Jefferson to Lewis



President Thomas Jefferson’s Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, 20 June 1803


by Stephanie Wood, University of Oregon, Honoring Tribal Legacies

This is one of the many primary documents that help us understand the meaning of Westward Expansionism after the American Revolution. Contextualizing this document will help us understand Jefferson’s objectives as of 1803. The United States were independent of English colonialism and ready to take command locally. They were already determined to expand westward, even though most people in the United States still lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic coast.

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the new nation, had already made various efforts in his earlier career to advance western expansionism. A letter from Jefferson to George Rogers Clark in 1783 shared a worry that the English were going to try to colonize the western part of the continent before the U.S. could do that. Jefferson hoped that this G. R. Clark (not the William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition) would venture into Native lands to make “scientific” and “political” inroads. But this Clark turned Jefferson down, partly over money questions and partly out of a fear of creating conflict with the first inhabitants, with whom he already had some familiarity.

Jefferson had also supported an effort by a John Ledyard to go east from Europe, across Russia, get to the Pacific, and then try to come at the west coast of the American continent from there, looking for water routes inland. But Ledyard’s journey was cut short when he got arrested and was banned from Russian territory forever.

In 1793, President George Washington supported Jefferson’s plan to hire a French scientist, Andre Michaux, to go west of the Missouri River and gather “geographic” and “scientific” information while seeking a route to the Pacific. This plan backfired, too, because Michaux was part of a French spy mission to get intelligence about Spanish colonies beyond the Mississippi River. (See the Monticello website for more information about all this background to the Lewis and Clark expedition.)

Jefferson’s instructions to Michaux would be dusted off and provide a basis for the document we are investigating here, with Jefferson’s instructions given to Meriwether Lewis ten years later. If anything, Jefferson’s zeal for a westward expedition had only increased. Finding a route across the continent felt urgent, not only for the potential access to the Pacific but also for colonizing the West and to opening up new economic opportunities. In a “confidential” (i.e. secret) letter to Congress that Jefferson wrote in January 1803, we find how anxious he was to establish “trading houses with the Indian tribes” that were farther west. The tribes within what had already been declared part of the U.S. (by that time) were already upset with the “diminution of the territory they occupy,” and they were “refusing absolutely all further sale [of land], on any conditions.”

Jefferson was worried, for he saw a likely “rapid increase of our [i.e. European and Euro-American] numbers,” and how the demand for more land would only grow in proportion. He was also already wishing to alter the lifeways of Native peoples, to stop them from hunting and, instead, to take up stock-raising and farming, which would require that they retain control over less land. He wanted to “create a firmer front” on the west and take over the land “which they do not inhabit”—not understanding that these territories were very important to the Native peoples even if they were not fully physically settled with towns or villages.

In his letter to Meriwether Lewis, under close examination here, we see that Jefferson did not lump Native peoples together. He knew that western areas were occupied by multiple tribes with ways of life that varied from the tribes already known farther east. He saw them as “nations” and figured that they would speak different languages, have their own traditions, their own monuments, food, clothing, lodgings, medicines, laws, customs, and trading patterns. But Jefferson was also intrigued by what their lands would hold for potential development, such as mining. He clearly had material ambitions.


Sample “entry” questions:

  • What was Meriwether Lewis’s relationship to the President?  What were his two official titles, and how might it matter?
  • Why did the President wish Lewis to learn the “geography of the country…after your departure from the U.S.” (i.e. going west)?
  • Examining the things that Lewis would be taking on his journey, what can we infer about the objectives and the expected nature of the journey?
  • What hints does Jefferson provide of a possible danger to the expedition party, and what does he instruct them to do upon encountering such difficulties?


Sample “essential” questions:

  • Consider the meaning—from tribal perspectives—of the appointment of this “Captain” to lead an “expedition” into the West. To what extent was this a military venture?  (This is something to watch for, too, in the journals that members of the expedition kept on the Lewis and Clark trail.)
  • Consider the meaning of this expedition for other nations, too, such as Spain, France, and England. Why are these countries even mentioned in this letter?
  • When Jefferson says that “knolege [sic] of these people” (i.e. American Indians) is “important” and outlines what information Lewis must obtain about them, what can we learn about his way of thinking about the end result of this contact?  Why is the knowledge going to be important?  For what?
  • While Jefferson asserts that the expedition (and, presumably, those to follow) wish to be “neighborly, friendly & useful,” he then outlines a plan for interaction that includes coloninizing dimensions.  What can be identified along these lines?


Sample “big idea”:

 Jefferson’s early letters help convey the thinking of a very influential president at a time when he was convincing Congress about an urgency he felt for westward expansion. Reading his words, we can see how he shaped the expedition led by Lewis and Clark into Indian country, an expedition that would be fairly peaceful but would open the floodgates to conflict and colonization. We must remember, too, that Jefferson’s perspectives represent only part of the story of the westward movement; we also seek the views and experiences of the people who were already on the land penetrated by that expedition.


Sample “enduring understandings”:

 The expeditionary group from what was then the United States expected to give gifts and/or trade with Native peoples they would encounter.  They figured that they would meet new peoples because this had been their experience from the moment they landed on the American shore of the Atlantic. In the letter, Jefferson refers to “the nations” that would be encountered, suspecting correctly that there would be multiple “tribes or nations.” So, experience already led to the correct conclusion that there were many different Native peoples on the American continent, and yet the seeds were already sewn for later policies aiming to acquire the land, move and/or change the original inhabitants, and settle the West.


Place-based considerations:

  • Why did the Missouri River figure prominently in Jefferson’s thinking about the West?  What was his hope for river travel?
  • Are there any things in this letter that hint at a desire for potential occupation and settlement of western lands by Euro-Americans, not just the pursuit of a passage corridor?
  • Men, such as Jefferson and Lewis, wanted to know the land in detail, not just for the purpose of transportation but also for “agriculture, fishing, hunting, war, arts,” soil, metals, potential coal and salt, furs, etc.  Why are such things specifically named in the letter? How did these “interests” eventually affect Native and non-Native interactions in this region?


A journey of healing:

A history of colonialism (e.g. the drive to “civilize & instruct” Native peoples in the West) affected the President’s approach to this expedition. And we find that Native people were already resisting the sale of their lands to the newcomers. This can be seen as a point of pride. Also, as we will see later, having Sacajawea along on that journey helped maintain a more peaceful exchange. And tribes showed their thoughtfulness and kindness to these strangers, helping them find their way, take shelter in the winter, heal themselves, and find food. These hospitable actions might be seen as points of pride for Native youth today, too, even knowing about the coming hardships that many of the ancestors suffered over the next two centuries.