Jefferson and The West

By Thomas Jewett This interest about the frontier can be seen in the extensive library about the West that Jefferson maintained. From his readings he came to believe that the mammoth, giant sloth, and other prehistoric creatures would be found along the upper Missouri. "That a mountain of pure salt a mile long lay somewhere on the Great Plains; that volcanoes might still be erupting in the Badlands...that all the great rivers of the west rose from a single height of land and flowed off in several directions to the seas of the hemisphere. Most important, he believed there might be a water connection, linked by a low portage across the mountains, that would lead to the Pacific." (Ambrose, 1996.)Before he became President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson had a long-term interest in sending explorers to the West. Fifty years before the Lewis and Clark Expedition the families of Jefferson and Lewis were among those who proposed an expedition up the Missouri River. This group of Virginia gentlemen was known as the Loyal Company. Unfortunately the French and Indian War intervened and blocked their plans. The Loyal Company passed its interests down to younger generations through family and personal relationships. Jefferson would have heard from his father and later from his tutor, James Maury. Lewis probably knew of this venture from his grandfather and his tutor Matthew Maury, James' son. (Maps of Exploration, 2003.) Meriwether Lewis Jefferson had attempted to initiate several exploratory expeditions before his Presidency. While in France he urged John Ledyard to seek a route to the Pacific by crossing Russia. "I suggested to him the enterprise of exploring the Western part of our continent by passing thro St. Petersburg to Kamschatka, and procuring a passage thence in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka Sound, whence he might make his way across the Continent to America." Ledyard under undertook the journey but was stopped mid-way across Russia by authorities and deported. (Library of Congress, 2003.) In 1783, Jefferson, wanted to personally fund an expedition to explore western North America. It is with some historical irony that Jefferson approached Colonel George Rogers Clark to lead the expedition, but the Colonel declined, recommending his younger brother William. Nothing came of this venture and it wasn't until ten years later that Jefferson, along with other members of the American Philosophical Society attempted financing another expedition. In another bit of irony, Meriwether Lewis volunteered to lead this effort, but was passed over because at the age of 18 he was considered too young and inexperienced. A French scientist, Andre Michaux was selected. Michaux was a well-trained botanist and seasoned explorer. The expedition was aborted in the Ohio River Valley when it was found that Michaux was a French agent and involved in political intrigues. (Academy of Sciences, 2003.) It wasn't until Jefferson became President, almost a decade later, that he publicly refocused his attention on the West. Jefferson became President on March 4, 1801, but even before his inauguration, he wrote to General James Wilkerson, commanding General of the Army requesting Lewis for his private secretary. Jefferson gave two reasons for seeking out Lewis: "first a knowledge of the western country and the army and secondly, a personal acquaintance with him, owing from his being of my neighborhood." (Monticello, 2003.) In his letter to Lewis, Jefferson states that he wanted the young man to not only take care of business affairs, but also assist in contributing "to the mass of information which is interesting to the administration to acquire." (Academy of Sciences 2003.) Lewis immediately accepted the position, for it promised almost unlimited access to important people and knowledge. The job came with a horse, servant, and a small salary, and the amazing perk of dealing each day with Jefferson. Lewis was born on his father's farm, Locust Hill, located approximately ten miles west of Monticello on August 18, 1774. Jefferson knew him almost from the day he was born. And, two of Jefferson's siblings had married into the Lewis family. Lewis' father, William, and mother, Lucy Meriwether, were second cousins, and by naming their eldest son for his mother's family, denoted his association with two prominent families in Virginia. (Monticello, 2003) Lewis lived with Jefferson in the White House and the two ate meals together almost every night. Lewis, who had been fatherless since the age of five, gained in his new patron far more than role model and mentor, but more than likely a father figure as well. Jefferson was impressed by the young man's knowledge of the army, his curiosity, and his abilities as a woodsman. It was also during this time that he noted "a certain hypochondria which ran in the family." Years later Jefferson wrote of his feelings for his young prot'eg'e: Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness & perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order & discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs & principles, habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables & animals of his own country, against losing time in the description of objects already possessed, honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound under- standing and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves, with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in con- fiding the enterprise to him. (As cited in Malone, 1974.) Jefferson's interest in the West was given a dramatic push in January, 1802, when he and Lewis read Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Lawrence, Through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Ocean. In his book Mackenzie had urged the necessity for vigorous efforts to find a water route to the northwest coast of North America before the Americans did, so that Britain could claim for herself "the entire command of the fur trade of North America" from "48 degrees north to the Pole." England could accomplish this "by opening this intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and forming regular establishments through the interior and at both extremes, as well as along the coasts and islands." Such action would block the commercial and political ambitions of the United States. (Mapp, 1991.) Mackenzie's description of an easy crossing of the Continental Divide helped convince Jefferson of the feasibility of an American expedition across the continent. Sometime in the fall of 1802, he decided that a serious government supported expedition was needed. The Louisiana Purchase was negotiated at the same time the expedition was being planned. Jefferson's request to Congress for twenty five hundred dollars needed for the Corps of Discovery came one week after he'd asked nearly $10 million to secure New Orleans. (Academy of Sciences, 2003.) It was important for Lewis to gain certain scientific skills and to buy equipment that would be needed for the journey. In the spring of 1803, he traveled to Philadelphia to study with the leading scientists of the day. Andrew Ellicott taught him map making and surveying. Benjamin Barton tutored botany, Robert Patterson in mathematics, Caspar Wistar in anatomy and fossils, and Benjamin Rush in medicine. During this time, Lewis also visited Harpers Ferry to obtain rifles and other supplies that he had shipped to Pittsburgh. (Monticello, 2003.) Jefferson drafted explicit instructions for Clark that ran many pages long. Clark was to map the area to be explored, search for an all water route to the Pacific, catalogue flora and fauna, and send back specimens. He was to search for fossils of which Jefferson had a great interest. And, he was to determine the area's fitness as to agriculture and mining, since there were many who believed that the Purchase was a great wasteland and desert.

Once the expedition left the St. Louis area, communication between Jefferson and Lewis, was sketchy and often second-hand through Indian emissaries that had been sent to Washington by Lewis. Jefferson showed his regard for the young captain in an address to Osage visitors. "I sent a beloved man, Capt. Lewis, one of my own household, to learn something of the people with whom we now united, to let you know we were your friends, to invite you to come and see us, and to tell us how we can be useful to you." (As cited in Malone, 1974.)

One can imagine Jefferson's apprehension as the months went by with no word from Lewis. Jefferson finally received a letter from Lewis on October 24, 1806 announcing his safe return. Jefferson responded to the news with "unspeakable joy." The unknown scenes in which you were engaged, and the length of time without hearing of you had begun to be felt awfully." "Its only object is to assure you of what you already know, my constant affection for you and the joy with which all your friends here will receive you." (Malone, 1974.)

Lewis was feted in Washington by his mentor. The two discussed in length the expedition and the organization and publishing of scientific reports and journals. It is probable that they also talked about the expeditions of Zebulon Pike's treks to the west, which Jefferson's administration had sponsored.

In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis Governor of the Louisiana Territory. He was stationed in St. Louis. It was during his tenure there that the signs of "the hypochondria" became prominent. He was experiencing bouts of malaria, financial troubles, and chiding from Jefferson to complete the journals. Lewis took to drink and the taking of opium pills. His mental and physical condition continued to deteriorate to the extent that he took his own life in 1809. Jefferson, later, in writing, a eulogy sounded very much like a father finding explanations for a son.

Governor Lewis had from early life been subject to hypochondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of the family of his name, and were more immediately inherited by him from his father. They had not however been so strong as to give uneasiness to his family. While he lived with me in Washington, I observed at times sensible depressions of mind, but knowing their constitutional source, I estimated their course by what I had seen in the family. During his western expedition the constant exertion, which that required...suspended these distressing affections; but after his establishment at St. Louis in sedentary occupations they returned upon him with redoubled vigor, and began seriously to alarm his friends. He was in a paroxysm of one of these when his affairs rendered it necessary for him to go to Washington... About 3 o'clock in the night he did the deed that plunged his friends into affliction and deprived his country of one of her most valued citizens whose valor and intelligence would have been now employed in avenging the wrongs of his country and in emulating by land the splendid deeds which have honored her at sea. (As cited in Montgomery, 2000.)

The above was penned in 1812 as part of an introductory biography for the Expedition's Journals, which were finally published in 1814. It was a fitting tribute for Lewis, and also for Jefferson and his interest in the West.


Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage. 1996, Simon & Schuster.

"Jefferson's West". Monticello: The Home of Thomas Jefferson.

"Lewis and Clark". The Academy of Natural Sciences.

"Lewis and Clark: The Maps of Exploration 1507-1814.

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: Second Term 1805-l808. 1974, Little, Brown And Company.

Mapp, Alf, J. Thomas Jefferson Passionate Pilgrim. 1991, Madison Books.

Montgomery, M.R. Jefferson and the Gun-men. 2000, Crown Publishers.

"Thomas Jefferson". Library of Congress Exhibition.

Tom Jewett is presently an Assistant Professor at McKendree College. He retired from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville three years ago and holds the title of Professor Emeritus from that institution.

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