On this day in 1806, American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark triumphantly return to St. Louis, Missouri, from the first recorded overland journey from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast and back. The expedition, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, set forth vital principal objectives: to explore and map the newly acquired territory, to find a practical route across the western half of the continent, and to establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.
The campaign’s secondary objectives were scientific and economic; to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and to establish trade with local American Indian tribes. Writing in his journal on the eve of the journey, Lewis wrote: “This little fleet altho’ not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs…we were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves.”
Departing St. Louis in May 1804 with 32 men and the First Nations woman Sacagawea, the “Corps of Discovery” traveled more than 8,000 miles, losing only one member of their party, at a total cost to the American taxpayer of $40,000. The expedition returned to St. Louis with much aplomb to report its findings to Jefferson, with maps, sketches, and journals in hand.
Their encounters with over 70 Indian nations and tribes were said to be peaceful and largely productive.