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[photo] Monticello, home of President Thomas Jefferson
National Park Service photo

Before his inauguration on March 4, 1801, President Thomas Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis, a 29-year-old career officer in the U.S. Army, to join him in the White House as his personal secretary. Jefferson knew Lewis and Lewis's family, as they were neighbors of his Monticello, Virginia, estate. Lewis, a staunch Jeffersonian Democrat, tested the loyalty of top Army officers to the President and reported back to Jefferson. Lewis was sent with sensitive messages to the ministers of foreign powers, and generally assisted the President. But most of all Lewis listened. Lewis absorbed Jefferson's ideas on geography, science, politics, American Indians, and diplomacy. It seems that Lewis was being groomed to lead Jefferson's expedition into the West.

On January 18, 1803, President Jefferson sent a special message to Congress about the proposed expedition. He noted with concern the fact that the British were carrying on a lucrative fur trade with American Indians along the northern border of the United States and into the West. He approached Congress with the idea that "an intelligent officer with 10 or 12 chosen men, fit for the enterprise and willing to undertake it, taken from our posts, where they may be spared without inconvenience, might explore the whole line, even to the Western ocean ..." (Jackson 10-13). In this message, Jefferson portrayed the major goal of the projected expedition as a diplomatic one, in which the explorers "could have conferences with the natives" about commerce, and gain admission for American traders among the various Indian tribes. The other major goal of the expedition, barely stated by Jefferson on January 18, was a scientific one--to not only explore but map and chronicle everything of interest, as he put it, along "the only line of easy communication across the continent." Jefferson took great care to describe the project as a cheap one which would not cost the taxpayers much money. "Their arms & accouterments, some instruments of observation, & light & cheap presents for the Indians would be all the apparatus they could carry, and with an expectation of a soldier's portion of land on their return would constitute the whole expense." Jefferson knew that diplomacy, especially with the goal of increased commerce, could be sold to Congress; scientific discovery and description could not. One seemed practical, the other less so. Thus Jefferson asked for $2,500 to fund the expedition (based on Lewis's initial estimates). (Jackson 8-9 and 13)

A large arsenal dominates this 1803 print of Harpers Ferry. Here, firearms manufactured in the adjacent Armory were stored.
From the Harpers Ferry NHP Historic Photo Collection (HF-21)

On about March 15, 1803, Lewis arrived in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today's West Virginia), to obtain rifles and other equipment for the expedition, including an iron boat frame. The construction of the boat detained him longer than he had expected, and he stayed in Harpers Ferry for about a month. The boat was made in two sections, each weighing 22 pounds, which could be fitted together to form the skeleton of a boat of 40 feet in length, and would be covered with animal hides and sealed together with pitch. This special boat could be used high in the mountains if they were unable to make dugout canoes.

[photo] American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia
Courtesy of the
American Philosophical Society

Besides procuring equipment, Lewis was also expected to take crash courses in several disciplines to round out his training as leader of the expedition. With only the precedent of the voyages of James Cook, Lewis was instructed to compile scientific data on every aspect of the terrain through which he would pass. He was prepared for this by Jefferson during the period he served as the President's personal secretary, and during the Spring of 1803 by astronomer Andrew Ellicott, botanist Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, surveyor and mathematician Robert Patterson, physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, and anatomist Dr. Caspar Wistar (Rush and Wistar were both members of the American Philosophical Society). Lewis also spent his time in Philadelphia procuring supplies, such items as "portable soup," medicine, special uniforms made of drab cloth, tents, tools, kettles, tobacco, corn mills, wine, gunpowder in lead canisters, medical and surgical supplies, and presents. In addition to all of these activities, Lewis most certainly visited the famous museum of Charles Willson Peale, then located on the second floor of Independence Hall.

Lewis left Philadelphia on June 1 and traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Jefferson and make final arrangements for his journey to the Pacific. These included writing a long letter on June 19 to an old friend, William Clark, asking him to be a co-leader of the expedition and to recruit men in his area. Lewis told Clark the real destination of their mission (the Pacific Coast), but told him to use a cover story that the mission was to go up the Mississippi River to its source for his recruitment. Lewis also hinted at secret news just received by President Jefferson: the French had offered the entire territory of Louisiana to the United States for $15 million. On July 3, 1803, official news arrived in the nation's capital--Robert Livingston and James Monroe had purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon's France.

Detail of the reproduction 1792 militia rifle. Note the U.S. Armory insignia and "Harpers Ferry 1803" inscribed on the lock
National Park Service photo by David T. Gilbert

Lewis left Washington on July 5 for Harpers Ferry, where he picked up the more than 3,500 pounds of supplies and equipment he had amassed to take overland to the Pittsburgh area. The Harpers Ferry-made items probably included 15 rifles, 24 pipe tomahawks, 36 tomahawks for American Indian presents, 24 large knives, 15 powder horns and pouches, 15 pairs of bullet molds, 15 wipers or gun worms, 15 ball screws, 15 gun slings, extra parts of locks and tools for replacing arms, 40 fish giggs such as the Indians use with a single barb point, 1 small grindstone and the collapsible iron frame for a canoe. Lewis left Harpers Ferry for the West on July 8. He hired a man named William Linnard with a Conestoga Wagon to haul the supplies to Pittsburgh. The items were so heavy that Linnard had to obtain another wagon. At Elizabeth, Pennsylvania (south of Pittsburgh on the Monongehela River), Lewis was held up for more than a month waiting for his 55-foot keelboat to be built. During this time, Lewis received word from William Clark that he would join the expedition.

A sketch of the keelboat Discovery by William Clark. Specially built to Meriwether Lewis's specifications, which carried the explorers to the upper Missouri River

Courtesy of Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

On August 31, the keelboat was completed and Lewis began his journey down the Ohio. It is believed that Lewis also purchased what later became known as the "Red Pirogue" at this time, a single-masted boat rowed with seven oars. Lewis investigated ancient Indian mounds on his way down the river at what is now Creek Mounds State Historic Site near Kent, West Virginia. The next day Lewis first mentioned his Newfoundland dog, Seaman, in the journals. The water in the Ohio was low, causing long portages at various points. Lewis reached Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 28, 1803, where he talked with Dr. William Goforth, a local physician who was excavating the fossil remains of a mastodon at the Big Bone Lick in Kentucky. Lewis traveled to Big Bone Lick himself by October 4, and sent a box of specimens back to President Jefferson, along with an extremely detailed letter describing the finds of Goforth--the lengthiest surviving letter written by Lewis.

On October 14, the keelboat arrived at Clarksville, Indiana, where Lewis finally joined William Clark, his slave York, and the "young men from Kentucky" including Joseph and Reubin Field, recruited by Clark on August 1, and Charles Floyd and George Gibson. John Colter officially enlisted on October 15, George Shannon and John Shields on the 19th, Nathaniel Hale Pryor and William Bratton on the 20th. These so-called "nine young men from Kentucky" formed the backbone of the expedition's crew. Whatever inexperience they may have suffered from in October 1803 was rectified quickly at Camp Wood and along the trail in 1804-06. We don't know if these men met Lewis's initial criteria, but they certainly grew into the role as time went on, and hindsight shows that Clark could not have chosen better.

Reconstructed Fort Massac
Courtesy of Fort Massac State Park

The expedition got under way once more on October 27, moving down the Ohio to Fort Massac, Illinois, by November 11. Today a replica of the American fort as it looked when Lewis and Clark visited in 1803 stands on the site. Lewis hired interpreter George Drouillard and gained volunteers from the U.S. military at Fort Massac: John Newman and Joseph Whitehouse of Daniel Bissell's 1st Infantry Regiment. These were the first active-duty military personnel added to the Corps of Discovery. The most important addition at Massac was Drouillard, or "Drewyer" as his name is most often spelled in the journals. Born north of present-day Detroit, Michigan, Drouillard was half French and half Shawnee Indian. Drouillard possessed skils that members of the expedition lacked to this point--he was a real frontiersman in the mold of Daniel Boone or Simon Kenton, by far the best hunter and woodsman of the entire expedition.

On November 13 the Corps left Fort Massac, arriving in the vicinity of modern Cairo, Illinois, on the 14th. Here Lewis and Clark worked jointly on their first scientific research and description; to study the geography at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. On November 16, they began the diplomatic phase of their journey when they visited the Wilson City area of Mississippi County, Missouri, and met with Delaware and Shawnee Indian chiefs. They ended their surveys at Cairo on November 19, and proceeded up the Mississippi River, now working against the current.

Historic image, c.1940, of the remains of Fort Kaskaskia's north bastion

Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Reproduction Number ILL,79-FORGA,2-1

Lewis and Clark stopped to describe and climb Tower Rock on November 25, and arrived at Fort Kaskaskia, Illinois, on the 29th. In 1803, Kaskaskia was the U.S. Army post furthest north and furthest west. Kaskaskia was a town of 467 people when Lewis and Clark visited in 1803. Six soldiers enlisted at Kaskaskia from Russell Bissell's Company, 1st U.S. Infantry Regiment: Sgt. John Ordway and privates Peter M. Weiser, Richard Windsor, Patrick Gass, John Boley, and John Collins. In addition, John Dame, John Robertson, Ebeneezer Tuttle, Issac White, and Alexander Hamilton Willard of Capt. Amos Stoddard's company, U.S. Corps of Artillery, also enlisted for the journey. This was a very important crop of men who added immeasurably to the success of the expedition. Francois Labiche, another half-Indian half-Frenchman, enlisted with the expedition on November 30. Another boat, the "White Pirogue," may have been acquired at Kaskaskia. Clark and the men of the Corps departed Kaskaskia on December 3, and camped just below Ste. Genevieve. Lewis remained at Kaskaskia, probably meeting with locals and taking care of the military and paperwork sides of the expedition. On December 4, Clark and the men moved further up the river, passing Ste. Genevieve on the left side, a very prosperous town of about 1,000 residents--equal in size to St. Louis in 1803. Clark and the men next viewed the remains of Fort De Chartres, abandoned for over 30 years, on the right side. On December 6, Lewis left Kaskaskia and traveled to Cahokia along the Illinois roads. Both Lewis and Clark arrived in Cahokia on December 7.

For more information please see Preparing for Trip West, from which this is excerpted, on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial's Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery website. See also Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783-1854. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962.

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