three maps.
Philadelphia: J. Conrad, 1804.  Quarter calf, boards. Courtesy of South Caroliniana Library.

This contemporary map makes clear just how much additional land was added to the United States by the Louisiana Purchase: the treaty had increased the territory of the United States by 140%, adding land that would be the basis for thirteen new states.  The map also shows the new possibility for Americans to attempt a transcontinental expedition without entering another sphere of influence.  Arrowsmith’s atlas was published after the conclusion of the U.S.-French treaty but before any reports from the explorations by Lewis and Clark.  

journal 1804

The Corps of Discovery

Clark, William, 1770-1838.
"Journal May 13, 1804-Aug. 14, 1804," facsimiled in Edward C. Carter II, ed., Three journals of the Lewis & Clark expedition, 1804-1806: from the collections of the American Philosophical Society. 
Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2000.

In 1803, Meriwether Lewis was twenty-seven, a Virginian militia officer who had been serving  as Jefferson’s private secretary since 1801.  In January 1803, Jefferson sent a secret message to Congress, persuading them to appropriate $2500 for a transcontinental expedition (the Corps of Discovery), and appointed Lewis to lead it. Jefferson’s instructions mandated the keeping of detailed journals and maps.  Lewis spent the next winter in Philadelphia, preparing for the scientific aspects of the job, and then traveled by river to St. Louis, to meet up with his co-captain, William Clark and their recruits.  The expedition set sail up the Missouri, with 27 men in three boats, on May 14th 1804.

River Travel on the Missouricamp gros ventres

Karl Bodmer, "Camp of the Gros Ventres of the Prairies," Plate 38, from Maximilian, Prince of Wied,Travels in the interior of North America. . . . 
London: Ackermann, 1843.

For the first leg of their journey, Lewis and Clark took three boats, a larger keel-boat, which would have looked much like the sail-boat in this illustration, and two smaller pirogues.   Later, before tackling the shallower upper reaches of the river, they sent the keel-boat back, and acquired several smaller canoes.  

The Expedition Route  travels source of missouri map

Foldout frontispiece map, from Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Travels to the source of the Missouri river and across the American continent to the Pacific ocean. Performed by order of the government of the United States, in the years, 1804, 1805, and 1806. 3 vols. New ed.
London: Longman, et al., 1815.  Three-quarter morocco.  Bookplate of Alfred Chapin Rogers.

The expedition traveled in the months from spring to fall and established a camp each winter.  The long journey up river and across the Rockies to the Pacific took two-summer traveling periods (1804, 1805), while the return journey, which was all downstream after recrossing the continental divide, was completed in one summer (1806).  The book is open to show a typical passage from the first weeks of the journey. Click here for a typical journal entry in the first weeks.


Among the Sioux

"To-Ka-Con, A Sioux Chief" from Thomas L. M’Kenney, 1785-1859, and James Hall,  1793-1868.  History of the Indian Tribes of North America . . .with 120 portraits from the Indian Gallery in the Department of War. 
3 vols., octavo. 
Philadelphia: Rice and Hart, 1855.  Blind-stamped morocco. Gift of Mrs. J. Henry Fair.

In addition to scientific exploration, the expedition had the political agenda of making treaties with the Indian tribes previously beyond United States influence.   The first contact was with a friendly group of Yankton Sioux, but in September they encountered the more hostile Teton Sioux: "Capt. Clark told them that . . . if they misused us he or Capt. Lewis could by writing have them all destroyed . . . we were on our guard all night" (Sgt. Ordway, September 25th, 1804).  

assinboin indians dress

Encountering Native Americans: the West Before European Settlement

Karl Bodmer,
"Assinboin Indians," Plate 32, from Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Travels in the interior of North America. . . .London: Ackermann, 1843.

Bodmer’s portraits of individual native Americans and their dress have a special historical value because they were made in situ, while rival series by McKenney was mostly painted when the chiefs of various Indian tribes visited European settlements and often show a partially Europeanized appearance.  Lewis and Clark had encountered Assinboins several times during the first leg of their journey and during their first winter.

The "Barking Squirrel" or Prairie Dogbarking squirrel

John James Audubon, 1785-1851, 
"Pl. XCIX: The Prairie Dog," in Audubon and John Bachman, 1790-1874, The quadrupeds of North America.  3 vols., octavo.  
New York: V. G. Audubon, 1851-54.  Contemporary half morocco

One of the animals that most puzzled the explorers was the prairie dog, or prairie marmot, which Lewis called the barking squirrel: "this animal appears here in infinite numbers . . . the Village contains great numbers of holes on the top of which the little animals Set erect make a Whistleing noise and when allarmed Step into their hole" (September 17, 1804). 

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