Jefferson's Southwest Plan

Part 4: Jefferson's Southwest Plan

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One of the things about the Southwestern Expedition up the Red River of the South that makes it a really intriguing one is that, like the Lewis and Clark Expedition—and unlike the expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, for example, which occurred during that same period, the first decade of the 19th century—this expedition was actually planned and set in motion by Thomas Jefferson himself. So it was one of two expeditions, the Lewis and Clark Expedition being the other, that actually was plotted and planned from Monticello, and from Washington, D.C. during the Jefferson administration.

It bears the stamp of Jefferson all over it. In fact, there is even a letter which was discovered in the early 1980s—I think I was the first person to come across a copy of this letter—that is a letter of exploring instructions that Jefferson drew up in April of 1804 to whomever would end up becoming the leader of this Southwestern Expedition. And it's a letter of exploring instructions that is remarkably similar to the one that he gave to Meriwether Lewis. It's different, of course, in terms of which rivers are to be explored, but in terms of how Southwestern explorers are to treat with the Indians. The passages dealing with that part of the letter are very, very similar to the passages in the letter from Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis. With a bit more obligation on the part of southwestern explorers to win the Indian tribes over to the United States, because after all, these are Indians who are regularly trading with Spanish authorities in Santa Fe and San Antonio.

So Jefferson is very interested in having his explorers present American flags, and tell the chiefs of the tribes like the Caddos and the Wichitas and the Comanches and the Kiowas, for example, that the United States is the new "great father" that they're going to be dealing with.

The letter also is very explicit and again very similar to the Meriwether Lewis letter in terms of the scientific component of the probe. It lists, for example, how the naturalist of the expedition, whoever that would turn out to be—Jefferson hadn't appointed either a leader or a naturalist in 1804—the letter described how a naturalist was going to write a description, a scientific description, and collect specimens of every new species that was unknown in the Eastern states, take the temperature of the air and the water four times a day, keep very careful records of the Indian tribes encountered, the mythologies and languages, and so forth, of those tribes. Basically, the naturalist would do what we would now call ethnology, or ethnography, basic field anthropology among the Indian tribes of the Southwest.

The letter also included a very interesting passage, and it's worth mentioning it, because it didn't originate with the letter describing Southwestern exploration. It actually originated with the Meriwether Lewis letter. But it's a passage that became critically important to the Southwestern Expedition. And the passage, roughly paraphrased, goes like this: Jefferson said, If you are confronted by a force, either authorized or not authorized by a nation, irrevocably opposed to your continuing up the river, we want you—"we" meaning the administration—want you to turn around and return with whatever information you've gathered up until this point, rather than try to push your way through.

In other words, Jefferson was telling his explorers that their lives were too valuable to be risked. And in fact the letter includes a sentence something like that. Their lives are "too valuable to be risked in a violent and dangerous encounter" with either an Indian group or a power authorized by a foreign nation.

That particular passage was not one that Meriwether Lewis and the Lewis and Clark Expedition ever really had to go back and re-read, to make sure they were doing everything right. But it was one that eventually the Southwestern Expedition had to call on, because that was precisely what happened to them.