Jefferson's Instructions to Lewis and Clark (1803)

On the 20th of June, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his protegé, Captain Meriwether Lewis, outlining what Lewis and Clark should learn on their expedition into the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase.

This letter reveals Jefferson's ferocious curiousity as well as his foresight about what the region could come to mean to the United States. A child of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was as much scientist as statesman, and his writings addressed botany and politics with equal ardor. But Jefferson was also aware of the military importance of understanding the lay of the land, if it was to be defended. Imbedded within this document are the seeds of later conflict in the West, including the Mexican-American War of 1848. In authorizing Lewis and Clark to return the information he requested they find, Jefferson was looking towards the possibility of eventual conflicts with Spain and England over the rest of the North American continent.

Questions to Consider:

1) According to his letter, what use did Jefferson forsee for the Louisiana Purchase? Did he have immediate goals which differed from his long-term goals for how the land would be used?

2) Examine each instruction Jefferson gave to Lewis. What would be the use of this sort of information? What does the variety of the information Jefferson requested illustrate about Jefferson and his world?

3) In what ways does the document illustrate the competition between European powers and the United States in the region? Do the instructions assume that one nation's claim on the continent is higher than anothers? Why?

4) What evidence is there that Jefferson has given a great deal of thought to the exploration appear in the instructions? What does this say about Jefferson as president? What does this say about Jefferson as an Enlightenment figure?

5) How does Jefferson instruct Lewis and Clark to treat the Indians they meet? Why does he require them to do so?

6) Jefferson wrote: "Altho' your route will be along the channel of the Missouri, yet you will endeavor to inform yourself, by enquiry, of the character & extent of the country watered by its branches, & especially on its Southern side." What does this instruction signify? Why "especially on its Southern side"?

7) Turner argued in 1893 that the land on the other side of the "frontier" is "empty," despite Native American and Spanish settlement in the region. Why does Jefferson not do so in 1803?

Further Readings and Resources:

The National Archives' site on the Louisiana Purchase, including transcriptions and images of the original documents.

Yale Law School's Avalon Project site on The Louisiana Purchase and related documents includes many documents associated with the negotiation of the treaty.

The National Park Service has a page on Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase.

PBS's website about the Thomas Jefferson documentary film includes many discussions of the President and also has transcriptions of many documents.

The PBS website also has resources for consideration of Jefferson as an Enlightenment thinker.

The University of Virginia's Library has an online exhibition entitled "Exploring the West From Monticello" about Jefferson's role in expanding and exploring the country. This is part of the University's suite of Thomas Jefferson Online Resources.

Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for Honors 502 (American Frontiers and Borderlands), Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to
Last modified: Wednesday, 27 September 2000.