Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis

During Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s journey exploring territory gained through the Louisiana Purchase, they made three winter camps: Camp Dubois near St. Louis, Fort Mandan in present-day North Dakota, and Fort Clatsop on the Pacific Ocean. Showcasing Lewis’ steadfastness of mind that would ultimately guide the Corps of Discovery through countless interactions with Native Americans, the events leading to the location of Camp Dubois sits as an interesting portal into Lewis’ mind.

Through the Third Treaty of Ildefonso 1 signed in October, 1800, Spain transferred sovereignty over the Louisiana Territory to France. While Spain continued to administer the territory, France soon entered into negotiations with the United States that would ultimately result in the territory being purchased by America.

First Page of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty

First Page of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty

The agreement regarding the purchase of Louisiana was signed on April 30, 1803 and was ratified by the United States Senate by October, 1803. The actual transfer of the territory began in New Orleans on December 20, 1803 and orders regarding the turnover of French and Spanish posts upriver would soon be dispatched. 2

Lewis was aware of all of this. President Thomas Jefferson wrote to Lewis on November 16, 1803 and enclosed a copy of the “Treaties for Louisiana.” Jefferson also outlined the time frame for the turnover of the territory from its European possessors. 3

Armed with this knowledge, Lewis met with Carlos Dehault Delassus, a Spanish official, on December 8, 1803 in St. Louis. Arriving ahead of the main party, Lewis entered a St. Louis still controlled by Spanish authorities. Thus, Lewis formally requested permission to enter the Missouri River.

Stating that it was Spanish policy to deny admission of “foreigners into the interior of [Spanish] provinces,” Delassus respectfully rejected Lewis’ request. Instead, he made two suggestions. First, he told Lewis that his party should make camp near the Dubois River – the site that would become Camp Dubois. Second, he suggested that a request for permission to ascend the Missouri River be communicated to the Spanish authorities in New Orleans. In turn, Delassus was confident that by spring, he would have an answer from New Orleans on whether the Corps of Discovery could pass. 4

A recreation of Camp Dubois

A recreation of Camp Dubois

Given Lewis’ connections to Jefferson and his knowledge regarding the Louisiana Purchase, one can readily imagine confrontation stirring as Lewis demanded access to the Missouri River. However, as Lewis recounts in his December 19, 1803 correspondence to Jefferson, he behaved in a most gentlemanly manner. Rather than court confrontation, Lewis simply agreed with the Spanish official and Camp Dubois was born. 5

Subsequently writing to Jefferson of the event, Lewis displayed amusement at the Spanish response: “I concurred with him in the opinion, that by the ensuing spring all obstructions would be removed to my asscending the Missouri: this effect however I anticipated as eminating from a very different cause, than that which seemed to govern the predictions of the Commandant.” 6

By the very nature of Lewis’ request to Delassus, it is evident that he desired to make some use of the Missouri River during the winter of 1803-1804. Despite this unitary desire, Lewis – surely influenced by Jefferson – remained focused on the bigger picture: the search for an all-water route across the country. When presented with a possible hazard to his ultimate objective, Lewis responded in a manner that throughout the Corps of Discovery’s journey west, would guarantee the successful completion of their mission of exploration. As such, the early encounter is a glimpse of the man that would lead America west.

Notes:

  1. Yale University’s Avalon Project has the full text of the Third Treaty of Ildefonso. View the Third Treaty of Ildefonso
  2. See Jefferson, Thomas, January 13, 1804 Letter to Meriwether Lewis, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib013092.
  3. See Jefferson, Thomas, November 16, 1803 Letter to Meriwether Lewis, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib012930.
  4. See Delassus, Carlos Dehault, December 9, 1803 Letter to Juan Manuel de Salcedo, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents edited by Donald Jackson, Second Edition.
  5. See Lewis, December 19, 1803 Letter to Thomas Jefferson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents edited by Donald Jackson, Second Edition.
  6. Id.