An unknown interior. Jefferson’s early interest in exploration. Ledyard’s vain attempt. Jefferson selects Lewis and Clark. Who they were. Their instructions. The uncertainty as to their route.

The little that had been learned by 1803 of the interior of Louisiana came for the most part from the stories of Indians and of trappers. There were tales of vast prairies far in the interior, covered with herds of buffalo, and clothed with grass "because the soil was far too rich for the growth of trees." In the north, as Jefferson reported to Congress, there were great bluffs which were "faced with lime and free stone, carved into various shapes and figures by the hand of nature, and [they] afford the appearance of a multitude of antique towers." While this report was true, since it referred to the strange rock forms of the Bad Lands of Dakota, it was laughed at by Jefferson’s opponents.

Bad Lands of Dakota

Another story that Jefferson gravely repeated to Congress was of a wonderful mountain of salt some thousand miles up the Missouri. It was said that this mountain was one hundred and eighty miles long and forty-five miles wide; that there were no trees or shrubs on it, but that it was one huge mass of glittering white. If any one doubted this fabulous tale, he was assured that samples of the salt had been shown at St. Louis. Even this failed to convince Jefferson’s opponents, the Federalists. One newspaper writer suggested that the salt mountain was Lot’s wife. Another writer imagined a salt eagle on the top and a salt mammoth climbing up the side. There were other stories of giant Indians as mythical as the salt mountain. From these strange reports one can realize how little was known of a part of our country which is now so familiar.

We have seen that Jefferson did not intend to buy the whole Louisiana territory, but he proposed an exploration of the West long before the purchase was made. In 1785 he was appointed minister to France, and in Paris he met John Ledyard, an American traveler. Ledyard had accompanied the famous navigator, Captain Cook, on his last voyage, when Cook sailed up the western coast of North America toward Bering Strait, and then sailed south to Hawaii, where he was slain by the natives. Ledyard was eager to continue his travels, and Jefferson proposed that he should cross northern Europe and Asia to Kamchatka, sail over to the present Alaska, and then go south "to the latitude of the Missouri and penetrate to and through that to the United States." Jefferson’s language shows how uncertain the knowledge of the time was. No one knew where the Missouri River began. Ledyard undertook this adventurous journey, and on his overland route actually arrived within two hundred miles of Kamchatka; but there he was arrested by Russian soldiers and forced to return. This was the end of a plan which might have added a wonderful chapter to the history of American exploration.

But Jefferson’s zealous desire for a knowledge of the West continued unabated. In 1792 he proposed to the American Philosophical Society to raise money for an exploration of the West. He suggested that some one should do this by "ascending the Missouri, crossing the Stony [Rocky] Mountains, and descending the nearest river to the Pacific." This suggestion brought a prompt application from Captain Meriwether Lewis, of the United States army, who was eager to make the journey. But Captain Lewis’s time had not yet come.

Meriwether Lewis
(From a print in the Analectic Magazine (1815) reproducing the drawing by St. Merain, which belonged to Captain Clark)


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© 2001, Lynn Waterman