Part 4: Jefferson's Southwest Plan
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.
Jefferson's Instructions to Lewis
Dated June 20, 1803
Presented to Lewis June 30, 1803
The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream[s] of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.
Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take careful observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkeable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognized hereafter. The courses of the river between these points of observation may be supplied by the compass the log-line & by time, corrected by the observations themselves. The variations of the compass too, in different places, should be notices.
. . . Your observations are to be taken with great pains & accuracy, to be entered distinctly & intelligibly for others as well as yourself, to comprehend all the elements necessary,with the aid of the usual tables, to fix the latitude and longitude of the places at which they were taken, and are to be rendered to the war-office, for the purpose of having the calculations made concurrently by proper persons within the U.S. Several copies of these as well as of your other notes should be made at leisure times, & put into the care of the most trust-worthy of your attendants, to guard, by multiplying them, against the accidental losses to which they will be exposed. A further guard would be that one of these copies be on the paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper.1
. . . Other objects worthy of notice will be
the soil & face of the country, it's growth & vegetable productions, especially those not of the U.S.
the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S.
the remains or accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct;
the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal, & saltpeter; salines & mineral waters, noting the temperbrature of the last, & such circumstances as may indicate their character;
climate, as characterized by the thermometer by the proportion of rainy, cloudy, & clear days, by lightning, hail, snow, ice, by the access & recess of frost, by the winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects.
. . . In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it's innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S.[,] of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them, & of our dispositions to a commercial intercourse with them; confer with them on the points most convenient as mutual emporiums, and the articles of most desireable interchange for them & us.
. . . We value too much the lives of citizens to offer them to probable destruction. Your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorised opposition of individuals or of small parties: but if a superior force, authorised, or not authorised, by a nation, should be arrayed against your further passage, and inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline it's farther pursuit, and return. In the loss of yourselves, we should lose also the information you will have acquired. By returning safely with that, you may enable us to renew the essay with better calculated means. To your own discretion therefore must be left the degree of danger you may risk, and the point at which you should decline, only saying we wish you to err on the side of your safety, and to bring back your party safe even if it be with less information.
. . . As far up the Missouri as the white settlements extend, an intercourse will probably be found to exist between them & the Spanish posts of St. Louis opposite Cahokia, or Ste. Genevieve opposite Kaskaskia.
Jefferson's Instructions to Freeman
Dated April 14, 1804
Presented to Freeman in November, 1805
The government of the US. being desirous of informing itself of the extent of the Country lately ceded to them under the name of Louisiana to have the same with its principal rivers geographically delineated, to learn the character of the soil climate productions & inhabitants.
. . . From Natchez you are to proceed to ascend the Red river taking observations of longitude and latitude at its mouth, at all remarkable points in its course & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, islands and other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks and characters of a durable kind as that they may with certainty be recognized thereafter. the course of the rivers between these points of observation may be supplied by the compass the log line and by time corrected by the observations themselves. the variations of the Compass too in different places are to be noted.
. . . Your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy to be entered distinctly and intelligibly for others as well as yourself to comprehend all the elements necessary with the use of the usual tables to find the latitude and longitude of the places at which they were taken and are to be rendered to the War office for the purpose of having the calculations made concurrently by proper persons within the US. several copies of these as well as of your other notes should be made at leisure time and put into the care of the most trustworthy of your attendants to guard, by multiplying them against the accidental losses to which they will be exposed. a further guard perhaps would be that one of these copies should be on the paper of the birch as supposed less liable to injury from damp than common paper.
The following objects in the Country adjacent to the rivers along which you will pass will be worthy of notice. The soil and face of the Country, the growth and vegetable productions especially those not of the maritime states. the animals of the Country generally and especially those not known in the maritime states. the remains and accounts of any which may be deemed extinct. the mineral productions most worth notice but more particularly metals limestone, gypsum pitcoal, saltpetre, rock salt and salt springs and mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last and such circumstances as may indicate their characters.
Climate, as characterized by the thermometer by the proportion of rainy cloudy and clear days, by lightning hail snow ice, by the access and recess of frost by the winds prevailing at different seasons the dates at which particular plants put forth or loose their flower or leaf times of appearances of particular birds, reptiles or insects.
. . . Court an intercourse with the natives as intensively as you can, treat them on all occasions in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their conduct will admit. allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey make them acquainted with the position, intent, character peaceable and commercial dispositions of the US. . . . that henceforth we become their fathers and useful to them and especially to carry on commerce with them on terms more reasonable and advantageous for them than any other nation ever did. . . .
. . . We value too much the lives of citizens to offer them to probable destruction. Your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorized opposition of individuals or of small parties. but if at any time a superior force authorized or not authorized by a nation should be arrayed against your further passage and inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline its further pursuit and return. in the loss of yourselves we should also loose the information you will have acquire. by returning safely with that you may enable us to renew the essay with better calculated means. to your own discretion therefore must be left the degree of danger you may risk and the point at which you should decline: only saying we wish you to err on the side of your safety and to bring back your party safe even with less information.
Based on Flores, J&SE, Appendix I (319-325); Donald Jackson, LLCE, I:57-66; Donald Peattie, NHWT, 383-387
—Joseph M. Mussulman
1. Thomas Jefferson may be forgiven this bit of botanical fantasy, for he could not have known that paper birch, Betula papyrefera Marshall (Betula [beh-TOO-la] is Latin for "birch"; papyrefera, [pap-ee-re-FAIR-ah] means paperbearing, doesn't grow as far south as either of the expeditions were traveling. None of the journalists ever brought up Jefferson's cockamamie idea, and none of the other species of Betula they saw could have substituted for northern paper birch as writing paper, even if they could have found the time to gather enough bark for the mammoth journaling job. Besides, "paper" birch merely describes the general appearance of the species papyrefera's outer bark, not its commercial utility.