Meriwether Lewis at Harpers Ferry

MARCH 16, 1803 - JULY 8, 1803

Meriwether Lewis at Harpers Ferry

Meriwether Lewis relied on the U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry for guns and hardware that would meet the unique requirements of his transcontinental expedition. (List of inventory acquired at Harpers Ferry.) On March 16, 1803, Lewis arrived in Harpers Ferry with a letter from Secretary of War Henry Dearborn addressed to Armory superintendent Joseph Perkins:

You will be pleased to make such arms & Iron work, as requested by the Bearer Captain Meriwether Lewis and to have them completed with the least possible delay.

In addition to procuring 15 rifles, 15 powder horns, 30 bullet molds, 30 ball screws, extra rifle and musket locks, gunsmith's repair tools, several dozen tomahawks, and 24 large knives, Lewis also attended to the construction of a collapsible iron boat frame of his own design. The strange craft was comprised of an iron frame which came apart in sections, over which was stretched a covering of hide. Lewis expected that a light, substitute boat of some kind would be needed when the Missouri River got too shallow for the heavy wooden boats to navigate. The Armory mechanics assigned to the project, however, had considerable difficulty assembling the iron frame, and Lewis was forced to prolong his Harpers Ferry stay from the week he had planned to over a month. On April 20, 1803, Lewis wrote President Jefferson:

My detention at Harper's Ferry was unavoidable for one month, a period much greater than could reasonably have been calculated on; my greatest difficulty was the frame of the canoe, which could not be completed without my personal attention to such portions of it as would enable the workmen to understand the design perfectly. –My Rifles, Tomahawks & knives are already in a state of forwardness that leaves me little doubt of their being in readiness in due time.

Lewis and the Armory mechanics finally finished the iron frame, and Lewis conducted a "full experiment" on two sections of the unusual canoe. To his satisfaction, he found the iron and hides in these two sections weighed only 99 pounds and could carry a load of 1,770 pounds. Altogether, the complete iron frame (without hides) weighed just 176 pounds and could carry a load of 8,000 pounds.

On April 18, 1803, Lewis finally departed Harpers Ferry to attend to other pressing matters in Lancaster and Philadelphia, Pa. Eleven weeks later, on July 7, Lewis returned to Harpers Ferry. The following day he wrote President Jefferson:

Yesterday, I shot my guns and examined the several articles which had been manufactured for me at this place; they appear to be well executed.

Securing a driver, team, and wagon to haul his large supply of weapons and articles to Pittsburgh, Pa., Lewis departed Harpers Ferry for the last time on July 8, 1803. (Route of Meriwether Lewis from Harpers Ferry, Va. to Pittsburgh, Pa.) Although there would only be one skirmish in which weapons were used against Indians, the arms procured at Harpers Ferry kept Lewis and his men fed for 28 months, and several of the tomahawks served well as "Indian Presents."

The Guns of Sergt. Pryor & Drewyer were both out of order. the first had a Cock screw broken which was replaced by a duplicate which had been prepared for the Locks at Harpers Ferry; the Second repared with a new Lock, the old one becoming unfit for use. but for the precaution taken in bringing on those extra locks, and parts of locks, in addition to the ingenuity of John Shields, most of our guns would at this moment been entirely unfit for use; but fortunate for us I have it in my power here to record that they are in good order, and Complete in every respect—

–Captain Lewis' journal, Thursday, March 20, 1806|

The collapsible canoe, on the other hand, did not work out as planned. When the expedition reached the Great Falls of the Missouri in late June 1805, Lewis was unable to find pine trees for pitch to seal the seams of the leather skins stretched over the framework. From June 18-July 8, 1805, the canoe was assembled and covered with a total of 28 elk skins and 4 buffalo skins. A substitute tar of charcoal, beeswax, and buffalo tallow was applied to the skins to prevent them from leaking. When put into the water on July 9, "the experiment" floated "like a perfect cork," but then began to leak. Lewis wrote in his journal:

She leaked in such manner that she would not answer.

The failure of the collapsible boat "mortifyed" Lewis, and, lacking the time to attend to further modifications, he "relinquished all further hope of my favorite boat." On July 10, a cache was dug and the boat was buried along with "some papers and a few other trivial articles..."

I therefore relinquished all further hope of my favorite boat and ordered her sunk in the water, that the skins might become soft in order to better take her to pieces tomorrow and deposit the frame at this place as it could probably be of no further service to us. It was too late to introduce a remedy and I bid adieu to my boat and her expected services.

–Captain Lewis' journal, Tuesday, July 9, 1805


  • Ambrose, Stephen E., Undaunted Courage, Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
  • Dillon, Richard, Meriwether Lewis, A Biography.New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1965.
  • Jeffrey, Joseph D., "Meriwether Lewis at Harpers Ferry." We Proceeded On, the Journal of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, November 1994.

Moulton, Gary E., editor, The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, Volumes 4 and 6. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1987 and 1990.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
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Harpers Ferry, WV 25425


304 535-6029

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