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Pittsburgh As Frontier Gateway in 1803 and Staging Point
The Lewis & Clark Expedition
 (1 - 4)

In our own time it is St. Louis that has laid claim to being the Gateway to the West, but in 1803 it was Pittsburgh, a small frontier town at the headwater of the Ohio River, that was the gateway. At least that was so for westward travel and transport by river.

The overland routes to Pittsburgh from the east, over the Allegheny Mountains, led from Philadelphia and Washington, passing through Fredericktown (present day Fredrick, MD) and Harpers Ferry (presently in the state of West Virginia). Meriwether Lewis traveled the rough, connecting, eastern roads between Washington, Frederick, Harpers Ferry, Lancaster and Philadelphia beginning in mid March 1803 while engaged in the acquisition of scientific knowledge, instruments, goods, and weapons. They were needed for the Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back, through Louisiana Purchase lands, a voyage of discovery that he and President Thomas Jefferson had, effectively, been planning for as much as two years. He was by this time in his life quite accustomed to backwoods travel by horseback, from his army days in Pittsburgh and the Ohio country, and only between Lancaster and Philadelphia went by horse-drawn stage on a "modern," stone highway.

For at least some part of the two years with Jefferson, as his Secretary, during which this Expedition was hatched, Lewis was absorbing the little-known geography of western lands to be explored as well as the culture and habits of the different Indian tribes. He was, in effect, being prepared by Jefferson for an undertaking that was to be scientific, consistent with Jefferson's own bent, but very much inspired by commercial possibilities too. Fur trading was an important commercial goal, to counter an English presence in the west, as was finding an easy Northwest water passage to the Pacific, a centuries-old quest that has never been realized.

Lewis was learning as well to distinguish new fauna and flora and to carefully and completely record data about them. As Jefferson's secretary, he had the benefit of access to the third President, his society of contemporary leaders, as well as his comprehensive and incomparable personal collection of books. The collection numbered about 6500 volumes when sold by Jefferson for about $24,000 in 1815 to fill the Library of Congress (5). The remainder of Lewis's scientific training, especially concerning botany and the use of certain scientific instruments, was gotten during May and June of 1803 in Philadelphia and Lancaster. Lewis visited with some of the most learned Americans of the time, who were in eastern Pennsylvania, and known to Jefferson by his membership in the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia. Lewis took this additional training while he was accumulating the 2300 or 3500 pounds (2-3) of crated materials to be shipped, tediously, by wagon from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, by way of Harpers Ferry.

Pittsburgh was the Expedition's staging point for the subsequent trip by keelboat and pirogue on rivers, and it was the place of construction for the keelboat. Pittsburgh was the Gateway for the long trip down the Ohio and up the Missouri, waterways offering better means for transporting the tons of materials carried outbound by the Corps of Discovery than any overland route could afford.

The keelboat and its cargo represent a story about the science and technology of the very early 19th century. The story is interesting for what was drawn from past knowledge, and also for marking a point in time, soon to be greatly surpassed by the scientific and technological explosions looming ahead. The table below gives some of the key technological highlights of the Pittsburgh staging, with links to selected key technologies and events before, sometimes centuries before, and after the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Overall, it is interesting to note that preparation for the Expedition did not involve invention of new technology or origination of new science, although much new to geography, zoology, biology and botany came of it in the end. Existing, and even ordinary, technology of the day, was gathered for use. The Washington, Monticello, and Philadelphia/Lancaster areas were sites for honing knowledge and gathering the technologies needed. Pittsburgh, because of its unique geography and geological origins, was "merely" the point of staging. Lewis spent half of July and all of August 1803 in Pittsburgh. Had all gone better for him with respect to building the keelboat, he meant to be gone from this place much sooner. So, he spent frustrating days in Pittsburgh, but the region does represent the end of preparation, and the beginning of Expedition.

The Lewis & Clark Expedition is a powerful story, perhaps even more so than that of the moon landing by NASA more than 150 years later. There are many similarities. Like the moon landing, Lewis & Clark encompasses so much of science: biology, physics, astronomy, medicine, geology, geography and more. It is about more than just the range of disciplines; it is about conducting the Scientific Enterprise rigorously and meaningfully. It is about how Meriwether Lewis learned to do this under the tutelage, first and foremost, of Mr. Jefferson, who was clearly a scientist himself among many other titles. In turn, Lewis imparted his knowledge to William Clark.

The Lewis & Clark Expedition is truly a momentous event and, maybe because of its impact on the West and its Indian life, the most momentous in American history. It was conceived by, arguably, America's most enlightened "father," Thomas Jefferson, yet not all races see his vision with respect. Thomas Jefferson's plan to make the Louisiana lands part of the American empire became disruptive of a Native American lifestyle that was not predicated on land ownership. Nevertheless, it is a story that is perfectly suited to event and inquiry-based science learning, and, with the marking of the bicentennial, it is indeed fitting that we in Pittsburgh collaboratively commemorate it, so as to contribute our part to the national, historical observation that begins with 2003.

Technologies of 1803-6 Upon Which The Expedition Depended

Expedition Function
Materials & Technology Acquired by Lewis (citation)
(origin or use)
Transport people and equipment
Pittsburgh-made, planked keelboat of 55 ft length, one square sail, 22 oars - launched Aug 31, 1803; two pirogues, 6-7 oars (1), one purchased near Pittsburgh & one in Wheeling (2) Keelboat & pirogue - "tankers" of the inland, western fur trade (6,7) <1800 to c. 1831 a
Conestoga wagonb - early "tractor trailer" across Alleghenies (8) c.1725 to c. 1850
Railroad to Pittsburgh (8) c. 1850
Pony express/stagecoach (9) 1860's
Measure latitude & cardinal position
Sextants (two, considered more accurate than a transit theodolite and less delicate for travel); surveyor's compass; plotting instruments; books & latitude/longitude tablesc; training with Andrew Ellicott in Lancaster, America's leading astronomer (2) Sextant (8) 1731
Compass (10) 12th century
Jefferson sells book collection used by Lewis to form Library of Congress (5) 1815
Measure longitude
Chronometer, purchased from clockmaker in Philadelphia during May/June 1803c; training from Andrew Ellicott in Lancaster and Robert Patterson in Philadelphia (2) Galilean clock: moon orbits around Jupiter (11) 1612
John Harrison wins contest for useful seagoing clock, sponsored by Board of Longitude (12) 1765
Capt. James Cook validates Harrison's chronometer on 2nd voyage (13) 1772 -5
Defense, hunting & cooking
Flints, powder, lead, steels for striking fire, fishing tackle, air gun, Lancaster long riflesc; 15 Model 1803 flintlock rifles, first Pennsylvania's designed for U.S. Army, as well as knivesd (2) Swiss bring first rifles to America (14) 1721
Evolution to Pennsylvania riflee of Lancaster (15) mid 18th century
Lewis's "doctor" art from prior frontier military experience & herbal art from his mother; Dr. Benjamin Rush's all-purpose purging pills, Peruvian bark, jalap, opium, Glauber's salt, saltpeter, laudanum, calomel, tartar emeticf, mercurial ointment, tourniquets, syringes, lancets, forcepsc (2) Penicillin (14) 1928
Streptomycin (14) 1943
Food preservation
Dried or portable soup, saltc; hominy, lard, salt pork, flour, cornmeal, fresh game (2) Canning of food (14) 1810
Specimen preservation
Training for in-field pressing of plants during Lewis's visit with Botany Professor Benjamin Smith Barton of UP in May 1803 (2) Barton's Elements of Botany as part of a traveling libraryc (2) May 1803
Recording data & observations
Pencils, crayons, ink powder, journals, oilskin bags for storage of records, candles for nighttime writingc (2) Black-lead pencil (14) 1500
Lamp-black rubbing ink (14) 650
N.A. paper manufacture (14, 15) 1690's
Trade "coinage" or Indian presents
Laced coats, other dress, medals, flags, knives, colored beads, looking glasses, handkerchiefs, paints (1, 2), thimbles, thread, scissorsc; tomahawksd (2) Glass beads in Egypt (13) 3000 to 2500 B.C.
Paper currency in N.A. (16) <1781

a In 1831, steamboats began to displace keelboats for the Missouri River supply and fur traffic from and to St. Louis. Although designed specifically for upstream movement, keelboats were difficult to maneuver upriver, especially with heavy cargo. Depending on conditions, they were pushed by hands, or driven by oar, and only sailed with favorable conditions (7).

b The Conestoga wagon was manufactured in the Conestoga region of Pennsylvania around York. In the mid 19th century, the prairie schooner, a lightweight version of the Conestoga wagon, was used to carry possessions west during the great migration of settlers on the Oregon Trail.

c Known to have been purchased in Philadelphia (or Lancaster in the case of Lancaster rifles, and perhaps for some instruments) during May/June 1803 and shipped by wagon to Pittsburgh, arriving in July, by way of present Frederick and Harpers Ferry. Captain Meriwether Lewis arrived from Washington in Pittsburgh on July 15, 1803, by way of Frederick and Harpers Ferry, and departed Pittsburgh on August 31, 1803.

d Shipped from Harpers Ferry by wagon and arrived in Pittsburgh on July 22.

e Compared to European rifles from which they evolved, Pennsylvania rifles were longer and more slender. They had a smaller bore and ball, greater accuracy, and faster reloading down the barrel. The latter was facilitated with a greased patch encasing the ball, rather than using rod and mallet loading. The American rifle was very suitable to the American frontiersman

f Rush's pills were a mixture of calomel, HgCl, and jalap (2), a dried root from Mexico. Each is a purgative. From (8): Peruvian bark comes from the cinchona evergreen tree of Central and South America. It is the source of quinine for treatment of malaria, whose use for alleviating fever dates to 1638. Opium is the milky juice of unripened poppy seeds. Morphine is the active ingredient. Use dates to 4000 B.C. in Sumeria and Europe. Laudanum is a tincture of opium. It was first prepared in the 16th century and was used for a variety of disorders through the 19th century. Glauber's salt is Na2SO4·10H2O. It is a mild laxative known since the 17th century. Saltpeter is KNO3 and was used as a diuretic. Tartar emetic is KSbC4H4O7·1/2 H2O. It is toxic.


1. Coues, Elliott, ed., The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. I - III, New York: Dover     Publications (1987 reprint of Francis P. Harper's unabridged 1893 edition).

2. Ambrose, Stephen E., Undaunted Courage, New York: Simon & Schuster (1996).

3. Cutright, Paul Russell, Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists, Lincoln, NB: University of
    Nebraska Press (1989).

4. Moulton, Gary, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, Vol. 2 of Vols. 1-13, Lincoln,     NB: University of Nebraska Press (2001).

5. Malone, Dumas, Jefferson and His Time: The Sage of Monticello, Vol. 6 of Vols. 1-6, Boston:
    Little, Brown and Company (1981), pp. 169-184.

6. DeVoto, Bernard, Across the Wide Missouri, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1947), pp. 2-3.

7. Boorstin, Daniel J., The Americans: The National Experience, New York: Vintage Books (1965),
    pp. 59-60.

8. Harris, William H. and Levey, Judith S., eds., The New Columbia Encyclopedia, New York:
    Columbia University Press (1975).

9. Frederick, J.V., Ben Holladay: The Stagecoach King, Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press     (1989).

10. Morison, Samuel Eliot, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, New York:       Oxford University Press (1971), p. 34.

11. Drake, Stillman, Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography, New York: Dover (1995),
      pp. 193-194.

12. Sobel, Dava, Longitude: The Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem       of His Time, New York: Walker (1995).

13. Price, Grenfell, ed., The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific As Told by Selections       of His Own Journals, New York: Dover (1971), pp. 94-194.

14. Grun, Bernard, The Timetables of History (based on Werner Stein's Kulturfahrplan), New York:       Simon & Schuster (1975).

15. Boorstin, Daniel J., The Americans: The Colonial Experience, New York: Vintage Books (1958),       pp. 320, 350-351.

16. Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Oxford History of the American People, New York: Oxford
      University Press (1965), p. 230.

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