Jefferson’s Confidential Letter to Congress, January 18, 1803

The top half of page one of Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten letter to Congress.  Faded brown ink on yellowed paper.
Photo: President’s Jefferson’s handwritten letter to Congress.  National Archives.
Thomas Jefferson had longed been fascinated with the West and had dreamed of a United States that would span the extent of the entire continent. But as the calendar turned over to 1803, the land west of the Mississippi River was home to hundreds of Native tribes and was primarily controlled by France.

So while U.S. representatives were in Paris negotiating to acquire New Orleans, Jefferson had his sights set on something much bigger – although he couldn’t have imagined the offer to come in the next few months from Napoleon.

The president sent a “secret,” or more correctly labeled “confidential” message to Congress on Tuesday, January 18, 1803. In it he explained his belief that learning Western culture was the best course of action for Native peoples. He further told Congress that trading with Americans and learning American farming methods would make Native Americans embrace Anglo-American culture.

Ultimately, Jefferson asked Congress to fund an exploratory expedition to establish further trade contacts with Native Americans and seek a possible northwestern water route to the Pacific Ocean. The amount of funding he requested was $2,500, which Congress approved on February 28.

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

Last updated: January 12, 2021