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Meriwether Lewis Travels to Philadelphia to Prepare for Journey Across America - This Day in History - May 14, 1803

Posted on Saturday, May 14, 2022

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On This Day in History, May 13, 1803, Meriwether Lewis traveled to Philadelphia to study with members of the American Philosophical Society in preparation for his expedition across America.

Philosophical Hall - Home of the American Philosophical Society

Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of the United States and would go down as one of the major accomplishments of Jefferson's Presidency. As far as what was actually contained within the Louisiana Purchase though, little was known by European Colonists at the time. The French controlled just a tiny fraction of the land they were selling, with the vast majority of the land occupied by Native Americans. Jefferson was eager to find out what exactly laid in the vast expanse between the land the Europeans had colonized on the East Coast of North America and the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson hoped that there was a waterway passage that would lead all the way across America.

Jefferson commissioned an expedition that would set off across America with the goal of mapping America's new land and finding passage to the Pacific Ocean. Aside from these main goals however, Jefferson, a man of science and the President of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, also wanted the expedition to take note of the location of all remarkable points of interest and study the flora and fauna along the way. In addition to these scientific goals, the expedition was also a form of diplomatic mission as Jefferson wanted to make contact with the Native American nations in the territory and take notes on their names and cultures. The man Jefferson chose to lead this important expedition was Meriwether Lewis. Lewis was already an accomplished soldier and explorer and even an amateur scientist who had been admitted to the American Philosophical Society. But Jefferson wanted Lewis to improve his skills before his expedition and sent him to Philadelphia to study with members of the American Philosophical Society.

Lewis left for Philadelphia on May 14, 1803 from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Lewis studied medicine with Founding Father and physician Benjamin Rush, botany from Benjamin Smith Barton, geography from Robert Patterson, and anatomy from Caspar Wistar. Lewis studied in Philadelphia for roughly a month and also purchased supplies for his expedition. 

Lewis would depart from Philadelphia and head to Washington D.C. to meet with Jefferson before heading west. Along with William Clark who Lewis asked to lead the expedition with him and a team of dozens, Lewis would set of on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and would not return to the East Coast for nearly half a decade. When he did return however, Lewis clearly remembered his time in Philadelphia, the Lewis and Clark Journals which detailed the expedition and many specimens of flora, fauna and fossils that were collected during the expedition were given to the American Philosophical Society and many of these artifacts remain in Philadelphia to this day.

Meriwether Lewis Historical Marker in Philadelphia


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