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Meriwether Lewis Visits Wheeling, 1803

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson asked Congress to appropriate funds for an exploration of the part of the continent bordering on the Missouri and Columbia rivers. Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis, an experienced army officer and frontiersman, to head the expedition. Captain Lewis then chose William Clark, a fellow frontier officer, to join him.

Lewis proceeded first to the U.S. Army’s arsenal at Harpers Ferry, where he acquired weapons and other supplies manufactured there. The supplies were transported overland to Pittsburgh, where the party set out down the Ohio River on September 1, 1803. It took Lewis and Clark a little more than two years to reach the Pacific.

The one hundred miles from Pittsburgh to Wheeling were extremely difficult because of low water and an abundance of driftwood on the Ohio River. When he finally arrived at Wheeling, Captain Lewis described it as ‘‘a pretty considerable Village of fifty houses.’’ The party rested for two days during which time Lewis met Dr. William Patterson, the owner of the largest collection of medicines west of the mountains. As he set out from Wheeling, Lewis found the Ohio broader and deeper and lined on both banks with hardwoods. Just below Wheeling, he stopped at an Indian earth mound (Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville) and described it in great detail in his journal.

The trip down the Ohio was a practice run for the rest of the trip. To determine whether the Missouri country to which they were headed could sustain a population comparable to the Ohio River country, Lewis took notes on rainfall, temperature, kinds of timber and vegetation, and farming techniques as he descended the river. When he reached the army outposts on the lower Ohio (beyond the border of present West Virginia), Captain Lewis was authorized to enlist 12 men to join the expedition. Among them was Sergeant Patrick Gass, a West Virginian whom Lewis later praised for his faithful service, diligence, and integrity. Gass’s journal, which his captain instructed him to keep, became the first published account of the expedition.

{Lewis, Susan E. "Lewis and Clark Expedition." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 07 October 2010.}

On September 8th, the expedition had reached Wheeling where Lewis wrote the first of his many letters to President Thomas Jefferson:

"Meriwether Lewis to President Thomas Jefferson

Wheeling, September 8th 1803.

Dear Sir,

It was not untill 7 O'clock on the morning of the 31st Ultmo. that my boat was completed, she was instantly loaded, and at 10 A.M. on the same day I left Pittsburgh, where I had been moste shamefully detained by the unpardonable negligence of my boat-builder. On my arrival at Pittsburgh, my calculation was that the boat would be in readiness by the 5th of August; this term however elapsed and the boat so far from being finished was only partially planked on one side. In this situation I had determined to abandon the boat, and to purchase two or three perogues and descend the river in them, and depend on purchasing a boat as I descended, there being none to be had at Pittsburgh; from this resolution I was dissuaded first by the representations of the best informed merchants at that place who assured me that the chances were much against my being able to procure a boat below; and secondly by the positive assureances given me by the boat-builder that she should be ready on the last of the then ensuing week, (the 13th): however a few days after, according to his usual custom he got drunk, quarrelled with his workmen, and several of them left him, nor could they be prevailed on to return: I threatened him with the penalty of his contract, and exacted a promise of greater sobriety in future which, he took care to perform with as little good faith, as he had his previous promises with regard to the boat, continuing to be constantly either drunk or sick. I spent most of my time with the workmen, alternately presuading and threatening, but neither threats, presuasion or any other means which I could devise were sufficient to procure the completion of the work sooner than the gist of August; by which time the water was so low that those who pretended to be acquainted with the navigation of the river declared it impracticable to descend it; however in conformity to my previous determineation I set out, having taken the precaution to send a part of my baggage by a waggon to this place, and also to procure a good pilot. My days journey have averaged about 12 miles, but in some instances, with every exertion I could make was unable to exceed 4 1/2 & 5 miles pr. day. This place is one hundred miles distant from Pittsburgh by way of the river and about sixty five by land.

When the Ohio is in it's present state there are many obstructions to it's navigation, formed by bars of small stones, which in some instances are intermixed with, and partially cover large quantities of drift-wood; these bars frequently extend themselves entirely across the bed of the river, over many of them I found it impossible to pass even with my em[p]ty boat, without geting into the water and lifting her over by hand; over others my force was even inadequate to enable me to pass in this manner, and I found myself compelled to hire horses or oxen from the neighbouring farms and drag her over them; in this way I have passed as many as five of those bars, (or as they are here called riffles) in a day, and to unload as many or more times. The river is lower than it has ever been known by the oldest settler in this country. I shall leave this place tomorrow morning, and loose no time in geting on.

I have been compelled to purchase a perogue at this place in order to transport the baggage which was sent by land from Pittsburgh, and also to lighten the boat as much as possible. On many bars the water in the deepest part dose not exceed six inches. I have the honour to be with the most perfect regard and sincere attatchment Your Obt. Servt.

1st U.S. Regt. Infty."

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