The Eastern Legacy

From Lewis and Clark
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Preparation for the Great Exploratory Expedition

A great exploratory expedition is initiated long before the first footstep on the trail or the first oar dips into the water. In 1803 the military and scientific expedition of Lewis and Clark began in the East with planning, recruitment, training, and outfitting for the journey. Conceived in the mind of President Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, authorized by Congress, trained by leading scholars of the day in Philadelphia, armed with supplies from Schuykill and Harpers Ferry arsenals, Meriwether Lewis headed west and traveled nearly a thousand miles down the entire length of the Ohio River. William Clark joined him at the Falls of the Ohio. The keelboat, red and white pirogues, air rifle, iron frame boat, and provisions were obtained in the East. Men were recruited for the journey in the East including Pittsburgh, the Falls of the Ohio, and Ft. Massac. Many historic sites connected with the journey exist in the East, and with the men who served and returned home. Items obtained on the journey such as the original journals of Lewis and Clark, and the plant specimens they collected still exist in eastern repositories. The Corps of Discovery connects our nation from coast to coast both in the beginning and the end of the expedition.


Lewis was counseled in Philadelphia by leading scientists of the day Benjamin Smith Barton (botany), Robert Patterson (mathematics), Benjamin Rush (medicine), and Caspar Wistar (paleontology). While there, he acquired supplies from local merchants and Schuykill Arsenal. In Lancaster, Lewis received counsel from Andrew Ellicott.

Congress Acts

Congress provided $2,500 to obtain supplies, materials, and services needed for this military expedition. Items included: mathematical instruments, arms and accouterments extraordinary (clothing), camp equipage, medicine and packing, means of transportation, Indian presents, provisions extraordinary, materials for portable packs, pay for hunters, guides, and interpreters, silver coin to defray expenses, and contingencies. This military expedition was armed, trained, and disciplined.

Why Did They Go?

President Thomas Jefferson directed Meriwether Lewis to find and map an all water route across the continent –critical for the future commerce and expansion of America –in addition to collecting information about the natural sciences and Indian cultures of the new West. Exploration of the West was critical to the creation of the American Empire envisioned by Jefferson and to the stabilization of the expansion of the United States to the western territories lying east of the Mississippi River.

Ohio River

Departing on 31 August 1803 from Pittsburgh, Lewis began his arduous journey down the Ohio River. Water was so low in several places that he was forced to unload his boats, drag them down the riverbed, and reload. He recorded in his journal thick fogs, riffles and falls, leaky boats, campsites, flora and fauna, forts such as Ft. Steuben and ruins of Ft. Fincastle (renamed Ft. Henry), recruitments, and other information as he traveled down the Ohio.

Supplies shipped overland from Harpers Ferry to Wheeling were loaded into the keelboat, pirogues, and other boats. The red pirogue was acquired at this site.

Big Bone Lick

At Big Bone Lick, Kentucky (south of Cincinnati, Ohio) Meriwether Lewis collected for President Jefferson samples of the fossilized bones of large prehistoric animals found at the salt springs there. Instructed to record animals they saw on the journey, the explorers did not know if these animals still lived in the west.

Falls of the Ohio

William Clark, who was living with his older brother, George Rogers Clark, in Clarksville, Indiana, joined Lewis at the Falls of the Ohio. Preparation for the trip proceeded including recruitment of the ‘nine young men from Kentucky.’

Fort Massac

Further down the river at the 10-year old Fort Massac, Lewis and Clark drew military supplies and volunteers from the troops stationed there. The interpreter, George Droulliard, was hired at the fort.

Headed West

The captains spent several days at the mouth of the Ohio River as they learned to use their mapmaking instruments and surveying equipment.

Once they reached St. Louis, Missouri, their departure from that point marked a movement into the Louisiana Territory and beyond.

Returning to the East

The expedition did not return to the east until 1806 after traveling about 8,000 miles to the west coast and back. No national repository for items brought back from the expedition existed at the time. Many items ended up in Charles Willson Peale’s Museum and the American Philosophical Society. The journals of Lewis and Clark are still extant in the American Philosophical Society, and 217 of the plant specimens they collected are in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Most of the men who left their homes in the east returned, and are buried here. Sergeant Charles Floyd did not return and is buried along the trail where he died. Meriwether Lewis is buried at Grinders Stand in Tennessee, William Clark in the St. Louis area, Sergeant Patrick Gass in Wellsburg, West Virginia, and others in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.

Jefferson knew, "those who come after us will…fill up the canvas we begin."

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