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The Stamp of Our Wild West: The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Karl Zinsmeister

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It was almost exactly 200 years ago: Three dozen men, tough as mule meat, departed the last outpost of civilization on an American odyssey that would take them more than 8,000 miles by foot, canoe paddle, and hoof. Before they finally returned to St. Charles, Missouri an amazing 864 days later, nearly everyone except the man who sent them assumed they had long since perished on their journey.

The man who never lost hope was Thomas Jefferson--the Commander in Chief who more than doubled the size of the United States by purchasing "Upper Louisiana" from France in 1803, then dispatched an American military party (under the command of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark) to learn what the nation had bought. The vast tract stretching from New Orleans to the Montana-Canada border was an uncharted wilderness, full of threats and opportunities. Crossing it for the first time was equivalent to sending men to the moon; the expedition cost $40,000--which as a proportion of federal spending would be more than $11 billion now--and it lasted four times longer than Columbus's voyage to the New World. These surveyors of the Louisiana Purchase were quite conscious of the Columbian scope of their enterprise; one of the first toasts upon their return was to the memory of the Italian mariner.

When their work was complete, the glimmering outlines of a great new nation could be seen. What Captains Lewis and Clark and their soldiers traversed--what we now call the Middle West--was the far, far west in the minds of Americans of that day. And the sojourners didn't turn back until they had camped on the Pacific Ocean, the final, natural limit on their countrymen's continental aspirations.

Read the entire article on the American Enterprise Institute website.

Posted: 6/17/04



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