The Prelude to the Lewis and Clark Expedition

One of America’s greatest true tales of adventure and discovery began in 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson won approval from Congress to carry out an extensive exploration mission. Jefferson’s vision for the project included finding out if Americans could travel all the way to the Pacific Ocean via land simply by following two rivers. These rivers, the Missouri and the Columbia, flow east and west respectively from the Rocky Mountains of modern day Colorado. By finding the sources of these rivers and having access to the land along their banks, Jefferson reasoned that it would be an excellent way to compete with British fur companies who were continuously pressing south from Canada.

United States Acquires Land from France


On February 28, 1803, Congress set aside funds for a small unit of the United States Army to explore the land along the two rivers. The unit was given the task of compiling information on western geography, climate, plants, and animals of the area. They were also to observe customs and languages of the Native Americans they encountered. In addition, the Army unit was asked to inform these tribes that traders would soon come to buy their furs. Around this time, President Jefferson discovered that France was willing to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States. This purchase was key to the Army mission, as owning this large chunk of land would keep the United States from having to ask for permission from the French to travel upon it. The land purchase took within a year to complete. Once finished, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the land area of the United States. 

Meriwether Lewis Selected


Meriwether Lewis was born August 18th, 1774. He spent most of his youth exploring nature, hunting, trapping, and gaining knowledge of nature. Lewis later had a successful military career in the Virginia Militia, service under President and General George Washington during the Whiskey Rebellion. After this time, he went on to serving as a regular Army officer in Ohio and Tennessee. In 1801, newly elected President Jefferson summoned Lewis, the son of a family friend, to become his personal secretary in the nation’s capital.

In order to have a successful exploration mission, President Jefferson knew he had to choose someone he could count on to lead the troops. The personal relationship and history between Lewis and Jefferson led to the historic selection of Lewis to lead the expedition.


William Clark Added to Expedition


Lewis knew he needed a counterpart in order to make the expedition a successful one. So, he chose his former commander to lead beside him. William Clark was born August 1st in Carolin County, Virginia. By the age of 14, his family relocated to Kentucky to become one of the earliest settlers in the state. Clark later joined the Kentucky Militia and went on to serve in the regular Army. His strong sense of leadership led Lewis to select him for this great mission.




Preparation for the Trip


In preparation for this great trip, Meriwether Lewis was taught several philosophies from scientific friends of Jefferson. These scholars gave him knowledge in natural sciences, astronomical navigation, and field medicine for him to use on the trip. He was also given a series of questions to ask Native Americans he encountered about their daily lives. Before the trip, Lewis purchased a companion dog for $20. This dog, named Seaman, appears in Lewis’ journals and has become one of the most famous Newfoundland breed dogs in all history.


The Lewis and Clark Expedition Begins


In the winter of 1803, the mouth of the Wood River was selected to be the starting point for the exploration journey. The explorers stayed several months at this spot, located on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, selecting proven men to take with them on the journal. The final roster included 45 men, some military and some boatmen. Along with Lewis and Clark, these two men would go on to make history in their discoveries.