History Timeline 1800s

Indian petroglyphs mentioned in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Nemaha River, Troy, Kansas. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Historic New Orleans wharf scene along the Mississippi River. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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U.S. Timeline - The 1800s

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  • 1804 Detail

    May 14, 1804 - Ordered by Thomas Jefferson to map the Northwest United States, Lewis and Clark begin their expedition from St. Louis and Camp Dubois. The journey begins with navigation of the Missouri River.

    Lewis and Clark


    One year before, President Thomas Jefferson had doubled the size of the United States with his purchase of the Louisiana Purchase on April 30, 1803, thus creating a nation that was truly sea to shining sea. But just what had he bought? It was wild Indian territory that had been explored by trappers and some explorers, yet not truly mapped in a way that would allow for western expansion and commerce of a broad kind. So Thomas Jefferson began to order expeditions that would do just that. It was something he had been considering even before the purchase of the territory had been finalized. President Jefferson asked Captain Meriwether Lewis, his former secretary and friend, for an estimate of the cost of such an expedition; the cost computed to $2,500. This likely occured prior to a secret message Jefferson sent to Congress on January 18, 1803. He wanted money "the appropriation of two thousand five hundred dollars, for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States." Jefferson had commercial goals. Congress agreed, appropriating the funds on February 28, 1803. But why had this been a secret? Politics. He thought he needed to hide the expedition plans from his Federalist Party enemies. Geez, Washington had warned them all about political parties a decade before.

    Congress agreed to the mission, and by spring, Meriwether Lewis, a Captain in the U.S. Army, had been chosen as commmander and began to collect supplies for the mission from the armory storehouses at Harpers Ferry and the government stores at Philadelphia. The President had been a friend of Captain Lewis for years and thought highly of him. They were fellow natives of Albermarle County, Virginia, and they remained in contact throughout the preparation. Among the purchases, $669.50 for presents that he would give to the Indians he met along the journey.

    Once supplies had been gathered, a task that took longer than thought, in part because of Lewis and his specificity about the construction of a canoe, Lewis got detailed instructions for what the mission would entail and what President Jefferson considered important tasks.


    Instructions to Meriwether Lewis from President Jefferson, June 20, 1803.


    Instructions for Meriwether Lewis

    To Meriwether Lewis esquire, Captain of the 1st Regiment of infantry of the United States of America.

    Your situation as Secretary of the President of the United States has made you acquainted with the objects of my confidential message of Jan. 18. 1803. to the legislature: you have seen the act they passed, which, tho' expressed in general terms, was meant to sanction those objects, and you are appointed to carry them into execution.

    Instruments for ascertaining by celestial observations the geography of the country thro' which you will pass, have been already provided. light articles for barter, & presents among the Indians, arms for your attendants, say for from 10. to 12. men, boats, tents, & other travelling apparatus, with ammunition, medecine, surgical instruments & provisions you will have prepared with such aids as the Secretary at War can yield in his department; & from him also you will recieve authority to engage among our troops, by voluntary agreement, the number of attendants abovementioned, over whom you, as their commanding officer, are invested with all the powers the laws give in such a case.

    As your movements while within the limits of the US. will be better directed by occasional communications, adapted to circumstances as they arise, they will not be noticed here. what follows will respect your proceedings after your departure from the US.

    Your mission has been communicated to the Ministers here from France, Spain, & Great Britain, and through them to their governments: and such assurances given them as to it's objects, as we trust will satisfy them. the country of Louisiana having been ceded by Spain to France, the passport you have from the Minister of France, the representative of the present sovereign of the country, will be a protection with all it's subjects: and that from the Minister of England will entitle you to the friendly aid of any traders of that allegiance with whom you may happen to meet.

    The object of your mission 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.

    Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkeable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognised hereafter. the courses of the river between these points of observation may be supplied by the compass, the log-line & by time, corrected by the observations themselves. the variations of the compass too, in different places, should be noticed.

    The interesting points of the portage between the heads of the Missouri & the water offering the best communication with the Pacific ocean, should also be fixed by observation, & the course of that water to the ocean, in the same manner as that of the Missouri.

    Your observations are to be taken with great pains & accuracy, to be entered distinctly, & intelligibly for others as well as yourself, to comprehend all the elements necessary, with the aid of the usual tables, to fix the latitude and longitude of the places at which they were taken, & are to be rendered to the war office, for the purpose of having the calculations made concurrently by proper persons within the US. several copies of these, as well as of your other notes, should be made at leisure times, & put into the care of the most trustworthy of your attendants, to guard, by multiplying them, against the accidental losses to which they will be exposed. a further guard would be that one of these copies be written on the paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper.

    The commerce which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue, renders a knolege of those people important. you will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted, as far as a diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit,

    with the names of the nations & their numbers;

    the extent & limits of their possessions;

    their relations with other tribes or nations;

    their language, traditions, monuments;

    their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting, war, arts, & the implements for these;

    their food, clothing, & domestic accomodations;

    the diseases prevalent among them, & the remedies they use;

    moral & physical circumstances which distinguish them from the tribes we know;

    peculiarities in their laws, customs & dispositions;

    and articles of commerce they may need, or furnish, & to what extent.

    And, considering the interest which every nation has in extending & strengthening the authority of reason & justice among the people around them, it will be useful to acquire what knolege you can of the state of morality, religion & information among them; as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize & instruct them, to adapt their measures to the existing notions & practices of those on whom they are to operate.

    Other objects worthy of notice will be

    the soil & face of the country, it's growth & vegetable productions, especially those not of the US.

    the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the US.

    the remains & accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct;

    the mineral productions of every kind: but more particularly metals, limestone, pit-coal, & saltpetre; salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last, & such circumstances as may indicate their character.

    Volcanic appearances;

    climate as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion of rainy, cloudy, & clear days, by lightening, hail, snow, ice, by the access & recess of frost, by the winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular plants put forth their flower, or leaf, time of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects.

    Altho' your route will be along the channel of the Missouri, yet you will endeavor to inform yourself, by enquiry, of the character & extent of the country watered by it's branches; & especially on it's Southern side. the North river or Rio Bravo which runs into the gulph of Mexico, and the North river, or Rio colorado which runs into the gulph of California are understood to be the principal streams heading opposite to the waters of the Missouri, and running Southwardly. whether the dividing grounds between the Missouri & them are mountains or flat lands, what are their distance from the Missouri, the character of the intermediate country, and the people inhabiting it, are worthy of particular enquiry. the Northern waters of the Missouri are less to be enquired after, because they have been ascertained to a considerable degree, and are still in a course of ascertainment by English traders & travellers. but if you can learn any thing certain of the most Northern source of the Missisipi, & of it's position relative to the lake of the woods, it will be interesting to us. some account too of the path of the Canadian traders, from the Missisipi, at the mouth of the Ouisconsin river, to where it strikes the Missouri, and of the soil & rivers in it's course, is desireable.

    In all your intercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it's innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the US. of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them, & of our dispositions to a commercial intercourse with them; confer with them on the points most convenient as mutual emporiums, & the articles of most desireable interchange for them & us. if a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them, & furnish them with authority to call on our officers, on their entering the US. to have them conveyed to this place at the public expence. if any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will recieve, instruct & take care of them. such a mission, whether of influential chiefs, or of young people, would give some security to your own party. carry with you some matter of the kine-pox; inform those of them with whom you may be, of it's efficacy as a preservative from the small pox; and instruct & encourage them in the use of it. this may be especially done wherever you winter.

    As it is impossible for us to foresee in what manner you will be recieved by those people, whether with hospitality or hostility, so is it impossible to prescribe the exact degree of perseverance with which you are to pursue your journey. we value too much the lives of citizens to offer them to probable destruction. your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorised opposition of individuals, or of small parties: but if a superior force, authorised or not authorised, by a nation, should be arrayed against your further passage, & inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline it's further pursuit, and return. in the loss of yourselves, we should lose also the information you will have acquired. by returning safely with that, you may enable us to renew the essay with better calculated means. to your own discretion therefore must be left the degree of danger you may risk, & the point at which you should decline, only saying we wish you to err on the side of your safety, & to bring back your party safe, even if it be with less information.

    As far up the Missouri as the white settlements extend, an intercourse will probably be found to exist between them and the Spanish posts at St. Louis, opposite Cahokia, or St. Genevieve opposite Kaskaskia. from still further up the river, the traders may furnish a conveyance for letters. beyond that you may perhaps be able to engage Indians to bring letters for the government to Cahokia or Kaskaskia, on promising that they shall there recieve such special compensation as you shall have stipulated with them. avail yourself of these means to communicate to us, at seasonable intervals, a copy of your journal, notes & observations of every kind, putting into cypher whatever might do injury if betrayed.

    Should you reach the Pacific ocean, inform yourself of the circumstances which may decide whether the furs of those parts may not be collected as advantageously at the head of the Missouri (convenient as is supposed to the waters of the Colorado, & Oregan or Columbia) as at Nootka sound or any other point of that coast; & that trade be consequently conducted through the Missouri & U.S. more beneficially than by the circumnavigation now practised.

    On your arrival on that coast, endeavor to learn if there be any port within your reach frequented by the sea-vessels of any nation, and to send two of your trusty people back by sea, in such way as shall appear11 practicable, with a copy of your notes. and should you be of opinion that the return of your party by the way they went will be eminently dangerous, then ship the whole, & return by sea, by the way of Cape Horn, or the Cape of good Hope, as you shall be able. as you will be without money, clothes or provisions, you must endeavor to use the credit of the US. to obtain them; for which purpose open letters of credit shall be furnished you, authorising you to draw on the Executive of the US. or any of it's officers, in any part of the world, on which draughts can be disposed of, and to apply with our recommendations to the Consuls, agents, merchants or citizens of any nation with which we have intercourse, assuring them in our name that any aids they may furnish you, shall be honorably repaid, and on demand. Our consuls Thomas Hewes at Batavia in Java, William Buchanan at the isles of France and Bourbon, & John Elmslie at the Cape of good hope will be able to supply your necessities by draughts on us.

    Should you find it safe to return by the way you go, after sending two of your party round by sea, or with your whole party, if no conveyance by sea can be found, do so; making such observations on your return, as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.

    On re-entering the US. and reaching a place of safety, discharge any of your attendants who may desire & deserve it, procuring for them immediate paiment of all arrears of pay & cloathing which may have incurred since their departure; and assure them that they shall be recommended to the liberality of the legislature for the grant of a souldier's portion of land each, as proposed in my message to Congress: & repair yourself with your papers to the seat of government.

    To provide, on the accident of your death, against anarchy, dispersion & the consequent danger to your party, and total failure of the enterprise, you are hereby authorised, by any instrument signed & written in your own hand, to name the person among them who shall succeed to the command on your decease, & by like instruments to change the nomination from time to time, as further experience of the characters accompanying you shall point out superior fitness: and all the powers & authorities given to yourself are, in the event of your death, transferred to & vested in the successor so named, with further power to him, & his successors in like manner to name each his successor, who, on the death of his predecessor, shall be invested with all the powers & authorities given to yourself.

    Given under my hand at the city of Washington this 20th. day of June 1803

    Th: Jefferson

    Pr. US. of America


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    Letter to Meriwether Lewis


    To Meriwether Lewis, Washington. US. of America.
    July 4. 1803.

    Dear Sir

    In the journey which you are about to undertake for the discovery of the course and source of the Missisipi, and of the most convenient water communication from thence to the Pacific ocean, your party being small, it is to be expected that you will encounter considerable dangers from the Indian inhabitants. should you escape those dangers and reach the Pacific ocean, you may find it imprudent to hazard a return the same way, and be forced to seek a passage round by sea, in such vessels as you may find on the Western coast. but you will be without money, without clothes, & other necessaries; as a sufficient supply cannot be carried with you from hence. your resource in that case can only be in the credit of the US. for which purpose I hereby authorise you to draw on the Secretaries of State, of the Treasury, of War & of the Navy of the US. according as you may find your draughts will be most negociable, for the purpose of obtaining money or necessaries for yourself & your men: and I solemnly pledge the faith of the United States that these draughts shall be paid punctually at the date they are made payable. I also ask of the Consuls, agents, merchants & citizens of any nation with which we have intercourse or amity to furnish you with those supplies which your necessities may call for, assuring them of honorable and prompt retribution. and our own Consuls in foreign parts where you may happen to be, are hereby instructed & required to be aiding & assisting to you in whatsoever may be necessary for procuring your return back to the United States. And to give more entire satisfaction & confidence to those who may be disposed to aid you, I Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America, have written this letter of general credit for you with my own hand, and signed it with my name.

    Th: Jefferson

    Preparations Continue as Lewis Heads West


    Over the next nine months, Meriwether headed west, first to Pittsburgh, then down the Ohio River, and eventually ending up in St. Louis. Lewis kept in contact with President Jefferson and made his preparations. He gathered forty-five men, including compatriot William Clark, his former rifle company commander in the U.S. Army, to be his second in command. They met in Clarksville, Indiana, packed the boats, and headed for St. Louis, accompanied by Clark's slave, York, and Lewis' Newfoundland dog, Seamen, prior to winter. Winter was spent at Camp Dubois, north of today's St. Louis. His last letter to Jefferson prior to departure on the expedition on May 14, 1804, ... his focus, apples.


    Letter To Thomas Jefferson from Meriwether Lewis, 26 March 1804


    From Meriwether Lewis
    St. Louis March 26th. 1804.
    Dear Sir,

    I send you herewith inclosed, some slips of the Osages Plums, and Apples. I fear the season is too far advanced for their success. had I earlyer learnt that these fruits were in the neighbourhood, they would have been forwarded at a more proper time. I would thank you to send a part of them to Messrs. John Mason, & William Hamilton. should they not succeed, Mr. Charles Gratiot, a gentleman of this place, has promised me that he would with pleasure attend to the orders of yourself, or any of my acquaintancies who may think proper to write him on the subject. Mr. Gratiot can obtain the young plants at the proper season, and send them very readily to Mr. Trist if requested to do so. I obtained the cuttings, now sent you, from the garden of Mr. Peter Choteau, who resided the greater portion of his time for many years with the Osage nation. it is from this gentleman, that I obtained the information I possess with respect to these fruits.

    The Osage's Plum appears to be a native of the country bordering on the vilages of that nation, situated on the Osage river, a south branch of the Missouri, about two hundred and sixty miles west from St. Louis. the shrub, which produces this fruit is remakably small, seldom rising to a greater hight than five feet; it is much branced, and the smaller boughs are armed with long thorn-like or pinated twigs; in their native state they grow very thickly together, and I think from their appearance, might with a little attention, be made to form an ornimental and usefull hedg. they produce their fruit every year, and generally in great abundance. the fruit is a large oval plum, of a pale yellow colour and exquisite flavor. with other fruits of this family it's matrix is comparitively small; it comes to maturity about the begining of July, and continues to ripen in succession on the same plant untill the 20th. or last of that month.

    The Osage Apple is a native of the interior of the continent of North America, and is perhaps a nondiscript production; the information I have obtained with respect to it is not so minute as I could wish, nor such as will enable me to discribe it in a satisfactory manner. Mr. Peter Coteau, who first introduced this tree in the neighbourhood of St. Louis about five years since, informed me, that he obtained the young plants at the great Osage vilage from an Indian of that nation, who said he procured them about three hundred miles west of that place. the general contour of this tree, is very much that of the black haw, common to most parts of the U States, with these diferences however, that the bark is of a lighter colour, less branced, and arrives to a larger size, somtimes rising to the hight of thirty feet. it's smaller branches are armed with many single, long, & sharp, pinated thorns. the particular form of the leaf or flower I have been unable to learn. so much do the savages esteem the wood of this tree, for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundred miles in quest of it. The particulars with respect to the fruit, is taken principally from the Indian discription; my informant never having seen but one specimen of it, which was not fully ripe, and much shrivled and mutilated before he saw it. the Indians give an extravigant account of the exquisite odour of this fruit when it has obtained maturity, which takes place the latter end of summer, or the begining of Autumn. they state, that at this season they can always tell by the scent of the fruit when they arrive in the neighbourhod of the tree, and usually take advantage of this season to obtain the wood; as it appears not be a very abundant growth, even in the country where it is to be found. an opinion prevails among the Osages, that the fruit is poisonous, tho' they acknowledge that they have never tasted it; they say that many anamals feed on it, and among others, a large species of Hare which abounds in that country. This fruit is the size of the largest orange, of a globular form, and a fine orange colour. the pulp is contained in a number of conacal pustules, covered with a smooth membranous rind, having their smaller extremities attatched to the matrix, from which, they project in every direction, in such manner, as to form a compact figure. the form and consistancy of the matrix, and germ, I have not been able to learn. the trees which are in the possession of Mr. Choteau have as yet produced neither flowers nor fruit.

    From the discription of this anamal, it is in point of colour, figure, and habbits very much the same species with the European Hare, and is as large, if not larger than that anamal. this large hare of America, is found on the upper part of the Arkansas River, and in the country lying from thence South, and West, to the mountains which seperate us from New Mexico, it is said to be remakably fleet, and hard to be overtaken on horseback even in their open plains.

    I have the honour to be with sincere esteem Your Obt. Servt.

    Meriwether Lewis.

    Capt. 1st. U.S. Regt. Infty.




    The Lewis and Clark Expedition Begins


    The Corps of Discovery grew to forty-five men and with spring breaking the confines of winter, they began their journey from Camp Dubois at 4:00 p.m. on May 14, 1804. They headed up the Missouri River, reaching St. Charles two days later, where Meriwether Lewis officially joined the party. On May 25, they reached the last European settlement on the river at La Charrette. The expedition would reach the Osage River by June 1; the Kansas River on June 26. On July 21, 1804, their expedition entered Sioux Territory at the Platte River. By the time they reached the Platte River, there had been no encounters with Indians outside a small canoe party near Charrette.

    Much of the Corps of Discovery history has been kept in the journals of six men; Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Joseph Whitehouse, John Ordway, Patrick Gass, and Charles Floyd. A small sample of the first days of the expedition, one from William Clark and the second from Joseph Whitehouse, are reprinted below, courtesy of lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu.

    May 14, 1804 Clark Diary - Set out from Camp River a Dubois at 4 oClock P. M. and proceded up the Missouris under Sail to the first Island in the Missouri and Camped on the upper point opposit a Creek on the South Side below a ledge of limestone rock Called Colewater, made 4 1/2 miles, the Party Consisted of 2, Self one frenchman and 22 Men in the Boat of 20 ores, 1 Serjt. & 7 french in a large Perogue, a Corp and 6 Soldiers in a large Perogue. a Cloudy rainey day. wind from the N E. men in high Spirits

    Rained the forepart of the day I determined to go as far as St. Charles a french Village 7 Leags. [5] up the Missourie, and wait at that place untill Capt. Lewis Could finish the business in which he was obliged to attend to at St Louis and join me by Land from that place 24 miles; by this movement I calculated that if any alterations in the loading of the Vestles or other Changes necessary, that they might be made at St. Charles

    I Set out at 4 oClock P. M. in the presence of many of the Neighbouring inhabitents, and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missourie to the upper Point of the 1st Island 4 Miles and Camped on the Island which is Situated Close on the right (or Starboard) Side, and opposit the mouth of a Small Creek called Cold water, a heavy rain this after-noon

    The Course of this day nearly West wind from N. E

    June 20, 1804 Whitehouse Diary - Wendy 20th Rain came on as we was a goeing to start in the morning Shortly after Got fair the hunters Came to the bank of the River. the[y] Killd. a bear brought the Skin left the Meat as it was poor the Currant was Strong towd Our boat Untill we Came to the head of the Strong watter Island whare the watter run So Rappid that the men of the french Peirouge Could not make headway by Roeing Or poleing the[y] had to jumpd. out and push her through the water Incampd On the point of and Islanand Calld. Strong water point Roed. 12 Miles

    Wednesday June 20th This morning as we were preparing to start a Rain came on which detained us, for some time, in about an hour the weather got clear, and our hunters who had crossed the River, early this morning came to the opposite bank of the River having killed a bear, but it proving very poor they brought only the Skin with them, the Meat being unfit for use, we started having our boat to tow, the current of the River being so strong that we found it impossible either to Row or pole her. We proceeded on 'till we came to the head of strong Water Island, where the River ran so strong, that the Canadians who were in a Pettiauger could make no headway either by Rowing or poling, but were forced to jump into the River and push her through the water, We encamped on the point of an Island called strong Water point. We towed our boat 12 Miles this day.

    For more on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, check out the first winter encampment at Fort Mandan and the meeting with eventual guides Toussant Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife Sacagawea.

    Photo above: Painting of the Lewis and Clark Expedition on the Lower Columbia River, 1905, Charles Marion Russell. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Below: Engraving of Meriwether Lewis, 1805, Saint-Memin, Charles Balthazar, Julien Fevret de. Courtesy Library of Congress. (left) and (right) William Clark, 1807, Saint-Memin, Charles Balthazar, Julien Fevret de. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: Library of Congress; Monticello.org; Founders.archives.gov; https://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/; Diaries of William Clark, Meriwether Lewis, Joseph Whitehouse; Wikipedia Commons.


    William Clark and Meriwether Lewis





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