Little Known Facts - 6

“Lewis’s Dilemma: Behind Schedule and Short of Funds”

As plans were being laid in 1803 for an American expedition across the continent and back, President Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis estimated the journey might take as long as eighteen months. Both men felt a sense of urgency to complete the preparations soon after Congress approved and funded the venture. They wanted to get the expedition into the field and as far up the Missouri River as possible before winter conditions would close the travel season and force the explorers into winter quarters.

With that timetable in mind, Lewis first went to the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in March of 1803 where he acquired 15 of the latest model .54 caliber rifles, matching accoutrements, powder, lead, knives, tomahawks and other camp equipment. While there he also worked closely with artificers designing, fabricating and testing two prototype sections of a collapsible, iron-framed boat he and his mentor had dreamed up.

Jefferson and Lewis figured a week at Harpers Ferry would be sufficient to accomplish the necessary tasks. But the week turned into two; then three; and, finally, four. As time sped by, the president became concerned about the delay in Lewis’s planned arrival in Philadelphia to meet with special tutors he had arranged to help the expedition’s young commander prepare for his mission. In a letter dated April 23, 1803, Jefferson complained that he “had not been able to hear any thing of you [directly] since March 7 ….” His letter and Lewis’s of April 20th from Lancaster, Pennsylvania explaining at length his accomplishments at Harpers Ferry probably crossed paths while en route to their respective destinations. Lewis likely would have felt keenly the notably gentle pressure exerted by his mentor to the effect that he should get on with the crucial preparations.

Lewis had finally left the arsenal for Lancaster where he arrived on April 19th. There he was to receive special tutoring in the techniques of celestial navigation. When that training was completed, he went on to Philadelphia to receive additional instruction in biology, botany and medical practices from President Jefferson’s learned friends, all members of the American Philosophical Society. While in Philadelphia, Lewis also bought a long list of supplies, clothing, navigation instruments, equipment, medicines, Indian gifts and trade goods.

Lewis was back in Washington, D.C. by June 19, 1803, for his final instructions from the president. He was at least three weeks “behind schedule.” He had already spent $2,324 of the $2,500 congressional appropriation and he had yet to set foot on uncharted territory. In coming months unanticipated circumstances would further delay the expedition’s arrival on the Missouri River and costs would mount.

Dr. H. Carl Camp


Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 84-92.

Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783-1854 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), vol. 1, various letters and documents, pp. 37-60.

Last updated: December 13, 2016

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