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Preparing for the Expedition
January - June 1803
A week after Congress appropriated the funds for the expedition, Jefferson began writing his scientific friends. The message was the same in each case: the expedition has been authorized but is still confidential; I have chosen Captain Lewis to lead it; Lewis needs advice and instruction. The letters made it clear that Jefferson intended the recipients to provide advice and instruction without cost to the government.
Lewis's schooling began during the period from New Year's Day to the Ides of March. Lewis was still living in the President's House, conferring with Jefferson as often and for as long as Jefferson's schedule would allow. Beyond the conferences and the practical lessons in the use of the sextant and other measuring instruments, which took place on the lawn, Lewis studied maps in Jefferson's collection.
He also conferred with Albert Gallatin, a serious map-collector. Gallatin had a special map made up for Lewis showing North America from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi, with details on what was known of the Missouri River up to the Mandan villages in the Great Bend of the river (today's Bismarck, North Dakota), and a few wild guesses as to what the Rockies might look like and the course of the Columbia. There were but three certain points on the map: the latitude and longitude of the mouth of the Columbia, of St. Louis, and of the Mandan villages (thanks to British fur traders)
By the time he finished studying with Jefferson and Gallatin, Lewis knew all that there was to know about the Missouri and what lay to the west of it.
The problem was that west of the Mandans nearly to the coast was terra incognita. And the best scientists in the world could not begin to fill in that map until someone had walked across the land, taking measurements, providing descriptions of the flora, fauna, rivers, mountains, and people, not failing to note the commercial and agricultural possibilities.
To make that journey required a frontiersman's expert knowledge combined with an understanding of technology and what it could do to make the passage easier and more fruitful. That was the positive side of Jefferson's choice of Lewis, who was in fact the perfect choice. Indeed, Lewis's career might almost have been dedicated to preparing him for this adventure. He knew the Old Northwest about as well as any man in the country, he knew lonely forest trails through Indian country, he knew hunting and fishing and canoes, he knew how to keep records, had adequate mathematical skills, and for two years had been privy to Mr. jefferson's hopes and dreams, his curiosity and knowledge.
Jefferson told Patterson that Lewis had the required frontier skills, to which "he joins a great stock of accurate observation on the subjects of the three kingdoms.... He has been for some time qualifying himself for taking observations of longitude & latitude to fix the geographical points of the line he will pass over." But he needed help, and it was Patterson's and the other scientists in Philadelphia's privilege and-not stated but clearly implied-duty to supply that help. Of course they were all delighted to do so anyway.
It was a favorite saying of one of President jefferson's twentieth-century successors, Dwight Eisenhower, that in war, before the battle is joined, plans are everything, but once the shooting begins, plans are worthless. The same aphorism can be said about exploration. In battle, what cannot be predicted is the enemy's reaction; in exploration, what cannot be predicted is what is around the next bend in the river or on the other side of the hill. The planning process, therefore, is as much guesswork as it is intelligent forecasting of the physical needs of the expedition. It tends to be frustrating, because the planner carries with him a nagging sense that he is making some simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage, but may cause a dead loss when the mistake is discovered midway through the voyage.
For this expedition, planning was going on at two levels. The president was working on the first draft of his instructions to Lewis. It was becoming a long, complex document, for Jefferson was making a list of the things he wanted to know about the West. Since there was so much he wanted to know, far more than a single expedition could answer, he had to make choices. There was no mention of looking for gold or silver in the draft Jefferson was circulating, for example, whereas soil conditions and climate were included. Trade possibilities were prominent.
Taken all together, the instructions represented a culmination and a triumph of the American Enlightenment. The expedition authorized by the popularly elected Congress would combine scientific, commercial, and agricultural concerns with geographical discovery and nation-building. All the pillars of Enlightenment thought, summed up with the phrase "useful knowledge," were slithering in the instructions.
While Jefferson worked on the instructions, Lewis had his own planning to do. Jefferson would set the objectives, but it was Captain Lewis who would get the expedition there and back. The responsibility was his for deciding the size of the expedition, how it would proceed up the Missouri River, what it would need to cross the Rocky Mountains and descend the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean and return. The team would have to do this as a self-contained unit. Once the expedition left St. Louis, Lewis would be stuck with the decisions he had made during the planning process.
How many men? With what skills? How big a boat? What design? What type of rifle? How much powder and lead? How many cooking pots? What tools? How much dry or salted rations could be carried? What medicines, in what quantity? What scientific instruments? What books? How many fishing hooks? How much salt? Tobacco? Whiskey?
Lewis and Jefferson talked into the late evening about such questions. Jefferson thought it would be a good idea to carry some cast-iron corn mills to give the Indians as presents. Lewis agreed. They discussed the trade beads that were the currency of the western Indian tribes, and agreed that plenty would be needed. They made up lists of other items. Together, they concocted the idea of a collapsible iron-frame boat, one that could be carried past the falls of the Missouri, wherever that might be, and put together at the far end with animal skins to cover it, so that the expedition would be back in business on the water.
They talked about timing. Now that the appropriation was in hand, both men wanted to get started as soon as possible. With the coming of spring and the drying of the roads, Lewis wanted to be ready to go. He told Jefferson he hoped to be across the Appalachians by early summer. He intended to go to the post at South West Post, near present Kingston in eastern Tennessee, and there enlist his core group of soldier-explorers from the garrison. He planned to march them overland to Nashville, where he would pick up a previously ordered keelboat to float down the Cumberland River to its junction with the Ohio, not far above the Ohio's junction with the Mississippi.
He planned to be in St. Louis by August I and thought he might be able to proceed a good bit of the way up the Missouri before being forced into winter camp. In 1804, he expected to cross the mountains, reach the Pacific, make the return journey, and report back before winter set in.