Confidential letter started the expedition — Lewis and Clark Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin

Today, the Lewis and Clark Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the confidential letter President Jefferson sent to Congress 214 years ago.

From the History of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, which also included the history behind the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, published in 1905:


President Jefferson was well aware of the fact that the Pacific coast boundary of the old French Diocese of New Orleans was based on the right of expansion westward from the French possession of the Rocky Mountain hinterland, and had been fortified by no pretence of French exploration or occupation.

Captain Kendrick, an American navigator, sailed through the Straits of Fuca, the Gulf of Georgia and Queen Charlotte’s Land, in 1789, and was the first to discover and make known the true character of those wonderful inland waters.

In 1792 Captain Robert Gray, of Boston, made the first discovery of the mouth of the Columbia, sailing up the river fifteen miles, and naming it after his ship.

Mr. Jefferson had believed in the existence of this river before its discovery, and that it would afford a waterway back to the Rocky Mountains near the source of the Missouri.

Therefore he did not wait for a hint from Napoleon to take steps for the strengthening of the title to a Pacific coast boundary which we were to acquire by the Louisiana Purchase.

He did not even wait for the Purchase treaty, because he was confident that Monroe and Livingston were about to secure us such a control of the Mississippi as would render the Louisiana territory worthless to any other nation, and sooner or later make it ours.

Therefore, in less than a week after obtaining the money Monroe took to Paris, he sent another confidential message to Congress, and on January 18, 1803, obtained a grant of $2,500, “for the purpose of extending the foreign commerce of the United States.“

This was the money with which he organized and equipped the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie had just obtained his baronetcy by publishing in London, in 1801, his “Voyages to the Frozen Ocean and the Pacific” from Fort Chipewayan on Athabasca Lake.

His “voyage” up Peace river and across the Rockies to Cape Menzies, opposite Queen Charlotte Islands, had taken him north of the Columbia River Valley and to a point on the Pacific five-hundred miles north of the Columbia’s mouth, and President Jefferson was nervously eager to get ahead of Great Britain in exploring that river and sending American settlements and trading posts to its waters.

Twenty years earlier, in 1783, he had written to General George Rogers Clark: “I find they have subscribed a very large sum of money in England for exploring the country from the Mississippi to California. They pretend it is only to promote knowledge. I am afraid they have thoughts of colonizing in that quarter. Some of us have been talking here in a feeble way of making the attempt to search that country. But I doubt if we have enough of that kind of spirit to raise the money. How would you like to lead such a party?”

When he became able to “raise the money” in 1803, for the exploration of the Missouri and the Columbia, the men he selected to command the expedition were George Rogers Clark’s youngest brother, William Clark, and Meriwether Lewis.

Both were sons of Jefferson’s old Albemarle neighbors.

Both were lieutenants in the army who had served with credit, and became much attached to each other in General Wayne’s brilliant campaign against the Indians, and Lewis had served as Jefferson’s private secretary.

No practical step was omitted that might clear the way for American expansion to the Pacific and establish the western boundary of Louisiana on the shore of that ocean.

After the treaty was ratified Mr. Jefferson tried in vain to persuade Congress to offer liberal grants of land free to the first thirty thousand new settlers in the country west of the Mississippi.

Before the treaty was ratified Lewis and Clark had reached Fort Kaskaskia with part of the exploring expedition and applied to the Spanish Governor at Saint Louis for permission to start up the Missouri with an expedition composed of United States soldiers.

Being a Frenchman by birth, Governor DeLassus felt that the emphatic protest of the Spanish Minister at Washington against the ratification of the treaty placed him in a very delicate position, and he declined to grant the permission.

When the territory was formally surrendered into the possession of the United States, at New Orleans, on December 20, 1803, it was too late in the season for a start up the Missouri, the preparations were incomplete, and the expedition went into camp on the Illinois side, opposite the mouth of the Missouri, there to await the formal surrender of Upper Louisiana.

On the 9th of March, 1804, Captain Amos Stoddard, of the United States Army, accompanied by Captain Meriwether Lewis, marched from Kaskaskia at the head of a company of soldiers to Saint Louis, and there by virtue of a commission received from the French Colonial Prefect, De Laussat, received the surrender of Louisiana to France, and for that day substituted the French for the Spanish flag with due ceremonies.

On March 10, by virtue of the same commission and with similar ceremonies, he lowered the tri-color, hoisted the stars and stripes and took possession of Upper Louisiana in the name of the United States.

Two months later, May 14, 1804, Lewis and Clark started up the Missouri with their boats containing forty-five persons.

Of these, fifteen were United States regulars, and of the others a number had enlisted to go only a part of the way up the river, and the rest were Kentuckians and hunters enlisted for the voyage.

After a short call on the famous old Kentucky and Missouri pioneer, Daniel Boone, in Saint Charles County, the expedition made its way against the mighty current of the Missouri at the rate of about nine miles a day, subsisting on the plentiful supply of game and fish brought in by the hunters.

Near the present site of Sioux City they buried with military honors Sergeant Floyd, of Kentucky, the only member who lost his life during the entire voyage to and from the Pacific.

At the end of October they went into winter quarters about twenty miles above the present site of Bismarck.

Here their hunters still kept them well supplied during the ensuing five months while the river remained frozen.

Starting again in April, 1805, the explorers made their way to the headwaters of the Missouri, across the mountains to the headwaters of the Columbia and down to the mouth of that river, which they reached late in November of the same year.

Passing the winter of 1805—6 in an entrenched camp at the mouth of the Columbia, they began their return in March, 1806, prosecuting further explorations en route, and reached St. Louis on September 23, 1806, without the loss of a man except Sergeant Floyd, over whose remains the State of Iowa has erected a noble monument.

The story of this first journey of white men from the Mississippi to the Pacific, as told in the Lewis and Clark journals, makes one of the most interesting and valuable volumes of American history.


The Lewis and Clark Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with an image of the first page of President Jefferson’s confidential letter to Congress on January 18, 1803.

Lewis and Clark Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin