Meriwether Lewis in Philadelphia

Captain Meriwether Lewis, by Charles Willson Peale, 1807.

This time, Thomas Jefferson wasn’t messing around. As POTUS (President of the United States) and POTAPS (President of the American Philosophical Society) in 1803, Jefferson now had the power, the intelligence and the allies to mount a secret missionand finally discover—if one existed—a water route across the American continent. All he needed was “an intelligent officer, with ten or twelve chosen men, fit for the enterprise” to “explore the Missouri river… it’s course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean.”  Along the way, of course, they’d gather all kinds of information that would prove useful and valuable to the new nation.

Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis for the venture and instructed him to prepare an expedition to the Mississippi River, up the Missouri River and into the uncharted beyond. “You will take careful observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkeable points;” Jefferson wrote Lewis, you will observe and even collect flora and fauna along the way. And you will “endeavor to make yourself acquainted…with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue.” Learn everything about them: “the names of the nations & their numbers; the extent & limits of their possessions; their relations with other tribes of nations; their language, traditions, monuments; their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting, war, arts, & the implements for these.”  Lewis was to keep a keen eye for “articles of commerce they may need or furnish, & to what extent.”

The President had an expedition in mind here much more ambitious than a search for the North West Passage. A successful Lewis would return with enough new information to publish a veritable Encyclopedia Americana.

In order to prepare, Jefferson sent Lewis to Philadelphia to be tutored by the President’s colleagues at the American Philosophical Society: botanist Benjamin Smith Barton, geographer Robert Patterson, anatomist Caspar Wistar and physician Benjamin Rush. Jefferson had given Rush a heads up that Lewis was on his way and urged him “to prepare some notes of such particulars as may occur in his journey & which you think should draw his attention & enquiry.”

While in Philadelphia, Lewis outfitted for the expedition. With the help of Israel Whelan, who served as a guide through scores of specialty shops, Lewis went on a shopping spree the likes of which had never been seen before or since. Lewis spent more than $2,100 on everything from “calico ruffled shirts” and “strong wine” to “tomahawks” and “jews harps.” From Thomas Parker, 31 South Third Street he bought a gold chronometer; from Thomas Leiper’s, 726 Market Street, he bought 63 pounds of “pigtail tobacco.” At François Baillet’s, 21 N. 9th, Lewis bought 193 pounds of “portable soup;” in Christian H. Denchla’s, 114 North Third, Lewis scooped up 73 dozen “colored beads, small mirrors, burning glasses, pin cases, earrings, tapes and ribbons, tassels and small bells”—gifts for Native Americans. Of the 27 Philadelphia shops Whelan and Lewis visited more than 200 years ago, not one remains intact.

On June 10, 1803, a Conestoga wagon packed with Lewis’ 3,500-pound haul trundled across the floating bridge at Gray’s Ferry for points west.  And nine days later, Lewis had made his way back to Washington, D.C. and wrote his old friend William Clark, informing him of the still secret mission, and proposed that Clark share equally in its leadership. “President Thomas Jefferson and the congress of the United States wish to explore the western rivers which may run all the way across North America to the western ocean, and they have asked me to conduct the passage. The aims are to meet and begin trading with Indian tribes, to discover new plants and animals and to make new maps. My friend, could you join me to lead this enterprise with all its dangers, its fatigues and its honors?”

Next Time: Clark’s Response and more Philadelphia connections.