Subtopic : The Native Context and the Arrival of Other Peoples: Lewis, Clark, and Jefferson
Themes: People and the Environment, Exploration
No two explorers are more firmly imprinted in the American consciousness than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Campgrounds, rivers, towns, highway markers, and two institutions of higher education are named after them. Monuments honor them, dozens of books have been written about them, and a formal organization, the Lewis and Clark Trail Association, is devoted to studying them. To put it simply, Lewis and Clark have provided an important part of the story of the American West, one of the nation's great founding myths.
But Lewis and Clark are still more: They are central to understanding Oregon and United States history and in explaining the links between exploration and the formation of an American empire. The two captains were advance agents of an expanding United States, emissaries for a government headed by politicians who saw the American West as a place to enter and occupy.
No American political figure is more central to westward expansion than Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. He was the architect of American democracy, a linguist, a natural scientist, a philosopher-statesman, an inventor, and a “vicarious explorer.” Richard Dillon, one of Meriwether Lewis’s biographers, argues that “if George Washington is the father of our country, then surely Jefferson is the father of our American West.”
Jefferson was first interested in the West immediately beyond the Appalachian Mountains; but by the time he was elected president, that interest had expanded to include the entire trans-Mississippi West. Eventually, Jefferson developed a grand design to locate a land-based Northwest Passage, a route that would link the Mississippi Valley with the Pacific Ocean. When he was elected to the presidency in 1800, Jefferson invited his fellow Virginian, the young military officer, Meriwether Lewis, to join his staff as his personal secretary. The president had written Lewis’s commanding officer that he wanted a secretary who understood both the army and the “Western Country.”
From the moment Lewis arrived in Washington, D.C., Jefferson put him to work learning about the American West, its topography, river systems, climates, Indian tribes, and the like. Jefferson was already familiar with Alexander McKenzie’s 1793 trek across present-day Canada, and he was particularly concerned with McKenzie’s recommendation that British fur-trading companies move quickly and decisively to gain control of the Indian trade in the Columbia River country.
© William G. Robbins, 2002
Themes: People and the Environment,Exploration
Regions: Oregon Country
Author: William G. Robbins
No two explorers are more firmly imprinted in the American consciousness than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; no American political figure is more central to westward expansion than Thomas Jefferson.
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