Lewis & Clark in Philadelphia (Part II): The Map’s the Thing

Portrait of William Clark by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1810

When last we checked in with Meriwether Lewis, he had just stormed the shops of Philadelphia, buying anything and everything his “corps of discovery” might need as they made their way across the North American continent. With more than a ton and a half of “portable” soup, calico ruffled shirts, tomahawks, fishhooks (and much more) packed in a Conestoga wagon headed to Pittsburgh, Lewis went back to Washington, D.C. one last time. From there, he invited his old friend, William Clark, to share in the leadership of the expedition.

Clark couldn’t have responded with more enthusiasm: “…I will chearfully join you in an ‘official Charrector’ as mentioned in your letter, and partake of the dangers, difficulties, and fatigues, and I anticipate the honors & rewards of the result of such an enterprise, should we be successful in accomplishing it.  This is an undertaking fraited with many difeculties, but my friend I do assure you that no man lives whith whome I would perfur to undertake Such a Trip &c. as yourself.”

The expedition took 28 months, far longer than expected. Lewis and Clark and their “Corps of Discovery” covered 8,000 miles and determined that the Pacific was about 1,200 miles farther away than previously thought. No Northwest Passage existed, after all, and the mountains were taller than anyone had possibly imagined. Lewis and Clark identified and recorded everything and everyone along the way: mountains, rivers, prairies and scores of Native American tribes. They collected 178 previously unknown plants and 122 previously unknown animals.

In his annual message to Congress in December 1807, President Jefferson proclaimed the expedition “has had all the success which could have been expected.” But Jefferson knew the ultimate success would be publication of the expedition’s discoveries.  And that’s what brought Lewis back to Philadelphia in 1807. He met with a printer, issued a prospectus, and promised three, illustrated volumes that would “open views of great and immediate objects of national utility.” Lewis sat for one portrait by Charles Willson Peale and another by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevre de Saint Memin, proudly wearing his expedition outfit and the treasured ermine-skin robe given him by a Shoshone chief.

Writing the book, it turned out, was more challenging than crossing the continent. Processing the expedition’s scientific and geographic discoveries proved overwhelming for Lewis. The coordination of artwork depicting specimens, charts, and maps based on the expeditions stacks of journals proved too much for a man also burdened with alcoholism and depression. One delay led to another and two years passed when a frustrated and angry Jefferson wrote Lewis that “I have so often promised copies to my literary correspondents in France, that I am almost bankrupt in their eyes.”  Lewis, who had not yet completed even a single chapter, committed suicide a few months later.

Detail of "Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America," 1814. (Wikimedia Commons)

After Lewis’s death, the project fell into the hands of a reluctant William Clark, who visited Philadelphia to find a more experienced author. As Charles Willson Peale painted Clark’s portrait (illustrated here) he urged Clark to stick with the project, but Clark knew that Philadelphia had more willing and more able literary talents. Nicholas Biddle and his associate Paul Allen were the ones for the job.

Lewis’s stumbling block had become Biddle’s stepping stone. But Biddle wanted nothing to do with the scientific findings, which guaranteed the narrative would be of limited value. Clark knew the publication would suffer in the hands of an ambitious cosmopolitan far removed from the expedition (Biddle, the Princeton graduate, was destined for a career in banking and finance), but he also knew the plagued publication would finally be over with. And while many other discoveries could come out over time, here, finally, was the chance to publish his manuscript map, the first of the American West.

By the Spring of 1814, when The History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the Source of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the Columbia River to the Source of the Pacific Ocean finally appeared, the words had passed through the hands of at least seven writers and two publishers and taken six years to write. The book’s map, on the other hand, had remained relatively unscathed.

Like Lewis, Clark had written extensive diary entries, and they would prove valuable, but the map was a graphic, first draft of the entire expedition. Along the way, Clark had transcribed information drawn in dust by tribal elders. Back in Washington D.C., he had witnessed Jefferson’s excitement as the President knelt on the floor of the White House inspecting his unfurled map. As far as Clark was concerned, Biddle’s text didn’t much matter. He put his faith in his map of the American West, a map which, inch-for-inch, had it all over any hand-me-down written account.

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