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Native History: Jefferson Asks Congress to Fund Lewis and Clark Expedition

On January 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent a confidential message to Congress asking that they finance the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
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This Date in Native History: In 1803, the United States was under the leadership of its third president, Thomas Jefferson. The Louisiana Purchase, often considered the major achievement of his presidency, had not yet been finalized and no request for funds to explore those lands had been included in the annual budget as it was still outside the nation’s jurisdiction.

But on January 18, 1803, Jefferson sent a confidential message to Congress asking that they finance the Lewis and Clark Expedition to survey and explore this region they would soon acquire from France. The 828,000,000 square miles would essentially double the existing U.S. republic and eventually include part or all of 15 states.

In that confidential message he stressed how exploring that region and particularly the Missouri River drainage, would be an aid to commerce, saying, “The country on that river is inhabited by numerous tribes, who furnish great supplies of furs and peltry to the trade of another nation, carried on in high latitude.” He asked Congress for $2,500 to fund the Lewis and Clark Expedition and intimated that such an expedition might steal fur trade from the British.

Jefferson had previously served as the first Secretary of State under President George Washington and then as Vice President under John Adams before being elected president in the election of 1800. He had first proposed an expedition to explore these lands during those years before his presidency and even before Napoleon had offered to sell this portion of American territory under French rule.

President Thomas Jefferson

What Jefferson did not emphasize to Congress was his plan to send the Lewis and Clark Expedition far beyond the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase, all the way to the Pacific, with thoughts of future territorial expansion far beyond the lands of the Louisiana Purchase.

In that same letter Jefferson tells of his thoughts for this expedition. “An intelligent officer, with ten or twelve chosen men, fit for the enterprise… might explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean, have conferences with the Natives on the subject of commercial intercourse, get admission among them for our traders… agree on convenient deposits for an interchange of articles, and return with the information acquired, in the course of two summers. Their arms and accoutrements, some instruments of observation, and light and cheap presents for the Indians, would be all the apparatus they could carry.”

Congress approved the plan to fund the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the amount of $2,500, although later numbers indicate the actual amount might have cost closer to $50,000. The largest single item in that budget of $2,500 was $695 for “gifts to Indians.” Congress likely felt this budget was trivial in comparison to the overall price of $9,375,000 paid to France for the Louisiana Purchase.

So the Lewis and Clark Expedition, or “Voyage of Discovery,” was approved and funded by Congress. With that funding now guaranteed, President Jefferson named his private secretary, Meriwether Lewis to head up the expedition and he in turn named an old military friend, William Clark, to be the co-captain.

They were to be on the expedition from 1804-1806, wintering on the Missouri in what is now North Dakota with the Mandan and Hidatsa people the first year and near the mouth of the Columbia River at Fort Clatsop amidst the Chinook people the second winter. The expedition was to meet nearly 50 tribes during their two-year odyssey. That history has been well documented, but the original request to Congress, and expansion beyond exploring just the Louisiana Purchase, is much less known.