Early in the 19th centruy, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on an expedition that would change the course of American history. From 1804-1806 the two U.S. officials ventured on a geographic and scientific exploration of the northwestern area of the United States. Their journey was sparked by the purchase of Louisiana territory from France by president Thomas Jefferson in 1803. Jefferson initiated an exploration of the new purchased territory that extended “beyond the Rocky Mountains” toward the west. Jefferson appointed then private secretary Meriwether Lewis to head the expedition. As Lewis was making arrangements for his expedition he expressed the need for a co-commander; with Thomas Jefferson’s consent, he offered to assignment to Clark who accepted. Clark’s preparations for the expedition included modifying the keelboat they were to use, engaging the participation of several Kentuckians, and drilling the men during their winter camp. Both men were natural born leaders; young, intelligent, resourceful and seasoned Army officers. The two were said to be opposites in temperament. Lewis was introverted and moody; where Clark was even-tempered and gregarious. Lewis was more refined and possessed more knowledge in philosophy and felt more comfortable with abstract ideas. Clark was more pragmatics and was a man of practical action.
Meriwether Lewis was born August 18, 1774, near Charlottesville, VA, and was a boyhood neighbor of Thomas Jefferson. In 1794, Lewis joined the militia and, at the rank of Ensign, was attached to a subregion of General “Mad Anthony” Wayne commanded by Lieutenant William Clark. In sharing the experiences of the Northwest Campaign against the British and the Indians, Lewis and Clark fashioned the bonds of an enduring friendship.On March 6, 1801, Lewis, as a young Army Captain in Pittsburgh, received a letter from the soon to be inaugurated President, Thomas Jefferson, offering Lewis a position as his secretary-aide. It said, “Your knowledge of the Western country, of the army, and of its interests and relations has rendered it desirable for public as well as private purposes that you should be engaged in that office.” Lewis readily accepted the position.
William Clark was born August 1, 1770 and was also a native of Virginia. Although the family lived as far west as most settlers were willing to go at the time, the Clark family maintained an air of gentility in the community, attending balls, fox hunts, cockfights, and shooting tournaments despite the roughness of living on the frontier among hostile Indian neighbors in Virginia.
Having started upstream on the Missouri River from their St. Louis area camp where they had been preparing for the expedition since fall 1803. On May 14, William Clark and nearly four dozen other men met up with Meriwether Lewis on May 20. The Lewis and Clark expedition formally deemed as “the Corps of Discovery” began making its way up the Missouri rivers. As they traveled, Clark spent most of his time on the keelboat, charting the course and making maps, while Lewis was often ashore, studying the rock formations, soil, animals, and plants along the way.
Jefferson challenged Lewis and Clark to discover the water route linking the Columbia and Missouri rivers. This water route would connect the Pacific Ocean with the Mississippi River system, thus giving the new western land access to port markets out of the Gulf of Mexico and to eastern cities along the Ohio River and its minor tributaries. After starting their travels in St. Louis in summer of 1804, the pair continued on in the spring of 1805 up to Missouri to Three Forks, Montana following the Jefferson River to territories belonging to the Shoshone tribe. During this time Lewis and Clark developed diplomatic relations with the Native Americans who introduced them to indigenous animals, fascinating locations and ways of life unknown to white men at the time. As they traveled Clark drew up a series of detailed maps that notated the various landscapes and bodies of water in which they came across. These maps were later used by explorers when venturing to westward portions of the continent. Lasting sixteen months and 8,000 miles the expedition provided knowledge of the American territories, enabled the U.S. to challenge British claims to land, created pathways to the west beyond the continent and created scientific knowledge of the continent. The entire journey was recorded in Lewis and Clark’s journals and expedition maps, which have been available in their entirety since 1905.