Lewis, Clark begin recon mission
May 14, 1804
After President Thomas Jefferson negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, he chartered a “Corps of Discovery” exploration and mapping expedition of this vast unknown land, from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, and beyond the mountains to the sea. Thus began the first U.S. geospatial intelligence effort.
Jefferson chose his trusted personal secretary, Army Capt. Meriwether Lewis, a skilled frontiersman, to lead the voyage. Lewis enlisted the help of former Army 1st Lt. William Clark, who had even more experience as both a draftsman and frontiersman.
Jefferson then personally supervised their year-long scientific training for the expedition. Training included studying published narratives and maps of other explorers, reading celestial observations, learning how to deal with medical emergencies and how to identify plants, animals and minerals. Jefferson also stressed the importance of daily journals written by the captains themselves, as well as by other literate members of the party.
In addition to the geographic information Jefferson hoped to learn, he had political reasons for the expedition, as well. The geopolitical landscape of North America was as diverse as the physical one in the early 1800s.
Jefferson was on the one hand disturbed by Britain’s expansion of its fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, but he did not want to antagonize the British, needing them as allies should war break out with France over its possession of New Orleans.
France and Spain were also competing for the fur trade in America, and Jefferson wanted to know who supported the French around St. Louis and along the Missouri River. The French were known for their familiarity with native tribes and their languages, so he could not disregard their presence.
Adding to the confusion were the indigenous tribes inhabiting the land of the Louisiana Purchase, who were in conflict with each other as well as the various European powers who had economic interests there.
Finally, Jefferson was interested in the flow of the Missouri River drainage, feeling that any flow of the river above 50 degrees latitude gave him rights to territorial claims in present-day western Canada.
Jefferson schooled Lewis and Clark on all of these geopolitical concerns so the commanders could act as the president’s agents while developing their own informants along the way, adding to the intelligence sources that addressed Jefferson’s national security concerns.
Lewis “networked” during the winter of 1803 – 1804 before the star of his journey. He developed questionnaires for informant debriefing and tabulated responses in a grid system. In their correspondence, Lewis and Jefferson used a cipher system designed by Jefferson to encode communications “that might do injury if betrayed.” The Lewis and Clark expedition was, in fact, a reconnaissance mission.
In her essay, “Rethinking Geographical Exploration as Intelligence Collection,” historical geographer Carol Medlicott writes, “As trusted agents of the state, they were sent into potentially hostile territory to observe according to … instructions and to collect information necessary to ensuring territorial security and negotiating North American geopolitics.”
On May 14, 1804, Lewis and Clark finally started on their two-year voyage of discovery. Their journey took them along the Missouri River from St. Louis through Nebraska and Iowa, South and North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and back. It had far-reaching implications for the future of Native Americans as well as for European Americans, for topography, biological sciences, ecology, and ethnic and linguistic studies of the American Indian. Economic, political, military and social forces brought to bear as a result of the expedition forever changed the northern plains the Native People had known, and would also forever change those who came to the prairie.