On 20 June 1803, after some eight months of planning and discussion, President Thomas Jefferson handed his twenty-eight-year-old secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis of the First Infantry Regiment, a letter containing instructions for the conduct of one of the most significant undertakings in American history . . . .
Considering all he had to do to prepare for the Expedition, Lewis was fortunate in that he could rely on a small cadre of Army personnel to help him assemble, pack, and ship his supplies. The official purveyor, or purchasing agent, of public supplies for the government in Philadelphia was Israel Whelan . . . .
Wedged between the two rocky rivers and the steep slopes of Schoolhouse Ridge, Harpers Ferry's tiny footprint belies the richness of its roles in American history—in industrialization, in commerce, and especially in the unfolding of the Civil War and the long struggle of African-Americans out of slavery toward integration into the cultural mainstream of the "land of the free."
The Monongahela River joins the Allegheny River at the apex of Pittsburgh's "golden triangle" to form the river called Ohio—an Iroquois word meaning "big and beautiful." After the Revolutionary War, Pittsburgh quickly grew into a gathering-place and jumping-off point . . . .
Meriwether Lewis listed a "Keeled Boat" in his pre-expedition shopping list, but after he finally got it, he and the other journalists of the Corps of Discovery simply called it "the boat" (190 times) or, less often, "the barge" (32 times). Construction of the barge in Pittsburgh proved to be a nightmare . . . .
Dearborn gave the departing Lewis an order dated July 2, 1803, that seemed to limit his permanent "payload" party to the now accepted total number of 15 men: Lewis himself, another officer, 12 Army enlisted men and a hired interpreter. These soldiers also were to be obtained at Kaskaskia and other Illinois Army posts, or newly recruited into the Army from "suitable Men" encountered by Lewis along the way . . . .
Lewis and his skeleton crew of eleven men crossed the boundary between Pennsylvania and West Virginia south of the river, and Pennsylvania and Ohio on the north. With that, they officially entered the Old Northwest. The line, wrote Lewis, "is made visible from the timber having been felled about sixty feet in width . . . ."
They camped for that night somewhere on the big island now known as Brown's. When darkness fell the two canoes, which carried most of Lewis's most valuable supplies, were still behind. "Ordered the trumpet to be sound[ed]," he wrote, "and they came up in a few minutes."
The barge had a capacity of fifteen tons of cargo, but Lewis had contracted with a wagoner to haul a substantial part of his baggage from Pittsburgh to Wheeling. In 1803 most overland travel routes were narrow paths best suited to foot and horse traffic. There were only a few thousand miles of decent, if mostly unpaved, wagon roads in the seventeen states, and Wheeling was the western terminus of one of the newest of them.