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The commander requires intelligence
in order to effectively execute . . . engagements
and other missions across the full spectrum
of operations. Intelligence assists the commander
in visualizing his battlespace, organizing his forces,
and controlling operations to achieve the desired
tactical objectives or end-state. Intelligence
supports force alerting
the commander to emerging threats
and assisting in securing operations.
– Headquarters, Department of the Army
Field Manual No. 2-0 (2004)

One of the basic responsiblities of any military unit in the field is, and has always been, reconnaissance--the gathering of intelligence. Useful information. Among its numerous achievements, the "Corps of volunteers for North Western Discovery"1 was in many respects the most successful reconnaissance operation in the early history of the U.S. military.

Menaces on the horizon

In view of its sheer size, the bulk of the territory the Lewis and Clark expedition transected – from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and from somewhere up north toward Canada, south to wherever the boundary with New Spain was – had been securely under the legal ownership of the United States government during the months since the consummation of the Louisiana Purchase on December 30, 1803. Even the region beyond the Rockies to the Pacific was nominally U.S. property, since Robert Gray had left the name of his ship on its river in 1792, and a few months later Captain George Vancouver had acknowledged that priority. Nevertheless, there were persistent international challenges to the integrity of the newly aquired territory as well as to the de facto U.S. claim to the Oregon territory. Authorities in New Spain, militarily impotent, were gripped gripped with paranoia fueled by letters from none other than an American, General of the Army James Wilkinson, and feared that the American expedition had targeted their legendary gold and silver mines, as well as Santa Fe, their northern trading post with Indians. In response, between the summer of 1804 and the winter of 1806, Governor Fernando de ChacÛn of New Mexico dispatched a total of four military detachments of soldiers into American territory to either drive the explorers back down the Missouri, or else imprison them. Fortunately, none of those missions was successful.

The overriding threat, however, loomed along the northern boundary of Louisiana, although no one knew precisely where that was. It came to a head in 1802 with the publication of Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages from Montreal, in which the Scotsman recounted his crossing of North America from the St. Lawrence River to Bella Coola Bay on the Pacific Coast, leading a party of only nine men. Voyages concluded with a challenge to his own country, Great Britain, to be more aggressive about developing a transcontinental trade route. By that means, he maintained, "the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained, from latitude 48. North to the pole, except that portion of it which the Russians have in the Pacific." Moreover, Mackenzie declared,

to this may be added the fishing in both seas, and the markets of the four quarters of the globe. Such would be the field for commercial enterprise, and incalculable would be the produce of it, when supported by the operations of that credit and capital which Great Britain so pre-eminently possesses. Then would this country begin to be remunerated for the expenses it has sustained in discovering and surveying the coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is at present left to American adventurers, who without regularity or capital, or the desire of conciliating future confidence, look altogether to the interest of the moment. They, therefore, collect all the skins they can procure, and in any manner that suits them, and having exchanged them at Canton for the produce of China, return to their own country. Such adventurers...would instantly disappear from before a well-regulated trade.2

Smarting from the affront, President Jefferson snatched up the gauntlet, and after some feverish deliberation, on January 18, 1803, took up the matter with Congress. Duly emphasizing commercial objectives that the legislators were prepared to deal with--"The interests of commerce place the principal object within the constitutional powers and care of Congress"--he proposed that "an intelligent officer with ten or twelve chosen men, might explore the whole line, even to the Western ocean." By the 20th of June his orders were ready for Captain Lewis's command.

Simply put, the keys to American hegemony throughout greater Louisiana were in the hands of the Indian nations. Whichever empire – Spain, Great Britain, or the United States – could interface with the Indian nations through carefully regulated trade would control the territory. Jefferson had a simple two-part plan. The first step, he explained to Congress, would be "to encourage them to abandon hunting." That, he assumed, would relieve them of dependence upon "the extensive forests necessary in the hunting life," which would then obviously become useless to the Indians, who would "see the advantage in exchanging them for the means of improving their farms, & of increasing their domestic comforts." Second, "to multiply trading houses among them, & place within their reach those things which will contribute more to their domestic comfort than the possession of extensive, but uncultivated wilds. "Experience & reflection will develope to them the wisdom of exchanging what they can spare & we want, for what we can spare and they want."

It was a timely topic. The Act for Establishing Trading Houses with the Indian Tribes, first passed in 1796, was up for renewal again during the 1803 session. Congress approved it, with additions, two months later. Each trading house was to be operated by a bonded agent of the U.S. government, who was authorized to purchase only skins and furs, pay for them with designated trade goods, and in turn to sell them at a minimum of six public auctions per year. The proceeds, of course, were to accrue to the government. Meanwhile, traders and factors from the North West Fur Company and the Hudson's Bay Company continued to ply the lower and middle Missouri, the Red River of the North, and the upper Mississippi, while New Spain's contracted traders tried to keep their grip on Indian trade to the south.

Q & A

Questions. The entire saga of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was inspired by questions. Jefferson's questions, Caspar Wistar's questions; Benjamin Rush's, Dearborn's, and others, all leading lights in the President's intellectual circle, all thinking along the same lines. The result became the large, powerful spring in a windup, perpetual-motion machine. Rush, for instance, gave Lewis a list of twenty-one questions to direct toward Indian informants concerning "Physical history and medicine," "Morals," and "Religion." Andrew Ellicott, Robert Patterson, and Albert Gallatin contributed their questions and recommendations. The two men selected to share command of the undertaking possessed commensurate, interlocking capacities. They inquired into all quarters of the geographical and natural world, and pried into the region's human communities, as far as the diligent pursuit of their journey admitted. Their conclusions weren't always right, in hindsight, but the information was conscientiously sought. (Think of Lewis's ultimate reaction to the puzzling "unaccountable artillery of the Rocky Mountains": "I have no doubt but if I had leasure I could find from whence it issued.")

The enterprise had two overriding objectives. The first was to find, follow, and map "with great pains and accuracy," "the most direct and practicable [elsewhere, 'convenient'] water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce." The second was tied to the final clause of the first. "The commerce which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue, renders a knolege of those people important. You will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted, as far as diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with the names of the nations & their numbers."3

Sometime in 1804, Clark assembled a list of "Inquiries relitive to the Indians of Louisiana," based on Jefferson's list of indicators plus Benjamin Rush's ethnomedical interests, with others offered by Caspar Wistar and Benjamin Smith Barton.4 The list ranged from "Physical History and Medicine" to "Relative to Morrals," religion, "Traditions or National History," "Agriculture and Domestic economy," "Fishing & Hunting," amusements, "Clothing Dress & Orniments," and "Customs & Manners Generally."5 Of course, the explorers and their men observed Indian people constantly and intently, often writing meticulously detailed descriptions in their daily diaries, but the Estimate of Eastern Indians had a different slant.

1. The title "corps of volunteers for North Western Discovery," now commonly shortened to "Corps of Discovery," appeared in the journals for the first time on August 26, 1804, when Lewis recorded Patrick Gass's selection to replace the late Sgt. Charles Floyd. "North Western" referred then to the entire quarter of the continent northwest of St. Louis, or, as sometimes described, "the interior parts of North America" watered by the Missouri River. It did not include the region west of the Rockies and north of California that now comprises the states of Washington and Oregon, which is now commonly called "the Northwest."

2. Alexander Mackenzie, Voyages from Montreal: On the River St. Laurence [sic], Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans, in the Years 1789 and 1793; With a Preliminary Account of the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Fur Trade of That Country (London: T. Cadell, 1801), 411.

3. Jackson, Letters, 1:62

4. Ibid., 1:161n.

5. Ibid., 1:157-61.