Jefferson sat in his office, looking out the window towards the Potomac. In the distance he imagined he could see Alexandria, though the heavy swamp air on a hot day (they were all hot in this swamp!) certainly made that impossible. It was a pleasant house, though it sat forlornly in a vast empty field. He imagined that someday the government might grow a bit and some of the space, though surely not all, would be used for other buildings.
The view from the window was beautiful. “A wild and romantic view,” he heard Abigail had called it, “albeit, in a wilderness.” But this small wilderness did not concern him. He was thinking of the other one.
There had been some debate about his purchase of the Louisiana Territory, and he had some misgivings himself. But he knew that allowing France to think it controlled the land that Americans would inevitably expand into would eventually lead to conflict. So he bought it. For whom and under what authority he did not really know, despite what he said in public. But it was done and those questions were no longer worth thinking about. Now he wondered what owning it meant for the country.
Many men had explored the lands west of the States. He had read of expeditions up the Missouri, and up the western coast of the continent. He knew about the mighty Columbia River and about the natives that lived along its banks, and the banks of the Missouri. But these tales of exploration were stories and anecdotes, they were not science. And Jefferson knew himself to be a man of science. He needed to know the land he had purchased, the people who lived there, the resources it contained. And he badly needed to know if there was a water route through the territory to the Pacific. If there were, the destiny of the country, to inhabit the lands from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, could be fulfilled.
Meriwether Lewis, his personal aide, came in from the adjoining office. Jefferson had known Lewis’s father back home in Albemarle County before he passed, and the young man had proved himself an able officer and a patriot in the intervening years. Jefferson knew Lewis would be the right person for the job he had in mind.
“Merry,” he said, “the Louisiana Territory is of inestimable value. We need to determine how best to exploit its potential. It could be the key to the future of our nation.” Jefferson paused and looked at Lewis. Lewis waited patiently; the President’s pronouncements were never so short.
“We are a young nation and must avoid conflict if we are to survive. Only the grace of the gods has let us prosper as the great powers fight amongst themselves. We must make real our claim to these lands before others do.” He looked out the window. “We must know what is there, to serve science, and the great United States of America.” He banged his fist on his desk, “Meriwether! You shall organize and lead it! We will create a Corps of Discovery!”
“An expedition, sir!” said Lewis.
“No. No, of course not,” said Jefferson. “A business plan competition.”
Lewis hesitated. The President did not like others to offer opinions. But Lewis was a man who believed that to do things one must, well, do things. “Sir,” he said, “an expedition is the only way to find out what is truly there, on the ground. We must organize a troop of explorers. We must get out of the building.”
“Our Federalist opponents in Congress would have a field day with an actual expedition. They would seize on any failure for political gain. No, we will have a business plan competition, with a prize, we can only fail at that if we do not get enough entrants. It is quite certain that whatever plan is grand enough to win this competition will be so accurate and detailed that the troop who has written it will find they will merely need to follow it to the T. Any failure of the plan will be on the troop and their failure to execute, not on us. If they follow the plan as blessed by the judges there will be no risk greater than that of walking from this house to the Potomac.” Lewis looked over Jefferson’s shoulder out the window. He recalled hunting gators in the swamps of Georgia and his beloved dog, may he rest in peace. He shuddered.
“Sir, an expedition…” he said, but Jefferson cut him off, showing him his palm. “Go, organize it. I write to Congress for the authorization of prize money now.” Lewis knew not to argue further.
The event was held in Philadelphia, being a more civilized city than the capital. It drew teams from several of the states, though none from the settlers across the Appalachians. This was deemed a shame, since they were the ones with first-hand knowledge of the territory. The official line was that it was too difficult to travel all the way back to Philadelphia. But more cynical, probably Federalist, voices whispered that perhaps they were busily circumventing the President’s wishes by actually exploring the territory itself.
It did not matter, though, because the business plan presentations were glorious. The judges were distinguished men who Jefferson had appointed from Congress and the faculty of the Colonial Colleges, each and every one a credit to the nation. On the stage, large diagrams (the wags called them slides because of the way the assistants would slide the easels on and off the stage) were presented. These showed what lay out there in Louisiana based on second-hand reports, the scrawls of illiterate outdoorsmen, and the powers of imagination the teams had forged and finely honed through years of dragging a plow behind a mule.
The winner was a team lead by a retired army commander named William Clark, who Lewis had personally recruited into the competition. The judges approved of Clark’s plan primarily based on the benefits to the young country it would bring. These included the exploitation of the fine farmland along the Missouri enabled by the willingness of the natives to peacefully move somewhere else, like Canada or the Spanish territories to the south; the plentiful game at the headwaters of the Columbia; the bountiful fruit orchards along the border of the Spanish territories; the numerous and easily accessible gold mines abutting the northern reaches of the Missouri; and the convenient fact that, according to Clark’s deductions, the navigable headwaters of the Missouri were a short 15 minute portage to the navigable headwaters of the Columbia, allowing a quick and peaceful transcontinental boat voyage. This last was, of course, based on Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz’s published account of the travels of Moncacht-Apé across the continent in the late 1600s. Although there was some dispute as to Moncacht-Apé’s veracity and no one in the intervening century had followed his route, it was the best information available and so was considered “cutting edge.”
Jefferson personally awarded the Presidential Medal to Clark’s team, along with the $1000 prize. (Due to Jefferson’s aversion to Hamilton’s central bank, the prize was awarded as a sack of 100 Eagle coins, specially minted for the occasion.) Clark’s men spent the next six months using the money to outfit their expedition, though he came to feel the Corps might have been more adequately equipped with twice or three times that amount. They set off to execute their business plan with great fanfare in 1804, with Clark vowing not to deviate a single iota from the plan the esteemed judges had blessed. Jefferson smiled, the future of the nation secure.
Meriwether Lewis died in 1809 knowing only that Clark’s troop had disappeared in the wilderness. It was not until 1817 that word came from the British troops who had taken the opportunity of the War of 1812 to occupy the lands that the “colonists” had left idle. Skeletons which could only be the remains of Clarks’ troop had been found dead of dehydration at the bottom of a deep hole they had been digging. This hole was at the very spot their business plan had described as the site of the Fountain of Youth. Apparently they had, in their certainty, neglected to spend the time leaving a way to dig themselves out.