Montana Historical Society

Big Sky ~ Big History

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Montana: Stories of the Land

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Chapter 4 - Newcomers Explore the Region, 1742-1827

Learning From Historical Documents

Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, July 6, 1803. Jefferson Letter. Montana Historical Society Archives. Excerpted in Not In Precious Metals Alone: A Manuscript History of Montana (Helena, 1976): 4.

Context for Thomas Jefferson's Letter:

On May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their small "corps of discovery" set forth up the Missouri River to explore the vast Louisiana Territory. Although an expedition to explore the West and establish a trade route to the Pacific had long been a dream of Thomas Jefferson, purchase of the territory from France in 1803 made the expedition to establish the limits of the new American empire a necessity. President Jefferson was fully aware that he was sending the men to face unknown dangers. Thus, before the expedition departed, he penned a letter of international credit to be used in the event that the party had to return by a different route, possibly by sea and possibly at the whim of a foreign government.

About Primary Sources:

Letters, diary entries, census records, newspapers, and photographs are all examples of "primary sources," material created at a particular moment in the past that has survived into the present. Primary sources can provide clues to the past. They are our windows into an earlier time. The Montana Historical Society contains thousands of primary sources. In the 1970s, archivists collected just a few snippets into a book, which they called Not In Precious Metals Alone: A Manuscript History of Montana. The above sample from that book relates directly to this chapter.

Detail, Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804 by Dean CornwellDetail, Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804, Dean Cornwell, Montana Historical Society Museum
Pompey's Pillar with inset of W.A. Clark's signature on the pillarPompey's Pillar and inset of W. A. Clark signature on the pillar, courtesy Bureau of Land Management, Billings