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In 1803, when the United States purchased Louisiana from France, the
great expanse of this new American territory was a blank -- not only
on the map but in our knowledge. President Thomas Jefferson keenly understood
that the course of the nation's destiny lay westward and that a national
"Voyage of Discovery" must be mounted to determine the nature
and accessibility of the frontier. He commissioned his young secretary,
Meriwether Lewis, to lead an intelligence-gathering expedition from
the Missouri River to the northern Pacific coast and back. From 1804
to 1806, Lewis, accompanied by co-captain William Clark, the Shoshone
guide Sacajawea, and thirty-two men, made the first trek across the
Louisiana Purchase, mapping the rivers as he went, tracing the principal
waterways to the sea, and establishing the American claim to the territories
of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. together the captains kept a journal,
a richly detailed record of the flora and fauna they sighted, the Indian
tribes they encountered, and the awe-inspiring landscape they traversed,
from their base camp near present-day St. Louis to the mouth of the
Columbia River. In keeping this record they made an incomparable contribution
to the literature of exploration and the writing of natural history.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark, writes Bernard DeVoto, was "the
first report on the West, on the United States over the hill and beyond
the sunset, on the province of the American future. There has never
been another so excellent or so influential...It satisfied desire and
created desire: the desire of the westering nation."