After becoming president in 1801, Thomas Jefferson favored sponsoring an expedition to explore the lands west of the Mississippi. This project gained momentum when the Louisiana Territory was purchased from France in 1803. In June 1803, Jefferson issued instructions to Captain Meriwether Lewis, the officer he had recently appointed to lead the expedition, ordering Lewis to explore the Missouri River and map a route over the Rockies to the Pacific “for the purposes of commerce.”
After a winter of preparation, Lewis, his co-commander Clark, and a core party of twenty-seven men set off from Wood River (Illinois), on May 14, 1804. The group included fourteen soldiers, nine civilian woodsmen, an interpreter, two boat men, and Clark’s slave York. Later that year they would add Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader, and his Shoshone companion, Sakakawea.
As they traveled west in 1804 and 1805, the Corps devoted considerable time to diplomacy. Although they were cautious of strangers, they were eager for directions and anxious to document the region’s resources. They appreciated the traditional generosity and hospitality of tribal leaders, but often underestimated their own reciprocal obligations. At times Native Americans responded with suspicion to the heavily-armed strangers. Those who had already established alliances with outsiders were usually less welcoming than those who saw the Americans as potential trading partners.
This section focuses on six telling moments during the expedition that illustrate the delicate interactions between the Corps and Indians along the route. They reveal how dependent the explorers often were on Native hospitality, and how differing perspectives and expectations often led to misunderstandings. During their return in 1806, dwindling supplies and the burden of completing their mission caused the Americans to be impatient and even prone to violence.
Portrait of Meriwether Lewis
by Charles Willson Peale, from life, 1807.
Portrait of William Clark
by Charles Willson Peale, from life, 1807-1808.