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September 18 - 24, 1806
Lewis & Clark Return from Expedition

September 2011

This week marks the 205th anniversary of the return of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from their successful transcontinental expedition. It was September 23, 1806 when the two returned from their journey of approximately 7,000 miles, from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. That journey, which took 28 months, definitively opened up the United States as a continental republic.

Like the U.S. space adventures of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, the Lewis and Clark Expedition represented the highest strategic and scientific aspirations of our nation. President Thomas Jefferson won official (although secret) authorization for the trip from Congress in early 1803, and released his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to head the group. The Corps of Discovery, which was comprised of 29 men, and whose interpreter was the famous Indian woman Sacajawea, was officially sponsored by the U.S. Army, and had four major purposes: 1) to effectively lay claim to the territory from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean; 2) to establish the basis for trade in that region: 3) to carry out the equivalent of a geographical/botanical/biological survey of the region; and 4) to study, and establish friendly relations with, the Indian tribes who lived in the region to be traversed.

While President Jefferson had expressed interest in the trip well before the consolidation of the Louisiana Purchase, that event of 1803 clearly made it even more relevant. The President was also extremely mindful, at least by 1802, of the danger of the British, America's chief enemy, taking control of the area. A Canadian fur trader from the North West Co., named McKenzie, had made a trip to the Pacific, and published a book about it in 1802, in which he recommended an aggressive British stance toward controlling the territory. The Russians, Spanish, and French also had footholds in the area. Jefferson felt he had to move soon.

Front of the sculpture by Eugene L. Daub showing Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea in Kansas City, Missouri.

The multifarious nature of the trip is underscored by the fact that Lewis, once charged with this mission in early 1803, spent more than a month in the Philadelphia area, meeting with members of the American Philosophical Society, and gaining instruction in using scientific instruments for studying and reporting on the astronomy, botany, zoology, and the like. This crash course then informed his readings of longitude and latitude, and his famed descriptions and drawings of flora and fauna. An additional scientific, and diplomatic, objective was his charge to report on the cultures of the Indian tribes he met, whom he was to seek to befriend and develop trade with, but with whom he was to avoid violent confrontation, if at all possible.

Having gathered up their men and supplies, Clark and Lewis wintered and prepared in the St. Louis area in the winter of 1803-04. They left Camp Wood on May 14, 1804, heading up the Missouri River, in hopes of finding a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. In that respect, they ended up being sorely disappointed, but, after 18 months, they did reach the mouth of the Columbia River—with the loss of only one of the original crew to illness. Arriving in November 1805, the crew camped for the winter, and did not embark upon their return until March of 1806. Going back East, with the current on their side, they reached St. Louis in a matter of only six months.

In most respects, the Expedition was successful beyond Jefferson's wildest dreams. Through incredible ingenuity, they had safely navigated through Indian territories and wilderness and treacherous mountains, developing their own food supply and transportation as they went. Many had given them up for dead, when they returned to St. Louis, where they were feted and cheered. They had basically established good relations with the Indian tribes they had met, and some of the chiefs had been brought to Washington to meet with the "great chief," President Jefferson. The drawings and observations which came from the journals of both Lewis and Clark, were often definitive, and the success of the trip helped to open up the region to Western settler expansion.

The United States government held an official celebration of the Expedition, a celebration kicked off by President Bush on July 3, 2002, and scheduled to last between 2003 and 2006. In the spirit of regaining our nation's commitment to scientific adventure, the expedition of Lewis and Clark is well worth revisiting, for the breakthrough that it was.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.