Modern history


Reporting to the President

September 23–December 31,1806

On September 23, 1806, Meriwether Lewis completed the first part of the work that had been his “darling project,” and on which he had concentrated with single-minded intensity for the past four years. The second part of this great work, reporting on the results of his exploration to the president—and beyond him, to the people of America and of the world—would require a similar level of dedication. What he knew, and what he and Clark had recorded in their journals, papers, and maps, was invaluable—but of no value at all unless it was disseminated.

Lewis had gotten started on the process of making what he had learned available to the president and the public back at Fort Mandan, in the winter of 1804–5, with his reports to Jefferson on his discoveries during the first leg of his voyage. The president had ordered those reports and Clark’s map published; they were widely copied and distributed. All across America, and in Britain and Europe as well, adventuresome young men and older entrepreneurs were making plans to go west—indeed, some had already started. But the real news was still to come.

Even before finishing the voyage, Lewis got started on his task of informing the public and the scientists of what he had found. As his canoe descended the last miles to St. Louis, he began writing a first draft of his report to the president.

Lewis opened his report by announcing his safe arrival in St. Louis, along with “our papers and baggage.” Those words assured Jefferson that the expedition had brought back its scientific discoveries.

The second sentence went to the heart of the matter, as far as Jefferson was concerned: “In obedience to your orders we have penitrated the Continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean, and sufficiently explored the interior of the country to affirm with confidence that we have discovered the most practicable rout which does exist across the continent by means of the navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.”

In the long paragraph that followed, Lewis was as positive about what he had found as reality allowed him to be. He said the navigation of the Missouri was “safe and good,” so too the Clearwater-Snake-Columbia system, at least down to The Dalles. But the passage by land from the Missouri to the Columbia’s waters was another matter altogether.

It was Lewis’s unhappy task to tell the president that his hope for an all-water route linking the Atlantic and Pacific was gone. So, even as he pulled into St. Louis in triumph, he carried the burden of knowing that the headline news to come out of the expedition was bad. Never would he hide the truth—Jefferson was above all a man of facts—but if he felt a bit embarrassed by them, or defensive about them, if he went to great lengths to put the best possible face on what he was reporting, it was perhaps understandable.

In any case, Lewis was straightforward about the portage from the Missouri waters to the Columbia waters: it was a passage of 340 miles, 200 along a good road, the other 140 “the most formidable part of the tract . . . [over] tremendious mountains which for 60 mls. are covered with eternal snows.”

With those words, Lewis put an end to the search for the Northwest Passage.

After outlining the difficulties of the portage, he shifted to the positive. “We view this passage across the Continent,” he wrote, “as affording immence advantages to the fur trade.” He went on to describe in detail the plan for the American fur-trading empire in Upper Louisiana and Oregon that he had been working on in his mind ever since he crossed the Rocky Mountains.

It was a breathtaking proposal, continent-wide in scope. The scheme involved nothing less than gathering all the furs collected in the whole of the Northwest, from the northern reaches of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, and transporting them to the mouth of the Columbia, whence they could be shipped to the Canton market to be exchanged for goods from the Orient.

The plan was based on the Shoshone and Nez Percé horse herds. The mountains could be passed, Lewis told Jefferson, from late June to the end of September, “and the cheep rate at which horses are to be obtained . . . reduces the expences of transportation over this portage to a mere trifle.”

The British could be cut out of the trade almost entirely, because American furs could be sent direct to the great Canton market, whereas British mercantile laws required that all furs from the British Empire must be shipped first of all to London before being sent on to their market.1Americans could cut the distance and cost, their furs would arrive earlier and be in better condition and thus command a premium price, and British import and export duties, as well as profits for the East India Company, could be avoided.I

The route Lewis proposed was so far superior to the present one—from the Canadian west to Montreal and down the St. Lawrence and across the Atlantic to London, then on around Africa to the Orient—that Lewis thought it possible the North West Company would want to ship their furs via the Columbia.

In making this report, Lewis was attempting to create government policy. And as an adviser, he did not hesitate to reverse Jefferson’s original idea, that furs from the Pacific Coast be sent to the Missouri, then brought on down to St. Louis.

To the objection that in Lewis’s scheme the flow of goods from Canton to the mouth of the Columbia, over the mountains, down the Missouri to St. Louis, then up the Ohio and over the Appalachians, and finally down the Potomac to market, was too long and difficult for imports from the Orient, Lewis had a reply. “Many articles not bulky [or] brittle nor of a very perishable nature may be conveyed to the United States by this rout with more facility and at less expense” than by going around the Cape of Good Hope.

The exchange of furs for oriental goods could take place at a great trade fair to be held each year in July at the Nez Percé camp. And there would have to be a permanent trading establishment set up at the mouth of the Columbia.

Lewis obviously knew the intricacies of the fur trade, and about business practices, costs, profits, requirements. He also knew his countrymen. Thus he opened the third paragraph of his report to Jefferson with a sentence that became the most frequently quoted one he ever wrote: “The Missouri and all it’s branches from the Cheyenne upwards abound more in beaver and Common Otter, than any other streams on earth, particularly that proportion of them lying within the Rocky Mountains.”2 It was certain to set off a rush for the mountains.

Then he wrote a paragraph that reached considerably in its promises of what might be. “If the government will only aid, even in a very limited manner, the enterprize of her Citizens,” he wrote, “I am fully convinced that we shall shortly derive the benifits of a most lucrative trade from this source, and that in the course of ten or twelve years a tour across the Continent by the rout mentioned will be undertaken by individuals with as little concern as a voyage across the Atlantic is at present.”

It would take government action, at considerable expense to the public. It would take an expanded army, acting aggressively against hostile Indians on the Missouri. Neither proposition was part of Jefferson’s overall philosophical position on the role of government. Never mind. Neither was the purchase of Louisiana. Whatever his philosophical musings, Jefferson was a man of the West, just as the Republican Party was a party of the West. Whenever the Constitution was silent, Jefferson, when in power, was willing to abandon a strict construction of the document in order to promote western expansion. His vision of the United States stretched from sea to sea—and more than any other individual, he made that happen.

That Lewis envisioned himself as a part of this vast enterprise he made clear over the next two years by his actions. Having discovered the American West, he wanted to be in on the first wave of Americans to exploit it. He knew that he would achieve worldwide fame after the president received his report; now he wanted riches. And there was no faster way to make a big profit on a small investment in the first decade of the nineteenth century than the fur trade to the Orient.

On his first day back in St. Louis, Captain Lewis got started on a career as both a lobbyist and publicist for, and a participant in, the development of the empire. He polished his report for the president and wrote another long letter for the newspapers. In both he called for “the earliest attention of our government.” The immediate need, he told Jefferson, was to deal with “the unfriendly dispositions” of the Sioux, Blackfeet, and other tribes along the Missouri.

In the next section, Lewis apologized to Jefferson for not sending a report to him from the falls of the Missouri, as he had promised. He knew Jefferson had been terribly worried about him and the expedition—indeed, he knew that most Americans had given up on them—so he really did owe an explanation. He said he and Clark had “conceived it inexpedient to reduce the party” by sending back two soldiers with a report, “lest by doing so we should lessen the ardor of those who remained and thus hazard the fate of the expedition. [We decided that it was] better to let the government as well as our friends for a moment feel some anxiety for our fate than to wrisk so much.” The subsequent difficulties the expedition encountered in crossing the Rockies, descending to the Pacific, and returning to St. Louis “proved the justice of our dicision, for we have more than once owed our lives and the fate of the expedition to our number which consisted of 31 men.”

He next gave an inventory of the furs he was bringing back, along with the “pretty extensive collection of plants” and nine new Indian vocabularies. In addition, he had Big White with him, and the Mandan chief was “in good health and sperits, and very anxioius to proceede.” Lewis knew his man. He gave no more details, no elaboration, counting on Jefferson to be greatly excited by the unadorned paragraph.

But this was a big mistake. He would have been wiser to write two or three pages on his discoveries. As it was, the early accounts available to readers said little or nothing about the first American scientific survey on a continental scale. As far as contemporaries could tell, the only contributions to knowledge made by the expedition were in the field of geography.

Lewis knew the value of what he had found, but he apparently felt it would be better to await the publication of his discoveries in book form (he was already planning to publish in three volumes, with the third containing the scientific material). He knew he needed help; before giving any publicity to the scientific studies, he wanted to get to Philadelphia, where he could turn over his raw materials to professionals, who in turn would prepare them for publication.

He was certain to get a warm welcome in Philadelphia, where there were so many leading scholars who had helped him prepare for the expedition and would be eager to hear his account of how this pill or that sextant had worked out. Also, Jefferson had arranged for Lewis’s election to the American Philosophical Society, an incredibly prestigious honor.II Jefferson, full of pride in Lewis, described him as “a valuable member of our fraternity, [just returned] from a journey of uncommon length & peril.” The president promised that Lewis would soon join the members to give them an account “of the geography & natural history of our country, from the Missisippi to the Pacific.”3

That had to have been the most welcome announcement of a lecture ever received by the Philadelphia scientists. They were about to have two-thirds of a continent, previously almost unknown, revealed to them. They would get the first account of the discoveries and have entirely new paths of research to follow. These were scholars who had spent their lives discovering and describing the country, men who lived by facts who had been forced to rely on conjecture in delineating the mountains and rivers of the West. There was so much to learn about, examine, study, draw. Not since Columbus and Cook had there been so much that was new.

Given the time it would take to make the journals available to the public, however, Lewis’s decision to postpone publishing his discoveries ran the risk of exposing the expedition to ridicule as little more than an adventure. And, indeed, that was done. Federalists, John Quincy Adams among them, expressed their scorn. Adams was not ready to accept the president’s word for it that important discoveries had been made. “Mr. Jefferson tells large stories,” he wrote in his diary on one occasion after dinner in the President’s House. On another, he recorded that Jefferson had told him that once, for six weeks in Paris, the temperature never went above the zero mark Fahrenheit; Adams commented, “He knows better than all this; but he loves to excite wonder.”4

Ridiculing the expedition became a tradition with the Federalists and their progeny. Nine decades later, Adams’s grandson Henry Adams wrote a classic history of the Jefferson administration in which he scarcely found room for the expedition. He characterized it as “creditable to American energy and enterprise,” but dismissed it as adding “little to the stock of science or wealth. . . . The crossing of the continent was a great feat, but was nothing more.” The real news from the period 1804–6, Adams wrote, wasn’t Lewis struggling against the current but Robert Fulton beginning to construct the hull of his new steamboat.III, 5

East versus West, technology versus human endeavor, partisanship versus patriotism. These are permanent themes in American politics. Lewis had been private secretary to the president, a Washington insider. He should have protected Jefferson, and his expedition, by providing information that could build anticipation and justify the costs.

Lewis said he would be in Washington shortly and would then provide Jefferson with additional details about his plan; he explained that until Jefferson had seen the map he could not understand what Lewis had in mind in dealing with the Indians, and there was but one copy of Clark’s map, which “I am unwilling to wrisk by the Mail.” He would come as soon as he could wrap up his business in St. Louis, but would go to Charlottesville before proceeding to Washington, because “I am very anxious to learn the state of my friends in Albemarle particularly whether my mother is yet living.”

Before closing, Lewis added a paragraph that began with a splendid tribute to his dearest friend and closest companion, followed by a typically generous gesture: “With rispect to the exertions and services rendereed by that esteemable man Capt. William Clark in the course of [our] late voyage I cannot say too much; if sir any credit be due for the success of the arduous enterprise in which we have been mutually engaged, he is equally with myself entitled to your consideration and that of our common country.”

That put it directly before the president: whatever rank Clark carried on the War Department rolls, Lewis wanted him treated as captain and co-commander. This was what he had promised, what Clark had earned. To Lewis, any other action was unthinkable.

The declaration was politically necessary and wise on Lewis’s part. No matter what he said, on the army rolls Clark was a lieutenant, Lewis the captain. Worse, among the politicians (and the people, come to that), Clark was much less known than Lewis. Lewis counted on Jefferson to make the paragraph public (he did), and hoped that it would squash any inclination on the part of Congress to give less to Clark than to himself.6

In his last paragraph, Lewis asked Jefferson’s pardon for “this haisty communication.” He explained he had no time to write more, for he had already detained the post for a day. Still, he was sorry to “have been so laconic.”

He signed, thought a moment, then added a postscript that showed what a good officer and fine man he was: “The whole of the party who accompanyed me from the Mandans have returned in good health, which is not, I assure you, to me one of the least pleasing considerations of the Voyage.”7

In sum, Lewis’s first communication with Jefferson in a year and a half answered the president’s most pressing questions while holding out hope for an American empire stretching from sea to sea. Although written in haste, with critical material missing, it was a model of how to write a report that disposes of the bad news first, then draws attention to the good.

In addition to his praise of Clark, Lewis took care to provide each enlisted man with a handwritten testimonial. For instance, he praised Sergeant Gass’s “ample support . . . manly firmness . . . the fortitude with which he bore the fatigues and painful sufferings,” and said he had Lewis’s “highest confidence.” Gass was entitled to “the consideration and respect of his fellow citizens.”8 In a later recommendation to Secretary Dearborn, Lewis said he hoped that each and every man would “meet a just reward in an ample remuneration on the part of our Government.”9

A good company commander looks after his men.

Lewis and Clark knew that news in the United States traveled fastest via the newspapers, which copied articles from one another. The nearest newspaper was in Frankfort, Kentucky. The captains knew that letters to their family members would be published and then copied, and that George Rogers Clark would get his letter more than two weeks earlier than Lewis’s family in Virginia. But Clark felt Lewis was a better writer than he. No problem for these two: Lewis drafted the letter for Clark, who copied it, signed it, and sent it off to Kentucky.IV The captains had George Drouillard take the report and letters across the Mississippi to the post on the Illinois side.

Donald Jackson comments that “the initial fame of the expedition rests largely upon this communication, which spread throughout the country as rapidly as the means of the day would allow.” The Frankfort Western World ran it on October 11; the Pittsburgh Gazette had it on October 28; the Washington National Intelligencer put it into its November 3 edition; soon thereafter, it had been reprinted scores of times.10

The letter covered many of the points made in the report to Jefferson, but added considerable details on some of the difficulties and risks involved. Here Lewis may have had a pecuniary motive—for himself, for Clark, and for their men. He knew the politicians and their constituents. He knew how an adventure story filled with tremendous mountains and terrible portages and turbulent rapids and near-starvation and various Indian encounters would stir their hearts. And he knew it was Congress that would be responsible for the size of the reward he, Clark, and the men would receive from a grateful nation. He didn’t exaggerate the dangers the expedition had faced, but he didn’t downplay them either (he scarcely mentioned them to Jefferson).

With the report and letters home written and on their way, it was time to begin the celebration. The captains had been invited to take rooms at the home of Jean-Pierre Chouteau. They did so, and paid visits to other members of the Chouteau family and additional important personages in the town. Apparently they stayed out late; Clark opened his September 24 entry, “I sleped but little last night.”

That day, the captains dined with the Chouteaus. They arranged to store their baggage in a room they rented from William Christy, a former neighbor of Clark’s in Kentucky and now a tavern keeper in St. Louis. They went to a tailor and got fitted for some clothes. They “payed Some visits of form, to the gentlemen of St. Louis.”

Wherever they went, they were all but overwhelmed with questions. First of all, the St. Louis merchants wanted to know about the beaver and the Indians and the distances, but they—like all the other men in town—were keenly aware of the dangers of the unknown wilderness and were adventurers themselves. So they also wanted to know about the close calls, the high mountains, and any anecdotes the captains could tell. The enlisted men, one can assume, were being similarly bombarded with questions from the less exalted citizens of St. Louis.

When Lewis and Clark returned, “their accounts of that wild region, with those of their companions, first excited a spirit of trafficking adventure among the young men of the west,” recalled Thomas James, a Missourian who shortly went up the river himself. And a local chronicle recorded, “The daring adventure became the theme of universal conversation in the town.”11

Arlen Large has captured the essence of oral reporting and its influence: “This kind of unrecorded talk—campfire bull sessions, barroom yarns, refined after dinner conversation over cognac and cigars . . . sparked the initial exploitation of the expedition’s findings. The first follow-up wave of fur-business exploration that spread across the west was due more to post-expedition gossip and gab than any written documents.”12

The early newspaper accounts based on letters sent east by private citizens of St. Louis make the point. A letter printed in Kentucky and picked up across the nation read, “One of the hands, an intelligent man, tells me that Indians are as numerous on [the] Columbia as the whites are in any part of the U States,” but they were unarmed and “are represented as being very peaceable. The weather was very mild on the Pacific.” Another spoke of “horses without number” among the Indians, but said the Indians were entirely without iron tools—a sentence sure to start the heads of young entrepreneurs spinning, especially since all accounts spoke of “the whole country furnishing valuable furs.”13

The captains and their men didn’t have to stretch in telling their tales of grizzlies and Blackfeet and other dangers to impress their audience. But if they didn’t boast, they clearly were not excessively modest. Aside from their justified pride in what they had accomplished, they wanted to tell the American people—and through them their representatives in Congress—how difficult it had been. That they were successful, at least in St. Louis, is evident in the remark of the resident federal surveyor Silas Bent. “All parties,” he noted, “have joined here in expressing their high sence of the great merit of these Gentlemen.”14

The first formal celebration took place on the afternoon and evening of September 25, when the leading men of the town sponsored a dinner and ball at Christy’s Inn. It was a long evening. Lewis and Clark joined in a total of seventeen toasts. The first (at their suggestion?) was to Thomas Jefferson, “The friend of science, the polar star of discovery, the philosopher and the patriot.” There followed toasts to the members of Jefferson’s administration, to the expedition, to the enlisted men (“may they be rewarded,” a most welcome touch), to the United States (a little politics here: “Whilst they tolerate a spirit of enquiry, may never forget, that united they stand—but divided they fall,” an obvious reference to Aaron Burr’s ongoing conspiracies), to Louisiana, to the memory of Columbus, to the Constitution, to the memory of George Washington, to peace, to commerce, and so on.

That was a lot of toasting for men who had drunk nothing but water for fifteen months, and at that point the captains retired. After they left, there was a final toast, to “Captains Lewis and Clark—Their perilous services endear them to every American heart.”15

The following day, the captains got back to their writing. Lewis started a letter, intended for publication, that eventually took him four days and thirty-two hundred words to complete. It combined reporting with boosterism. “I consider this Track across the Continent as presenting immense advantages to the Fur Trade,” he wrote.

More immediately, Lewis’s letter was his most direct bid for an adequate reward from Congress. He had not thought about money for twenty-eight months, but back in St. Louis, that center of get-rich-quick schemes, his friends among the merchants talked of little else, and money became a subject very much on his mind. To become a player in the various schemes, he needed investment capital. His quickest access to it was a generous reward from grateful politicians.

So, although he did not exaggerate, he made certain people knew that he, Clark, and the men had risked their lives for their country. He described in detail the precarious situation the expedition was in at Cameahwait’s village. From there, he wrote, “we attempted with success those unknown formidable snow clad Mountains on the bare word of a Savage [Old Toby], while 99/100th of his Countrymen assured us that a passage was impracticable.” In crossing the mountains, “we suffered everything Cold, Hunger & Fatigue could impart, or the Keenest Anxiety excited for the fate of [the] Expedition in which our whole Souls were embarked.” Arriving among the Nez Percé, “I suffered a severe Indisposition for 10 or 12 days, sick feeble & emaciated.” Descending the Columbia, the men “narrowly escaped with their Lives.”

After a description of Fort Clatsop and the return journey over the Lolo Trail, Lewis went into a long account of his side trip to explore the Marias River. He made certain his readers were aware of his purpose, writing that it was of “the highest national importance” to establish the northernmost tributary of the Missouri. “I determined to execute it at every hazard,” even though “I was well apprised that the Country thro’ which it became necessary for me to pass was inhabited by several large & roving Bands of the Black Foot Indians, who trade at the British Settlements on the Saskoohawan.” There followed a stirring account of his encounter with the Blackfeet at Two Medicine River.16

Lewis’s storytelling was more tantalizing than fulfilling. People wanted to know more. That Lewis was thinking about the value of those journals to himself, as well as to the nation, is hinted at in a comment by an unknown St. Louis resident, written on September 23: “Their journal will no doubt be not only importantly interesting to us all, but a fortune for the worthy and laudable adventurers.”17

The wording indicates that Lewis expected to get rich from the publication of the journals. Where did he get the idea that they were his—and Clark’s—private property? The government had paid for the expedition; Lewis and Clark were on active duty when they wrote their journals; it might have been expected that the maps and journals would be regarded as belonging to the government (indeed, Jefferson later commented, “They are the property of the government, the fruits of the expedition undertaken at such expense of money”), to be published by the government with no royalties to the authors.

Apparently, however, Lewis had discussed this point with Jefferson before he left Washington, and Jefferson had said that Lewis would have the right to publish with a commercial firm and keep the profit. This supposition is based on the contemporary remark about the fortune that would come to the captains from their journals, and Jefferson’s statement, ten years later, that “We were willing to give to Lewis and Clarke whatever pecuniary benefits might be derived from the publication, and therefore left the papers in their hands, taking for granted that their interests would produce a speedy publication, which would be better if done under their direction.”18

Lewis and Clark were not the only ones who kept a journal. All of the sergeants did, as ordered by the captains, and a few of the privates as well. Lewis regarded those journals as subject to his control, making them something considerably short of private property. Private Robert Frazier approached him soon after the arrival in St. Louis, asking permission to publish his journal. Lewis readily gave it, provided Frazier submitted the prospectus for his approval. Frazier did. The prospectus promised a four-hundred-page book that would contain “an accurate description of the Missouri . . . of the Columbia . . . of the face of the Country in general . . . of the several Tribes of Indians . . . of the vegetable, animal and mineral productions discovered,” as well as the latitudes and longitudes of the “most remarkable places.” Potential subscribers were assured the book would be “Published by Permission of Captn. Meriwether Lewis.”19

Lewis read the draft and was appalled. He insisted that the publisher would have to “expunge the promise which had been made, that the work should contain certain information in relation to the natural history of the country,” because Frazier was “entirely unacquainted with celestial observations, mineralogy, botany, or zoology, and therefore cannot possibly give any accurate information on those subjects, nor on that of geography.”

Lewis’s objections to the prospectus were well taken. They were also self-serving, in that they were intended to suppress competition for his own book. They further show that Lewis regarded his scientific discoveries as the most valuable part of his journal. (In the event, Frazier’s publishers ignored Lewis, but they never brought out the book, and Frazier’s journal has never been found—a sad loss to history.)20

The Frazier prospectus put added pressure on Lewis to get to Washington as soon as possible, to receive the adulation of his countrymen and his compensation, and to find a publisher—and, he hoped, get an advance. But duty kept him in St. Louis. It took him a month to settle fiscal affairs connected with the expedition. He spent much of his time obtaining hard currency for the enlisted men who wanted an advance on the pay due them; the sums were as large as $400 (for Private John Potts).

The task threw him into the inner circle of money men in St. Louis. Currency was scarce on the frontier; Lewis had to call on sixteen merchants to obtain cash advances ranging from $300 to $19.50. In return, he gave drafts drawn on the War Department.21 There were supplies to purchase, clothes and provisions for himself, Clark, Big White, and the rest of the party that would soon head off for Washington. He paid with drafts. He easily fell into a habit of paying for whatever he needed or wanted with drafts; why not, since he had an unlimited checking account with the U.S. government?

The riches of Louisiana available for immediate exploitation consisted almost entirely of furs and land; speculation in both was the all-but-consuming activity among St. Louis businessmen. Lewis’s men quickly got into the action. He had promised them when they volunteered for the expedition that they would receive “a compensation in Lands equal to that granted to a Soldier of the Revolutionary Army.” That unwritten promise, backed by Lewis’s word, was considered as good as a land warrant in hand. Private Joseph Whitehouse sold his anticipated warrant to Drouillard for $280, who also bought Private John Collins’s. Six months later, Drouillard sold his own warrant and the two he had purchased for $1,300, a handsome profit. The purchasers took a beating; they sold the warrants a year later for $1,100.22

The captains held a public auction, in which they sold off the public items that had survived their voyage. These included the rifles, powder horns, shot pouches, kettles, and axes. They brought $408.62.23

This was a dreadful disgrace. The artifacts should have been preserved as public treasures rather than sold for a pittance. But apparently the captains had always intended to sell them at the value of their immediate utility rather than preserve them for museums.

As he dealt with these and other matters, Lewis was in constant contact with the St. Louis businessmen. Although there are no contemporary documents revealing what they talked about, it was almost surely land and furs. The merchants certainly bombarded Lewis with questions. Since he was thinking about getting into the fur trade himself, and in any case wanted to get going on his American fur-trade-empire plan, he must have answered in great detail on such subjects as the right size for a party setting off for the Yellowstone country, what trade items were most desired by the Indians on the upper Missouri River, what equipment was needed, and most of all where and in what quantity the beaver were. Manuel Lisa, according to his biographer Richard Oglesby, was “galvanized” by the stories he heard from Lewis and Clark in October 1806. He began raising money for a two-keelboat expedition up the Missouri in the spring.24 Lewis may have been in on the subscription.

On October 24, Lewis’s letter of September 23 arrived in Washington. Jefferson immediately replied. He said he had received it “with unspeakable joy,” and allowed himself to express a bit of the terrible anxiety he had felt for his young friend and for the expedition that he had fathered: “The unknown scenes in which you were engaged, & the length of time without hearing of you had begun to be felt awfully.” He said he was sending the letter to Charlottesville, where he expected Lewis to arrive shortly, and added that his “only object is to assure you of what you already know, my constant affection for you & the joy with which all your friends here will recieve you.”

He suggested that Lewis visit Monticello before coming to Washington, and that he bring Big White with him, to see the Indian Hall that he was building. It included Indian artifacts sent on by Lewis from Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805, plus elk and moose horns (which today hang inside the main entrance at Monticello, with some Mandan artifacts and a portrait of Big White).25

Jefferson then talked with his treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin (neither man yet knew that Lewis had named a river for him) about a proper post for Lewis. The president had in mind appointing him governor of Louisiana Territory. Gallatin thought this a good idea, but pointed out it would be necessary to appoint a secretary to govern the territory until Lewis could return to St. Louis from the East, and that would undoubtedly take some time, since Lewis would have to oversee the publication of the journals.26

This was a big mistake, easily seen and easily avoidable. Jefferson would have done much better to promote Lewis to higher rank and assign him to duty in the War Department with no other responsibility than working with secretarial help and special advisers in getting the journals published promptly by the government.27 That would have deprived Lewis of any royalties, and kept him out of St. Louis and thus a nonparticipant in the building of the American fur-trade empire, important objectives to Lewis but surely of no concern to the president. The chief thing—the only thing—was to get those journals published. But, obviously, Jefferson anticipated no difficulty about that.

In early November 1806, Lewis and Clark set off with their entourage. The party included Big White, his translator, and their families, a delegation of Osages led by Pierre Chouteau, Sergeants Gass and Ordway, Privates Labiche and Frazier, plus York. In Louisville on the 9th, they had a visit with George Rogers Clark, and the citizens gave them a banquet and ball and lit bonfires in their honor. On the 13th, they arrived in Frankfort, where they split up. Chouteau took his party of Osage Indians on to Washington. Clark went to Fincastle, Virginia, to see friends—especially Julia Hancock, who had been a child of twelve when he last saw her and after whom he had named the Judith River. Lewis, with Big White and his group, headed out for Charlottesville.

On December 2, Jefferson made his first public comment on the expedition’s return. It was a paragraph only, in his annual message to Congress, and it was almost apologetic: “The expedition of Messrs. Lewis and Clarke for exploring the river Missouri, & the best communication from that to the Pacific ocean, has had all the success which could have been expected.” Those last four words may have been Jefferson’s expression of disappointment about the lack of a Northwest Passage. He gave a one-sentence summary of the voyage, then got to the part that would justify the expenses already incurred and those to come in the form of a compensation for the captains and their men: “In the course of their journey they acquired a knolege of numerous tribes of Indians hitherto unknown; they informed themselves of the trade which may be carried on with them, the best channels & positions for it, & they are enabled to give with accuracy the geography of the line they pursued.”

The information obtained, the president assured Congress, was so valuable that “it is but justice to say that Messrs. Lewis & Clarke, & their brave companions, have, by this arduous service, deserved well of their country.”28 To Lewis, the paragraph may have been disappointingly short, but he had to like that last line.

Out in St. Louis, the leading citizens were almost exclusively interested in what Lewis had found with regard to Indians and furs. Back east, his botanical and zoological discoveries excited the members of the American Philosophical Society. They wanted seeds, specimens, descriptions. Jefferson promised Benjamin Smith Barton that Lewis would hurry onto Philadelphia after visiting Washington, bringing with him “much in the lines of botany, & Nat. history.” Jefferson kept for himself, to plant at Monticello, seeds of “Missouri hominy corn,” of Pawnee corn, nine “nuts from Missouri,” and two boxes of unidentified seeds. Over the following years, Jefferson faithfully reported on the Indian corn, which he pronounced excellent.

As Lewis approached Washington, the excitement mounted. Charles Willson Peale, founder of the Philadelphia Museum (and later Peale’s Museum) and the leading portrait painter of the day (he did the first portrait of George Washington), wrote Jefferson: “Mr. Lewis is richly entitled to a place amongst the Portraits of the Museum, and I hope he will do me the favor of sitting as soon as he arrives here.”29

Lewis’s progress was slow, at least in part because at every town and village the residents insisted on some sort of dinner and ball to honor him. He arrived at Locust Hill on December 13, for his reunion with his mother and family. Word reached Charlottesville that day; he was expected there on the 15th, and the citizens prepared a reception; despite bad weather and dangerous riding conditions, a local correspondent for the Richmond Enquirer reported, “about fifty of the most respectable inhabitants of the county assembled to receive him.”

The celebration dinner was held at the Stone Tavern, near the corner of Fifth and Market Streets. Before eating, an unnamed citizen who had been delegated for the task gave a speech. He praised Lewis for “the difficult and dangerous enterprize which you have so successfully achieved.” The voyage “has covered with glory, yourself and your gallant little band.” He spoke of “this expedition, so wisely planned, so happily executed, the germ of extended civilization, science and liberty.” In his view, “Every American, every friend to liberty, to science and to man, participates with us,” but stressed that “it is our peculiar felicity to boast, that the man who achieved this interesting and arduous enterprize, is the produce of our soil, was raised from infancy to manhood among us, is our neighbour, our friend,” and concluded with the hope that the nation would “adequately reward the services you have rendered.”

Lewis’s reply was taken down verbatim. Because it is the closest account available of his speaking style, it deserves to be quoted at some length. Lewis began by expressing his pleasure at being back in Albemarle County, and at the honor being done him. “This warm and undisguised expression of friendship by those, whom the earliest emotions of my heart compelled me to love, is, in contemplation, not less pleasing than the fond hope, that it may hereafter be believed, that I have discharged my duty to my country on the late expedition to the Pacific Ocean.”

His convoluted phraseology may have been a consequence of having to give a formal address to a large audience on such a special occasion. Whatever the cause, he took pains to share the credit: “To have conceived is but little; the merit of having added to the world of science, and of liberty, a large portion of the immense unknown wilds of North America, is equally due to my dear and interesting friend capt. Clark, and to those who were the joint companions of our labours and difficulties in performing that task.”

He closed on a political and economic note, expressing the wish that “the discoveries we have made, will not long remain unimproved; and that the same sentiment which dictated to our government, an investigation into the resources so liberally bestowed by nature on this fair portion of the globe, will prompt them to avail themselves of those resources, to promote the cause of liberty and the honour of America, and to relieve distressed humanity.”

The company then sat down to an excellent dinner, followed by “many” appropriate toasts. Songs were sung and the party “passed the evening in that spirit of festivity and mirth, which the joyful occasion, and the presence of their friends, safely returned from his perilous expedition, and in the bloom of health, inspired.”30

Then it was off to Washington, where Lewis arrived late in the day of December 28. “Never did a similar event excite more joy,” a Washington observer declared. The Washington National Intelligencer reported his arrival with “high satisfaction.” It said that few expeditions in human history had been “conducted with more patience, perseverance, or success.” The paper added, however, that it would give no further particulars, since Lewis himself had promised one and all to lay an account of it before the public in the form of his published journals. The forthcoming book, the paper declared, “would not merely gratify literary curiosity, but open views of great and immediate objects of national utility.”31

The following evening, Lewis attended the theater, accompanied by Big White and his entourage. During intermission, some of the Indians danced on the stage. On December 30, Jefferson received the Osage delegation, and on the day of New Year’s Eve he entertained Big White and the Mandans. To both groups he gave his usual Indian speech.

Lewis was at the President’s House on New Year’s Day. Things had worked out exactly as he had hoped; a year earlier, he had written that what kept him going was the anticipation of January 1, 1807, when he would be in the bosom of his friends, participating in the mirth and hilarity of the day. His pleasure in the moment, he wrote, would be all the greater thanks to the memory of Fort Clatsop. He had had nothing but cold water to celebrate with then. If he made up for it with his patron’s excellent wines, no one who was present would have denied that he had earned it.

No account has been found of Lewis’s first meeting with Jefferson since his departure in July 1803, three and a half years past. It can be taken for granted that Lewis had many questions about the political situation in the capital. But one can suppose that Jefferson overwhelmed Lewis with his curiosity about the natural wonders Lewis had encountered, the adventures he had experienced, the Indians he had seen.

And the tales he had to tell! Of grizzlies and gigantic trees and great storms and the almost paradisiacal quality of the Great Plains and the deserts of the upper Missouri, the fierceness of the Indians of the Plains and the numbers of Indians on the lower Columbia, the astonishing bird and animal life, and so much more. The words must have tumbled out. It is a great pity that Jefferson did not think to have a note-taker present, or to write his own summary of what was said.

It must have been a joyous reunion, each man delighted to see the other in good health and spirits. The conversation would have had its down side, especially the disappointment over the Northwest Passage, but we can assume that Jefferson took the blow without flinching. British explorer Captain George Vancouver had caught the spirit of the era when he exclaimed that “the ardour of the present age is to discover and delineate the true geography of the earth.”32 Jefferson completely agreed.

So that’s how it is, he might have said, and told Lewis to go on.

Lewis would have had plenty to say about the promise of Louisiana and his plan for an American fur-trade empire. Jefferson must have been delighted. As James Ronda points out, “Generations of empire builders had used the fur trade to secure Indian allies, forestall potential imperial rivals, and expand territorial domain. . . . The course of empire hung on the trade and Jefferson knew it.”33

Lewis had the journals with him, and Clark’s map covering the western two-thirds of the continent. Surely they discussed publication. As Donald Jackson reminds us, “Literally, the world had been waiting for their return.”34 And as James Ronda points out, “The Enlightenment taught that observation unrecorded was knowledge lost.”35 Jefferson must have been delighted by samples of Lewis’s descriptions of new flora and fauna, of landforms and soil conditions; many years earlier, he had explained to a would-be explorer that science required “very exact descriptions of what they see.”36

On that point, Lewis had carried out Jefferson’s orders exactly. Indeed, on almost every point Lewis had accomplished his mission.

How long the debriefing by the commander-in-chief lasted, what subjects came up, what was said, is all conjecture. One fact we do know: they spread the map on the floor, got down on hands and knees, and examined it.37

I. Canadian furs destined for the New York market had first to go to London, so that a tax could be paid.

II. Lewis learned of his election while in St. Louis.

III. In Adams’s defense, he wrote before the Thwaites edition of the journals was published, so he had no way of knowing how much had been discovered.

IV. It may be that Lewis had another motive in drafting the letter for Clark: to get publicity for Clark, again with the thought of compensation in mind.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!