It was on this day in 1804 that Lewis and Clark departed on their journey. Even though this was the official start date of the trip, it had taken years of preparation.
Thomas Jefferson had been trying to send explorers to the American West for years. Back in 1785, when he was the Ambassador to France, Jefferson met a man named Ledyard who had been born in Connecticut, wandered all over the East Coast, sailed with Captain Cook in the South Pacific, and ended up in Paris. Jefferson wanted to send Ledyard to explore out West, and they worked out an intricate plan for him to get to the West Coast via Russia. But the trip was a disaster — Ledyard walked 1,200 miles through Scandinavia and the Artic Circle, and managed to travel through most of Russia before an angry Catherine the Great had him captured and deported, so he took off for Africa, where he soon died. A few years later, in 1793, Jefferson was secretary of state, and he decided to try again. He organized an expedition under the charge of a French botanist and explorer named André Michaux, who wanted to travel from the Missouri River all the way to the Pacific. Eighteen-year-old Meriwether Lewis asked Thomas Jefferson to let him join Michaux’s expedition, but Jefferson said no. Unfortunately, the new French Minister to America, Edmond-Charles Genet, was scheming to increase hostilities between America and Spain, and Michaux ended up involved in the plot, and the expedition fell apart.
The third time around, Jefferson planned even more carefully. He had now known Meriwether Lewis for years, and Lewis was his trusted private secretary, so Jefferson suggested that Lewis lead the trip. In January of 1803, Jefferson sent a secret letter to Congress to ask if they would fund an expedition — at a cost of $2,500. They agreed, and Jefferson sent Lewis to learn the skills he would need from the best teachers — he studied surveying and mapmaking, botany, mathematics, anatomy, fossils, and medicine, each with an esteemed scholar. For his co-leader, Lewis chose William Clark, his former commanding officer in the army.
Lewis and Clark spent the winter before they departed near St. Louis at Camp Dubois, on the Mississippi River. They gathered supplies, recruited more people, and in the final days, packed the boats. They had a long supply list, which included 25 hatchets, 10.5 pounds of fishing hooks and fishing lines, 12 pounds of soap, three bushels of salt, 45 flannel shirts, 15 pairs of wool overalls, 176 pounds of gunpowder, 130 rolls of tobacco and 4,600 sewing needles (the tobacco and needles were gifts for Native people they would encounter), a microscope, a telescope, two sextants, 15 .54-caliber rifles, and 50 dozen Dr. Rush’s patented “Rush’s Thunderclapper” pills — a laxative whose two main ingredients were mercury and jalapeños. They fit all this and much more into three boats: one was a 55-foot Keelboat, a riverboat that could be sailed, rowed, or poled; and two were pirogues, smaller flat-bottomed boats that were similar to big canoes, one painted red and one white. On this day in 1804, the “Corps of Discovery” started up the Missouri River.