Many schoolchildren across our fair country learn about the Louisiana Purchase followed by the Lewis and Clark expedition. I agree with that sequence of study. Those two events did follow each other chronologically, however, our collective interest in the west began much earlier, and Thomas Jefferson’s interest in exploring the west began much earlier than 1801. I contend that Jefferson’s love of the west….an area he never visited…began at his father’s knee.
We learn many things at our father’s knee---how to ride a bike, how to shoot a basket, and in my case I learned how to drive a tractor and plow a straight line. Thomas Jefferson was no different and it was from his father and father-type figures in his early life that he became facinated with the western frontier.
Peter Jefferson along with Thomas Meriweather, grandfather of Meriweather Lewis, as well as many other men of note in Virginia were members of the Loyal Company, a land development and land acquisition scheme. Their main purpose was to obtain lands west of the Allegheny Mountains, and they certainly met their goal. The first grant was for 800,000 acres in what is today Kentucky. Interestingly the grant did not require that any families had to settle on the land. In 1751 Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry completed a map called “A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia Containing the Whole Province of Maryland” which was the first map of the area compiled from survey information. The map is pictured here with this article.
Dr. Thomas Walker was a member of the Loyal Company, served as Peter Jefferson’s physician, and stepped in as Thomas Jefferson’s guardian when Peter Jefferson passed away in 1757. Thomas Jefferson was then fourteen years old.
While Daniel Boone generally gets all the credit for the Cumberland Gap and for opening up the Tennessee and Kentucky areas for settlement it should not be forgotten that Walker first explored this area in 1743 reaching Kingsport, Tennessee. He kept journals of his journey to the Cumberland Gap in 1750 where he spent four months exploring. It would be a long seventeen years before Daniel Boone made this same area famous.
During the French and Indian War the patent for the land grants was not renewed since the Proclamation of 1763 outlawed white settlement or exploration in lands set aside for Native American use. A planned expedition was halted at the outbreak of the war, however, by 1766 many of the Loyal Company members were active in the area again, but illegally. It couldn’t have hurt that the two men chosen to act as Indian agents both happened to be involved with land schemes in the area including Dr. Thomas Walker, the president of the Loyal Company.
Jefferson’s tutor was Rev. James Maury. This made perfect sense since Rev. Maury’s father-in-law was Dr. Walker. Rev. Maury was very interested in geography and he considered geographic knowledge to be just one of the main ingredients for a well-rounded gentleman. Jefferson did not disappoint Maury as a student.
Jefferson’s only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, make it clear that
Jefferson believed the Missouri River along with other geographical points of interest in the west were part of Virginia even though the Treaty of Paris clearly did not list them as such.
In 1783 Jefferson approached George Rogers Clark, the Revolutionary War hero, to explore the west. He politely refused the offer, but suggested his younger brother, William Clark for the expedition. The Monticello website discusses Jefferson's letter to George Rogers Clark as follows:
[Jefferson] begins his 1783 letter to Clark with the two topics which pulled his thoughts westward: science and politics. He thanks Clark for sending him shells and seeds and assures him that he would be pleased to have as many bones, teeth and tusks of the mammoth as Clark might be able to find. Then within the same paragraph Jefferson reveals his apprehension at the rumor that money was being raised in England for exploration between the Mississippi and the Pacific, and even though it was professed as only for knowledge, he feared colonization. Jefferson then wonders, if money could be raised in this country for western exploration, "How would you like to lead such a party?" Clark declines Jefferson's request for financial reasons, but as a hero of the western theatre of the Revolution, he was quite knowledgeable of the Indians of the northwest territory and offered advice on how to best proceed among the Indian peoples, advice which Jefferson stored away for future use. In later correspondence Clark would recommend his youngest brother, William, as also knowledgeable of the Indian territory and, "well qualified almost for any business."
In the Ordinance of 1784, introduced by Jefferson to the Continental Congress under the authority of the Articles of Confederation, he suggested new states could be formed from western territories. In fact Jefferson suggested a total of seventeen states from the region referred to as the Ohio River Valley and suggested names like Chersonesus, Sylvania, Assenisipia, Metropotamia, Polypotamia, Pelisipia, Saratoga, Washington, Michigania, and Illinoia. Jefferson’s particular proposal was not adopted by Congress, however, his ideas would become the basis for the Northwest Ordinance which was finally adopted in 1787 and is the one good thing that is commonly taught to schoolchildren about the Articles of Confederation.
John Ledyard, an explorer who had sailed with Captain James Cook, was given much support by Jefferson in 1786 while he was serving as Minister to France. Backed financially by people like the Marquis de Lafayette and John Adam’s son-in-law, William Smith, Ledyard attempted to explore the west by approaching it from the Russian side. The Monticello website advises “Jefferson supported the venture but noted that despite Ledyard's ingenuity and information, 'Unfortunately he has too much imagination.' Ledyard was arrested within 200 miles of Kamschatka, escorted to the Polish border and charged not to set foot within Russian territory again.”
In 1793, the American Philosophical Society, of which Jefferson was a member, fully supported Andre Michaux, a French botanist, in his efforts to locate the shortest and most convenient route between the United States and the Pacific Ocean. The Monticello website advises Jefferson organized the subscription to finance the expedition, and even though the undertaking was not under government sponsorship, he appraised President Washington, who offered to 'readily add my mite' to the project. Jefferson's instructions to Michaux on behalf of the Society reiterated the objective of finding the shortest route to the Pacific with equal importance given to the gathering of geographic and scientific data. But the expedition began to unravel before reaching the Mississippi river, as it became apparent that Michaux was involved in a French plot to gather support against the Spanish settlements west of the Mississippi. An important remnant of this truncated expedition was Jefferson's written set of instructions to Michaux, which would reappear in a more detailed form when delivered later to Meriwether Lewis.
Jefferson maintained many volumes in his personal library dedicated to the west. The PBS website, Lewis and Clark, advises some of Jefferson’s books described a landmass of erupting volcanoes and mountains of undissolved salt. Other readings led him to believe that Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains might be the continent’s highest. (The Blue Ridge Mountains peak at around 6,500 feet, while the Rocky Mountains in Colorado top out at over 14,400 feet.)
Depictions of land and creatures in the west often came from the imaginations of men who had never been there. Many reports told of western terrain spotted with wondrous creatures: unicorns, gargantuan woolly mastodons, seven-foot-tall beavers, and friendly, slim-waisted buffalo. Maps of the west proved equally fictitious. European geographers, for example, drew maps depicting California as an island. Other maps showed the Rocky Mountains to be narrow and undaunting.
Follow this link to a list of 180 titles belonging to Jefferson that concerned the west.
Finally, from the Monticello website:
These failed attempts [detailed above] undoubtedly added to Jefferson's store of information on western exploration, and when circumstances placed him in a key position to act, he was prepared to do so quickly and decisively. In his first inaugural address in 1801 Jefferson envisioned, 'A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye.' Less than two years later, on January 18, 1803, he would deliver a confidential message to Congress outlining a plan for exploring to the 'Western Ocean,' and requesting an appropriation of $2,500 for what would become the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In May 1804, as Lewis and Clark were poised to begin pushing westward along the Missouri river, Jefferson must have felt more confidence in seeing his western desideratum fulfilled, writing: 'We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this great country: those who come after us will fill up the canvas we begin.'"
The entire message to Congress can be seen here.
Americans should find it very interesting, amazing even, that the one man who had been involved or around various events involving exploration of the west was finally in the right place at the right time to allow events to finally move forward. Fortified with the knowledge that the French had taken over the Louisiana Territory and understanding the use of the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans was in jeopordy Jefferson's time to act finally came to fruition.
There are many interesting details about Thomas Jefferson and his contributions to our nation’s history. Many websites and biographies mention the exploration of the west but few really go into the background of how it can be argued the exploration of the west was Jefferson’s destiny and it all began at his father’s knee.