Subtopic : Exploring a Foreign Place: The Lewis & Clark Expedition in Oregon Country: Northwest Passage
Themes: People and the Environment, Exploration
Thomas Jefferson’s best opportunity—and the one that proved out—came in 1803, nearly two years into his presidency. Developments in international politics and geographical discoveries, especially the ongoing search for a Northwest Passage through North America, had stimulated Jefferson’s continued interest in western exploration. Maritime and land explorers had looked for a Northwest Passage for centuries, but it had proved elusive. Most maps that showed such a route were at best conjectures and at worst complete fabrications. Jefferson kept abreast of discoveries by purchasing maps and descriptions as they became available, and there is little doubt that he was the best informed American about the status of North American geographical exploration in 1800.
He knew from the publication of James Cook’s Third Voyage (1776-1779) that a pathway north of fifty degrees latitude was unlikely. George Vancouver’s extensive survey of the Northwest Coast in 1792, including the Puget Sound region and the lower Columbia River, confirmed Cook’s findings. In 1801, publication of Alexander McKenzie’s Voyages from Montreal, which included maps of his exploration of present-day British Columbia, closed out the last hope for a far northern passage. These discoveries left a narrow band of geography—between the 49th and 45th parallels—where a passage might be found, and this is where Jefferson concentrated his interest.
The proximate cause of Jefferson’s action in 1803, however, was his concern over Britain’s intentions. Hudson’s Bay Company traders had been operating for decades in the regions south and west of Hudson Bay and they surely had designs on the Rockies and beyond. Alexander McKenzie had articulated this threat in his Voyages, a passage Jefferson read with alarm:
By opening this intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and forming regular establishments through the interior, at both extremes, as well as along the coasts and islands, the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained.
Jefferson referred directly to “the trade of another nation carried on in a high latitude” in a confidential message he sent to Congress on January 18, 1803, requesting funds for a western exploratory expedition. Such an expedition, Jefferson proposed, could be accomplished by “an intelligent officer with ten or twelve chosen men, fit for the enterprize and willing to undertake it, taken from our posts [who] . . . might explore the whole line, even to the Western ocean . . . . for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the U.S.”
© William L. Lang, 2004
Themes: People and the Environment,Exploration
Regions: Oregon Country,Columbia River
Author: William L. Lang
The ongoing search for the Northwest Passage stirred Jefferson’s interest in western exploration.
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