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


Born and raised in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) came of age and entered public life as the nature and extent of the western region of the North American continent drew close scrutiny and attracted constant debate. Throughout the colonial period, Virginia remained the most populous and by extension the most land-hungry colony on the North American continent. It also encompassed more land than any other colony; by royal charter its territorial claims stretched north to the Great Lakes and west at least as far as the Mississippi River, if not the Pacific Ocean. The spatial demands of tobacco cultivation, the availability of cheap slave labor, and the interests of Virginia's elites fueled desires to organize and populate this vast territory.

Settlement necessitated exploration, surveys, a mechanism for land distribution, access to markets, and defense. Jefferson learned of the lands claimed for the colony of Virginia from local men like his father Peter Jefferson (1708-1757), and his father's associates Joshua Fry (1700-1754), Rev. James Maury (1719-1769) and Dr. Thomas Walker (1715-1794), men who planned explorations and surveys with several goals in mind. One objective was to survey boundaries for future land distribution, often in response to royal grants bestowed on favored Virginians. Additionally, they explored the geography of the west to determine routes for accessing domestic and foreign markets, ever mindful of the long-sought passage west to the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, colonial Virginians who explored into the Piedmont and west of the Appalachian Mountains undoubtedly assessed their security situation in terms of native populations and foreign powers, both as potential threats and potential allies. Treaty, commerce, and warfare proved to be the favored tools of diplomacy. Colonial Virginians' attempts to make sense of the King's far-reaching dominion of Virginia influenced similar efforts by later Virginian frontier leaders and public men; first under the Revolutionary War regime of the Commonwealth and later under the administration of the United States' national government.

While his father, Fry, Maury, and Walker, as well as the intrepid frontiersmen George Washington and George Rogers Clark, all participated in land speculation, Thomas Jefferson did not. Although his marriage in 1772 to Martha Wayles Skelton (1748-1782), a widow with sizable holdings from her late husband Bathurst Skelton (1744-1768), enlarged his land holdings in Virginia's western counties of Albemarle, Bedford, and Campbell to roughly 11,000 acres, Jefferson did not tour the western reaches of Virginia. He never ventured into the unknown, but rather, according to one scholar, "seemed destined to learn of the West from the exploits of other men" (Jackson 1981, 12). However, one can be certain that the "Albemarle Adventurers" in Jefferson's early life fueled his curiosity in, and influenced his vision of, the west. This is evidenced by his lifelong passion for collecting books, maps, and objects related to the Far West and reading the most up-to-date reports of the region.

As a member of one of the leading families in southern Virginia, Thomas Jefferson took his place among the colony's ruling elite, serving in the House of Burgesses from 1769-1775 and the Continental Congress (1775 & 1776). Timing and political opportunity found Jefferson in legislative and executive positions that enabled him to make an impact on western settlement, not only at the state level, but in the arena of national affairs as well. In his official capacities, Jefferson faced jurisdictional disputes that plagued the process of western settlement during the Revolutionary and early national periods. In what is now East Tennessee, settlers remained unsure of whether their farms and towns were part of North Carolina or Virginia. Speculators and competing land companies created a legal quagmire for settlers to negotiate as they tried to secure land titles against two or more counter claimants. In 1779-80, during Jefferson's first year as governor, Virginia's legislature employed Albemarle's Walker and Augusta's Daniel Smith to extend the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia. While their survey failed to produce a line acceptable to both states, the expedition underscored the interest of Virginians in rationalizing the state's jurisdiction over western lands. To facilitate settlement, the state called for improving the Wilderness Road that led to Kentucky and Tennessee through the Cumberland Gap. Thus, the Revolution enabled Virginians to revitalize westward expansion through public and private efforts.

In 1780, the same year that he began writing his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson became a member of the American Philosophical Society, the scholarly organization founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin and others to further the pursuits of useful knowledge concerning science and the natural world. In 1784, Jefferson was appointed a Minister Plenipotentiary to France, and then served as Minister to the King of France from 1785-1789. Upon his return to the United States, he was appointed to serve as the first Secretary of State of the United States in the Cabinet of President George Washington (1789-1793). Jefferson was elected Vice President of the United States and served under President John Adams (1797-1801), and was elected President of the United States in 1801 by the House of Representatives, reelected to a second four-year term in 1804.

What role might these developments in his private interests and public career have played in the formation of Thomas Jefferson's vision for the Far West? Certainly he brought his considerable faculties and experiences to bear on the conjoined problems of American expansion and American union in the years following independence. As a public man in that period, Jefferson endeavored to make sense of the lands west of his beloved Blue Ridge Mountains because, ultimately, he knew that they held the key to success for the American experiment.