This week (June 19) in 1803, Meriwether Lewis wrote a letter to William Clark inviting him to become immortal. Actually, the letter asked Clark if he would be interested in joining Lewis on an expedition he was leading at the request of President Thomas Jefferson — an expedition that would take a party of a dozen or so men across the American continent to explore the western part of it, including the territories of the vast Louisiana Purchase, which Jefferson had persuaded Congress to approve a few months earlier.
In his letter Lewis shared with Clark his aim to travel the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, then to the mouth of the Missouri River, then over to the Columbia River and eventually to the “Western” (Pacific) Ocean. Further, Lewis wrote Clark, the purpose of the trip was to gain knowledge of the plant and animal life along their route, as well as to map out the geography, make friends with, and learn from, the indigenous Indian tribes, and send back detailed reports to President Jefferson.
And finally, in what was an unprecedented gesture — but one that proved to be extremely wise — Lewis offered Clark co-command of the expedition. Clark accepted without hesitation and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as history called it, was on.
Interestingly, Lewis had come to admire Clark’s abilities while serving under him in the army. Lewis considered Clark a born leader, a tough outdoorsman, a first-rate surveyor and mapmaker, and an experienced waterman — all areas where Lewis was less adept.
Where Lewis was adept, thanks in great part to Jefferson, was in the astronomy (important to mapmaking and navigation), biology, botany, mineralogy, natural history, note taking and journal writing that would be so indispensable to the expedition’s success. In what can arguably be called the greatest tutorial in American history, Jefferson had earlier hired Lewis as his secretary, in part to share with the young man all of his knowledge about the aforementioned subjects. For nearly two years, Lewis had walked the grounds of Monticello with America’s most famous “Renaissance Man,” soaking up Jefferson’s knowledge of the myriad topics he had mastered through his books and travels during his long life. Jefferson even sent Lewis to “graduate school” in Philadelphia to learn from America’s most renowned scientists.
It was a testament to Jefferson’s genius that he picked the right man for the job and gave him the training necessary to accomplish it. But his greatest genius was his clear vision of what the expedition could accomplish and what its effect would be on his young country. Today the Lewis and Clark Expedition is generally considered the most important and successful journey in the history of North America.