Today in History: August 18
Lewis grew up roaming the woods of Albemarle County, near Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, he selected Lewis as his private secretary. Two years later, Jefferson appointed Lewis to lead an exploration of the Louisiana Purchase—the vast territory that the U.S. acquired from France in 1803.
Known as the Corps of Discovery, the expedition set out from Camp River Dubois on May 14, 1804, heading northwest on the Missouri River. They hoped to discover a Northwest Passage—a water route to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition wintered in present-day North Dakota, traveled to what is now Montana, and reached the mouth of the Columbia River in present-day Washington before returning to St. Louis on September 23, 1806.
Lewis and Clark kept a detailed journal of their three-year journey. Originally published in 1814, the journals generated excitement about the unknown region and diminished Easterners' fears about venturing beyond the Mississippi.
York, a slave and childhood companion of William Clark, also participated in the expedition. In the process of compiling a short history of African Americans in Omaha, Nebraska, for the WPA interview "Arthur Goodlet," Fred D. Dixon remembered the "Negro slave named York, the property of Clark, [who] was with Lewis and Clark when they came to the place where Omaha now stands, in 1805." At the successful completion of the expedition, York tried to persuade Clark to grant him his freedom in return for the service that he had rendered to the nation. Although Clark refused at first, about ten years later he did free York. For their part in the three-year adventure, Lewis and Clark each received 1,600 acres of public land. Popular acclaim led to Lewis' assumption of the governorship of the Louisiana Territory and Clark's appointment as governor of the Missouri Territory. Meriwether Lewis died of mysterious circumstances—either by suicide or murder—on October 11, 1809.
- Search on Meriwether Lewis in The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress to locate over fifty documents, including Lewis’ letter to Jefferson announcing the expedition's return to St. Louis in September 1806.
- Explore the collection Louisiana: European Explorations and the Louisiana Purchase to find additional materials related to the Louisiana Territory. This presentation focuses on the various documents—from maps to newspapers to cultural artifacts—that help to describe the region of North America that stretched from as far east as Alabama into what is now the state of Montana. The 119 items presented here come from the various special and general collections of the Library of Congress.
- Visit the Library’s online exhibition Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America to learn more about the Lewis and Clark expedition. This exhibition features the Library's rich collections of exploration material documenting the quest to connect the East and the West by means of a waterway passage.
- By the 1840s, thousands of Americans were making their way through territory explored by Lewis and Clark over thirty years before. The collection "California as I Saw It": First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849 to 1900 brings together 190 first-person narratives of westward journeys, many written by settlers who embarked in the 1840s and 1850s.
- See early maps of cities that grew up along the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Search the "Cities and Towns" section of Map Collections on St. Louis, Omaha, or Portland. Search on the term Lewis and Clark to see maps relevant to their expedition such as a map with annotations by Meriwether Lewis tracing the Mississippi, the Missouri for a short distance above Kansas, Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Winnipeg, and the country onwards to the Pacific.
- Search on Louisiana Territory in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to read congressional acts and proceedings related to the vast territory. This collection also includes a legislative timeline that examines the role of Congress in the Louisiana Purchase from 1802 to 1807.
- Follow the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark. Visit The National Park Service's Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Web site or view the timeline for the expedition (external link) at PBS's companion site to Ken Burns' film Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (external link).