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Garden Wise: Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery and Idaho’s botanical past – part one

Garden Wise: Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery and Idaho’s botanical past – part one

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The earliest exploration of Idaho’s plant life began in August 1805, when the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery entered the Bitterroot Range in eastern Idaho. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their companions had embarked on what was to be the most daring and consequential exploratory mission in American history. These men had been born in a colonial outpost, had lived through a revolution and were now key players in the growth of a new nation.

Before we get to Idaho and its flora in next week’s column, some historical context might help. This unusual expedition was driven by two events, Thomas Jefferson’s election as president in 1800, and the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which doubled the size of the country, bringing the middle of the continent under American control.

The Corps of Discovery was Thomas Jefferson’s brainchild, and, as president, he turned it into reality. Explorers like Captain James Cook were returning from distant shores with plants never seen before. Cultivating these alien plants was all the rage in Europe and America. Jefferson constantly experimented with new plants and corresponded with leading botanists. Jefferson considered natural science the greatest of all sciences, but he had a special affinity for botany. His contributions to horticultural knowledge, and his garden and landscapes at Monticello bear witness to his passion for plants. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country,” he wrote, “is to add a useful plant to its culture.” He wondered what botanical discoveries lay to the west, beyond the Mississippi.

Americans looked to botany for new sources of food to feed a growing population. They also saw botany as the key to medical advances. Medicine in the 18th century was still in its infancy. Germ theory and antibiotics were decades away, and most Americans relied on the local herbalist, someone well versed in using herbal concoctions, to treat illnesses. As epidemics of yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis and other diseases ravaged the young nation, doctors looked to botany for cures. Meriwether Lewis shared this interest, having been schooled in the medicinal properties of plants from his mother, Lucy, who was highly regarded in Virginia as an herbalist.

In 1800, the nation was fragile and susceptible to attack from England or other European powers. The port of New Orleans was seen as especially vulnerable as it controlled access to settlements along the Mississippi River. The mid-continent was controlled by France. Jefferson sent James Monroe, Secretary of State, and Robert Livingston, U.S. Diplomat to France, with an offer to purchase the New Orleans port. Wars with European neighbors had left Napoleon with staggering debt, and the French countered the American offer with an offer to sell the entire area of the Louisiana Purchase for $15,000,000. The American negotiators quickly accepted, and Jefferson and Monroe convinced Congress to ratify the purchase.

Throughout his presidency, Jefferson demonstrated an uncanny ability to exploit talent. While visiting the plantation of fellow Virginian, William Lewis, he had occasion to interact with Williams’s son, Meriwether. Jefferson was struck by Meriwether’s unusual powers of observation, attention to detail and voracious desire to understand the natural world.

As president, Jefferson hired Meriwether as his personal assistant and set out to accelerate the young man’s education in natural science in preparation for a daunting mission Jefferson had in mind, the exploration of the mid-continent. What lay between the Mississippi and the Pacific was shrouded in mystery. With the Louisiana Purchase, America controlled the land from coast to coast, and Jefferson’s greatest hope was to discover a waterway capable of transporting people and cargo across the continent.

Jefferson proposed that Meriwether lead the expedition. Lewis accepted on condition that he could take his old mentor, William Clark, as co-commander. Clark was more seasoned as an explorer and was a master mapmaker. Jefferson agreed. Jefferson tutored Meriwether himself and sent him to Philadelphia to study with major scholars including Dr. Benjamin Rush, who taught him anatomy, and the great botanist, Benjamin Smith Barton, who strengthened Meriwether’s skills in plant identification.

Bypassing the preparations and early journey, we find the expedition in August 1805 on the western border of Montana, just south of what is now Dillon. While camping with Hidatsa at a site called Camp Fortunate, Lewis tasted salmon for the first time. This gave him hope that he would soon see the Pacific Ocean.

When the corps ascended the continental divide, the men stared westward across the valley into the daunting Bitterroot Range. Seeing range after range of mountains receding into the west, Lewis was crestfallen. The mental scene he had formed of an easy descent to the Pacific had been a mirage. Crossing Idaho would be the most grueling and dangerous phase of the expedition.

What’s truly astounding is that regardless of how dangerous or difficult the situation, both Lewis and Clark continued to keep careful daily notes on terrain, geography, weather, plants, animals, waterways and tribal culture, and always with unusual attention to detail.

In next week’s column, I will follow the Corps into Idaho, focusing on some of the remarkable contributions of Lewis and Clark to our understanding of Idaho’s native plants.

Garden Wise is presented by the Magic Valley Master Gardener Association. We will try to answer questions of general interest submitted by the community. Email questions to


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