Thomas Jefferson’s Contributions to Natural History

His effort sent out the Lewis and Clark exploring party into the unknown West.

Ten years afterward Jefferson, then President of the United States, decided that the exploration ought not to be delayed longer. In 1803 the continuance of the act for establishing trading houses with the Indian tribes was under consideration and the President seized upon the opportunity it afforded to propose to Congress, in a confidential message, a party to explore the Missouri to its source and thence to make its way to the Pacific. “. . . other civilized nations have encountered great expense to enlarge the boundaries of knowledge by undertaking voyages of discovery, and for other literary purposes,” Mr. Jefferson contended. “The nation claiming the territory, regarding this as a literary pursuit,”—thus he advanced in his plan to persuade Congress—“would not be disposed to view it with jealousy.” The necessary appropriation for the enterprise could be charged to “the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States,” which the President would understand as legislative sanction. The bill was passed.

Meriwether Lewis, who was to accompany Michaux, had now been for two years private secretary of President Jefferson, by whom he had been appointed captain of the first regiment of infantry, and was eager to undertake the adventurous journey. “Of courage undaunted,” Mr. Jefferson wrote of him, “possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs, and principles; habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables and animals of his own country against losing time in the description of objects already possessed; honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves—with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him. To fill up the measure desired, he wanted nothing but a greater familiarity with the technical language of the natural sciences, and readiness in the astronomical observations necessary for the geography of his route. To acquire these he repaired immediately to Philadelphia, and placed himself under the tutorage of the distinguished professors of that place.”

Meriwether Lewis, who was to accompany Michaux, had now been for two years private secretary of President Jefferson, by whom he had been appointed captain of the first regiment of infantry, and was eager to undertake the adventurous journey.

With Lewis Mr. Jefferson associated William Clark, a brother of George Rogers Clark, the Hannibal of the West (George Rogers Clark, born in Virginia in 1752, won fame as soldier, surveyor, and Indian fighter. He was known as the conqueror of the large area northwest of the Ohio River, which was practically reclaimed from the warlike Indian tribes by him. He died in Kentucky February 18, 1818, and lies buried in an unmarked grave in Louisville), and, like him, a born leader of men, a soldier and an expert in woodcraft and in knowledge of Indian character. The other members of the party were fourteen United States soldiers, nine volunteers, Clark’s colored valet (York), and an interpreter and his Indian wife.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a high adventure with vast results, whose characterization transcends the scope of a sketch. An abundant and thrilling literature has resulted, and will be increased. The first installment of the story was written—as was appropriate—by Mr. Jefferson in his message “communicating discoveries made in exploring the Missouri, Red river, and Washita by Captains Lewis and Clark.” While the record in books is ample, in marble and bronze it has been singularly scant, as in the case of Clark’s elder brother, George Rogers Clark.

The members of the exploring party were the first white men to traverse the region now mapped as the states of Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Meriwether Lewis, the leader, who contributed to our knowledge of the customs, manners, and languages of the American Indians, has had until recently, so far as my information goes, a single visible memorial. In Lewis County, Tennessee, “in the midst of wild and romantic scenery, surrounded only by the native growth of the forest and where but few travelers pass, there stands a gray stone monument composed of native rock, with a shaft of limestone in imitation of a giant of the forest untimely broken,” the tribute of the General Assembly of Tennessee rendered to Meriwether Lewis in 1848. (Since writing this I have been informed of a monument to Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon, but I have not been able to obtain facts relative to the artist or to the details of its erection).

Another memorial is now on the eve of inauguration in Charlottesville, Virginia, the home town of Lewis until he enlisted in the army at the time of the Pennsylvania whiskey insurrection. This monument, the work of Charles Keck, of New York, is a group in bronze, and commemorates the moment when Lewis and Clark had their first view of the Pacific. They stand at gaze, with Sacajawea, the squaw guide and only woman of the party, bending forward, intent on the scene. The group is the gift of Paul Goodloe McIntire, of Charlottesville.

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