Philadelphia Chapter Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation

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Essays on the city of Philadelphia's role in the Expedition and full-length articles about Lewis's mentors


Firm Foundations in Philadelphia: The Lewis and Clark Expedition's Ties to Pennsylvania
by Frank Muhly

For a century and a half, from 1807 until the early 1960s, the celebrated expedition undertaken by Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) between 1803 and 1806 was generally perceived to be strictly a western United States phenomenon. Historians and educators who discussed it in their writings or in their teaching usually described the twenty-eight month ordeal as beginning in the west near St. Louis, navigating westward up the Missouri River, proceeding on horseback across the Rocky Mountains, and floating down the Columbia River system to the most westerly boundary of the nation, the Pacific Coast.

The belief that the expedition originated in the west, fully planned and ready for execution, overlooks the conceptualization, designing, and equipping of the venture—all of which occurred in the east, much of it in Philadelphia.

Little attention has been given to either the period when the expedition was assembled or the period when it wound down and disseminated what had been learned. In the broadest sense, preparing for a United States' expedition to the Pacific Coast began in December 1783, when Thomas Jefferson, most likely on behalf of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, asked famous Indian fighter George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) to lead such an exploration. The project was then shelved. The preparation for the expedition took place in a year long bustle of quasi-secret activity east of the Mississippi River, in 1803, by Meriwether Lewis, the president's personal secretary. The post-expedition period, stretching from 1806 to 1814, the year the first official account of the adventure was published, was played out largely in the east, as well. The early editions of the journals of Lewis and Clark did not allude to these eastern events, but Wisconsin historian Reuben Gold Thwaites' 1904 edition broke new ground by including a list of equipment and supplies purchased by Lewis in Philadelphia. In 1962, Donald Jackson's two-volume supplement to the journals, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, included the material Thwaites had presented-- in addition to more than hundred letters shedding further light on the expedition. Much of this correspondence touched on events in the eastern United States.

It was not until twenty years after Jackson’s supplement, in 1982, that Paul R. Cutright gathered together all the threads that led to and from Philadelphia and published them for distribution at the annual meeting of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. Cutright introduced in detail the mentors under whom Jefferson had sent Lewis to study, the nature of life in the city at the time, and the subsequent development of a historical record of the expedition.

Meriwether Lewis arrived about May 12, 1803, in Philadelphia, a city of twelve thousand dwellings inhabited by eighty-one thousand residents. Philadelphia had served as the nation’s capital from the American Revolution to 1800. No other American community possessed the concentration of learning needed to teach Captain Lewis what he must know to succeed in the vast, uncharted western wilderness.

The official Surveyor of the United States, Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820), whom Lewis visited in Lancaster, had much to teach the expedition leader. Ellicott had been the principal surveyor who extended the Mason-Dixon Line westward to divide Virginia from western Pennsylvania, had surveyed the western and northern boundaries of William Penn's province, and laid out the Federal City, which became Washington, D.C.Lewis arrived at Ellicott's residence on April 20,1803, and the surveyor promptly began to train him in celestial measurement, as Jefferson had requested. Training included the use of the sextant and octant with which Lewis would record the route of the expedition.

Lewis then went on to Philadelphia where Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1818), professor of natural history and botany at the University of Pennsylvania, also a friend of Jefferson, tutored Lewis on how to collect, describe, and preserve plants. Barton had studied in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Gottingen, Germany, and had written the first textbook on botany in the United States, a copy of which Lewis carried throughout the expedition. Barton also loaned him his own copy of Antoine Simon Le Page DuPratz's The History of Louisiana, a book that Lewis carried across the continent and back.

Robert Patterson (1743-1824) deepened Lewis' knowledge of latitude and longitude. He was the University of Pennsylvania's vice-provost and professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, as well as the long-time secretary of the American Philosophical Society—eventually succeeding to its presidency. Patterson also taught navigation at a number of Philadelphia schools, and he enthusiastically supported the American popular museum of natural science and art that Charles Willson Peale had recently installed at Independence Hall.

Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) advised Lewis on health standards to maintain on the trail, diet, and internal cleansing, as well as the need to obtain knowledge of diseases in the west from the Indians. He had studied medicine in Edinburgh, and became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Medicine and Clinical Practice. His prestige had made him an authority figure during Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic of 1793, but his total reliance on bleeding to cure fever had yielded unfavorable results (see "Plagued! Philadelphia's Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793" by William C. Kashatus III, Spring 1993). Rush's interest in human thought processes has caused him to be recognized as a forerunner of modern psychiatry, although he seems to have had no interest in Meriwether Lewis' characteristics of abnormal mental anguish. Even though Rush had been an important spokesman for the American cause during the Revolutionary War, he became unpopular in his later years. His city home was taken down, and his summer retreat in northeast Philadelphia was demolished "in mistake" by city workers.

Caspar Wistar (1761-1818),another Philadelphia savant, alerted Lewis to the possibility of finding the remains of mastodons and other fossils. He served as vice president of the American Philosophical Society for twenty years, becoming its president when Jefferson resigned in 1815, and he published the first American textbook on anatomy.

Like Rush and Barton, Wistar had studied medicine in Edinburgh, acknowledged as the center of western medical learning. He lectured at the University of Pennsylvania from the chair of anatomy and, like Rush and Barton, was a physician at Pennsylvania Hospital, America's first hospital dedicated to serving the poor, including the insane (see `'Bedlam in Penn's Woods" by Philip Michael Clark, Summer 1989).

While in Philadelphia, Lewis purchased more than thirty-five hundred pounds of equipment for his assignment. Philadelphia was the best place to find the specialized merchandise he required. Twenty-eight Philadelphia merchants and artisan manufacturers, as well as the army's Schuylkill Arsenal, sold items and services to Lewis, and he carefully inspected each purchase. These expenditures provided life necessities for the twenty-eight month venture: portable shelter, clothing, illumination, Indian trading goods, weapons, powder and ball, health maintenance items, emergency food, navigational and cartographic instruments, construction tools, and packing boxes. Philadelphia inventor Isaiah Lukens provided Lewis with one of his compressed air rifles, a curiosity that fascinated the Native Americans the Corps of Discovery encountered.

It's obvious that Philadelphia served a keystone role in shaping the final fortunes of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Was it possible, members of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation wondered, in 1992, if any of the merchant firms were still in business? And, equally as fascinating, was it possible that any of the buildings where they conducted business still stood?

Four years later, in 1996, researchers reported conclusively that the only one of the twenty-eight businesses surviving into recent years was Samuel Wetherill & Son: Druggist, Apothecary, Paints & Colors. Although no longer located at 65 North Front Street, the company sold house paints until 1968. The foundation's research team also concluded that no buildings of the merchant group survived the vicissitudes of commercial life, general deterioration, competition, fire, weather, city planning, and urban renewal. In recording the sites where these enterprises operated in 1803, photographers captured business fronts completely different from those that had served Meriwether Lewis.

After arranging for his two and a half tons of equipment and supplies to be carefully packed in thirty-five boxes, one hogshead, and a variety of kegs, Lewis hired a suitable wagon—probably a Conestoga and five horses through William Linnard, a military agent. The wagon drover left Philadelphia for Harpers Ferry on June 10. Lewis left Philadelphia for Washington, D.C., eight days later. Upon arriving in Washington, he immediately wrote to William Clark, George Rogers Clark's younger brother and a veteran of the Fallen Timbers campaign in the Old Northwest Territory, inviting him to colead the expedition. Although his action broke all military protocol, Lewis knew Jefferson would approve. It took one month for the letter to reach Clark but only a day for him to respond. "I will chearfully join you," Clark replied. On July 2, Lewis penned his final farewell to his mother, assuring her that he would be away for only fifteen to eighteen months.

Leaving Washington, Lewis retraced his route, passing through Fredericktown, Maryland, and stopping at the United States Army arsenal at Harpers Ferry where he picked up an iron frame designed to expand and be covered with animal skins to form a lightweight boat. This made extra boat space quickly available when needed on the western rivers. Lewis had designed the frame and in March ordered it manufactured at the arsenal. The Conestoga wagon that had traveled from Philadelphia found the material at the arsenal too heavy to pick up, forcing Lewis to hire a small wagon and two horses in Fredericktown to haul the iron frame, guns, tomahawks, and equipment acquired on the trip from Virginia to Pittsburgh along a route that was "by no means good." Lewis, on horseback, followed the wagon, passing through Charles Town (a small town in northern West Virginia) and Frank Fort (now Fort Ashby), in West Virginia, Uniontown, Fayette County, and finally reaching Redstone Old Fort (now Brownsville, Fayette County) on the Monongahela River. Since the river was the main thoroughfare from the vicinity to the Forks of the Ohio, Lewis may have used it to reach his destination.

For a month and a half, at some unidentified location in the vicinity of Pittsburgh, Lewis struggled to have a keelboat built, badgered and stymied by a shipwright who was often inebriated. On the route north toward the Forks of the Ohio, he passed through the Allegheny County township of Elizabeth, a boatbuilding center, with which he was familiar from his military service during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 (see "The Whiskey Boys Versus The Watermelon Army" by Jerry Clouse,Spring 1991). By 1803, Elizabeth's boat-builders had acquired a reputation for building vessels large enough for ocean voyage.Although Lewis's correspondence with Jefferson refers to the location where the keelboat was being constructed as Pittsburgh, he may have meant the entire vicinity around Pittsburgh. If so, construction may well have taken place in Elizabeth. Lewis set sail down the Ohio River in his keelboat on August 31,1803, but did not reach the winter quarters on the Mississippi River until December 10.

From May 14,1804, when the keelboat began ascending the Missouri River, until the expedition's completion on September 22, 1806, twenty-eight months later, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their courageous band of discovers made worldwide history. Their resounding deeds, most recently chronicled in Stephen E. Ambrose's book, Undaunted Courage, and Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan's documentary film, Lewis & Clark—The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, have frequently been told and retold, but little has been written about Lewis’s return to Philadelphia. In April 1807, he arrived in Philadelphia, where he most likely saw a 1796 painting, View of Philadelphia from Kensington by Philadelphia engraver John James Barralet (1747-1815). Barralet's style evidently impressed Lewis because he engaged him to paint a likeness of the Great Falls of the Missouri, which had astonished him when he had first seen them on June 13, 1805. Lewis compared them to the Falls of the Schuylkill. Barralet was paid for two views of the Great Falls of the Missouri, but neither painting has been found.

On his return Meriwether Lewis rekindled old and formed new friendships. He and lawyer and political officeholder Mahlon Dickerson (1770-1853) renewed the friendship they had established in Philadelphia in 1802. Dickerson, then Commissioner of Bankruptcy, was on his way to becoming secretary of the Navy. William Hamilton (1745-1813), a wealthy devotee of landscape gardening and horticulture, propagated, at Jefferson's request, some seeds that Lewis had collected in the west. Hamilton's renowned greenhouses, adjacent to his handsome residence, The Woodlands, designated a National Historic Landmark, offered ideal conditions for such experiments, and Lewis took the opportunity of touring Hamilton's cultivated gardens.

Between April and July 1807, Lewis spent more time with Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) than any other individual, while the famous portraitist painted his likeness. Peale's Philadelphia Museum, which had been only recently relocated in the State House (now Independence Hall), displayed an array of natural history, artistic, ethnographic, and scientific artifacts and objects. In his "Gallery of Personages," hanging above the museum's display cases, Peale exhibited portraits of hundreds of notables, Meriwether Lewis among them. Many of these portraits now grace the walls of the historic Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. As they became available, Peale also preserved in the museum—at either Lewis' or Jefferson's request— numerous pieces gathered during the expedition.

One of the most fascinating items was a tippet, or shoulder drape, given to Lewis by Lemi Shoshone Chief Cameahwait ("One Who Never Walks") on August 16,1805. Peale draped it on a wax figure of Lewis to which he gave a prominent place in his Lewis and Clark Room.

Philadelphian Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), America's preeminent ornithologist, also worked with Lewis. A frustrated poet and an aspiring artist, Wilson supervised a skillful artist to produce the on-going volumes of his major work, American Ornithology, the ninth volume of which was nearing completion. For Lewis, Wilson arranged the painting of four birds the Corps of Discovery had found in the west: Lewis' woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis), Clark's nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana), the western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), and the black-billed magpie (Pica pica). Although theirs had been only a passing association, Wilson was so moved upon hearing of Lewis's death on the Natchez Trace that he visited the site and wrote of his sorrow. He was the only one of Lewis's Philadelphia acquaintances to make the journey.

Lewis left Philadelphia for the last time in late July 1807, bound for Washington, D.C.; President Thomas Jefferson had appointed him Governor of the Louisiana Territory in April (although he did not take up the duties in St. Louis until nearly a year later, in March 1808). Eighteen months later, on October 11,1809, at three o'clock in the morning, in a small inn south of Nashville, he shot himself twice—once in the forehead and once in the chest. He had been traveling in desperation to Washington, D.C., in search of old friends who might shield him from the consequences of personal insolvency. After he had left Philadelphia he had been thwarted in several romances and, while directing the federal government's outpost in St. Louis, his old drinking habit, possibly exacerbated by opium addiction, and crushing financial reverses—through foolish spending and compulsive acts of generosity—proved his undoing. He died in possession of the expedition's journals, but because he was unable to publish them himself, he was deprived of the recognition and renown his discoveries deserved. The names of later naturalists were assigned to his revelations.

In January 1810, William Clark arrived in Philadelphia, after visiting Jefferson at Monticello, and immediately acquired Lewis' documents. Clark remained in Philadelphia for three months and visited a number of prominent individuals in search of an editor for the journals. During the visit, Clark—like Lewis before him—sat for his portrait by Charles Willson Peale.

Although Clark missed meeting the young Philadelphia financier and scholar Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844) on this visit, Biddle accepted Clark's invitation to edit the journals. They met face to face in Fincastle, Virginia, in March. Biddle's Bucks County country estate, Andalusia, thirteen miles northeast of center city, offered a bucolic setting for his writings based on the explorers' journals, but it was not until 1814 that his manuscript was published as The History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the Sources of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. Acting on instructions from Jefferson, Biddle deposited what he believed to be all of the original journals at the American Philosophical Society, for safekeeping. A century later, in 1913, however, Biddle's descendants discovered two volumes that had been left behind on Andalusia's library shelves, John Ordway's journal and Lewis' Ohio journal. Both were delivered, belatedly but joyfully, to the American Philosophical Society.

The peregrinations of the two hundred and sixteen herbarium sheets of pressed plants brought back by Lewis and Clark also ended at the American Philosophical Society. The neglected sheets rested at the society until 1896, when they were rediscovered and moved for the final time to special facilities at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Several Philadelphia institutions lay claim to objects and artifacts relating directly to the famous expedition. The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, for instance, safeguards Meriwether Lewis' fifteen-inch long telescope. Although only one six-inch long telescope is noted in the extant papers recording Lewis's purchases in Philadelphia, it is possible, even probable, that three fifteen-inch length telescopes were taken on the expedition. Another authentic object used on the expedition, Benjamin Smith Barton's copy of DuPratz's History of Louisiana, is preserved by the Library Company of Philadelphia. In the cemetery of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, established in 1753, stands a row of Osage orange trees. They most likely sprouted from seeds or cuttings Lewis sent in 1804 from St. Louis to Bernard McMahon, an active horticulturist and nurseryman (see "Growing Bigger and Better Year by Year" by Liz Ball, Spring 2001). The fruit of the Osage orange, measuring four to five inches in diameter and resembling a knobby brain, drops to the ground in September and October. The church graveyard is the final resting place of two individuals closely tied to the expedition's saga, Charles Willson Peale and Nicholas Biddle.

The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation's enthusiastic researchers have identified seventy-one sites in Philadelphia known to have been associated, in some way, with the explorers. The roster includes eight of Meriwether's mentors' residential or commercial locations, twenty-seven sites of merchants who outfitted the expedition, twenty-four locations of friends and important figures in city life whom Lewis visited, and twelve sites where artifacts are preserved, colonial structures, and buildings reconstructed. Of the seventy-one sites, twenty-three buildings and structures still stand to this day. As the nation draws close to the two hundredth anniversaries of Meriwether Lewis' labors in Philadelphia in 1803 and 1807, the twenty-three sites offer links to a heritage unmatched in any other city connected to his and William Clark's feats.

About the author:

Frank Muhly, a native of Philadelphia, has served as a director of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and as president of the Foundation's Philadelphia chapter. A World War II veteran, he served in the 20th Armored Division in Europe and was awarded the Bronze Star. Retired from a career in manufacturing water treatment equipment, he traced the Lewis and Clark Trail, from St. Louis to Oregon, in 1971. As the explorers had done before him, he collected plants, identified birds and mammals, and kept a journal. In 1976, he published his Historical Signboards on the Lewis & Clark Trail, which he supplemented in 1988. Since 1976, he has researched more than six hundred art images and related them to the Lewis and Clark journals, and since 1992 has been preparing for Philadelphia's 2003 bicentennial celebration of the expedition across the continent.




Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996.

Cutright, Paul R. A History of the Lewis and Clark Journals. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.

Duncan, Dayton, and Ken Burns. Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery—An Illustrated History. New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1997.

Jackson, Donald, ed. Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Moulton, Gary, ed. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. New York: Arno Press, 1969.



Updated August 26, 2001