The offer of André Michaux, a French botanist, was accepted, and he actually started on his journey. But when he had reached Kentucky on his way west he was overtaken by an order from the French minister, directing him to return and engage in other work. Thus Jefferson’s second attempt at the exploration of the Louisiana territory also resulted in failure.

But the proverbial third attempt succeeded brilliantly. Before the Louisiana territory had actually passed into our hands Jefferson and others felt that it was quite time to learn more definitely what this strange country contained. In January, 1803, he seized the opportunity offered by the need of regulating trade with the indians, to send a confidential message to Congress, in which he advised an exploration. Congress approved, and an appropriation of money was made. President Jefferson selected Captain Lewis as leader of the expedition and associated with him Captain William Clark.1

There were, therefore, two leaders, but they did their memorable work without jealousy or trouble. Both were men of courage and resolution, fully equipped by character and training for the work which lay before them. Lewis possessed a rare power of discipline and executive ability, and a considerable scientific knowledge. Clark was peculiarly familiar with Indian habits, and his military training had borne good fruits.

Among the careful instructions given to Lewis and Clark we find that they were "to explore the Missouri River and such principal streams of it, as by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water-communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce." Since the Missouri rises east of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado far to the southward, and the Columbia flows to the Pacific on the western side of the mountains, Jefferson’s words illustrate the vague knowledge of the time.

The explorers were to take frequent observations of latitude and longitude and to note the courses of the river, points of portage, and all important features. Several copies of these observations were to he made. The thoughtful Jefferson recommended that one copy be on "the cuticular membrane of the paper-birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper."

Every feature of Indian life was to be studied with the greatest care. The explorers were to note the soil and face of the country, its vegetable products, its animals, the remains of any animals "which may be deemed dead or William Clarkextinct,"2 the mineral productions of every kind, volcanic appearances, and climate. They were to investigate the opportunities for trade and cultivate the friendship of the Indians. On the Pacific coast they were to see whether the fur trade of the far Northwest could not be conducted through the Missouri and the United States instead of by circumnavigation from Nootka Sound on the Pacific coast.

Clearly, the explorers had plenty of work laid out for them. How uncertain the outcome was in Jefferson’s mind is shown by his directions that they should return from Oregon by sea, "by the way either of Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope," in case the return overland seemed "imminently dangerous." Furthermore, he said, the American consuls at Batavia in Java, in the Isle of France, and at the Cape of Good Hope would furnish money. When we think of the present ease and luxury of travel across the continent to Oregon it is hard to realize that these doubts and difficulties existed only a hundred years ago.

1Meriwether Lewis was born near Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1774. At eighteen he was a farmer. In 1794 he served in the militia during the "whisky insurrection," and later obtained a commission in the regular army. Between 1801 and 1803 he was the private secretary of President Jefferson. In 1806 he was made governor of Missouri territory. He died in 1809.

William Clark, also a Virginian, was born in 1770, the brother of General George Rogers Clark who conquered the old Northwest for the United States in the Revolutionary War. In the boyhood of William Clark his family removed to Kentucky, then "the dark and bloody ground," as it was called from the frequent attacks of the Indians. With such an early experience it was not strange that Clark should become a soldier. But in 1796 he resigned from the army on account of ill health. He took up his residence in St. Louis, where he lived until President Jefferson offered him, in 1803, a military appointment as second lieutenant in the regular army and the joint command of the expedition. The title of captain came from his former rank in the militia of the Northwest.
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2 This is peculiarly interesting in view of the wonderful fossil remains found of late years in the Bad Lands of Dakota and elsewhere in the Northwest.
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Chapter 10

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© 2001, Lynn Waterman