Lewis and Clark in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh more specifically, were not unknown to Meriwether Lewis. After volunteering for military service in 1794, he spent five years on the Pennsylvania and Ohio frontier. It was there that he acquired the skills to make him an appealing choice for the leader of the expedition across the American continent. It was also in Pittsburgh where he with Moses Hooke, commander of Fort Fayette, whom Lewis planned to invite to help lead the expedition should William Clark not be able to go.

Before Lewis could proceed “on under a jentle brease up the Missouri,” much preparation and learning were needed, including the technical and intellectual skills necessary to both survive the expedition and return with useful knowledge. “Towards that goal, Jefferson insisted that Lewis consult the best scientific minds of the day, in Philadelphia and Lancaster. From the nation’s most advanced scientists, Lewis acquired state-of-the-art knowledge in Indian language and culture, surveying, and the collection and description of natural specimens.”

As Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh on July 15, 1803, to begin the expedition to meet up with Clark and his team in Louisville Kentucky, Lewis intended to stay just a few days. Unfortunately, delays on the 55-foot-long keelboat they would use to carry the expedition team and supplies up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers would hold them up.

While waiting, Lewis began recruiting the first eleven volunteers for the expedition. Yet as the boat delays continued, an extended drought dropped the Ohio River levels to a record low. If it dropped much lower, Lewis would not be able to travel by river to meet Clark. To help spread out the weight of the supplies, thus keeping the boats higher in the ever-dwindling water, Lewis purchased one or two shallow, flat-bottom boats called pirogues. He also shipped some supplies via wagon to Wheeling, WV, further downstream.

At long last, on the morning of August 31, Lewis was finally able to pack and launch the boat. It took Lewis and his team two and a half months to travel the 981-mile trip down the Ohio River to Clark in Kentucky. On October 26, 1803, the whole team, known as the Corps of Discovery, continued on their 8,000-mile journey to the Mississippi River.

To learn more about their time in Pennsylvania, and more about what prompted their long journey, click here.