The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806 provided the country with its first western heroes and revealed a land so bounteous and alluring that nature itself appeared to have smiled upon the American republic. In 1803, the year of the Louisiana Purchase, the United States was a strong, confident nation with a population of six million. Americans were building canals, bridges, factories, and highways and experimenting with steamboats and gas lamps. But there was another America, totally unknown to the people of the East. In 1800, tens of thousands of Native Americans living within the boundaries of the future United States had never seen a white person. The United States was bordered by a mystery.
The existence of this unknown land fascinated and challenged President Thomas Jefferson. Although he was best known as a statesman, Jefferson was a deeply contemplative man and an accomplished astronomer, archaeologist, geologist, and naturalist.
He was so fascinated that he encouraged expeditions westward on more than one occasion. As president, he delivered a message to Congress on January 18th, 1803, advocating a secret expedition to explore the West. Anticipating that his proposal would be accepted if he offered economic reasons, he suggested that contact would lead to "commercial intercourse." Impressed by his argument, Congress approved the proposal, and Jefferson began to make plans. The land Jefferson intended to explore was owned by France, and in 1802 Napoleon contemplated posting a large military force in the area. However, having a decimated army, and needing funds, Napoleon offered to sell all of Louisiana, then measuring about nine hundred thousand square miles, for 15 million dollars. The measure won congressional approval, and suddenly the expedition to a foreign land became the exploration of American territory.
The spring and summer of 1803 were given over to preparations. Jefferson...