Many people have written about the Lewis and Clark Expedition discussing the journey or the many different areas of the Captains investigation. As a result there is a substantial volume of documentation on the significance of that expedition, but what was cost of this vast amount of knowledge? Since that exploring trip was a military operation financed by the federal government we should also have those financial records available. When President Jefferson petitioned for consent from Congress for a literary (scientific) exploration of the northwest he included a cost estimate figure of $2,500. Captain Lewis had done the work necessary to prepare a budget for the trip.
Before examining Lewis’ budget and the final costs, some parameters need to be understood. His figures were only to show the amount of new money Congress would need to appropriate; not the total cost of the operation. Consequently any money that was already appropriated was not included. Since this was a military operation, Lewis was advised to get any equipment and supplies he could from military sources. Those costs as well as pay, subsistence and clothing for the men would be charged to the War Department. Since the Expedition was to be made up of military personnel these costs were ongoing whether the Expedition was approved or not. The costs associated with bringing some of the tribal chief to Washington were to be charged to the Indian Department. Lewis developed his budget based upon an expedition consisting of one officer and 12 – 15 enlisted men. This number eventually increased to two officers and some four dozen enlisted and civilians.
A review of the costs after the Expedition had returned shows many things, not the least being that governmental accounting even in the early 1800s could be very creative. If the accountant did not want an item to be found in the official records it would be included, but in such a way that it could never be properly identified. For example, the Journals made reference to Scott’s pills being given to one of the men who was sick, but we do not know where these pills came from or how much they cost.
Lewis’ budget total of $2,500 can be found many places throughout the body of Lewis and Clark related writings. Also available is the sum of $39,000 as the actual cost of the Expedition (the most commonly used figure). This total is often accompanied by some remarks to the effect that cost overruns were part of government even in those days. A look at those final costs is interesting since the figures reflect how things changed from Lewis initial instructions to the final accounting. As we know the size of the expedition grew dramatically, tripling from the 15 as originally envisioned. So in fairness to comparison of estimate and final cost, Lewis’ initial estimate should be tripled.
When the final totals were being made some bureaucrat decided all costs that had been charged to other departments should be collected and included in the final accounting. That final accounting also includes the extra compensation Congress voted to give the Expedition members; this item alone adds $11,000. It could also be reasonably argued that the costs of getting the Mandan Chief back to his people after the Expedition returned should be included in the final accounting; that adds another $10,000.
The final considerations to how much the cost was is a function of time. During the 200 years since the purchases were made some documentation has been lost so the information simply is not available; recall Scott’s pills and their unknown costs. Some of the supplies and equipment items may have been obtained from military stores at such places as Fort Massac and Fort Kaskaskia, but the records are gone.
So, what was the cost of the Expedition? The most frequently used figure is $39,000 which includes the charges to other government departments. However in fairness to comparison to what Lewis was instructed to base his estimate on, items of pay, clothes and subsistence along with costs for bringing the Indian Chiefs to Washington should not be considered. Also since the size of the Expedition tripled, Lewis’ estimate should be tripled. If these things are done Lewis’ estimate becomes $7,500 and the actual expenditures are about $8,000