On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the United States at Federal Hall in New York City, the nation’s capital at the time. Washington had already devoted a lifetime of service to his country, most notably as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. As president, Washington set many important precedents, including the tradition of a peaceful transition of power after two four-year terms.
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The United States Constitution created a representative legislature that was empowered to write and to pass new laws. Known as the Congress, the legislature consisted of two parts: the House of Representatives, in which states were awarded seats proportional to their populations, and the Senate, in which each state was represented equally with two seats. In 1790, the Congress created a national capital city in a new federal district called Columbia, situated on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia. The next year, the city was named Washington, after the country’s first president. Construction on the Capitol building, where Congress would convene, began here in 1793.
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In addition to the Congress, the Constitution created an executive branch of government headed by the president. The president was responsible for administering the country’s laws, but he also had the power to veto, or reject, new legislation passed by Congress instead of signing it into law. This ensured that Congress and the president had to work together to govern the nation. Construction on the executive mansion began in 1792, and in 1800 President John Adams became the first chief executive to reside there with his family. The building was not officially known as the White House until 1901.
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In the early years of the United States, Spain and then France claimed Louisiana and the territory west of the Mississippi River. At the beginning of the 19th century, the region became more difficult for France to maintain, and it negotiated to sell the land, including the important port city of New Orleans, to the U.S. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson agreed to purchase this enormous territory, nearly doubling the size of the country for the bargain price of $15 million. The treaty was signed in Paris on April 30, 1803, and the transfer ceremony took place the following December in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Jefferson decided to send an expedition to explore the new territory and identify a water route across the continent. He turned to his personal aide, Meriwether Lewis, to head the expedition due to Lewis’s experience as an Army captain and his knowledge of the western frontier. Lewis, knowing he would need help leading the expedition, asked his mentor from the Army, William Clark, to join him.
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In the winter of 1803-1804, the Corps of Discovery (explorers who participated in the Lewis and Clark expedition) assembled at Camp Wood in modern-day Illinois to prepare for the long journey west. About 30 men spent the winter there on the Missouri River, along with William Clark who took charge of their training and packing. In May of 1804, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery embarked on their trip up the Missouri River in one large keelboat and two smaller vessels.
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On July 4, 1804, one and a half months into their journey up the Missouri River, the explorers held the first ever Independence Day celebration west of the Mississippi at their camp in modern-day Kansas. They marked the occasion by firing their ship’s cannon at sunset.
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The Corps of Discovery made slow progress on the Missouri River throughout the summer and early autumn of 1804, and by October the expedition had reached current-day North Dakota. There, among the Hidatsa tribe, they met a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau who lived in the village and was married to a young Shoshone woman believed to have been kidnapped and brought to live with the Hidatsa. Her name was Sacagawea. Lewis and Clark promptly hired Toussaint and Sacagawea as translators, and the couple joined the Corps going forward.
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Sacagawea and her husband joined the Corps of Discovery at Fort Mandan, where the group spent the winter of 1804-1805. The explorers developed good relations with the local Mandan villages and other nearby tribes. William Clark recounts in his journal how, on New Years Day of 1805, sixteen of the men visited one of the villages to dance and play music at the request of the chiefs. Later that winter, Sacagawea gave birth to a son at Fort Mandan, whom she brought with her when the expedition continued later that spring.
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One of the most important aspects of the Lewis and Clark expedition was its scientific mission. Both men took careful notes on every aspect of their trip, describing hundreds of native plants and animals, as well as the people they encountered. Lewis and Clark sent dozens of specimens and artifacts back to President Jefferson to be studied more closely -- including a few live animals. In April 1805 in current-day Montana, the expedition encountered and killed a grizzly bear. It was the first time the species had been described for science.
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The expedition met the Nez Perce after crossing the Rocky Mountains near the borders of modern-day Idaho and Montana. The tribe welcomed the tired group with hospitality, offering food and advice about the journey ahead to the Pacific. Lewis and Clark decided during their stay to leave their horses with the Nez Perce and to continue with the remainder of the trip by river. Observing the explorers struggling to build new boats, the group’s new friends taught them to hollow out canoes using controlled fires. Eight months later, on their return journey, Lewis and Clark met the Nez Perce again when stopping to pick up the horses they had left in the tribe’s care.
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On November 15, 1805, in what is now Washington state, the Corps of Discovery finally reached the Pacific Ocean. Since it was late in the year, the team resolved to stay on the west coast for the winter. Every member of the expedition, including Sacagawea and William Clark’s slave, York, voted on the best site to construct their camp, which became known as Fort Clatsop. This would be the final winter of the expedition. In March 1806, they packed up and began the long journey home. They did not arrive back in St. Louis until the end of September 1806.
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The United States began growing almost as soon as it became a country. Many of the original thirteen colonies ceded their expansive western frontiers to the federal government in the years following the American Revolution, and from these, along with land acquired from British Canada and the Louisiana Purchase, the government formed several territories. The territories organized their own legislatures and once they reached a sufficient population, they petitioned for statehood. After the thirteen original colonies, Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio were admitted to the union by the end of Jefferson’s presidency in 1809.
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The inventor Robert Fulton designed the world’s first commercially viable steamboat, the Clermont, which embarked on its first trip up the Hudson River from New York to Albany in August 1807. Before long, steamboats became a vital mode of transportation throughout the United States. The Mississippi River got its first steamboat, the New Orleans (another Fulton ship), in 1811, and within two decades the river was host to hundreds of others. This innovation proved invaluable to the commercial and territorial expansion of the United States.
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In the decades following the Louisiana Purchase, millions of Americans moved west to start new lives for themselves and their families in territories stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Many settlers travelled in caravans called wagon trains, most famously on the Oregon Trail over a route similar to the one Lewis and Clark had pioneered. America’s expansion did not come without costs, however. With each new territory, Americans confronted the contentious question of whether slavery would be allowed. Moreover, as settlers migrated west they displaced many native people who were there before they arrived. Eventually, relations between the settlers and the Native Americans deteriorated to the point that the U.S. government relocated many tribes into designated areas known as reservations. Our country still struggles with the consequences of these actions today. There is no doubt, however, that the courage of the early pioneers eventually helped extend the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution, to everyone from coast to coast.
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