President Thomas Jefferson’s June 20, 1803 instructions to Meriwether Lewis ranks among the most famous instructions given to an explorer in American history. Not only do Jefferson’s instructions showcase the personal interests of the third president of the United States, they demonstrate the national purpose of the Corps of Discovery. Significantly, Jefferson’s instructions also serve as a model for subsequent explorations of the American West.
General James Wilkinson’s July 30, 1805 instructions to Zebulon Pike illustrate this point. Written on the eve of Pike’s journey up the Mississippi River, General Wilkinson’s instructions follow a similar pattern as utilized by President Jefferson.
For example, in addition to asking Pike to note the geography of the Mississippi River, his instructions also call on him to learn about the “Indian Nations” along the river and their commerce with traders. Recognizing the need for a military presence along America’s newest frontier, Pike was asked to survey the land for a plot of land “suitable for a Military Post.”
Finally, in language echoing Jefferson’s note two years previous, General Wilkinson directs Pike to declare American sovereignty over the lands he would be traveling. In particular, Pike was ordered to spare no pains to conciliate the Indians and to attach them to the United states, and you may invite the great Chiefs of such Distant Nations as have not been at this place to pay me a visit.” General Wilkinson’s words mirror those Jefferson used in his January 22, 1804 revisions to Lewis’ instructions upon the turnover of New Orleans to United States sovereignty.
The early 1800’s were an excited period for American exploration of North America. Just as Lewis’ instructions from Jefferson form an important cornerstone in Corps of Discovery scholarship, General Wilkinson’s instructions to Pike form a genesis of Pike’s first expedition that rest on Jefferson’s earlier work.