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HOW MERIWETHER LEWIS TACKLED JEFFERSON’S DREAM AND MADE IT HIS OWN

Philadelphia Chapter
Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc.
PO Box 39534
Philadelphia, PA 19136-9534

For immediate release:
HOW MERIWETHER LEWIS TACKLED JEFFERSON’S DREAM AND MADE IT HIS OWN
CONTACT: Chapter Founder Frank Muhly
(215) 331-4178
Publicity Team Norma Milner
(856) 829-3142

Suppose you were selected to fulfill a dream. You’d have to recruit and head up a 12 to 15 man expedition into 8,000 miles of unexplored wilderness and bring back the first maps, a journal about what you saw and the native people you met, and specimens of any new plants and animals you found. But first you’d have to arrange the means of transportation, recruit your men, buy food and clothing for them, and learn how to provide medical care for your Corps of Discovery in the wild.

What’s Your Problem?
How long would it take you to get ready?

Now put the year at 1801-1802. No computers, telephones, cars, freeze dried food or K-rations...and your rifles and boats must be made by hand. Plus you are in the American East, where most roads west of the ocean are still dirt, or cobbled at best. The few large cities where supplies are available are many miles apart. Horseback takes about seven miles an hour. Mail goes by horseback. Now how long do you think you would need?

Lieutenant Meriwether Lewis faced just such a challenge when he was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to be his personal aide in 1801. He realized during his next two years in the new President's House in Washington that his Commander had just such a dream and that he, Lewis himself, was to be THE MAN!

Whirlwind Period is Keystone of Success
After two years at Jefferson's elbow, handling the usual work of a presidential aide during slave/sex innuendos and a war with the Barbary pirates, foreign intrigue over Louisiana, and frequent tutoring by the owner of greatest library then assembled, the now-Captain Meriwether Lewis got ready within five and a half months of 1803, in Harpers Ferry, Lancaster, Philadelphia and western Pennsylvania.The period was the keystone to success for the western exploration.

Leaving Washington March 14 , 1803, on horseback with letters of introduction in his saddlebags, and a military letter of credit, he rode into Harpers Ferry arsenal where he spent a month ordering hand built rifles, knives, pipe tomahawks, and fish gigs and designing a folding iron frame boat to be built for the trip.

On April 19 he continued on to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he studied the use of celestial navigation instruments for three weeks with the leading American surveyor, astronomer and navigation expert, Andrew Ellicott, a member of the American Philosophical Society (APS). A friend of Jefferson’s, Ellicott had laid out the boundaries of the nation’s capital. Lewis also ordered more rifles, the Pennsylvania long barreled rifle made in those parts.

Finally! On the Road to Philadelphia
In early May, Lewis rode the 63 miles into Philadelphia on the first gravel road in America, with letters of introduction from Jefferson to four other members of the APS.

Mathematician Robert Patterson helped him polish his use of the instruments and helped him to buy them in what is now old City and then calibrate them.

Drs. Benjamin Rush and Caspar Wistar of the Pennsylvania Hospital, tutored him in medicine, native peoples, anatomy, and archeology, and Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, also of the Pennsylvania Hospital, and botany professor of the University of Pennsylvania, covered known plants and animals, collecting, and how to label and store specimens for the return trip.

All three doctors asked Lewis to learn as much as possible about native people he would meet, and Dr. Rush gave him a list of specific questions to ask the tribes.

Collecting the Impedimenta
Lewis also spent time buying 3,500 pounds of supplies at the Schuylkill Arsenal and in Society Hill and Old City areas of Philadelphia and arranging for a Conestoga wagon to carry it all, picking up the items at Harpers Ferry, out to his chosen boat builder in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He was to build Lewis a 55 foot keel boat by July 20.

All of this done, Lewis (until now the only “Captain” of the Expedition) returned to Washington on June where he and Jefferson incorporated the suggestions of the Philadelphia mentors into final instructions for the expedition. Realizing he would need help, Lewis then wrote a letter to William Clark inviting him to join the Corps of Discovery and one to his mother, Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks saying he’d be home in a year and a half.

On July 4th, 1803, the day before Lewis again left Washington to travel to Pittsburgh to struggle with a difficult boat builder, the 27 year old nation received a birthday present. Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States for 60 million francs. Lewis was assured at least that he would not be entering a foreign country on his expedition. He left on July 5, tying up loose ends in Harpers Ferry on the way. As in all good plans, something was amiss.

Dealing with a Glitch!
The Conestoga wagon had not picked up the cargo from the arsenal, and Lewis had to hire an additional wagon to take it to Elizabeth. To make further delay, he arrived at Elizabeth on July 15 and found the boat unfinished. His 29th birthday came and went on August 18. There was still no boat. Finally by August 31 Lewis and a dozen men were able to begin poling down a tributary to reach the Ohio River.

In Cincinnati, he received the famous letter from Clark, who wrote, in the unpolished spelling of most Americans of the time, “I will chearfully join you…..” In November, he was poling down the drought stricken Ohio River towards the Mississippi to pick up Clark and more men in Indiana Territory.

So why, you wonder, did your history book say that the Expedition began in St. Louis, struggled to cross the Rockies and reach the Pacific Ocean, and then return to St. Louis?

Two hundred years later, from August 9-13, 2003, 800 members of a national organization called the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation will be meeting at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel on Market Street to study this story and its Philadelphia connections. For details of how to be involved, visit www.lewisandclarkphila.org. The web site was created by Anne Mackintosh, a retired teacher from Haddonfield Friends School with grant funding from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Copyright free. 1076 words. By Norma M. Milner: adapt as needed.

 

UpdatedOctober 29, 2002
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