by Rod D. Martin
May 14, 2015
Today marks the anniversary of President Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery, better known as the Lewis & Clark Expedition, which left St. Louis this day, May 14, in the year of our Lord 1804.
Few moderns appreciate the magnitude of that endeavor. For the first time in history, global population reached one billion souls in 1804, but of that number, barely five and a half million lived in the seventeen United States. Precious few of those lived west of the Appalachians, where just three states had been formed: Kentucky, Tennessee and, only a year earlier, Ohio. The period of migration over the Wilderness Road through Martin’s Station at the Cumberland Gap was still in full swing: 300,000 pioneer settlers would pass through that outpost’s gates by 1810. Beyond the Mississippi in the newly purchased, almost completely unexplored Louisiana wilderness there were no steamboats, no telegraphs, no towns, no stores or forts at which to resupply, not even so much as a map. In many respects, an expedition to Mars today would be a lesser undertaking.
Meriwether Lewis, a younger neighbor of Joseph Martin and Thomas Jefferson in Albemarle County, was born for this very thing. Like Martin, as a young man he spent considerable time among the Cherokee. He graduated from Liberty Hall (now Washington and Lee University) in 1794, immediately joined the Virginia Militia (over which Martin was still a commissioned General), and helped put down the Whiskey Rebellion. He joined the small, professional U.S. Army and rose to Captain before mustering out to become Jefferson’s personal aide in 1801, actually living in the White House and interacting regularly with the great men who inhabited the capital. He was 30 when the President named him to command the country’s most important-ever expedition.
Lewis was ordered to explore the new Louisiana Purchase, and in turn named William Clark as his second in command, with particular emphasis on the upper reaches of the Missouri; to collect scientific data and information on the indigenous nations; to map the vast expanse before them; to establish trade with and sovereignty over the natives they encountered; and beyond the Louisiana Territory, to claim the Pacific Northwest and Oregon Country for the United States before European powers could do so. It was a complex and difficult agenda, with significant geopolitical implications everyone understood might determine the fragile Republic’s future.
The expedition endured deadly hardship, traversed what was then called “the Great American Desert,” crossed the Rockies with but the most primitive equipment, established relations with more than two dozen indigenous nations, and reached the mighty Pacific itself. And then it returned, victorious, the entire mission completed on foot and by canoe in just two and a half years.
Jefferson named Lewis Governor of the Louisiana Territory, which he governed from St. Louis. Just three years later he died, an apparent suicide. Jefferson called him “a luminous and discriminating intellect” and a man “of courage undaunted.” Clark lived far longer, served for many years as Governor of the Missouri Territory, and his latter years as Superintendent of Indian Affairs.
Together they left behind an incalculable contribution to science, to exploration, and to the advance of the American republic. They are worthy of our honor and remembrance.