Modern history



April–July 1807

At the end of March, Lewis left Washington for Philadelphia, taking with him what Paul Russell Cutright has called “perhaps the most important account of discovery and exploration ever written.”1 His objective was singular: to get the journals and map published and made available to the scientific and lay public as soon as possible.

He went at it with as much determination as he had attacked the Rocky Mountains. He got a room at the boardinghouse of Mrs. Eliza Wood, at Cherry near Tenth, and began making calls on the dozen or more men he was relying on for help.

He started with John Conrad, head of a publishing and bookselling firm located at 30 Chestnut Street. As a first-time author, Lewis knew nothing about the preparation of a manuscript for the printer. There were plates to be prepared for the maps, drawings to be done, calculations from the celestial observations to be made, botanical descriptions to be completed, a prospectus to be written, published, and distributed, and more. Most important of all was the editing of the journals.2

Conrad’s estimate of the publishing costs came to forty-five hundred dollars.3 This did not include the drawings, calculations, salary for an editor (who presumably would be going to St. Louis with Lewis), and other expenses, all of which would come from Lewis’s pocket. Conrad also wrote—or at least helped Lewis write—a formal prospectus, which was signed by Lewis and published on June 3, 1807.

Lewis had to pay for the marketing. He hired J. B. Varnum, Jr., son of a prominent Massachusetts politician, to do the work at a cost of ten dollars. Varnum sent copies to the newspapers and distributed copies in Philadelphia, Washington, and elsewhere.4

The prospectus was well done, nicely designed to excite the greatest interest around the country among entrepreneurs looking to invest in the fur trade, potential settlers in the West, scientists, and the general public.

Lewis promised that the first part, consisting of two volumes, would contain “a narrative of the voyage.” The second part, in a single volume, would cover the scientific research, “under the heads of Botany, Mineralogy, and Zoology.” Part three would consist of Clark’s map along with the latitude and longitude of the important places, based on “a series of several hundred celestial observations, made by Captain Lewis during his tour.” The price would be ten dollars for the first part, eleven for the second, and ten for the map.5

That was a lot to promise. Lewis plunged into the task of making good on his word. He called on Dr. Barton, at his home at 184 Mulberry Street, depending on Barton for help with the natural-history volume. Barton agreed, eagerly: there was so much to excite him in the collection of pressed plants. Lewis had done the pressing in the field, following directions given him by Barton in the spring of 1803, and had done the demanding, time-consuming, detailed work well. Almost all the plants were new to science, as were most of the animals.

Lewis returned to Barton the copy of Antoine du Pratz’s History of Louisiana that Barton had loaned him on the eve of his departure. On the flyleaf, Lewis wrote: “Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton was so obliging as to lend me this copy of Monsr. Du Pratz’ History of Louisiana in June 1803, it has since been conveyed by me to the Pacific Ocean through the interior of North America on my late tour thither and is now returned to it’s proprietor by his Friend and Obt. Servt. Meriwether Lewis, Philadelphia, May 9, 1807.”6

The inscribed book is today in the Library Company, Philadelphia, a piece of Americana beyond price. The book, along with the others in Lewis’s traveling library, was one of the few artifacts to go coast-to-coast and back with Lewis. Aside from the books and the then blank journals, almost everything else he took with him from Philadelphia in 1803—medicines, portable soup, scientific instruments, trade goods, and the rest—was either used up on the voyage or sold at auction in St. Louis when he returned. About the only other item Lewis carried from Pittsburgh to the Pacific and back was his rifle.

Books, the journals, and a rifle—these were Meriwether Lewis’s essentials. With them, he had conquered and described a wilderness.

Frederick Pursh was a thirty-three-year-old, German-born and -trained botanist, working with Dr. Barton. On April 5, Jefferson’s friend and Philadelphia seed merchant Bernard McMahon wrote to Lewis, to thank him for the seeds, and to recommend Pursh to him as the proper person to make the scientific descriptions of the plants. McMahon said Pursh was “better acquainted with plants, in general, than any man I ever conversed with on the subject. . . . He is a very intelligent and practical Botanist [and] would be well inclined to render you any service in his power.”7

When Lewis met Pursh, he was as impressed as McMahon had been, especially by Pursh’s ability to draw plants and to give them proper scientific descriptions—areas in which Lewis felt himself to be deficient. Pursh was excited by the prospect of assisting in the publication of the botanical part of the journals, as well he might have been, since there were over one hundred plants described by Pursh as “either entirely new or but little known.” On May 10, Lewis paid Pursh thirty dollars “for assisting me in preparing drawings and arranging specemines of plants for my work,” and two weeks later he paid Pursh an additional forty dollars “in advance.”I, 8

Jefferson and Lewis were of one mind in regarding Peale’s Museum in Independence Hall as the most logical repository for the zoological and ethnological specimens brought back from the West. As a result, with the exception of a few retained by Jefferson for the great hall at Monticello and two or three fancied by Lewis and Clark themselves, Lewis handed the collection over to Peale, which enhanced the prestige of his museum immeasurably.9

In return, Peale went to work drawing the animals (which he mounted himself) for Lewis’s book.II He also painted Lewis’s portrait; it is today in the Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, hanging in the distinguished company of Peale’s portraits of Washington and Jefferson. And he made a wax figure of Lewis, informing Jefferson that his intention was “to give a lesson to the Indians who may visit the Museum, and also to show my sentiments respecting wars.” He had Lewis dressed in an elegant Indian robe made of 140 ermine skins (given to Lewis by Cameahwait).10

Peale was tremendously excited by the specimens. “I have animals brought from the sea coast,” he exulted to Philadelphia musician John Hawkins in a May 5 letter, “also some parts of the dress &c of the Natives of Columbia River, [and] have animals totally unknown.”

In 1807, Lewis attended three meetings of the American Philosophical Society (April 17, June 19, and July 17), where it can be assumed he was the center of attention, bombarded with questions from the leading scientific figures of the day. Most of all, they wanted to know publication plans.

“It is a work that seems to excite much attention,” Peale told Hawkins, “& will I hope have a great sale & give considerable profit to this bold adventurer.”11

To help ensure that hoped-for success, Lewis got other artists involved. John James Barralet was a sixty-year-old Irish-born engraver. On July 14, Lewis paid him forty dollars for “two drawings [of] water falls.”12 He engaged the well-known thirty-seven-year-old French-born portrait painter Saint-Mémin to do drawings of the Osage and Mandan Indians who had come east with him, at a cost of $83.50. Saint-Mémin also painted Lewis’s portrait.III

Alexander Wilson was a thirty-one-year-old, Scottish-born artist-naturalist, best known today for his beautifully illustrated, multivolumed American Ornithology. In that work Wilson wrote, “It was the request and particular wish of Captain Lewis made to me in person that I make drawings of each of the feathered tribe as had been preserved, and were new.”13 Among others from the expedition, the set includes Wilson’s painting of Lewis’s woodpecker.


C. B. J. Févret de Saint-Mémin’s portrait of Lewis (1807). (Missouri Historical Society)

Lewis had a journal stuffed with figures—the measurements of the passage of the moon past the stars, taken at every opportunity along the voyage. They had cost him much lost sleep, and considerable frustration when clouds obscured the moon. But with the figures, an expert could establish the longitude of the place where they were made.

Ferdinand Hassler, a thirty-seven-year-old, Swiss-born mathematician, was the ideal man for the job. He had just been appointed instructor of mathematics at West Point, but, before leaving Philadelphia, Lewis engaged him to make the calculations; he advanced Hassler $100 on May 3.14

Before Clark left for St. Louis in March 1807, the captains had made an oral agreement to split the costs involved in preparing the work. They had also agreed to purchase Sergeant Ordway’s journal from him at a price of $300, presumably with the objective of forestalling yet another rival and to incorporate Ordway’s writing into their book. On April 18, Lewis paid Ordway a $150 advance.15

By July, Lewis had signed up botanists, ornithologists, naturalists, artists, mathematicians, zoologists, and others to help make his work as good as it could possibly be. He had done everything he could to hurry along the publication process—except one thing. He had not hired an editor.

This is inexplicable. He knew Conrad could not simply set type from the journals as they stood. In the first place, there was the daunting task of separating out the scientific material from the narrative flow. Then there was the need to incorporate Ordway’s journal. In addition, there was the pressing necessity of correcting the spellings and grammar.

Lewis had neither the skills nor the time to do these jobs himself. He was being pressed on an almost daily basis by Conrad to start turning in manuscript. At the American Philosophical Society, and around Philadelphia, the question he most often heard was, When do we get to see the book? He knew that Jefferson greatly desired as early a publication as possible. He had sufficient funds to hire the work done. Yet, as far as is known, he made no effort whatsoever to find an editor, and he prepared not a single line himself.

Lewis spent considerable time on paperwork. Scarcely had he arrived in Philadelphia when the accountant of the War Department, one William Simmons, began to pester him about the many drafts on the government Lewis had signed. The drafts were coming in for payment, and Simmons wanted more information about them. On June 17, in one of his letters, Simmons wrote the heart-stopping lines, “You will therefore do well to bring with you [back to Washington] any papers or documents which may relate to your expenditures on the Expedition, so as to explain such of the charges as may require it.” As one example, Lewis had presented no receipts for the rations or the clothing account for the men. “I mention this Item as the most prominent one . . . [but] others may also require [proof].”16

The total number of drafts involved ran to 1,989 items. Like any public servant who has his expense account questioned by the government, Lewis was going to find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to come up with all the receipts. Still, he worked at the task, both in Philadelphia and, later, back in Washington. By early August, he had a “final summation” ready. It came to $38,722.25.

For many of the drafts, the government was simply going to have to take Lewis’s word for it. One charming example went back to March 1806, when Lewis had traded his uniform coat (“but little worn”) to the Clatsops for a canoe. Of course no receipt existed. Lewis listed it this way: “One Uniform Laced Coat, one silver Epaulet, one Dirk, & belt, one hanger & belt, one pistol & one fowling piece, all private property, given in exchange for Canoe, Horses &c. for public service during the expedition—$135.”17

It is easy to sympathize with Lewis over this bureaucratic harassment, but he really was playing fast and loose with the government during this time. Though living in Philadelphia engaged in what was essentially a private enterprise, he was governor of Louisiana; beyond writing one letter to Secretary Bates asking information about conditions in St. Louis, he had done absolutely nothing on his job. Yet, on June 28, he presented Secretary of State James Madison with a bill for his salary from March 3 to June 30, totaling $666.66.

“You would much oblige me,” he wrote Madison, “by forwarding a check on the bank of the U’ States for the amount as early as it may be convenient.” The State Department, which ran territorial affairs, deducted $5.55 as an overcharge and paid the remainder.18

Jefferson, meanwhile, was torn. He wanted Lewis to get the book out, but he was beginning to have cause to regret appointing him governor, for there was turmoil in St. Louis. More Americans arrived daily, creating squabbles over deeds of land, trading licenses, Indian rights, and the other usual items of contention on the frontier. A firm hand was needed.

On June 4, the president had written Lewis a chatty letter (“Your mother returned from Georgia in good health a little before I left Monticello”), signing off with “friendly salutations & assurances of constant affection & respect.”19

But in an August 8 letter, written from Monticello, the president expressed a certain anxiety as to when Lewis was going to go to St. Louis to take up his responsibilities. He wanted Lewis to get started on “the restoration of that harmony in the territory so essential to it’s happiness & so much desired by me,” and indicated that he expected Lewis to be “now proceeding to take” up his post.20

In his June letter, the president had the painful task of informing Lewis that he had sent twenty-five boxes of artifacts brought back from the West via a ship from Washington to Richmond, but the ship had been stranded and everything was lost save some horns (probably the moose and wapiti horns now hanging at Monticello). Lewis in reply said he sincerely regretted the loss and commented, in what could be read as an implied criticism of Jefferson’s lack of care of the priceless artifacts, “It seems peculiarly unfortunate that those at least, which had passed the continent of America and after their exposure to so many casualties and wrisks should have met such destiny in their passage through a small portion only of the Chesapeak.”21

Lewis was leading a very heady life. At thirty-three, he was the most celebrated man in Philadelphia, a city world-renowned for its celebrated men. He was the protégé of the president. Balls and testimonials were held in his honor, the biggest in the nation’s capital. He had been generously rewarded by Congress, praised by the leading scientists of the day, appointed governor of the biggest territory of the United States, and was the center of attention wherever he went. His prospects could hardly have been better.

It was, perhaps, too much success too early in life. There were, perhaps, too many balls with too many toasts.

Public drunkenness was so commonplace in early-nineteenth-century America that it was seldom commented upon. Certainly no one would have objected to the young hero’s celebrating his triumph. Still, he was doing a lot of heavy drinking.

On April 20, he entered into his account book a payment of five dollars to his landlady, Mrs. Wood, for “a douzen of porter.” On May 5, it was ten dollars for a dozen of ale.22 More telling, he was out on the town almost every night.

His companion was Mahlon Dickerson, whom he had first met in 1802. Dickerson, a thirty-seven-year-old lawyer and bachelor who moved in the highest social circles in Philadelphia, later served as governor of New Jersey, senator from New Jersey, and secretary of the navy in President Andrew Jackson’s second term. His diary records numerous evenings spent with Lewis in the spring and early summer of 1807.

They dined out regularly, and often went for walks around the Center Square (today’s Penn Square), a popular park and parade ground. On July 2, Dickerson noted in his diary, “rode out with Capt. Lewis to the marshal’s. Spent the day very pleasantly in eating drinking and shooting at the trees.”

On the Fourth of July, “Dined with a large party at Fouquets—delivd. a flaming speech to them—kept myself very sober—went to the play at evg.—the house very uprorious.”

That same day, Lewis also attended a dinner given by the Society of the Friends of the People at the Spring Garden Tavern. To the 160 guests he proposed a political toast: “May the man who has by profession and act, proved his sincere attachment for peace, never quit our national helm at a crisis like this.”

The crisis was with the British, who had attacked and seized the U.S. frigate Chesapeake off the Virginia Capes on June 22. Jefferson’s policy was to avoid war if at all possible, while imposing an embargo on Britain.

On July 7, Lewis and Dickerson “walkd. till 11 at night.” These walks were a regular thing with them; it seems likely that they frequented taverns as they moved along. On July 18, Dickerson recorded that they went out together and saw a fight in which a knife was flashed and a man’s face cut, which certainly sounds like a barroom brawl.23

Jefferson later wrote of “the habit into which he [Lewis] had fallen & the painfull reflections that would necessarily produce in a mind like his.”24 It seems that Lewis’s high-mindedness caused him to curse himself every morning, and possibly to swear off drinking, only to go back to another ball, or for another walk with Dickerson, that night.

Lewis had problems beyond coping with his celebrity status and his drinking. His friend Clark had found a wife. Lewis wanted one. That fall, he wrote Dickerson in a bantering tone, recalling some of his adventures with “the girls” during the summer. He said he was trying to think of “those bewitching gipsies as a secondary consideration,” but admitted that “Miss E—— B——y of Philadelphia . . . will still remain provokingly important in spite of all my philosophy.”

Then he fired off a series of questions that had all the marks of coming from a man in love: “Have you heard from her? Have you seen her? How is she? Is she well, sick, dead or married?”

Whatever the answers, quite clearly he had failed in his courtship. He went on, “I am now a perfect widower with rispect to love. . . . I feel all that restlessness, that inquietude, that certain indiscribable something common to old bachelors, which I cannot avoid thinking my dear fellow, proceeds, from that void in our hearts, which might, or ought to be better filled. Whence it comes I know not, but certain it is, that I never felt less like a heroe than at the present moment. What may be my next adventure god knows, but on this I am determined, to get a wife.”25

Meriwether Lewis was a man who usually got what he was determined to get.


C. B. J. Févret de Saint-Mémin’s portrait of Lewis in Indian dress, a watercolor on paper (1807). Lewis is wearing what may have been the white weasel tails Sacagawea gave Captain Clark for his Christmas present in 1806. (Missouri Historical Society)

I. The money was well spent. In 1814, Pursh published in London his well-known Flora. It included Lewis’s plants, credited by Pursh with an abbreviated legend, “v.s. in Herb [arium] Lewis. ” He honored Lewis, and Clark, with several binomials, including Lewisia rediviva (bitterroot), Clarkia pulchella (ragged robin), Linum lewisii (Lewis’s wild flax), and Philadelphus lewisii (Lewis’s syringa). (Cutright, A History of the Lewis and Clark Journals, p. 48.)

II. Two of the drawings survive: one of Lewis’s woodpecker (Asyndesmus lewis) and the other of the mountain quail.

III. The original is in the New-York Historical Society; the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington and the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis have engravings.

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