What Lewis and Clark Didn’t See

Traveling throughout the West, Lewis and Clark recorded 300 new species of animals.

| June/July 2004

  • Mayapple was one of the native plants Lewis and Clark mention in their travel journals.

President Thomas Jefferson, an avid, inquisitive gardener as well as a political leader, wanted desperately to know what lay west of the Mississippi River. He had traveled to Europe several times before his presidency, bringing back seeds and plants he nurtured in his gardens at Monticello. He introduced American gardeners to the Brandywine tomato, Tom Thumb lettuce and hyacinth bean vine, among many other contributions.

As early as 1792, Jefferson had been considering what lay out West beyond the boundaries of the country. He contemplated what natural wonders might be there, what routes might be found to the west, what trade could be established, and what flora and fauna might flourish there.

When the Louisiana Purchase was signed, even before Congress had officially ratified the deal, Jefferson directed his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and Lewis’ friend, William Clark, to lead an expedition. The president wrote detailed directions and suggestions to Lewis before the Corps of Discovery embarked on its mission in 1804.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of making friendly contact with the natives, scouting locations for military forts and finding potential sites for new towns and cities, Jefferson directed Lewis and Clark to record the plants they encountered, as well as the animals and people.

Lewis and Clark’s journals recorded more than 300 new species of animals, including flocks of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet, cited in vast numbers along the Missouri River near what is now Independence and Kansas City. They recorded discovering the Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera) on the west bank of the Mississippi River in March of 1804. Using their journals and maps to trace their route, you soon discover that the Missouri River has been altered. Once a multi-channel, meandering river, it is now confined within much narrower banks.

Although the river’s course has been straightened, many of the plants remain much as they were in Jefferson’s time. You can find medicinal plants and herbs that have grown for thousands of years. The willow, used for easing headaches, still grows rampant there. So do blackberries and raspberries, used for food and medicine. Smartweed, mayapple, pokeweed, cardinal flower and many others were present at that time, used primarily for medicine by the native people and later by the pioneers.

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