The Grand Excursion

The Grand Excursion
The Freeman-Custis Expedition of 1806

by Dan L. Flores1
Hammond Professor of History
The University of Montana, Missoula

Part 1: The Grand Excursion

Disponible en español

The Real Red River

To learn more, click the numbers on the map.

map of Texas and surrounding areas

1. The place where Spanish forces compelled the Grand Excursion to turn back. Click here for more.2. Click here for a page about Santa Fe.3. Palo Duro Canyon, on the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River.4. Tule Canyon, on a tributary of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Click here to view a photograph.5. North Fork of the Red River. Click here for photograph.6. For a short page concerning Henry Shreve and the Great Raft, click here.7. Link to 'Along the Middle River'

Amarillo, Texas, has been included on this map merely as a reference point. It was founded in 1887 as a railroad construction camp, and grew to be a center of ranching, wheat farming, and oil drilling. It is on the low divide that separates the Red River drainage from the Canadian River drainage in the Texas panhandle.

Chihuahua, the present capital of the Mexican State of Chihuahua, was originally settled in the 16th century, and "officially" founded in 1709. At the end of the 18th century it was a commercial center on the 1,600-mile Camino Real ("Royal Road") that connected Mexico City with Santa Fe.



I think the striking thing about this expedition is that there was a second expedition into the Louisiana Territory, another Lewis and Clark Expedition, if you will, but not one that was led by Lewis and Clark. Thomas Jefferson clearly intended Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead a singular expedition, one that would traverse the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, but Jefferson never seems to have had in mind the idea that this was the only part of Louisiana that needed to be explored. Almost from the very beginning, in fact, he was almost equally interested in the southern reaches of Lousiana. And I think part of the reason that southern Louisiana appealed the way it did is because the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase on its southwestern side was equally vague in terms of where the Americans and where the Spaniards would draw a line between their respective imperial reaches. It was equally as vague as the boundary in the Northwest between the British and the United States on the other end of the Louisiana Purchase.

And so Jefferson was intrigued not only by his hope to resolve the boundary question, but as he began to learn more and more about the . . . southwestern part of what is now the United States he became intrigued by what kind of possibilities for commerce—that was always one of his interests in exploration in the West—and also what kind of possibilities for science, geography and natural history study would emerge from an exploration of Louisiana. So as early as 1804, even before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left to ascend the Missouri River, Jefferson wrote Meriwether Lewis. He said, "the object of your voyage is singular," and he went on to describe the ascent of the Missouri and descent of the Columbia.

And he said, I will also attempt to send an expedition up the Red River, which was the southernmost tributary of the Missouri coming in from the west, and he said, that expedition then will ascend the Red River, cross over to the headwaters of the Arkansas River, which was the next river, working your way up from the mouth of the Mississippi, coming in on the west side of the Mississippi. The expedition would then cover these two southerly reaches of the Mississippi River system. That would eventually lead an American team into the Southwest.

1. Professor Flores is the author of Jefferson & Southwestern Exploration: The Freeman & Custis Accounts of the Red River Expedition of 1806 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).