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Setting the Stage

By the turn of the 19th century, over 5 million people resided in the United States of America, then confined to the area south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River. To the Northwest lay vast territory, inhabited by American Indians, controlled by the French and Spanish, and coveted by the British and Americans. In hopes of strengthening American claims to the northwestern Oregon Country and establishing profitable trade networks with the surrounding indigenous nations, President Thomas Jefferson saw the west as a land of opportunity and adventure. Adding to this optimistic vision of western expansion was the dream of President Jefferson to discover the storied Northwest Passage, a water route that was believed to connect the eastern half of the United States to the distant Pacific Ocean. Such a route would prove invaluable for commerce and trade. By 1803, a number of adventurous Americans would be given the chance to see if such a route existed; their leaders' names soon becoming synonymous with the trail they journeyed.

The purchase of the entire Louisiana Territory from the French, a surprise even to Jefferson who had authorized his agent to purchase the port city of New Orleans, provided the impetus Jefferson needed to get Congress to authorize an already planned exploratory expedition. On April 30, 1803, for 3 cents per acre, the Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of America and changed its destiny forever. Two days after the public declaration of the purchase, Captain Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson's personal secretary noted for being "brave, prudent, habituated to the woods & familiar with Indian manners & character," departed from the City of Washington to organize the journey that lay ahead. Over the following months, he would recruit a number of volunteers, many of them from the United States Army. One such individual, William Clark--a military comrade of Captain Lewis--would take on the responsibility of co-leader.

The Corps of Discovery set off from Camp River DuBois, Indiana Territory, May 14, 1804 on a two and a half years journey. The crew would travel through many places such as Lemhi Pass and Lolo Trail in present-day Idaho and Montana, and Fort Clatsop in present-day Oregon to discover the answers to many of the questions plaguing the minds of some curious Americans: Who were the people that inhabited the West? Were they peaceful and interested in trade? What sorts of animals and plants flourished beyond the Mississippi? Is it possible to reach the Pacific Ocean? Did the fabled Northwest Passage exist?

 

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