When the fledgling United States was only 26 years old in 1803, the Mississippi River formed its western boundary. Even though the vast continent beyond the Mississippi was administered by Spain, it was only sparsely inhabited by “Indians,” French and English trappers, and illegal homesteaders. On the Pacific coast a few Spanish missionaries lived among the Indians, and ownership of the region was claimed and disputed by Spain, Britain, and Russia.
Where others saw barren land and conflict, Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president, saw opportunity. In what many saw as folly, but history later confirmed was brilliance, Jefferson convinced Congress to purchase the Louisiana Territory for 3 cents an acre, thereby doubling the size of the United States.
In 1803 Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead an army expedition of 30 men to explore this new land. His instructions to Lewis stated:”The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” Even with the inconsistent spelling and stilted grammar of the times, the instructions are still very clear.
Over the next two years the “Corps of Discovery” travelled 7,000 miles from St. Louis, up the Missouri River, over the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River to Astoria, Oregon, and back again. In this epic American exploration of unknown territory, they lived off the land, made maps, acted as ambassadors to curious and mostly friendly Native American tribes, and documented many new species of plants and animals.
By the time of their return in 1806, traders and settlers were already pushing westward into the new territory—a process which in many ways defined the United States for the next 100 years. Even today, the phrase “Go west, young man,” still rings with adventure and opportunity.
Over the next week, I will be traveling along a small portion of their journey. I will be highlighting portions of their journal from their return trip in 1806, highlighting local history of some of the towns I will be traveling through, and of course sharing about my experiences on the bike. I hope you enjoy!