Searching for Leadership

Part 6: Searching for Leadership

Disponible en español


The Expedition has a history that lasts from 1804 to 1806 before it's ever launched into the wilds of Western North America. And that history involves a two-year search for leaders, a search that in fact involved many of the most famous scientific names in early American history. That's one of the perplexing aspects of the Expedition in terms of its near-invisibility, I think. That it did involve people like Alexander Wilson, the man now known as the Father of American Ornithology;1 Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who was one of the great naturalists, sort of an erratic fellow, but one of the great naturalists of the 19th century; William Bartram, who was world-famous at the time Jefferson inquired as to whether he was interested in going on the Southwestern Expedition; he was sixty-five years old at the time, though, and the author of Travels in North America was not interested in taking the Expedition.

But that two years of preparation before the Expedition was sent out in 1806 involved not just a search for people to man the expedition, but also a rather complex equipage that essentially put together telescopes, chronometers, sextants, trade goods for the Indians in the West; two specially-constructed flatboats for ascending the shallow rivers of the southwest. Now they were completely experimental boats—had never been constructed before. We don't really know quite how well they performed on the Expedition, because the Expedition doesn't get far enough into the Southwest to determine how well they would have done in shallow rivers. But it's an extremely well equipped expedition, and one of the reasons it was is because Jefferson got Congress to appropriate twice the money for this Grand Excursion into the Southwest than Congress had appropriated for Lewis and Clark. Congress had come up with the munificent sum of two thousand five hundred dollars for Lewis and Clark. Lewis, of course, had free chits on the War Department from Jefferson, and he ended up spending something like thirty-eight thousand dollars on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Congress appropriated five thousand dollars for the Southwestern Expedition, and it ended up costing, after all was said and done, about eight thousand seven hundred dollars. It probably would have cost more, except for the fact that it doesn't end up reaching its objectives.