As a precaution he therefore lovingly designed an iron boat frame that could be disassembled into sections and carried in the keelboat until needed. The pieces could then be portaged, along with the pirogue, to the nearest west-flowing stream and there sheathed with either bark or buffalo hide, according to availability. If the portage proved unexpectedly long, then the iron boat alone would have to suffice for the last leg of the journey.
So far he had contemplated, in the main, physical equipment only. But he also had to acquire skills so that during the trip he could gather the kind of scientific knowledge Jefferson wanted. As an example, let us use a book to which the president and his secretary gave concentrated attention: Alexander Mackenzie 's Voyages from Montreal. The two volumes were not published until Another edition, slightly revised, appeared in Philadelphia in Quite possibly neither version would have been written if Mackenzie had not felt the need of a powerful propaganda weapon for forcing the British government into revising the nation's fur trade.
The point was not lost on Jefferson , but our consideration of the book's ax grinding needs to wait until after we look at some of Mackenzie 's intellectual successes—and failures—in fields that deeply concerned the American president. The Scottish-born trader's primary goal was commercial. So, ostensibly, was Lewis's. Hauling supplies by birchbark canoe from Montreal to the foot of the Canadian Rockies was costly and laborious.
Great savings would result if Mackenzie could find a navigable river opening into the Pacific, one that could be used for importing trade goods and exporting fur. He made his start, in , from Fort Chipewayan, built near the chill west end of Lake Athabasca primarily for this purpose.
Unhappily for himself, he picked the wrong river to probe—today it bears his name, the Mackenzie —and he ended, completely dismayed, among ice floes in the Arctic Ocean. Though he carried a sextant with him, he was not adept at determining latitude with it, and he could not measure longitude at all. Consequently he returned to Fort Chipewayan with only the haziest ideas of where he had been, scientifically speaking. He had learned, however, that between Lake Athabasca and the Arctic Ocean there was no feasible outlet to the Pacific. To remedy his navigational deficiencies he put his trade in order and then spent the winter of —92 in London studying surveying.
He returned to Fort Chipewayan during the spring and summer of as Andre Michaux may well have learned while in Montreal that same season. As soon as the ice broke in , he would try again, this time along a more southerly river, the Peace. His crew was about the same size as the one Jefferson later proposed—six French voyageurs, two Indians, and an able second-in-command, Alexander Mackay. Jefferson may well have picked up his notions about size from Mackenzie 's account. Crowded with their supplies in a twenty-five-foot birchbark canoe, the group fought their way up the howling Peace, crossed a high, narrow divide, and descended to a mighty river the local Indians called Tacoutche Tesse.
It ran wildly south. Today we know it as the Fraser. But when Mackenzie learned, a little later, that an American seaman named Robert Gray had sailed his ship Columbia , on May 11, , into a regal stream farther south, Mackenzie thought he had stumbled onto a higher reach of the same river, named Columbia after Gray's ship.
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Warned by the Indians that he could not negotiate the crushing rapids of the Tacoutche Tesse's lower gorge in a canoe, Mackenzie cached the fragile craft for use on his return journey and led his men west, walking at first and then using an Indian canoe. When at last they reached salt water—not the open sea but a long sound—he melted some animal fat he had with him and stirred in a generous pinch of the kind of vermilion Indians used for painting their faces and the parts in their hair.
With this red mixture he inscribed on a cliff face, "in large characters, ' Alexander Mackenzie , from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety three,' " a statement Jefferson and Lewis must have read with envy. More to the point, Mackenzie used his astronomical instruments and skills to find and report, in the Voyages , the approximate location of his vermilion boast. Before that, he had fixed the latitude and longitude of Montreal; of Fort William on the northwest shore of Lake Superior, where his boisterous fellow traders of the North West Company held their annual rendezvous; of Fort Chipewayan; and of the narrow divide—a mere paces, or about half a mile—that separated the watershed of the Peace from that of the Tacoutche Tesse the Columbia, as he believed.
After defining those points and hundreds in between he had been able to draw, and publish in the Voyages , a map that anyone who wished to cross the continent by canoe that far north could follow. Jefferson wanted Lewis to produce an equally reliable map of a more southerly and, the president hoped, a far less difficult crossing to the Pacific, for by that time the western sea had ceased being a target of opportunity and was emerging as the expedition's primary goal.
This meant training the young man, as Mackenzie had been trained, in the arts of celestial observation. Jefferson could have served as tutor. His book Notes on Virginia had contained a map originally produced by his father and later revised by the son. He had been chairman of the committee that had prepared the first draft of the Continental Congress's famed Ordinance of , which had laid down the patterns by which the public lands of the United States were to be surveyed before being opened for sale to purchasers.
Of necessity he had done rough and ready surveying around his plantation. We are told, moreover, that out of sheer intellectual curiosity, he often lugged his instruments onto the roof at Monticello, took sightings on a nearby mountain, and, using that as a focal point, happily calculated the latitude and longitude of the surrounding points of interest. Skills, then, he had. Time was something else. His presidential duties were pressing, and his instruments—none could be had in those days in the nation's swampy capital—were at Monticello.
Rather than have them wrapped and sent to him, he taught Lewis theory out of books and invented problems whose solutions depended on the young man's mastery of the printed tables and abstruse formulas used by navigators. Actual practice would have to come later, under the critical eyes of trained astronomers located in busier intellectual centers than Washington. Alexander Mackenzie 's scientific education had gone no farther than practical astronomy. Candidly he stated in the preface to his Voyages , "I do not possess the science of the naturalist.
He already was gifted with acute powers of observation and a knack for describing in accurate detail what he saw.
He knew enough of the flora and fauna in the eastern part of the United States to ignore similar items in the West and thus could concentrate on what was new and different. But he had a folk approach to natural history, not the scientific one that philosophers would expect when he discoursed on the new world's climate, soils, minerals, birds, animals, plants, forests, fishes, and fossils. Again Jefferson could have served as tutor if time had allowed.
His interest in the physical scene, like that of many cultured men of the time, was obsessive. The philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment pervaded his thinking. The universe, he believed, was an orderly place. Jefferson fit the mold. He solicited, planted, and carefully noted the development of seeds and cuttings sent him by as many acquaintances in different parts of the world as he could reach. On being elected president of the American Philosophical Society in , he took to his inaugural meeting, as exhibits for his address, a parcel of ancient bones that had been exhumed in western Virginia and sent him for study.
He had deduced from the creature's claws that it had been a mighty feline, and he proposed naming it Megalonyx: big lion. Actually, as his friend Caspar Wistar showed, the remains were those of a huge, extinct ground sloth. No matter. Because of Jefferson 's pioneering work in paleontology, the species was given his name, Megalonyx jeffersonia , much as he had been honored a few years earlier by having an American species of the European twinleaf called Jefersonia diphylla.
Finally, underlying and informing all else was the psychological problem of maps. For the sake of his logistics, Lewis needed to accumulate all possible data about distances, topography, and potential enemies he would face on his way west. With Jefferson offering suggestions from time to time, he pored over charts purporting to contain enlightenment. Yet at the very moment of doing this he knew that much of what was offered was based on nothing more than guesswork, dimly understood Indian tales, or academic logic concocted as a substitute for actual observation.
On occasion he must have felt completely adrift: how could he stake his success on the reliability of the very charts he was supposed to correct during his travels? He began his course in map reading with a geographic preconception that had long been a fundamental in American thinking: The gateway to the setting sun was the Missouri River. This axiom had sprung in part from the sheer power of the river as it flooded into the Mississippi—"like a conqueror," to borrow the words of the early French commentator, Pierre Francois Xavier Charlevoix, who had passed the junction in Surely such a river came from distant sources, gathering power as it moved east.
Logic added its persuasions. The majestic Ohio and the twin tributaries that formed it, the Monongahela and the Allegheny, provided natural highways, broken by only minor carrying places, from the Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic seaboard.
Did it not stand to reason that the equally majestic Missouri would provide comparable routes to the Pacific? There were Indian tales as well. A notable one occurred in a History of Louisiana written by the Charlevoix cited above. In the spring of , at the tiny French mission of Notre Dame de Cascasquios Kaskaskia on the Illinois bank of the Mississippi, he encountered a woman of the Missouris tribe who told him, "The Missouri rises from very high and very bare mountains, behind which there is another river, which probably rises there also and runs westward.
Jefferson considered the account necessary for good libraries to own, and it is easier to believe that Lewis read it than to suppose he did not. Once the far western river entered men's imaginings, it began receiving names. An early one came from the pages of a different History of Louisiana , this one published in by Antoine Simon le Page Du Pratz, who had lived beside the Mississippi for twenty-five years.
No, he walked north, at right angles to the Missouri, until he reached the dreamy river. In other words he or Du Pratz acted on the ancient concept of interlocking rivers, that is, the existence of neighboring, parallel streams that flow in opposite directions. Thus if a traveler discovered a short portage from an upbound course to a downward one, he could save many weary upstream miles.
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Jefferson read about the adventure in a copy of Du Pratz's History he purchased in Paris. Meriwether Lewis picked up an English edition in Philadelphia and carried it with him to the Pacific and back. Carver had fought in the French-Indian Wars under the famed ranger Robert Rogers, and afterwards the two had gone to the Great Lakes area to embark in the fur trade. Out of their work came Indian rumors so Rogers claimed of a great Pacific-bound river called Ouregan.
Carver swiped the name and fitted it into his Travels , which sold several editions on both sides of the Atlantic. Jefferson read the tales avidly, and Lewis was surely familiar with them.
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But was there really such a river or was it the product of centuries of vaporing? Alexander Mackenzie 's discovery of the Tacoutche Tesse seemed to be the first solid evidence. Hadn't he been knighted for his work? Besides, corroboration came belatedly from two more sources, an English captain, George Vancouver, and an American ship trader, Robert Gray.
In while coursing the Northwest coast in search of sea-otter pelts that could be exchanged in China for tea, spices, and porcelain, Gray had noticed through the mist a set of formidable breakers crashing across a bar that masked the entrance to what was probably a large estuary. Other traders and official explorers, both Spanish and English, had noticed the same tumult but had not wanted to confront it. Gray, though, bulled across and found himself in the mouth of a huge river that he named Columbia, after his ship.
He spent upwards of a profitable week trading with the river's Chinook Indians and then sailed north to the west coast of Vancouver Island. There he encountered one of Britain's great navigators, George Vancouver, for whom the island would be named, and told him about the river. Vancouver was one of those who had seen the breakers but had sailed by.
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