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From Lewis and Clark to the U.S. Geological Survey

In Thomas Jefferson's June 20, 1803 instructions to Meriwether Lewis, the scientific goals of the mission were carefully outlined.

. . . . The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.

Facsimiles of tools used by Lewis and Clark, displayed at Fort Mandan Historic Site, Washburn, North DakotaBeginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognized hereafter. the courses of the river between these points of observation may be supplied by the compass, the log-line & by time, corrected by the observations themselves. the variations of the compass too, in different places, should be noticed.

Other object worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country, it's growth & vegetable productions; especially those not of the U. S. the animals of the country. . . . the mineral productions of every kind; . . . . Volcanic appearances. climate as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion of rainy, cloudy & clear days, by lightening, hail, snow, ice, by the access & recess of frost, by the winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flowers, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects. (For the complete text, visit The Letters of Thomas Jefferson: 1743-1826)

A map of Lewis and Clark's track, across the western portion of North America from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean: by order of the executive of the Unites States in 1804, copied by Samuel Lewis from the original drawing of Wm. Clark, 1814. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.Jefferson had outlined the first of many explorations of the new American West. Lewis and Clarks expedition inspired others and they were soon followed west of the Mississippi. Before Clark could finish his map of the west, explorers brought back more information that was incorporated into the map he completed in 1810. Those expeditions included William Dunbar's exploration of the Ouachita River, Thomas Freeman's Red River (of the south) expedition of 1806, James Wilkinson's expedition on the Arkansas River, Zebulon Pike's expeditions to the southern Rockies and upper Mississippi River, and the 1807-1808 exploration of the Yellowstone basin by former Corps of Discovery members George Drouillard and John Colter (William Clark. Facsimile of "A Map of part of the Continent of North America." 1810.).

Like Lewis and Clark, Powell gained valuable information from Native American residents of the lands he explored.In the years that followed, many surveys were conducted by the government (under the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers) and the railroads in response to the increasing resource and transportation needs of the United States. As the demand for resources grew, science became an ever more important part of expeditions. Clarence King, who became the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, said that the year 1867 marked "in the history of national geological work, a turning point, when the science ceased to be dragged in the dust of rapid exploration and took a commanding position in the professional work of the country."

Four surveys became known as "The Four Great Surveys of the West." These surveys were lead by Clarence King, Ferdinand V. Hayden, M.D., Major John Wesley Powell, and Lieutenant George Wheeler. Powell, and his expedition, was much like Lewis and Clark and their Voyage of Discovery. Like Lewis and Clark, Powell had military experience (losing his right arm in the civil war) and, like Clark, Powell was largely self-taught. Lewis and Clark explored unknown parts of the Louisiana Purchase and the Rocky Mountains. Powell explored the unknown canyonlands in the American southwest. Like the Voyage of Discovery, Powell's journey had many hardships but Powell and crew showed undaunted courage as they took boats through the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado River Region and John Wesley PowellLike Lewis and Clark's expedition, Powell's explorations of the Grand Canyon inspired historians. Many books have been written about Powell including the USGS' account The Colorado River Region and John Wesley Powell, by Mary C. Rabbitt, and others.

By 1879, three surveys were actively mapping the West under the auspices of the Interior Department: the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories under Ferdinand V. Hayden, the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region under John Wesley Powell, and the land-parceling surveys of the General Land Office. The Army Engineers were also doing surveying work.

U.S. Geological SurveyThe U.S. Geological Survey was established on March 3, 1879 in response to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, which had been asked by the Congress in 1878 to provide a plan for surveying and mapping the Territories of the United States that would secure the best possible results at the least possible cost. Clarence King and John Wesley Powell were the first and second directors, respectively, of the U.S. Geological Survey, bridging the time of Lewis and Clark and exploration of the unknown and the beginning of formally organized and budgeted government surveys of the resources of the United States.

Today, the U.S. Geological Survey is involved in many of the scientific endeavors planned by Thomas Jefferson and undertaken by Lewis and Clark 200 years ago. Because of its origin in natural resource surveys and the similarity of the USGS mission to Thomas Jefferson's charge to Meriwether Lewis, the USGS is the organizational successor to Lewis and Clark.

To learn more about the U.S. Geological Survey's scientific endeavors on any subject, please type the subject of your interest in the box below and press search.


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