Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.
Departing St. Louis on May 14, 1804, the Corps of Discovery began its journey in earnest. That spring day marked the culmination of years of hope, desire, and planning that had both inspired and tormented Thomas Jefferson. The innate curiosity that drove Jefferson’s interest in a many subjects – among them agriculture, archaeology, horticulture, languages, law, mathematics, music, natural history, and philosophy – also fueled his curiosity about the West. For more than twenty years before the Corps of Discovery, Jefferson had been trying to mount an exploration of the West.
Although the Corps of Discovery fulfilled Jefferson’s dream of western exploration, theirs was Jefferson’s fourth attempt. In 1783, while still a member of Congress, Jefferson asked General George Rogers Clark to lead an exploration of the lands west of the Mississippi River. General Clark’s business affairs prevented his accepting the offer and the plan went no further. Only a few years later, however, Jefferson persuaded John Ledyard to attempt a trek from Moscow, across the Bering Strait, and, continuing east, across the North American continent. Ledyard’s arrest while still in Russia quickly ended this endeavor. During Jefferson’s term as Secretary of State he won support of the American Philosophical Society to fund an expedition “to find the shortest & most convenient route of communication between the U.S. & the Pacific ocean, within the temperate latitudes.” In 1793, Jefferson selected French botantist André Michaux to lead this expedition. After the revelation that Michaux was a secret agent of the French Republic, this project also came to an sudden end.
That spring morning in 1804 marked the beginning of the fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson's decades long dream of western exploration.
More information about Thomas Jefferson is available in the following books and web sites.
Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783 – 1854.
Thomas Jefferson and the Rocky Mountains: Exploring the West from Monticello.
Did You Know?
Two hundred years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the only physical evidence of the journey is found near Billings, MT. In July 1805, William Clark carved his name into the soft rock of what he called Pompeys Tower. This site is now preserved at Pompeys Pillar National Monument.