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Sierra Magazine
Beyond the Sunset

The ultimate American adventure, begun by Lewis & Clark nearly 200 years ago, isn't over yet.

By Page Stegner

Dear Sir:
...last night also we received the treaty from Paris ceding Louisiana according to the bounds to which France had a right. price 11 and one quarter millions of Dollars, besides paying certain debts of France to our citizens which will be from 1, to 4, millions
-- Letter to Captain Meriweather Lewis from President Thomas Jefferson, July 15, 1803

Thus did the third president of our republic convey to his friend, protege, and personal secretary what was perhaps the single most important event in U.S. history. Jefferson's ministers had bought from the French 820,000 square miles of the North American continent, nearly all of the western half of the Mississippi River drainage basin, doubling the territory of the United States. While in 1803 they called it "Louisiana," today we call it Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, eastern Wyoming and Montana, Colorado, a tidbit of New Mexico, and a table scrap of Texas. Not bad for 15 million bucks.

The Louisiana Purchase both enabled the United States' transcontinental expansion from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and solidified U.S. claims to Oregon Country (present-day Washington, Oregon, Idaho, western Montana and Wyoming, and most of British Columbia). With this additional 250,000 square miles, the Louisiana Purchase amounted to about a million square miles, or one-third of the continental United States.

Understandably, the boundaries of an uncharted region roughly equal in size to the existing commonwealth were imprecise, but the northern border of Jefferson's acquisition was generally accepted to be the 49th parallel, and its western limit the Continental Divide. At the time, the Divide was as much speculation as a hundred other fantasies rumored to lie west of the Mississippi, like the shining mountains that rose five miles in a single, unbroken ridge above an endless prairie of grass, or the Lost Tribes of Israel still wandering about in the Great American Desert, or the Indian clan descended from the Welsh, or the mountain of salt said to extend for 180 miles across the plains. It was definitely time for a reality check.

Jefferson had long contemplated expansion beyond the Mississippi, and had intended to send an expedition across that territory, even though until 1803 it was alternately claimed by France, Spain, and then again France. After his election to the presidency in 1801, Jefferson appointed 27-year-old Captain Meriwether Lewis as his personal secretary: "Your knolege of the Western country, of the army and of all it's interests & relations," Jefferson wrote, "has rendered it desireable for public as well as private purposes that you should be engaged in [this] office."

The private purpose that Jefferson had in mind was to determine whether the Missouri River was the elusive Northwest Passage. "The object of your mission," Jefferson instructed, "is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's 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." A trading voyage by sea to the Pacific Coast was generally a three-year affair, and the commercial advantage of a water route across North America (even if it were to include what Jefferson imagined might be a short portage over the "stony mountains") was paramount in the president's mind.

And so on May 14, 1804, Lewis and his friend William Clark and their "Corps of Discovery" set forth on an 8,000-mile journey that would take them, over a period of 28 months, the length of the Missouri River and to the mouth of the Columbia and back. They would cross the northern plains, all of which, from the Mandan villages (near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota) to the Great Falls of the Missouri, was uncharted territory. So too were the Rockies, which they crossed during the summer of 1805, the Snake and Columbia river plains, the Cascades, and the Pacific Coast (near present-day Astoria, Oregon) where Clark would write in his journal, "Great joy in camp we are in view of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been so long anxious to See."

The historical process initiated by Lewis and Clark--exploration followed by migration, succeeded, in turn, by territorial occupation and political incorporation--was a modus operandi that would engage the nation for the next hundred years, until trans-Mississippi expansion culminated on February 14, 1912, with the proclamation of Arizona as the 48th state of the Union. The immediate consequence of their journey, though, was to demonstrate conclusively, if reluctantly, that no transcontinental water route to the Pacific existed. On the other hand, their detailed notations on the flora and fauna of the upper Missouri, Northern Rockies, and Columbia River drainage, which included the observation that the entire region was swarming with beaver, launched the American fur trade and brought us such legendary figures as John Jacob Astor, Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and a thousand nameless trappers.

Lewis and Clark's expedition was not only the mother of all camping trips, it filled in the huge blank spot on our map, and did so with trustworthy details. As Bernard DeVoto wrote in his introduction to The Journals of Lewis and Clark, theirs was "the first report on the West, on the United States over the hill and beyond the sunset, on the province of the American future. There has never been another so excellent or so influential." (Incredibly, even after Lewis and Clark's well-documented appraisal of the territory, Jefferson's critics would continue to dismiss it as useless wilderness, a region of "savages and wild beasts, of deserts, of shifting sands, and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs.")

After Lewis and Clark, the rivers, mountains, plains, and peoples of the American West would never again be so remote and exotic. The drama of the adventure still inspires an annual assortment of history buffs and neo-explorers to load up canoe or backpack and take to the trail - or such parts of it as are not covered by wheat or asphalt.

There is still open country between the great bend of the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean that shows no evidence of bulldozer or plow, but much of it is unprotected. In Nebraska, for example, there are wild sections of the Sand Hills, a complex of wetlands, tallgrass prairie, and dunes that are threatened by development of factory-scale hog farms. Along the headwaters of the Little Bighorn River in northeastern Wyoming, a huge dam recently threatened 135,000 acres of essentially undisturbed habitat for elk, black bear, moose, blue grouse, and native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. In the Little Missouri National Grasslands, a rare remnant of prairie could be ruined by oil-and-gas development, while overgrazing and off-road-vehicle use endanger equally fragile terrain within the nation's largest publicly owned tallgrass prairie, the Sheyenne National Grasslands near Fargo, North Dakota. Both areas need protection through better management, acquisition of private inholdings, and land exchanges, while some parts deserve wilderness designation.

For the next five years, the Sierra Club will focus on these and 30 other sites, from the Niobrara River valley in Nebraska to the Columbia River estuary in Oregon/Washington. There is much that has changed along this route of discovery; there is much that can still be saved.

For more information, see the Sierra Club's Lewis and Clark report.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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