Thomas Jefferson had dreamed of sending an expedition to explore the western half of North America for decades. Shortly after American Revolution ended in 1783, he wrote to General George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s older brother, to propose that Clark lead a trip to explore “the country from the Missisipi to California.” Unable to set aside his own affairs, Clark turned him down. During the 1790’s, Jefferson mounted several other attempts to get up an expedition. The trouble, expense, and political difficulties of the endeavor (namely, the unpleasant reality that Spain was in possession of a large portion of the western continent) scuttled his efforts every time.
Now, however, it was different. Jefferson was the U.S. president, and his administration was in active, secret negotiations with France to buy the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson was painfully aware that the British, as well as the Spanish, had imperial and commercial designs on the continent. The newly-published account by Scotsman Alexander Mackenzie, chronicling the explorer’s transcontinental trip to the Pacific Ocean by way of Canada, rubbed salt in the wound.
And something else was different. Now, Jefferson had under his roof a man who was ready and willing to lead the party. That man was his 27-year-old private secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis.
Jefferson wrote later that “with all [Lewis’s] qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature, in one body, for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.” At the time, however, he had his doubts. Though Lewis was an intelligent officer and a capable frontiersman, he had not been to college, nor did he have extensive knowledge of scientific techniques. Jefferson confided to his mathematician friend, Robert Patterson: “If we could have got a person perfectly skilled in botany, natural history, mineralogy, astronomy, with at the same time the necessary firmness of body & mind, habits of living in the woods & familiarity with the Indian character, it would have been better. But I know of no such character who would undertake an enterprise so perilous.”
Since he couldn’t turn a scientist into an intrepid soldier, Jefferson was determined to turn an intrepid soldier into a scientist. For Lewis, it was time for school. After cramming his way through Jefferson’s extensive library at Monticello, Lewis embarked to Philadelphia for a crash course on science, natural history and ethnography.
Lewis spent several months learning with the leading lights of the day. He studied astronomy with Robert Patterson; navigational techniques and mapmaking with Andrew Ellicott; medicine and natural history with Benjamin Rush; botany, zoology, and Indian history with Benjamin Smith Barton; and anatomy and paleontology with Caspar Wistar.
Did Lewis come up to Jeffersonian standards of learning? Impossible, given the short period of time he had to prepare. They both knew that Lewis’s observational powers would have to make up for lack of formal scientific education. Fortunately, as Jefferson wrote, “He possesses a remarkable store of accurate observation on all subjects…& will therefore readily single out whatever presents itself new to him.”
Jefferson’s confidence in Lewis was justified. Over the 2 ½ years of the expedition, Lewis recorded over 170 plants and dozens of animals new to science. He collected his first new plant before the Corps of Discovery had even left Camp Wood near the mouth of the Missouri River, in May of 1804, and sent the slips and cuttings back to Jefferson. This was the Osage orange—known in Texas as the good old horse apple.
For more reading on Lewis’s scientific accomplishments, I highly recommend Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists by Paul Russell Cutright.
Next in this series: The Prodigal Son Returns