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 ventureall
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 Jacksons
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 nations 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
Societyeventually 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
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
wagonprobably 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
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 & ClarkThe
Journey of the Corps of Discovery, have frequently been
told and retold, but little has been written about Lewiss
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 museumat 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 twiceonce 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 reversesthrough foolish spending
and compulsive acts of generosityproved 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, Clarklike Lewis
before himsat 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.