Who Really Built the Lewis and Clark Keelboat? Part 1

keelboat

Photo:  www.history.army.mil

Who built the keelboat for Meriwether Lewis, and the location, remains one of the ongoing mysteries of the Expedition.

A Lewis and Clark exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center states that the big boat was built in a boatyard of William Greenough. But Elizabeth, one of the oldest towns in the Monongahela Valley, has long claimed the boatbuilder was its own highly accomplished Captain John Walker. As we’ll see, it’s a complex and somewhat confusing debate.

The obvious sources of information, Lewis’s letters and journals and the two newspapers of the Western Pennsylvania area, don’t mention anything specific about the boat work or his forthcoming Expedition. But several documents of the mid-1800s refer to the Walker boat yard in Elizabeth as being the site of Lewis’s boat construction. And the obituary of Samuel Walker (John’s son) in 1876 states, “several celebrated vessels had been built there by the elder Mr. Walker, among them two of the keel boats used in the memorable Lewis and Clark Expedition."

It’s also known that, in 1794, Lewis spent many months just a few miles from Elizabeth when his army unit helped silence the Whiskey Rebellion. While here, he became well acquainted with the Walker family. And, high on a hilltop overlooking the town, John Walker’s grave touts him as the builder of the Lewis and Clark boats.

On the other hand, there is evidence that leads us to believe that Lewis had the boat built in Pittsburgh. A document proves he was in Elizabeth in the summer of 1803, yet he never mentions the boat. When he arrives in Pittsburgh on July 15, he hurriedly writes a letter to President Jefferson in order to make the 5 p.m. post. In it he includes a reference that he has not yet inquired about his boat, giving the impression that it was near and he would be checking on it soon.

There’s no discussion of Elizabeth in any of Lewis’s letters or journal entries while he’s in Pittsburgh. And he says he visits the boat builder every day, but never mentions that to do so, he has to travel 15 miles by land or over 22 miles by river to get to Elizabeth. Also, he frequently castigates the drunken boat builder, which doesn’t match with the character of the highly accomplished John Walker.

In part two we’ll look into who could have been the builder from the Pittsburgh area.