The Lewis and Clark Expedition

“The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal streams of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce.”

—Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1803

With these words, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the famous expedition that bears their name. From 1804 to 1806, Lewis and Clark surveyed western North America with the Corps of Discovery commissioned by Jefferson to find a navigable waterway from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. No complete report of the Lewis and Clark Expedition existed until Nicholas Biddle, a wealthy young Philadelphia lawyer and editor of the effete journal Port Folio, essentially rewrote the journals of Lewis and Clark to create the seamless history that lies before you. (The name of Paul Allen appears on the title page because he added some final touches to Biddle’s manuscript.) Riveting to us today, the publication languished unsold on many a bookseller’s shelf for years, but Biddle’s History remained the definitive account of the expedition until the journals themselves were published in 1904–1905.

The detailed map, rare in surviving copies of this book, gave citizens of the United States an utterly new vision of the territory west of the Mississippi River. In addition to giving population figures for many Native American settlements (counted in “souls”), the map supplied the most accurate depiction to date of the sources of the Missouri River and the topography of the Rocky Mountains. Quirky vestiges of an older style of mapmaking break through this hardnosed cartographic precision. The words, “These Mountains are covered with snow,” are draped over the Rockies, precisely on the route Lewis and Clark took to cross this unexpectedly immense and freezing range.