The late Stephen Ambrose liked to begin his lectures on the Lewis and Clark Expedition by saying that the men (and one woman) of the Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery traveled “from sea to shining sea.” And yet typically, accounts of the journey begin with Lewis and Clark leaving St. Charles, Mo., on May 14, 1804, with three heavily laden boats, a couple of horses, a crew of approximately 50 men and a Newfoundland dog named Seaman.
So in what sense would that be a “transcontinental”journey? “From St. Charles to shining sea” just doesn’t rise to the level of American epic. As Ambrose well knew, the great journey really began far to the east in Philadelphia, Monticello, and Washington, D.C.
The Making of an American Epic
From 1978, when the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail was established by Congress, until 2019, the eastern terminus of the expedition was regarded as St. Louis, home of the Gateway Arch, not far from where Lewis and Clark wintered in 1803 before they began their historic ascent of what Lewis called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” Forty years after the trail was established, on March 12, 2019, President Donald Trump signed legislation extending the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail from St. Louis all the way up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh, thus adding 1,200 miles to the trail that now measured a whopping 4,900 miles from Pittsburgh to Astoria, Ore. The logic? Pittsburgh is where Capt. Meriwether Lewis had a 55-foot barge (the keelboat) built as the command module of the expedition’s flotilla.
The expedition’s “float trip” began in Pittsburgh, but by the time Lewis set out, on Aug. 30, 1803, he had already done considerable preparation that was critical to the success of the enterprise. Just as the Missouri River has no single source, but rather a cluster of feeder streams that find their way to the Missouri from all over southwestern Montana, including from within Yellowstone National Park, so the Lewis and Clark Expedition has a cluster of cultural feeder streams.
Born at Jefferson’s Fortress of Solitude
One principal tributary was Monticello, Jefferson’s remote “fortress of solitude” in what was then the western frontier of Virginia. Jefferson had been fascinated by the American West all of his life. He had attempted on several previous occasions to organize a reconnaissance of the Missouri River all the way to its source — and beyond. He built his Palladian villa Monticello in what then was the western frontier of Virginia; its western portico looked up over the Blue Ridge Mountains into the still-mysterious interior of the continent. At Monticello, Jefferson had assembled his famous library of almost 7,000 volumes, one of the largest in the English-speaking world. He said that he had given particular attention to acquiring any book that pertained in any way to the American West, the Louisiana Territory, the flora and fauna and geography of the American interior, Native Americans, and such rare or possibly extinct animals as the mastodon, mammoth and the Great Claw (the Megalonyx).
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was unquestionably the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson. That vision was born at what he called “our own dear Monticello … .” When Meriwether Lewis returned safely from the West in the autumn of 1806, he traveled directly to Charlottesville (where his mother also lived) before proceeding on to Washington, D.C.
Thomas Jefferson’s Transcontinental Vision
Jefferson dispatched a number of exploring expeditions into the West during his eight-year term as president: Hunter and Dunbar on the Ouachita River; Freeman and Custis on the Red; Zebulon Pike on the Mississsippi and (a year later) on the Arkansas River. Although he liked to portray these expeditions as purely “literary” (that is, scientific), Jefferson was in fact an ardent expansionist. Reflecting on all of this hectic exploration, Jefferson wrote, “The work we are now doing is, I trust, done for posterity in such a way that they need not repeat it. We shall delineate with correctness the great (river) arteries of this country. Those who come after us will fill up the canvas we began.”
Each of these extraordinary missions was important to Jefferson, but he had a particular interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, for which he wrote his famous Enlightenment instructions June 20, 1803. Unlike the others, Lewis was one of Jefferson’s proteges. He grew up within sight of Monticello. He lived with Jefferson in the White House for more than two years before the expedition, serving as Jefferson’s private secretary. We would give anything to have transcripts of the conversations they had during those years: about Native Americans, about the future of the American West, about the fur trade, about the threat of European powers such as Spain and France and even Britain to America’s destiny beyond the Mississippi River.
Jefferson hoped Lewis would find a convenient river highway across the continent — the Ohio to the Mississippi, the Mississippi to the Missouri, the Missouri to its source; a short portage across the Rocky Mountains; and then the River of the West (Snake-Columbia) to the Pacific Ocean.
The Case for Philadelphia
To his Enlightenment friends, Jefferson freely acknowledged that Meriwether Lewis was “not regularly educated.” Education was a much less organized thing in the early national period, but even by those informal standards Lewis had not much more than a smattering of formal education. Jefferson knew, however, that Lewis had important compensating virtues — what we call the “right stuff.” He was courageous, disciplined, determined, “habituated to the woods,” a born rambler, and he possessed “a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves.”
To prepare him for the great journey, Jefferson sent young Lewis to Philadelphia, then the intellectual and cultural capital of the United States, to get training in rudimentary medicine, to learn about the Linnaean classification of plants and animals, to learn what he could about determining latitude and longitude in the field and to learn how to collect and press plants. Lewis worked with Benjamin Smith Barton on the botanical matters, with the anatomist Caspar Wistar on the animals he might encounter and with mathematician Robert Patterson on celestial observation (most importantly, longitude).
Dr. Benjamin Rush, the hero of the Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, gave Lewis medical advice, suggestions about what medical equipment to include in his luggage, including his famous pills for overcoming bowel obstructions, Dr. Rush’s Thunderclappers, and a questionnaire of topics Lewis might wish to discuss with the Native Americans he met.
Philadelphia was the home of the College of Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society (of which Jefferson was also president) and the Library Company of Philadelphia, the world’s first subscription library. With its population of approximately 60,000, Philadelphia was then the second most important city in the emerging British Empire. The best print shops were in Philadelphia, the finest illustrators and America’s greatest concentration of intellectual firepower — as John F. Kennedy later famously said, “with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” If Jefferson had not sent Lewis to Philadelphia for his crash course in the Enlightenment, he would have had to send him across the ocean to Edinburgh, London, or Leyden in the Netherlands.
Looking West from Nascent National Capital
The new national capital on the Potomac was raw and rudimentary in 1803. Naturally, Jefferson loved it, as much for what it symbolized as for its bucolic ambience. Nobody else liked it much. Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin declared that every member of Congress detested it without a single exception. The Federalist bon vivant and sarcast Gouverneur Morris said, “I find it is a great city for future habitation. We only need here houses, cellars, kitchens, scholarly men, amiable women, and a few other such trifles, to possess a perfect city.” Grumpy congressmen traveled between the unfinished U.S. Capitol and the unfinished White House through the mire and tree stumps of what would become Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a military reconnaissance mission, which meant that it answered to the United States government. President Jefferson sent a secret message to Congress on Jan. 18, 1803, asking for a modest appropriation to explore the American West via the Missouri-Columbia corridor. Congress dutifully provided $2,500 of seed money and gave Lewis authorization to gather men and materiel at such military facilities as the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Fort Kaskaskia, Southwest Point and others.
Lewis had some access to Jefferson’s fabulous private library at Monticello, but he spent most of his time between April 1801 and July 1803 with Jefferson in Washington, D.C., where Jefferson said, in a letter to his daughter, that they lived alone like two church mice in the cavernous White House. Much of the briefing for the Lewis and Clark Expedition occurred in Washington. Jefferson was a visionary who believed the destiny of the American republic lay in the West. When the expedition finally got underway, Lewis began by riding a horse from Washington to Harper’s Ferry and then on to Pittsburgh.
Where Does America’s Original Great Road Trip Begin?
The case can be made that the Lewis and Clark Expedition began in each of these eastern sites. My point is that if we’re going to extend the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail east to the head of the Ohio River, we may as well extend it all the way east to where it was conceived, authorized, funded, organized, fitted out and trained for its epic mission. In the great scheme of things, just where we decide the Lewis and Clark Expedition began is not very significant, of course. Congress has more important things to consider like school shootings, the chaos at the U.S.-Mexico borde, and the possible death of the planet Earth. But this is certainly more important than designating National Artichoke Hearts Day, reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States or recognizing National Corvette Day.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition is, by any measure, one of the top stories in American history. From the west portico of Monticello in January 2003, kicking off the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, the great scholar James Ronda called the expedition “America’s first great road story.” It ranks with the American Revolution, the Civil War, the California Gold Rush, Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the Apollo space program in the epic of America. More to the point, it has the great advantage of being a multicultural story — Army officers and rough frontiersmen, an African American slave (York), more than 50 distinct Native American tribes, French voyageurs and, of course, Sacagawea, the Shoshone-Hidatsa woman who crossed the continent and back again with her infant son, Jean Baptiste, on her back. Even though Lewis and Clark were harbingers of the great conquest — the Europeanization of North America in the 19th century — they are even now regarded as comparatively innocent and even benign colonial agents of what Jefferson called “an empire for liberty such as the world has never previously seen.”
Given the paralysis and the hyper-partisanship of our national political system, it is useful sometimes to pass nonpartisan “feel good” legislation. Nobody’s ox would be gored by extending the trail from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Monticello. Thanks to a series of unfortunate events, not the least of which was Lewis’ death (at his own hand) just three years after the Corps of Discovery returned, the Lewis and Clark Expedition has been somewhat ghettoized as an adventure story. It deserves to be regarded as a major expression of the Enlightenment, in the same zone as the voyages of Captain James Cook, Denis Diderot’s magnificent “Encyclopedia,” Dr. Johnson’s 1755 “A Dictionary of the English Language” or the South American explorations of Alexander von Humboldt.
By extending the trail to Washington, Monticello and Philadelphia, we would officially acknowledge that the achievement of the Jefferson, Lewis, and Clark Expedition is not exclusively about boats, bears, buffalo and blunderbusses.
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.