By GAIL FINEBERG
Nearly 200 years ago, on Jan. 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent a confidential message to Congress requesting authorization to launch a secret military and scientific expedition, to be led by U.S. Army Capt. Meriwether Lewis, to explore the Missouri River basin and find a trade route through the uncharted West to the Pacific Ocean.
That message in Jefferson's own hand, plus the original Nicholas King Map of North America, which guided the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri, and other Library-held manuscripts, gave promoters of the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 2003-2006, a tantalizing glimpse on April 4 of some 200 items they can expect to see in a preview exhibition at the Library in 2003 commemorating the epic journey.
This display of documents from the Library's Manuscript Division, in addition to an expedition journal and some other artifacts from the Missouri Historical Society, was part of a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial event sponsored by the bicameral, bipartisan Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Congressional Caucus as well as the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.
Representatives of nearly 20 federal agencies gathered in the Library's Jefferson Building to sign a national memorandum of understanding "to collaborate in commemorating the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition."
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), joined by members of Congress and national and state bicentennial officials, witnessed the signing ceremony, listened to remarks of two historians whose scholarship has helped to popularize the historic event of 1803-06 and studied the documents and artifacts displayed. The Librarian of Congress offered welcoming remarks.
Historian Stephen Ambrose, author of Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, suggested reasons for the commemoration. The Lewis and Clark expedition was, he said, "our national effort, our odyssey. The journals are our national poem."
Meriwether Lewis "was the first American ever to go from tidewater to tidewater … the first to stand on the continental divide, and the first to explore the Louisiana Purchase," Mr. Ambrose said. The transcontinental expedition Lewis led "unified the country and began a process that united the American people."
Observing that some of America's best minds worked on discovering nature during the 19th century and then on conquering nature with machines and weapons during the 20th century, Mr. Ambrose said, "In the 21st century, the best minds are working on how to restore nature." He described two fragile Lewis and Clark Trail sites that were set aside for protection as national monuments last fall and appealed to the Bush administration to join in efforts to preserve the remaining natural world of the explorers.
Gary E. Moulton, a University of Nebraska professor who has edited the complete journals of Lewis and Clark, spoke about the relevance of expedition journals, maps and botanical specimens to new scholarship. "Every time we return to the journals, we learn new things," he said. For example, he said, recent analysis of 200-year-old plant samples taken in the Mandan country help explain why the party's hunters could find only one deer for 33 hungry men: The plants in that particular area could not sustain an abundance of game.
Among the Library's historical materials that early American history specialist Gerard Gawalt showed to the guests were Jefferson's detailed instructions, dated June 20, 1803, to Lewis, to explore the Missouri River basin, conduct scientific and ethnographic studies and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. "Significantly, the instructions were written before Jefferson knew of the final Louisiana Purchase," Mr. Gawalt said. "Jefferson was particularly concerned that the expedition establish an American presence among the Native American tribes and secure their trading and diplomatic loyalties for the United States."
Also on display were a key-word cipher that Jefferson proposed Lewis use to keep his expedition accounts secret; Jefferson's handwritten notes he took during a "Speech of Whitehairs Great Chief of the Osages," whom Lewis and Clark dispatched to Washington in 1804; a long letter to Jefferson from Lewis, who announced return of the expedition to St. Louis on Sept. 23, 1806, and recounted expedition highlights; and a press release, prepared by Jefferson, announcing the return of the Corps of Discovery to St. Louis.
Ms. Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newspaper.