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

Thematic View

Virginia's vast colonial land claims provided a particularly rich environment for shaping young Thomas Jefferson's (1743-1826) understanding of the West. He lived within a community dominated by men whose western vision was shaped by the work they did as farmers, surveyors, explorers, and speculators. Perhaps of more importance was their decision to make their homes in Virginia's remote backcountry. As the seventeenth century gave way to the eighteenth, advancing settlement in Virginia's Piedmont region led to the creation of two counties central to Virginia's growth: Albemarle and Augusta. These two counties, recently described by historians as key "seed counties" of growth, provided the men, resources, and vision for expansion into southwest Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee (Fischer and Kelly 2000). These men ambitiously planned to extend the best elements of their society, its institutions and culture, over a new and undefined geography. It was a geography based on British Crown claims to land extending westward at least as far as the Mississippi River and possibly to the Pacific Ocean. By their way of thinking, "the West" was synonymous with "Virginia."

Thomas's father, Peter Jefferson (1708-1757), established the family home on Virginia's frontier, at Shadwell on the Rivanna River in what became Albemarle County, in 1737. Born here in 1743, Jefferson lived at Shadwell from 1743-1745 and again from 1752 until 1770 when the estate was destroyed by fire. As a surveyor, a prominent man of the colony, and associate founder of the Loyal (Land) Company, Peter Jefferson journeyed extensively through the Colonial Virginia's Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions. In 1751, at the bidding of the House of Burgesses, Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry (1700-1754) produced one of the earliest maps of Virginia and neighboring Maryland, and the first constructed from actual surveys (Sanchez-Saavedra 1975).

Like Fry and his father, other principal men of Thomas Jefferson's neighborhood pursued a life on the geographic fringe of colonial society and influenced the young boy in a number of ways. For instance, he became well acquainted with the adventures of Dr. Thomas Walker (1715-1794), a close family friend and business associate with his father in the Loyal Company, whose survey work took him through what came to be called Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky. Walker documented much of that expedition in a revealing journal that provides a significant amount of detail concerning southwest Virginia and the qualities of the land valued by Virginians at that time. The influence of surveyors' tales, maps, and explorers' journals was complemented by a classical education that included studies of the world beyond his boyhood Virginia. Following Peter Jefferson's death in 1756, Thomas boarded with Rev. James Maury (1719-1769), another personal friend of his father's and partner in the Loyal Company, who taught Jefferson from 1758 to 1760. It seems likely that Maury's abiding interest in the west sparked Jefferson's own through his formative lessons on geography and mathematics.

In the early 1750s, individuals and small parties of Virginians moved westward along river courses and through gaps in the chain of mountains stretching from northern to southwestern Virginia. The colonial government encouraged this settlement through legislation that authorized tax incentives for people willing to settle west of the mountains. However, this approach to settlement raised a plethora of concerns for the vulnerable families who advanced into new lands in a rather scatter-shot fashion. As communities coalesced around the synergy of increasing concentrations of farms and plantations, the House of Burgesses created new counties from existing ones to better serve the needs of these communities. Acts establishing western counties, including the statutes for the creation of Fincastle, Kentucky, and Illinois counties replicated the pattern of county governance established throughout Virginia and guaranteed the propagation of common values and institutions across the colony. Thus, even as the West meant Virginia to Jefferson, expansion meant the replication of Virginia customs, morals, manners, and communities across vast distances from the shores of Tidewater to the western waters of the Great Lakes and Mississippi river. Virginians would fill the colony's interior, drawn by the fertile soils and other valuable resources. Over the course of the middle decades of the eighteenth century, Jefferson witnessed the positive and negative aspects of this expansion, perhaps subtly affecting his conception of the West and what institutions might help better harness its potential.

The seed of an idea planted by his father's generation to journey across the continent would find increasing purchase in Jefferson's imagination. Growing political, diplomatic, economic, and scientific interests converged to make such an expedition seem inevitable. However, efforts in the 1780s and 1790s to carry on an investigation into the continent's interior proved more opportunistic than systematic. Like expansion and republican ideals, science and national ambitions also converged in the late eighteenth century. Expeditions like those of Britain's Captain James Cook (1728-1779), for instance, were motivated by scientific objectives as well as economic and political aspirations. Influenced by Enlightenment thought, governments put science to work for the state. Scientific data carefully recorded and published strengthened the claims of nations to primacy in a region. An avid student of science and eager to press American interests in North America, Jefferson encouraged the same kind of exploration on behalf of the young republic. Consequently, as circumstances arose he pursued opportunities to support expeditions across the continent.

After 1783, Jefferson left Congress to return to Virginia, only to be called to national service the following year as Minister Plenipotentiary to France. His experiences during those five years in Europe encouraged a further reorientation of his thinking about the West. While in France Jefferson engaged in a lively debate over the respective qualities of flora, fauna, and people in the Old and New Worlds. Also, he purchased a wide array of texts in English, Spanish, and French translations on the geography of North America, especially that of Louisiana. The volumes provided the minister with a mix of historical perspective and current geographic understanding of his native land. These texts supported some of his existing ideas about the continent, such as its geographic symmetry which suggested western mountains or highlands of similar height to the Appalachians and waterways that flowed from the eastern slopes of those mountains to the Mississippi. His studies also stimulated his desire to press for an American exploration of the North American interior.

Interestingly, it would be a Frenchman who would provide Jefferson with a third opportunity to advance an exploration of the continent's interior. André Michaux (1746-1802), touring in America for botanical research since 1785 caught Jefferson's interest. On behalf of the American Philosophical Society, he invited Michaux to lead a scientific study of the region west of the Mississippi along the course of the Missouri. Although the organization was guided by Jefferson in this matter, the full support of the membership was proven with the enlistment of subscribers and the subsequent passage of motions to help finance the expedition. The commitment of the American Philosophical Society to the scientific nature of the journey is evident in the organization's decision to sponsor the trip while eschewing any monies from publication of results or accounts of the journey. Subscribers included George Washington ($100), John Adams ($20), Henry Knox ($50), Alexander Hamilton ($50), James Madison ($20), and, of course, Thomas Jefferson ($50).

Captivated by the many unanswered questions concerning the continent's interior and its potential for future generations of Americans, Jefferson looked westward for the answers to the country's pressing concerns and to securing its hard won liberty. By the time he witnessed the "second" American Revolution in 1800 that won him the presidency, Jefferson had encouraged three efforts to uncover the mysteries of the West and establish America's future on firmer ground. Each attempt failed to materialize, yet the Virginian understood the importance for the new nation of conducting such an undertaking and continued to pursue the matter. A few months into his presidency, Jefferson would take the initiative to pursue his vision of a western expedition more fully.