To the Public:
Books of travels, journals, and voyages have become so numerous, and are so frequently impositions on the public, that the writer of the following sheets feels under an obligation to explain, in some measure, the original circumstances that led to the production of this volume. Soon after the purchase of Louisiana by an enlightened administration, measures were taken to explore the then unknown wilds of our western country—measures founded on principles of scientific pursuits, combined with a view of entering into a chain of philanthropic arrangements for ameliorating the condition of the Indians who inhabit those vast plains and deserts. His Excellency, Meriwether Lewis, then a captain of the first regiment of infantry, was selected by the President of the United States, in conjunction with Captain C. Clarke [Wm. Clark], to explore the then unknown sources of the Missouri, and I was chosen to trace the Mississippi to its source, with the objects in view contemplated by my instructions; to which I conceived my duty as a soldier should induce me to add an investigation into the views of the British traders in that quarter as to trade, and an inquiry into the limits of the territories of the United States and Great Britain. As a man of humanity and feeling, I made use of the name of my government to stop the savage warfare which had for ages been carried on by two of the most powerful nations of aborigines in North America. Why I did not execute the power vested in me by the laws of the country, to ruin the British traders and enrich myself, by seizing on the immense property of the North West Company, which I ii found in the acknowledged boundary of the United States, will be explained by my letter to Hugh M'Gillis, Esq., to whom I own eternal gratitude for his polite and hospitable treatment of myself and party.
In the execution of this voyage I had no gentleman to aid me, and I literally performed the duties (as far as my limited abilities permitted) of astronomer, surveyor, commanding officer, clerk, spy, guide, and hunter; frequently preceding the party for miles in order to reconnoiter, and returning in the evening, hungry and fatigued, to sit down in the open air, by firelight, to copy the notes and plot the courses of the day.
On my return from the Mississippi voyage, preparations were making for a second, which was to be conducted by another gentleman of the army; but General Wilkinson solicited as a favor that which he had a right to command, viz., that I would agree to take charge of the expedition. The late dangers and hardships I had undergone, together with the idea of again leaving my family in a strange country, distant from their connections, made me hesitate; but the ambition of a soldier, and the spirit of enterprise which was inherent in my breast, induced me to agree to his proposition. The great objects in view by this expedition, as I conceived in addition to my instructions, were to attach the Indians to our government, and to acquire such geographical knowledge of the southwestern boundary of Louisiana as to enable our government to enter into a definitive arrangement for a line of demarkation between that territory and North Mexico.
In this expedition I had the assistance of Lieutenant James [D.] Wilkinson, and also of Dr. John H. Robinson, a young gentleman of science and enterprise, who volunteered his services. I also was fitted out with a complete set of astronomical and mathematical instruments, which enabled me to ascertain the geographical situation of various places to a degree of exactitude that would have been extremely gratifying to all lovers of science, had I not been so unfortunate iii as to lose the greater part of my papers by the seizure of the Spanish government.
With respect to the great acquisitions which might have been made to the sciences of botany and zoölogy, I can only observe that neither my education nor taste led me to the pursuit; and if they had, my mind was too much engrossed in making arrangements for our subsistence and safety to give time to scrutinize the productions of the countries over which we traveled, with the eye of a Linnæus or Buffon; yet Dr. Robinson did make some observations on those subjects, which he has not yet communicated. With respect to the Spanish part, it has been suggested to me by some respected friends that the picture I drew of the manners, morals, etc., of individuals generally of New Spain, if a good likeness, was certainly not making a proper return for the hospitality and kindness with which those people honored me. Those reasons have induced me to omit many transactions, and draw a veil over various habits and customs which might appear in an unfavorable point of view, at the same time that I have dwelt with delight on their virtues.
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