Lewis and Clark Expedition Reveals Vast Economic Potential of Pacific Northwest
The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–06) was an exploratory journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to the largely unexplored territory west of the Rocky Mountains, Page 720 | Top of Articleled by Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838). The primary purpose of the mission was to find a “Northwest Passage”—a series of interconnected rivers that would facilitate the transportation of goods across the continent to the Pacific Ocean and ultimately to ports overseas, greatly expanding the economic potential of the United States. Although no such passage was discovered, the expedition provided invaluable information about the wildlife, terrain, and indigenous inhabitants of the far Western territories, expediting the rush of white settlers to the region in the nineteenth century.
After the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the nation's economy had diversified and grown. President Thomas Jefferson (in office 1801–09) believed that the health of the republic rested on small independent farms, owned and tended by middle-class men known as “yeoman farmers.” Jefferson also favored a strong agricultural economy to counterbalance the concentration of wealth and power in emerging commercial and manufacturing centers of the East. After the United States' territory doubled in size with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set out in the hope of discovering fertile lands to accommodate the growing U.S. agricultural base and a waterway capable of transporting goods from the Western frontier to commercial centers in the East.
The Mississippi River formed the western boundary of the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century, but the U.S. government wanted to explore the region beyond, fearing that if the country did not expand westward, Britain or other countries might soon colonize the region. As a result of the work of Captain James Cook (1728–79), who measured the longitude along the Pacific Coast in 1780, and later of Captain Robert Gray (1755–1806), who mapped the precise location of the Columbia River's mouth in 1792, Americans of the period had a basic understanding of the size of the continent they inhabited, but the potential for permanent settlement of the vast expanse of Western territory remained in question.
In 1801 Britain, Spain, France, and Russia still held vague claims to Western North America, though none of them had established settlements in these Native American lands. The booming fur trade, which dominated the economies of New England and the Great Lakes region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had drawn intrepid trappers and traders to the Pacific Northwest by the late 1700s, and their tales of bountiful wildlife and roaring rivers intrigued hunters and farmers east of the
Mississippi River. With water travel essential to commerce, and scores of immigrants rapidly claiming the remaining tracts of land along developed waterways, American farmers and settlers favored exploration and development of the relatively uncharted Missouri River, which had its source in the Rocky Mountains. In January 1803 Jefferson asked congress to appropriate $2,500 to fund an expedition up the Missouri in search of a connecting passage to the Pacific Ocean.
Jefferson recruited Lewis, a young army captain serving as his personal White House secretary, to lead the expedition. Lewis identified Lieutenant Clark, an earlier commander of his, to serve as the expedition's co-leader. In a letter written to Lewis on June 20, 1803 (Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1978; edited by Donald Jackson), Jefferson described the primary objective of the proposed expedition thus: “To explore the Missouri river, … such principal stream of it, as, by it's [sic] course … communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan [sic], Colorado or and other river may offer the most direct … practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” Jefferson also directed Lewis and Clark to make observations and measurements along the route concerning plants, animals, soils, geography, and climate. The president had Lewis tutored in Philadelphia by experts in these fields.
With preparations for the journey well underway, Napoleon Bonaparte of France surprised the United States by offering to sell the entire expanse of the Louisiana Territory, from the Mississippi River to the Rockies, for $15 million. The acquisition added 827,000 square miles of land to the United States, instantly doubling its size and, most importantly, gave the United States control of the Mississippi River and the busy port of New Orleans for commerce. The expedition's purpose suddenly expanded to include exploration and evaluation of these new lands to determine their settlement and commercial potential.
Lewis and Clark's party of more than 40 men, known as the Corps of Discovery, departed on May 14, 1804, from near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers just north of St. Louis. Using large canoes and a keelboat for the first part of their journey—up the Missouri River)—the party carried provisions to be supplemented along the way with wild game and fish. Lewis was in charge of scientific observations, with Clark directing map making and journal writing. In 1805, after spending their first winter at a Mandan Indian village on the Missouri in North Dakota, the expedition continued
to the Missouri's headwaters and through the ranges of the Rocky Mountains. The expedition then journeyed down the Snake and Columbia rivers and arrived at the Pacific Coast in the middle of November. The men built Fort Clatsop just south of the Columbia River's mouth and waited for a supply ship that never arrived. After a miserably wet winter, the expedition headed eastward in 1806, roughly retracing its route and splitting up for long periods to explore as much territory as possible. On September 23 they arrived safely in St. Louis to great celebration after exploring almost 8,000 miles of terrain in 863 days.
Two centuries later the Lewis and Clark Expedition remains remarkable for several reasons. Only one member of the party died, early in the journey, possibly from a ruptured appendix. By treating the nearly 50 Native American tribes that they encountered with respect, the party created a firm basis for trade, peace, and assistance with settlement. And, although the expedition showed that the long-sought major waterway for trade did not exist, a wealth of biological, geographic, and cultural knowledge was gathered in the party's eight-volume journal and maps. Included were previously unrecorded descriptions of 122 animals and 178 plants. The information vividly addressed the commercial potential of the newly acquired lands and territories from west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific shore. While the crossing was more difficult than anticipated, the Corps demonstrated its feasibility. The maps and detailed records immediately aided in the expansion of the U.S. fur trade. By the 1820s the trade had spread across the region, and American companies such as the Pacific Fur Company competed with the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company to provide furs to a demanding European market.
Most importantly, the expedition introduced the first U.S. presence west of the Rocky Mountains. Once the natural resources and potential settlement sites of the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest had been documented, settlers began flooding the region, and the United States had a sound case to claim the disputed Oregon Territory (and its abundance of resources) from Great Britain. Throughout the early nineteenth century, white Americans continued to settle rich Western Page 723 | Top of Articlefarmlands and establish ports to ship produce to markets, and in 1848 the Pacific Northwest became internationally recognized as U.S. territory. The Lewis and Clark Expedition opened the way to U.S. expansion from one coast to the other and set the stage for an agricultural transformation of the West.
SEE ALSO Idaho, Economic History of ; Louisiana Purchase ; Manifest Destiny ; Missouri River ; Montana, Economic History of ; North Dakota, Economic History of ; Northwest Passage ; Oregon, Economic History of ; South Dakota, Economic History of ; Washington, Economic History of ; Westward Expansion
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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3611000493