Persistent Hope

"the main object of the expedition"

F ollowing his inauguration as the third president of the United States on 4 March 1801, Thomas Jefferson was at last in a position to play a material role in the Age of Exploration. (That era had been initiated about 1450 when Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator established the first institute for the teaching of navigation, astronomy, and cartography—the basic tools of discovery.) On 28 February 1803, Congress's approval and initial funding set in motion his plan to explore a portion of western North America.

As Jefferson had explained to Spain's Minister to the U.S. a year earlier, his aim was to "send travelers to explore the course of the Missouri River, and for them to penetrate as far as the Southern Ocean." His overriding purpose, he emphasized, was "to observe the territories which are found between 40° and 60° [north latitude] from the mouth of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, and unite the discoveries that these men would make with those which the celebrated Makensie made in 1793"1 It was to be, as Jefferson often expressed more concisely, a "literary" undertaking, meaning that the principal immediate outcome would be a book, a travelers' memoir that the American people could proudly add to the long shelf of published accounts by the likes of Mackenzie, Cook, Vancouver, and many others.

Swiftly the plan materialized. Six months after the secret legislation was passed, Captain Lewis set sail down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. Nine months later, on 14 May 1804, the voyage was officially under way. Research for the book took two years, four months, and ten days, being completed on 23 September 1806. On the very next morning the explorers "commenced wrighting, &c." Jefferson was inspired by great expectations. In preparing his Annual Message he was impelled to say that Lewis and Clark "are enabled to give with accuracy the geography of the line they pursued, fixing it in all it's parts by observations of latitude & longitude." For some reason, however, he tempered his first impulse with a more modest appraisal. They had, he told Congress on 2 December 1806, "ascertained with accuracy the geography of that interresting communication across our continent."2

Lewis was to have been responsible for the publication of a two-part, three-volume report. Part two would be "confined exclusively to scientific research, and principally to the natural history of those hitherto unknown regions."3 Unfortunately, his life soon began to unravel, coming to a tragic end in suicide on 11 October 1809, leaving unfulfilled ambitions and promises, plus some debts, but without a single word having been written.

Clark sprang into action. The following March he engaged the brilliant young Nicholas Biddle to compile a condensed version of his and Lewis's journals. With Patrick Gass's comparatively superficial diary then in its seventh published edition, Biddle exerted himself—without pay, but with the counsel of General Clark and George Shannon—to complete his paraphrase, which was published in March of 1814. In large part it was old news. Seven and one-half years had elapsed since the close of the accomplishment it documented. Moreover, not only had Benjamin Smith Barton4 failed, because of ill health, to produce the natural history volume he had agreed to write after Lewis died (he himself passed away in 1815), but mathematician Ferdinand Hassler had long since given up trying to puzzle out any of Lewis's 110 sets of celestial observations.

In July of 1816, 73-year-old Thomas Jefferson was still trying to assemble all the original documents from the expedition, and he still held out the hope that someone could be found to successfully decipher Lewis's astronomical observations. He wrote to Clark, urging him to direct Biddle to send him—Jefferson—the data so he could forward them to the War Department for action. "I hope my anxieties . . . in this matter will be excused," he wrote, "when my agency in the enterprise is considered, and that the most important justification of it . . . depends on these astronomical observations, as from them alone can be obtained the correct geography of the country, which was the main object of the expedition."5

Throughout the ensuing year the situation remained at an impasse because the varied circumstances were not yet synchronized. On 28 June 1817 Jefferson wrote to John Vaughan, secretary of the American Philosophical Society:

You enquire for the Indian vocabularies of Messrs. Lewis and Clarke. All their papers are at present under a kind of embargo. They consist of 1. Lewis's MS. pocket journals of the journey. 2. His Indian Vocabularies. 3. His astronomical observations, particularly for the longitudes. 4. His map, and drawings. A part of these papers were deposited with Dr. Barton; some with Mr. Biddle, others I know not where. Of the pocket journals Mr. Correa6 got 4. out of 11. or 12. from Mrs. Barton & sent them to me. He informed me that Mr. Biddle would not think himself authorised to deliver the portion of the papers he recieved from Genl. Clark without his order, whereon I wrote to Genl. Clarke, & recieved his order for the whole some time ago. But I have held it up until a secretary at War is appointed, that office having some rights to these papers. As soon as that appointment is made, I shall endeavor to collect the whole, to deposite the MS. journals & Vocabularies with the Philosphical society, adding a collection of some vocabularies made by myself, and to get the Secy. at War to employ some person to whom I may deliver the astronomical papers for calculation, and the geographical ones for the correct execution of a map; for in that published with his journal, altho' the latitudes may be correct, the longitudes cannot be.7

Clark complied with Jefferson's request, but negotiations and communications dragged out until, in April of 1818, John Vaughan received some materials, including 14 volumes of the "Pocket Journal of Messrs. Lewis & Clark," plus "A volume of astronomical observations & other matter by Captain Lewis."

Thereupon, after 16 years of anticipation, expectation, and frustration, the matter was dropped, apparently without further written comment from anyone. Clark's map was never corrected. A new plan, in fact, was already under way. In 1819 Major Stephen H. Long, of the Corps of Engineers, was to lead a large, fully manned and equipped, two-year expedition to the rockies. His orders were issued by the Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, who recommended to Long that he study Jefferson's 1803 instructions to Meriwether Lewis, which had been included in the preface to Biddle's edition of the journals.


1. The Spanish minister was Carlos Martínez de Yrujo; the recipient was Spain's minister of foreign affairs, Pedro Cevallos. The letter, translated by A. P. Nasatir and John Francis McDermott, appeared in Nasatir's Before Lewis and Clark, 2 vols. (1952; repr. Bison Book Edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 712-14. It is reproduced in Jackson, Letters, 2:631.

2. Autograph document signed, sender's copy; Library of Congress. Jackson, Letters, 2:352.

3. Conrad's Prospectus, printed copy, Missouri Historical Society Library, St. Louis. Jackson, Letters, 2:395.

4. Barton was the pioneer American botanist to whom Lewis consigned many of his plant specimens and who, after Lewis's death in 1809, had agreed, but never begun, to write the volume on the expedition's discoveries in natural history that Lewis had intended to produce. Barton died in 1815 at age 49.

5. Mr. Correa was José Corrèa del Serra (1750-1823), a Portuguese priest, diplomat, and botanist who lived in the U.S. from 1812 to 1820. He helped his friend Thomas Jefferson to gather Lewis's papers in order to preserve and publish them. See Jackson, Letters, 2:608-09, 615, 617.

6. John C. Calhoun was Secretary of War from 1817 to 1825.

7. Autograph letter signed, recipient's copy; American Philosophical Society. Jackson, Letters, 2:630-31.

Funded in part by a grant from the NPS Challenge-Cost Share Program