Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark


Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Short

Thomas Jefferson to William Short, November 21, 1789
Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress
This letter illustrates Thomas Jefferson's interest in, and knowledge of, weather and the science of measurement, as he recounts the tribulations of a sea voyage.

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Lynhaven bay. November 21, 1789.

Dear Sir

Tho' a committee of American captains at Cowes had determined we must expect a nine week passage, the winds & weather have so befriended us that we are come to an anchor here 29 days after weighing anchor at Yarmouth, having been only 26 days from land to land. After getting clear of the eternal fogs of Europe, which required 5 or 6 days sailing, the sun broke out upon us, & gave us fine autumn weather almost constantly thro the rest of the voiage, & so warm that we had not occasion for fire. In the gulph stream only we had to pass thro' the squalls of wind & rain which hover generally over that tepid current: & thro the whole we have had nothing stronger than what seamen call a stiff breeze: so that I have now passed the Atlantic twice without knowing what a storm is. When we had passed the meridian of the Western islands, our weather was so fine that it would have been madness to go 1000 miles out of our way to seek what would not have been better. So we determined to push on the first course. We left the banks of Newfoundland about as far on our right as the Western islands on our left. Notwithstanding the evidence of their quadrants to the contrary some of the sailors insisted we were in the trade winds. Our sickness in the beginning was of 3.4. or 5 days, severe enough. Since that we have been perfectly well. We separated from Trumbul's ship the evening on which I wrote you from the

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needles, & never saw her more. Our ship is two years old only, excellently accomodated, in ballast, & among the swiftest sailors on the ocean. Her captain a bold & judicious seaman, a native of Norfolk, whose intimate knoledge of our coast has been both confidence & security to us. So that as we had in prospect every motive of satisfaction, we have found it still greater in event. We came to anchor here because no pilot has yet offered. Being within 15 miles of Norfolk by land, I have some thought of going ashore here in the morning, & going by land to that city. I write this from hence in hopes some outward bound vessel may be met to which it may be consigned. My plants & shepherd dogs are well. Remember me to enquiring friends, and accept assurances of the sincere esteem & attachment with which I am

Dear Sir Your sincere & affectionate friend,
Th: Jefferson