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The Spanish Ambassador Attempts to Dissuade Jefferson's Western Expedition

This letter from the Spanish Ambassador to the Spanish Foreign Minister expresses the Spanish government's disapproval of the planned Lewis and Clark Expedition. In response to Jefferson's question, Ambassador Yrujo replies that the Expedition would almost certainly be cause offense to the Spanish government. He then tries to dissuade Jefferson from undertaking the project on the grounds that many previous explorers had tried and failed to find a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, a gambit which Yrujo believes to have been successful. This miscalculation, like the transfer of the Louisiana Territory to the French a few years earlier, proved to have fatal consequences for Spanish interests in North America.

Carlos Martínez de Yrujo to Pedro Cevallos

2 December 1802

Most Excellent Señor

My Dear Sir: The President asked me the other day in a frank and confident tone, if our Court would take it badly, that the Congress decree the formation of a group of travelers, who would form a small caravan and go and explore the course of the Missouri River in which they would nominally have the objective of investigating everything which might contribute to the progress of commerce; but that in reality it would have the objective of investigating everything which might contribute to the progress of commerce; but in reality would have no other view than that of geography. He said they would give it the denomination of mercantile, inasmuch s only in this way would the Congress have the power of voting the necessary fund; it not being possible to appropriate funds for a society, or a purely literary expedition, since there does not exist in the constitution any clause which would give it the authority for this effect. I replied to him that making use of the same frankness with which he honored me, I would take the liberty of telling him, that I persuaded myself that an expedition of this nature could not fail to give umbrage to our Government. Then he replied to me that he did not see the motive why they [our government] should have fear, inasmuch as its object would not be other than to observe the territories which are found between 400 and 600 [north latitude] from the mouth of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, and unite the discoveries that these men would make with those which the celebrated Makensi made in 1793, and be sure if it were possible in that district to establish a continual communication, or little interrupted, by water as far as the South Sea. I told him then that this was already a determined point, as much by the fruitless attempts made with this objective . . . that all these examinations and attempts evidently prove there does not exist this passage of the Northwest, sought with so much anxiety by the most famous navigators of all the nations in the last two centuries, and that it has not existed except in the most exalted imaginations . . . the practical experienced Indians of the country could not give him news of any considerable river whatsoever which from those mountains, which must be without doubt the source of the waters of the west in that vicinity, empties into the Pacific Ocean. This account of useless and fruitless attempts it seems to me calmed his spirit….

The President has been all his life a man of letters, very speculative and a lover of glory, and it would be possible he might attempt to perpetuate the fame of his administration not only by the measures of frugality and economy which characterize him, but also by discovering or attempting at least to discover the way by which the Americas may some day extend their population and their influence up to the coasts of the South Sea. I do not know what might be his final decision concerning this point, but I shall be on the lookout to see if it is attempted to realize or not this idea by the Congress, and in case of trying to carry it into effect I shall notify Your Excellency in order that it may please you to communicate to me His Majesty’s orders concerning this issue.

May God keep Your Excellency many years.

Washington December 2, 1802

Most Excellent Señor

Your most attentive and constant servant, kisses the hand of Your Excellency

Carlos Martínez De Yrujo

Source | Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783-1854, (Urban: University of Illinois, 1978), 4-6.
Creator | Carlos Martinez de Yrujo
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Carlos Martinez de Yrujo, “The Spanish Ambassador Attempts to Dissuade Jefferson's Western Expedition,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 21, 2021, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/707.

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