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Jefferson's Letter to Meriwether Lewis

Transcript of video presentation by Gerard Gawalt (as interviewed by Craig D'Ooge)

CRAIG D'OOGE:
The historian Stephen Ambrose called it "the most important and most coveted command in the history of exploration of North America." The commander was hand-picked by President Thomas Jefferson. He was privately tutored in a wide variety of subjects by the best minds in America at the time. He was given the power to requisition whatever he thought he might need, and an unlimited letter of credit to purchase whatever he could not foresee.

Only the beginning and the end-point of the mission were known. It was to begin at the mouth of the Missouri River, and end wherever the Pacific Ocean began. Whatever lay in between was largely unknown.

But President Jefferson was curious - curious about everything. And so in 1803, he asked his personal secretary to lead an expedition to find out what lay beyond the headwaters of the Missouri River. His secretary's name was Meriwether Lewis, and with William Clark he led a group of some forty soldiers and civilians in what history records as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

My name is Craig D'Ooge, and here to talk with me about the beginnings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is Gerard Gawalt, an American History Specialist in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Dr. Gawalt has brought with him probably the single most important document for understanding the beginnings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: a draft of a letter that Thomas Jefferson sent to Meriwether Lewis. [Read a transcript of the Jefferson letter, and view the original.]

Dr. Gawalt, could you give us a summary of this letter?

GERARD GAWALT:
Yes. Well, Jefferson prepared this letter so that Meriwether Lewis - who was to ultimately command the Lewis and Clark Expedition - would know the route they were supposed to take, the mission they were supposed to accomplish, and how to interact with the people that they were going to meet along the way - that is, the Native Americans. And he was afraid that they would meet representatives of the Spanish, French, or English government who might try to interfere with the expedition. And so this document here, which is on four pages on two sheets, shows us Jefferson's thinking; and it's going to help us understand the long preparation for this mission that Jefferson undertook, mostly in his own mind, but also in some practical ways. And it's also going to help us understand exactly what Lewis and Clark were supposed to accomplish during their - what turned out to be three - year odyssey to the Pacific Ocean.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
Could you tell me a little bit about the context of the letter? - the background of its composition? Had Jefferson ever written anything like this before?

GERARD GAWALT:
Well, Jefferson had written something almost exactly like this in 1793, when he was preparing some instructions for a Frenchman by the name of André Michaux. But before we get to understanding André Michaux's role, we have to go back in Jefferson's life to when he was a student of James Maury, who with Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's father, was one of the organizers of the Loyal Company in the 1750s, which was a land-speculating company. Among the things these people planned was an expedition up the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. 'Course, it never occurred at that time. And then Jefferson also tried to enlist George Rogers Clark, the older brother of William Clark, to undertake a similar mission in 1783, right at the end of the American Revolution. Jefferson correctly foresaw that the other European countries would try to exploit the western part of the North American continent.

Then in 1786, when Jefferson was in France, he enlisted a man from Connecticut by the name of John Ledyard to explore the American West by first walking across Siberia and then crossing to Alaska, walking down from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest and on to the Mississippi. And one might think this was far-fetched, but Mr. Ledyard actually left on his mission to the American West via Siberia in 1787, and got as far as Kamchatka on the -- in Siberia before the Russian police arrested him as a spy and expelled him from the country.

So then when Jefferson was Secretary of State in 1793, he and the American Philosophical Society raised the money to mount an expedition to explore the American West. And interestingly enough, Meriwether Lewis actually volunteered to go on this expedition in 1793, but he was turned down, and they selected a Frenchman by the name of André Michaux, a noted traveler and botanist, to undertake this mission. And Michaux actually started on the expedition, and got as far as Tennessee -- what is now Tennessee - before Jefferson realized that Michaux was actually a French government agent who was spying on the American West. And so they recalled Michaux, took away the money they had given him, and there the matter rested until Jefferson became President. And then Jefferson was spurred into again exploring the West, because Alexander Mackenzie's book describing his actual expedition to the Pacific across Canada was published in 1801 and Jefferson purchased a copy in 1803. So with this in his mind he then turned again to mounting this expedition to the West, and that brings us to Meriwether Lewis, who, conveniently enough, was Jefferson's personal secretary at the time.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
Now, who did Jefferson share this draft with? I understand that it was circulated?

GERARD GAWALT:
Yes. Jefferson showed this draft not only to his cabinet members, which we'll discuss a little bit, but also to people like Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Barton, other noted scientists of the time. He sent this draft to the members of his cabinet and they responded, and so we know some of the suggestions that they made, which are incorporated in this draft document.

For example, Albert Gallatin, who was the Secretary of the Treasury, suggested that the expedition explore south of the Missouri River and try to find out where the tributaries of the river went, as well as north so that they would know where the tributaries coming into the Missouri from the north - how far they extended into the commercial fur areas of what is now Canada.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
Mm-h'mm.

GERARD GAWALT:
And James Madison made a few verbal suggestions, mostly; he was concerned that because of the discussion of commerce in these instructions that it might upset the nations like France, Spain, and England, that - about this expedition, because you have to remember that at the time that this instruction was being prepared, the United States did not own Louisiana - the United States was still trying to acquire New Orleans, and it was only through a stroke of bad French fortune that the United States was able to purchase Louisiana while these instructions were being prepared. But when they were being prepared, it was felt and believed that they would be going through foreign countries which may or may not be friendly to them. And so Madison was concerned about that.

And then he sent it to his Attorney General, Levi Lincoln from Massachusetts, whose main concern was that Lewis look into the -- what the spiritual and moral life of the Native Americans was by way of comparison to the Euro-Americans in the United States.

So that you have all of these preparations being made, plus you have Jefferson's draft of the instructions that he gave to André Michaux in 1793, which if you put the -- all the documents together, you -- there are many overlapping parts. And then Jefferson of course gave it to Meriwether Lewis for his input. And so by the time the document was actually finalized, you have the contributions of a number of people; but again, it's primarily a Jeffersonian document, and the scope and content of it reflect that.

The - one of the interesting things about the instructions is that when Jefferson was seeking congressional support for this expedition, he billed it as primarily a commercial expedition -- that these people would find out what the commercial advantages might be to the United States by trading with the Native Americans; and that there would be a river route to the Northwest with access to the China market; and that was the focus of the secret message to Congress. But when Jefferson prepared his letters to seek passports from France, Spain, and England for Lewis, his expedition to go through, he billed it strictly as a scientific and what they call "literary" expedition - there's no mention of commerce in any of those letters. And so the passports that Lewis obtained from England and France reflect this - that this was simply a scientific expedition. Spain did not issue a passport. And -- but as we can see - we'll see in this document, commerce and science went hand-in-hand in the, in the mission of Meriwether Lewis and ultimately the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
Why the secrecy?

GERARD GAWALT:
Well, they wanted it to be secret for - the main reason, to keep it a non - make it a non-political issue. Expansion of the United States was a political issue, and Jefferson had just won a very close election, and the Federalists were opposed to expanding in the West, so they were opposed to any expedition that might entice Americans to move west.

Also, the commercial aspect had to be kept secret from the French, Spanish, and English governments, because they were opposed to it. In fact, the Spanish government sent at least three expeditions out to intercept the Lewis and Clark Expedition after it was started. The first two didn't find anything -- they ended up wandering around in what is now Kansas and Nebraska - but the third Spanish expedition actually ran into another expedition sent out by Thomas Jefferson, that of Zebulon Pike, into Colorado, from which we now have Pike's Peak as the symbol of. But the Spanish ran into Pike's expedition and for a time thought they had actually captured Lewis and Clark's expedition, and brought Zebulon Pike and his expedition into Mexico before they were expelled, and all of the papers and records, the journals, from the Pike Expedition were basically lost, because the Spanish confiscated them. So there was a good reason to, to try to keep parts of it secret and try to portray it as strictly a scientific venture - which of course Jefferson was very interested in, but secrecy had a purpose and the confidentiality, of course, then as now, didn't naturally last very long.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
So the Louisiana Purchase actually took place after the expedition was underway?

GERARD GAWALT:
Well, it took place in the final stages of the planning. While they were planning the - what came the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jefferson had sent a special minister to France, James Monroe, to try to expedite the purchase of New Orleans for the United States, and while he was in France, the French, who had been defeated in San Domingo by the slave uprising, saw their plans for expansion in North America going awry, and Napoleon needed money for a new military expedition in Europe, and so he actually offered to sell the United States all of what's now the Louisiana Purchase. So it was a total surprise that Jefferson received word of the Louisiana Purchase at the end of June, and when Meriwether Lewis left Washington on July 5th of 1803, he did know about the Louisiana Purchase, but of course they had no idea what the extent of the Louisiana Purchase was, and that became another mission for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

But at the time the instructions were prepared, Jefferson had no real idea of expanding the United States beyond the Mississippi River. In fact, after the Louisiana Purchase was effected, Jefferson was still thinking that the Euro-American settlements would not go west of the Mississippi River, and he not only drafted an amendment to the Constitution which would have set aside in perpetuity all of the land west of the Mississippi for - as an Indian nation or reservation, but he instructed Meriwether Lewis when he went to St. Louis and then up the Missouri to try to convince the French and Spanish settlers on the west of the Mississippi to move east of the Mississippi because he didn't want any Euro-Americans settled west of the Mississippi - he had this vision of it being a vast Native American area. And also there were people like James Monroe, who envisioned sending freed and -- slaves to the west of the Mississippi as a way of ending slavery in the United States - they had a colonization scheme in which slaves, former slaves, would be sent west of the Mississippi to, to live with the Native Americans.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
To what degree do you think the, the Lewis and Clark Expedition fulfilled Jefferson's expectations for it?

GERARD GAWALT:
Well, I think that the expedition did everything that are in these instructions. If we look at some of these instructions you can see that first of all Jefferson told them to - to be careful when they were on their way to not offend the Spanish and the French, and Lewis and Clark were very good in their handling of the Spanish and French government officials who were still basically in charge of St. Louis, and in the British trading officials that they met when they got to the -- what's now the Dakotas. And he also instructed them, basically their mission is to go up the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, which they did.

Then he told them that when they were on their way they were to meet with the Native American tribes; they were to secure - there's a whole list of scientific information they were to get from the Native Americans about their - what their professions were; their relations between men and women; their cultural effects; their eating, cooking habits; their vocabularies - and so all of this Lewis and Clark spent a great deal of time doing. They were also supposed to mark and map this water route to the Pacific, and the maps of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of course are one of the prime results of that.

They were also to recruit Native Americans to come to visit Washington, the Eastern states, so that they would be impressed of how civilized the U.S. was, how many people there were; this would entice them to trade with the United States and would in a sense overawe them. And when they got to the Pacific Ocean, they were to determine whether this was indeed a good route for trading with the - carrying on the China trade, or whether they needed to find a different overland route.

And so basically all of these missions - including others, such as finding minerals, recording on fauna and flora - all of these things Lewis and Clark assiduously did, and carried them out. So the - from the point of view of their assigned job, they certainly carried it out. They of course went in, in some ways far beyond that, and have provided what is still one of the great troves of ethnographic information about Native Americans before they were basically changed by their encounters with Euro-Americans.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
What common misconceptions about the Lewis and Clark Expedition does the study of primary documents such as this put to rest?

GERARD GAWALT:
Well, some of the immediate misconceptions is that Manifest Destiny was a concept that Jefferson kind of engendered and created, and we know that he didn't really have an idea of extending the United States to the Pacific Ocean, that it kind of fell in his lap; and also, that his concept of the great "empire for liberty" that he spoke about after the Lewis and Clark Expedition was really a post-expedition concept; it wasn't one that he had before.

We also know that Lewis and Clark Expedition was prepared without the foreknowledge that the United States was going to own what's now the Louisiana Purchase, but it was prepared as an expedition into basically foreign countries.

And the whole - all of the documentation leading up to it tells us a great deal about how the Euro-Americans thought that their interaction with the Native Americans would go, and how actually they -- expedition was designed to be very dependent on Native American cooperation. In fact, part of the instructions tell Lewis that if he meets with a tribe that is dead set on them going forward, he's to come back -- he's not to engage in any military action.

On the other hand, there is some interesting inserts into this document - I think it's on, actually on this other page - here - in which you can actually see in one paragraph the conflict in Jefferson's mind: in the one hand he inserts in this line right here a line that Lewis and Clark should be sending Indian delegations back to Washington so that they will be impressed by what they see; but he puts in this line that "this will also help guarantee your security" - in other words, they're going to be kind of hostages for your return, which seems - which is a, a hostile view of the Native Americans. And then at the end of this same paragraph, though, he adds in that "you are to bring smallpox vaccine with you and you're to show the Native Americans how to use this to protect themselves." So here in this one paragraph you see the, the conflicting views, and often results, of Jeffersonian policy towards Native Americans, and it's, it's a very interesting part that, 'course, usually isn't discussed very much.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
What other steps did Jefferson instruct Meriwether Lewis to take to ensure that the information that he had with him would get back to Washington?

GERARD GAWALT:
Well, a good part of the instructions deal with that - and he had at various times told Meriwether Lewis that he was to send regular communication back to - to Washington. When he was at St. Louis; he was to hire couriers; he was to use the Native Americans when he sent back delegations, he could sent back - send back a documents and artifacts with them; and he was very specific that they were to regularly keep journals, and that they were to duplicate the journals, and that they were to periodically send a copy back to Washington so that he would know what was going on. Part of the manpower was to be dispatched with these documents. When they got to the Pacific Ocean, he instructed Lewis to send part of the group back by water and then part was to come back by land, so as to preserve the information that they got. And Jefferson even went so far as to specify that Lewis was to try to use birch paper instead of regular paper, because he said that birch paper was less susceptible to water damage and therefore that it was more likely to succeed.

Ironically, a large part of the scientific information that Lewis and Clark obtained reached Washington - that is, the Native American vocabularies that Lewis and Clark collected. They spent an enormous time during this expedition collecting nearly fifty Native American vocabulary lists from the various tribes, and they sent these to Jefferson and Jefferson had them at the White House. And when he left the White House, he had them shipped by water down the Potomac and up the James. And unfortunately, when they were around Richmond, someone on the boat thought that the chests were valuable and stole them, and unfortunately - you can imagine the surprise of this thief when he opened up the chest and here is all of these Indian vocabularies - the person probably could barely read, never mind try to figure out what fifty Native American vocabularies were - and so the person who stole them simply threw them into the James River and most of them were lost. So Jefferson's fears that they would be lost on the expedition were - were unfounded, but unfortunately they proved to be too correct in, in the end.

But there are a large number of artifacts among -- Jefferson received two shipments of artifacts from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. One was sent by Lewis and Clark from Fort Mandan in the Dakotas in 1805, and that group of artifacts actually reached Washington via New Orleans. Included in there were some live prairie dogs, magpies, a lot of Native American artifacts, and some paper reports, which Jefferson then kept at the - what was then the President's House. And then he took some to Monticello, but most of them were sent to the Peale Museum in Philadelphia to be put on display, and ultimately they ended up at the American Philosophical Society and some are now at the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

But they had -- one of the greatest artifact stories is - actually came from a later expedition, in which Zebulon Pike sent Jefferson two grizzly bear cubs, which arrived in Washington. But that's - that's another story.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
When we asked you to choose something from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson related to Lewis and Clark Expedition, you immediately chose this letter. Why? What - what do you like about the letter?

GERARD GAWALT:
Well, the instructions are of course the central document of the expedition; they're the key to understanding the purpose of the expedition. But the draft itself is also extremely interesting, rather than the final, completed version, of which we also have a copy. But the draft shows us the -- Jefferson's thought process along the way - the interlinings; we can see on this one document that Jefferson inserted a large amount of material at the end; he made a number of changes to conform with suggestions made by Madison, Gallatin, Lincoln, and Lewis, and Benjamin Rush, and others. So that the - the document in its draft stage actually shows us more of the development of the process leading up to the expedition than would the final instructions themselves. And so normally they're just referred to as the instructions of June 20th of 1803, and you think that that is when they were created, when in actuality it's a much longer process.

And the fact that they were addressed simply to Meriwether Lewis tells us a lot, too: that - I mean, Meriwether Lewis was to be the commander of this expedition; when these were drafted, William Clark hadn't even been considered as the, the second-in-command, although I'm sure that Meriwether Lewis had William Clark in mind, because he was - had a long history with Clark in the army, and certainly Jefferson was familiar with the Clark family. Most of the people Jefferson selected for these special missions were people that he knew through his Virginia family connections, and -- and Clark and Lewis fit into that. But at the time, it's clear that this was to be the Lewis Expedition, not what we now know of as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and is always of course referred to as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

CRAIG D'OOGE:
Well, thank you for taking the time to discuss this document with us today.

GERARD GAWALT:
Well, thank you, Craig; it's been a pleasure-hope we all learned something.

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  July 20, 2010
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