The Library of Congress THE LOC.GOV WISE GUIDE  - Current Edition

'Go West, Young Men!'

Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) were young men when Thomas Jefferson asked them to go west in 1804. The Lewis and Clark journey was shaped by the search for navigable rivers, the so-called Northwest Passage. Thomas Jefferson initiated this Corps of Discovery expedition, which included about 40 members and began in St. Louis. Their journey took them all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River at Fort Clatsop, where they turned around and returned in 1806. The diaries and maps that Lewis and Clark brought back with them revealed much about the American West, including the fact that an uninterrupted waterway passage from St. Louis to the western edge of North America did not exist.

William Clark's compass and case Map of Western North America, [1785]

The new Library of Congress exhibition, Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America, opened July 24 in the Thomas Jefferson Building and runs through Nov. 29. The Library has drawn on its deep and diverse resources for this exhibition; these materials are supplemented by items generously loaned by other institutions. The exhibition covers not only the Lewis and Clark expedition but also periods of exploration before and after 1804-1806.

Maps, of course, play an important role in the Lewis and Clark story. A Map of Western North America published in 1790, shows a Northwest Passage that was a grail for many explorers. The map was the basis for Jefferson's Corps of Discovery.

On their way west, Lewis and Clark carried a copy of A map exhibiting all the new discoveries in the interior parts of North America ... . When Jefferson met with French ambassador Louis Andre Pichon in 1803, he traced what became the Lewis and Clark trail on this map.

Perhaps the most important document for exploration of the West was Jefferson's Instructions for Meriwether Lewis. In this letter, the third president drafted a plan for western exploration "for the purposes of commerce." The letter became the charter for federal exploration for the remainder if the 19th century.

In addition to maps and manuscripts, the exhibition will display objects such as William Clark's compass and case, an Indian peace pipe, or calumet, and a blunderbuss, or gun like one that would have accompanied the explorers.

The Geography and Map Division of the Library has the world's largest collection of cartographic materials - more than 4.5 million items. Many of its maps are online in Map Collections: 1500-2003. One advantage of viewing these maps online is that you can zoom in and see them with greater clarity than with the naked eye. A technology called MrSID makes it possible. A recent and very noteworthy acquisition by this division is the map by Martin Waldseemuller of North America. The map is the opening display in this new exhibition. (See the "Map" story in this issue for further details on why this map is so important to the history of America.)

Other presentations on this Web site that relate to Western exploration include "History of the American West 1860-1920," "The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820," "Trails to Utah and the Pacific: Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869," "American Indians of the Pacific Northwest" and Reclaiming the Everglades: South Florida's Natural History, 1884-1934." These are all from the American Memory collections of 8 million items from the Library and other repositories. If you type in "exploration" in the American Memory Collection Finder Search Page, you will gain access to thousands of images, maps, manuscripts and other materials relating to this fascinating topic.

If you are in Washington between now and Nov. 29, don't miss the opportunity to see "Rivers, Edens, Empires." It is on view in the Thomas Jefferson Building, at the corner of First Street and Independence Ave. S.E. (across First Street from the U.S. Capitol), Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. If not, then enjoy the virtual exhibition at the Exhibitions home page, where more than 40 other exhibitions await your exploration.

A. William Clark's compass and case. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Washington, D.C.

B. "Map of Western North America," [1785], published in "Gentleman's Magazine," March 1790. Geography and Map Division.

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