Thomas Jefferson had a vision for American expansion. He also had a keen interest in scientific exploration as displayed by his notes to Meriwether Lewis on the assignment to scout out the Missouri River. In a nutshell, the mission was framed as a precursor to trade and relations with the native people in the region.
The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it’s course & communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.
Jefferson admonished Lewis and Clark to respect the native population:
In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it’s innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the US. of our wish to be neighborly, friendly, & useful to them, & of our dispositions to a commercial intercourse with them; confer with them on the points most convenient as mutual emporiums, and the articles of most desireable interchange for them & us. If a few of their influential chiefs within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them, and furnish them with authority to call on our officers, on their entering the US. to have them conveyed to this place at the public expence. If any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will recieve, instruct & take care of them. Such a mission whether of influential chiefs or of young people would give some security to your own party.Carry with you some matter of the kinepox; inform those of them with whom you may be, of it’s efficacy as a preservative from the smallpox; & instruct & encourage them in the use of it. This may be especially done wherever you winter.
As it is impossible for us to foresee in what manner you will be recieved by those people, whether with hospitality or hostility, so is it impossible to prescribe th exact degree of preserverance with which you are to pursue your journey. We value too much the lives of citizens to offer them to probable destruction. Your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorised opposition of individuals or of small parties: but if a superior force authorised, or not authorised by a nation, should be arrayed against your further passage, and inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline it’s farther pursuit, and return.In the loss of yourselves, we should lose also the information you will have acquired. By returning safely with that, you may enable us to renew the essay with better calculated means. To your own discretion therefore must be left the degree of danger you risk, and the point at which you should decline, only saying we wish you to err on the side of your safety, and to bring back your party safe even if it be with less information.
Jefferson’s considerable intellect and scientific interest is on display in this letter. He had a command of so many areas of science and culture that exceeded most American presidents.
Prior posts on Jefferson and Native Americans: (link, link, link).