Marking Pennsylvania History

Envisioning America

When we think of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, panoramas come to mind. These images of spacious skies and mountain majesty might also serve as the video track to our would-be national anthem: America the Beautiful. Pictures of sparkling rivers, expansive plains, and awesome mountains visited by the explorers are very effective, and perfectly appropriate - except they fail to tell us very much about this expedition, which began 200 years ago this month.

Lewis and Clark went West and replaced speculation and myth with fact and experience. What they saw and learned as they crossed the American continent proved to be wonderful and powerful - more powerful than the myths they replaced. It was a turning point in the nation's shape and psyche.

So let's celebrate what Lewis and Clark witnessed, but let's not lose touch with how it came to have significance. If their expedition discovered America the Beautiful, Philadelphia's scientists enabled Lewis and Clark to know what to look for. But that's not all. Philadelphia's suppliers equipped the Corps of Discovery. And upon its return, Philadelphia's printers and publishers spread the word.

As President, Thomas Jefferson engineered the Louisiana Purchase and then he provided its exploration with an audacious mission. He tapped Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead, and, in the very next breath, sent Lewis to Philadelphia to prepare. Lewis arrived on May 8, 1803 and made the rounds, seeking counsel from the local brain trust.

At the University of Pennsylvania Lewis was tutored by Benjamin Smith Barton, who provided guidance on what plants to collect, as well as how to care for and annotate them. Robert Patterson of the American Philosophical Society added to Lewis' knowledge of what we now call global positioning. Dr. Benjamin Rush prepared Lewis with standards about diet, health and medicine, providing valuable advice and remedies for daily discomforts. Caspar Wistar suggested to Lewis what pre-historic finds in natural history might be useful to science. Inventor Isaiah Lukens shared an air rifle Israel Whelan, and Purveyor of Public Supplies filled out Lewis's long list of specialty supplies from 28 city merchants and manufacturers - 3,500 pounds in all. In one month, Lewis's not only furnished his expedition with state-of-the-art intelligence and supplies, but he also raised the bar for the mission's success.

Before the end of June, Lewis invited Captain William Clark to join him and together, they constituted their 25-member Corps of Discovery, which would depart from Saint Louis the following Spring. The trek was expected to last 18 months, two years at the most. But more than two years later, the Corps of Discovery was still not home. Having crossed the Mississippi, navigated the Great Plains, endured the Rocky Mountains, marveled at the Pacific Ocean, they were still making they way, and still incommunicado. In the enduring silence, many had given the expedition up for lost.

Finally, on September 23, 1806, after 28 months and 8,000 miles, Lewis and Clark returned to Saint Louis. They were greeted and celebrated by all of the town's one thousand citizens. As the explorers made their way back to the Atlantic Coast, where America still clung, they were celebrated everywhere. Two hundred years later, they still are.

Even in success, though, the expedition was not complete until the word of its discoveries were properly analyzed and disseminated. At the conclusion of the expedition, Philadelphia's editors, printers and publishers made lively work of bringing many of these diaries to press and distributing the word to the world at large. These culminated in 1814 with the publication of Lewis and Clark's journals.

Today, 200 years after the start of the whole enterprise, these original, illustrated leather bound journals survive in the collections of Philadelphia's American Philosophical Society, just across the cobblestone street from Independence Hall. It was in there that a younger Jefferson and his colleagues first forged a vision for the new nation.

Little did they know, at that auspicious time, exactly what this nation would actually look like. For that, we have Lewis and Clark to thank.

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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