In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, on what may have been the American government’s first fact-finding junket. They were “to map the land, hold diplomatic councils with native peoples, and study and record everything regarding plants, animals, minerals, soil, and native ways of life” in the vast and largely unknown Louisiana Purchase which had only recently been purchased by the United States.
Lewis dutifully organized an expedition composed of his former commander, William Clark, and approximately forty-five men and headed into the wilderness to fulfill his mission. Two years and four months later, long after they had been given up for dead, they returned. The expedition “logged more than 8,000 miles, interacted with dozens of native tribes, mapped a broad swath of the Rockies and the courses of the Missouri and Columbia [and] wrote the first scientific descriptions of a breathtaking 178 plants and 122 animals” but alas, did not find the much-sought-after northwest passage to the Pacific. Although they had several dicey encounters with the inhabitants which could easily have escalated, the Corps escaped relatively unscathed, losing only one man to disease.
Their so-called Voyage of Discovery has been an inspiration to American school children, a source of pride, and a guide for westering pioneers for the intervening two centuries.
What if they never came back?