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