The Specimen's Fate

masthead saying 'We Proceeded On'
Reprinted from We Proceeded On1

Saurocephalus lanciformis

Academy of Natural Sciences

The only known surviving fossil specimen from the expedition, a portion of a fish jaw classified as Saurocephalus lanciformis, collected by Patrick Gass on August 6, 1804, along the Soldier River in present-day Harrison County, Iowa. In 1824, this specimen was described and illustrated by natural historian and physician Richard Harlan in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, making it the first geological discovery from the expedition to be published in the scientific literature.

The expedition's mineral specimens, which as noted reached Philadelphia in several shipments between 1805 and 1809, were ultimately acquired by the Academy of Natural Sciences and merged with its mineral collection.2 Somewhere along the way whatever identifying tags they may have had were lost, along with knowledge of their provenance. Today, the one specimen in the A.N.S. collection we can definitively link to the expedition is the fossilized jaw of a fish, Saurocephalus lanciformis, which retained its original expedition tag. (The jaw was found by Sergeant Patrick Gass on August 6, 1804.)

Adam Seybert Collection

The A.N.S. came to possess the expedition mineral collection because at least 34 Lewis and Clark mineral specimens were acquired initially by Adam Seybert, the same man tasked by Jefferson in November 1805 with examining the expedition specimens sent back from Fort Mandan. We know this because Seybert produced a handwritten catalogue, circa 1812, to accompany his large mineral collection; scattered throughout the list of nearly two thousand specimen notations are unmistakable references to the expedition, and the collector is listed as "Captn. Lewis."3

We don't know how or exactly when Seybert came to possess the Lewis and Clark specimens, but one possibility should be considered. Clark's visit to Philadelphia in January 1810 came only two months after Peale received the shipment Lewis sent via New Orleans, but the mineral specimens were apparently unlabeled—Peale states that he "expected that he [Lewis] intended to have described them on his arrival here as I did not receive any letter with them."4 Thus, it's possible that Clark turned the collection over to Seybert in exchange for his expertise in identifying the specimens, with the hope that the results would be included in the proposed (but ultimately never published) scientific volume of the journals.5

Seybert was a particularly good choice because he was actively collecting minerals and was still reaping the benefits of nearly four years of study in Edinburgh, London, Paris, and Göttingen.6 Two years later, in 1812, when Seybert set aside the study of mineralogy to pursue business interests and also to serve in Congress, he sold his mineral collection to the newly established Academy of Natural Sciences.7

Seybert's circa 1812 List

A review of Seybert's circa 1812 list of expedition specimens confirms that at least some specimens collected after April 1805 did make it back to Philadelphia. Scattered among the minerals associated with the well-documented Fort Mandan shipment, Seybert listed specimens such as "Pumice. Pacific ocean. Captn. Lewis"; "Green Clay. from the Kooskoosche River, west of the Rocky mountains. Captn. Lewis"; "Keffekill [impure clay]. found at the Wallenwaller [Walla Walla] nation on Columbia River. Captn. Lewis"; and "Magnetic Iron sand, borders of the Pacific ocean near the mouth of Columbia river. Captn. Lewis."8

The existence of these specimens proves that the captains continued their mineral collecting west of the Continental Divide and all the way to the Pacific Ocean, refuting the disparaging opinion of some historians that Lewis and Clark neglected this essential duty.9 [See sidebar, page 21.] Noticeably absent from this list, however, is any specimen collected between Fort Mandan and the Great Falls. All the botanical specimens from this phase of the journey were cached at the Upper Portage Camp on June 26, 1805, and were subsequently ruined in a flood; the mineral specimens presumably succumbed to a similar fate.10

Assessing how many of the captains' rock and mineral specimens have survived to the present day must begin with the collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences. According to the A.N.S., only "five specimens can now be ascribed certainly to this expedition, two rocks and three minerals."11 The two rocks—Seybert Collection No. 534 ("pummice stone") and ANSP 3916/ex Seybert Collection No. 535 ("lava")—appear to correspond to Fort Mandan mineral specimen Nos. 62 and 67, respectively.

  • 1. John W. Jengo, "'Specimine of the Stone': The Fate of Lewis and Clark's Mineralogical Specimens," We Proceeded On, August 2005, Volume 31, No. 3, the quarterly journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Editorial additions include page titles, side headings, and graphics to assist the web-based reader. The original format is provided at
  • 2. Moulton, Vol. 3, 473.
  • 3. See Seybert's Catalogue of Minerals as reported in John C. Greene and John G. Burke, "The Science of Minerals in the Age of Jefferson," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 68, Part 4 (July 1978), 29–30. Seybert's explanatory notes in this catalogue are very similar to the descriptive mineralogical comments he added to the donation book of the A.P.S. augmenting Lewis's original specimen descriptions; see Moulton, Vol. 3, 473–478.
  • 4. Jackson, Vol. 2, 470.
  • 5. Perhaps out of respect for the captains' exclusive right to be the first to publish their discoveries, Seybert refrained from publishing his work on the expedition specimens. For example, there are no Lewis and Clark specimens included in Seybert's paper entitled A Catalogue of some American Minerals, which are found in different Parts of the United States, published in 1808 in Volume V of the journal The Philadelphia Medical Museum, even though Seybert had ready access to the Fort Mandan mineralogical specimens by this time.
  • 6. Greene and Burke, 28.
  • 7. Earle Spamer, the managing editor of the A.N.S.'s scientific publication, states that the collection was purchased in 1812 by John Speakman, a founding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, who subsequently donated the collection to the A.N.S. (Personal Communication, June 19, 2002.) Greene and Burke state that Seybert sold his collection directly to the A.N.S. in the summer of 1812; the A.N.S. procured boxes in 1813 to hold the specimens and purchased glass cases in 1814 to display them. (Greene and Burke, 39.)
  • 8. Seybert's Catalogue of Minerals as reported in Greene and Burke, 29–30.
  • 9. For further discussion about how Lewis and Clark historians have misjudged the captains' geological skills, see John W. Jengo, "Mineral Productions of Every Kind": Geological Observations in the Lewis and Clark Journals and the Role of Thomas Jefferson and the American Philosophical Society in the Geological Mentoring of Meriwether Lewis, in Robert S. Cox, ed., "The Shortest and Most Convenient Route: Lewis and Clark in Context," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 2004, Vol. 94, Part 5, 136–214.
  • 10. Moulton, Vol. 8, 107.
  • 11. Earle E. Spamer, Richard M. McCourt, Robert Middleton, Edward Gilmore, and Sean B. Duran, "A national treasure: Accounting for the natural history specimens from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (western North America, 1803–1806) in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia," Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Vol. 150, April 2000, 50.