When Meriwether Lewis traveled to Philadelphia in 1802—a year before he came as the designated leader of an expedition to survey the farthest extent of the Missouri River—his guide to the city was Mahlon Dickerson.
Dickerson's family had a long history of political activity in New Jersey. He had been an ardent supporter of the pro-Jefferson Democratic Society of Pennsylvania in the bitter Federalist-Republican disputes of the 1790s. By 1802, though he had moved his law practice from New Jersey only five years before, he was solicitor of the Common Council, a body elected by the "taxable inhabitants." Perhaps his visibility had something to do with his success. He was six feet two inches tall, and in becoming familiar with the city, he loved to walk "all over town," often late into the night.
Lewis's visit to Philadelphia in 1802 seems to have been a consequence of meeting Dickerson at Jefferson's table in Washington. The two young men (Dickerson the older by four years) were very frequently in each other's company over Lewis's twelve days in Philadelphia, and were so again in 1803 and in 1807. On their walks and rides, President Jefferson's secretary was given a survey of people and places well beyond the privilege or opportunity of most Philadelphians of the time. Comparatively few citizens could have been familiar with the interior of Governor McKean's mansion on 3rd Street or of George Logan's Stenton six miles from the city. With Dickerson as companion, Lewis was soon no stranger to Philadelphia places and people.1
George Logan's "Stenton"
It may be difficult for 21st-Century eyes to fully appreciate the restrained elegance of early Georgian architecture such as this, which aims to reflect the status of a country squire, tempered by the straightforward strength and simplicity befitting a Quaker farmer. Devoid of extravagance and excitement, the house draws its visitors close, to take in its muted details. The patterned brickwork on the symmetrical facade is in Flemish bond style, with glazed headers (the small end of each brick) and plain-faced stretchers (the long side) alternating in each course; the other, asymmetrical walls are laid in English bond—alternating header and stretcher courses. Discreet, shallow hints of Classic pilasters accentuate the corners and frame the transom-crowned portal. Within, the front door opens on a capacious brick-floored entry.
The main and second floors, separated by a brick belt course, each enclose four rooms. In this rural setting the large, double-hung, 12-over-12 windows do not need the burglar-resistant exterior shutters that were obligatory on houses in town, but had folding shutters inside to control light.
Dormers burst through the planes of the hipped roof, which is trimmed by the visual rhythms of isometric dentils beneath the cornices, and crowned by a deck that once was enclosed by a balustrade and embellished with a cupola and a copper weather vane.2
In the spring of 1806 Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set in motion their boldest plan, which was to persuade the most influential chiefs of the Teton Sioux nation to accompany them back to the United States, where they could see for themselves all the promises of civilization, especially in resplendent Philadelpha, the crown jewel of American cities. It is easy to suppose that for several weeks Lewis glowed with the anticipated pleasure of personally escorting those noble Indian potentates into the quiet, restrained grace of George Logan's lodge. Unfortunately, by early August the plan had fallen apart and there wasn't time to consummate an alternative. Stenton would never welcome the likes of Chief Black Buffalo nor Chief Buffalo Medicine. Next best would have been an Arikara, but that didn't pan out either. However, Mandan chief Sheheke, or White Coyote, and his family did return with the expedition, and they did visit Philadelphia sometime between January 15 and February 10, 1807. While there, Sheheke and his wife Yellow Corn sat for their portraits by Charles St. Memin.4
For obtaining that familiarity, Dickerson's new home/office was ideally located, close to the buildings in which the government of the United States had formed and evolved. Around one corner was the de facto President's House, successively occupied by Washington and Adams during Philadelphia's most recent period as the national capital (1790-1800).3 Around another corner stood (and still stands) the State House (Independence Hall) and Congress Hall, though at Lewis's visits no longer serving the functions their names implied. Somewhat incongruously, behind the State House loomed the front of the Walnut Street Prison, once notorious but by the first years of the nineteenth century a model of the new American penal system. There, ten years earlier than Lewis's visits, another adventurer, the French balloonist Blanchard, making the first free flight in America, tested his heart rate for Benjamin Rush and brought back bottles of mile-high air for Caspar Wistar.
One of the destinations that the two friends came to favor was Center Square. The name referred to Penn's original city-plan of four squares diagonally separated from one at the center. In 1803 Center Square was too far to the west to be considered the center of the populated area, but it was possible there to mingle with the ordinary people of the city admiring and circling Benjamin Latrobe's "marble rotunda" of the Pump House. Today the Square is entirely covered by the huge Second Empire mass of City Hall, crowned by a statue of William Penn at the height and size that would have been startling to viewers accustomed to the Pump House.
1. An even greater familiarity could be claimed by Benjamin Rush in his autobiography: "nearly every street and alley in the city was visited by me every day. There are few old huts now standing in the ancient parts of the city in which I have not attended sick people."
2. Roger W. Moss, Historic Houses of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 1998), 144-45.
3. It was later converted to a hotel.
4. Tracy Potter, Sheheke, Mandan Indian Diplomat: The Story of White Coyote, Thomas Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2003), 136.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service Challenge Cost Share Program