A major goal of the Lewis and Clark expedition was to bring back information on the inhabitants, plants, animals, minerals, geography, and weather of the West. The vast majority of this pioneering scientific work was done by Meriwether Lewis, who was specifically trained by Thomas Jefferson and the leading scientific lights of Philadelphia in preparation for the trip. Through careful observation and documentation, Lewis compiled an unprecedented chronicle of birds and mammals, trees and grasses, rocks and river currents, and the first ethnology ever attempted with the Native Americans west of St. Louis.
Between 1804 and 1806, Lewis gathered hundreds of specimens to send or bring back to the United States. These included boxes of seeds, dried plants, soils, and minerals. Over 200 of these items survive and are today at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and the Royal Botanical Garden in Kew, England.
Lewis also brought back a live magpie and a live prairie dog, and the skins of dozens of rare birds and small animals, a grizzly bear, a big-horned sheep, and a pronghorn antelope, all previously unknown in the east. From the Indians, he brought back carefully compiled vocabularies and items like pots, bows and arrows, baskets and hats, quilled and beaded clothing, and painted buffalo robes that told stories in the Native American way. As it turned out, some of these artifacts were the first and last evidence of cultures that would soon perish due to disease and cultural devastation.
So what became of the hundreds of items Lewis and Clark collected? The fate of their natural history and Indian collections is both fascinating and tragic. Much of the collection was given to the museum of Charles Willson Peale, an artist who ran an amazing private natural history museum in Philadelphia. Peale was the perfect custodian for the artifacts. But when he died, his collection was broken up and scattered. In 1849, much of Peale’s collection was purchased by a partnership between master showman P.T. Barnum and Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum. It is unknown how they divided up the artifacts, but there was little interest in Lewis and Clark by this time, and the items were not a marquee draw for either man. An 1865 fire consumed Barnum’s American Museum in New York and destroyed whatever Lewis & Clark items he had. Kimball’s museum fell on hard times and many of the artifacts were sold and carted off by members.
The same fate was suffered by the many artifacts Lewis and Clark gave to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson casually wrote to Lewis in June 1807 that a ship carrying 25 boxes and barrels of expedition items Jefferson had sent from Washington to Richmond had foundered, “and every thing lost which water could injure.” (I cringe to think of those priceless Indian vocabularies sinking to the bottom of the Chesapeake!) Nevertheless, Jefferson retained a number of the choicest items and displayed them at Monticello in a spectacular Indian Hall. In later life, Jefferson donated his collection to the University of Virginia, where some of the artifacts apparently survived into the twentieth century. At some point, however, the university’s Lewis and Clark collection simply and mysteriously disappeared. The one surviving item is a set of elk antlers which can be seen at Monticello today.
Likewise, William Clark was a careful collector of Indian artifacts and displayed them in a museum in St. Louis. Upon his death, some of Clark’s natural history items were donated to the Western Academy of Science, whose collections were destroyed in a fire in 1869. Clark’s Indian artifacts were “borrowed” by a St. Louis museum impresario for display in Europe and were never seen again. Clark also had many documents and letters stored in the attic of his country home that were thrown out and burned by a later owner of the house who had no idea of their historical significance.
Interest in Lewis and Clark revived with publication in 1893 of the first complete edition of the journals by Elliot Coues (thank goodness, the original journals were kept safe at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia). The approach of the centennial of the Expedition sparked interest in all aspects of the expedition, and an effort was made to find the surviving artifacts brought back by Lewis and Clark. In 1899, the Peabody Museum at Harvard collected the remaining Indian artifacts held by the Boston Museum. A few other verifiable items are scattered in the collections of various museums in the U.S. and England.
In 2004, for the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark’s journey, a fantastic multi-city exhibition was put together of the surviving artifacts of Lewis and Clark. We were privileged to see it in St. Louis in July 2004. If you missed it, not to worry—the exhibition produced two profusely illustrated and worthwhile books, Lewis and Clark: Across the Divide and Arts of Diplomacy: Lewis and Clark’s Indian Collection.