Lewis&Clark Expedition Gets Halting Start in Pittsburgh
George Washington came to Logstown, just downriver from modern-day Pittsburgh, several times to add to his substantial land holdings.
When he died, he was holding more than 52,000 acres. All of it, of course, had at one time been Indian land.
Sound like alot of acreage?
That paled (a rather appropriate verb) compared to land scouted and surveyed by a later visitor.
Meriwether Lewis made an unwilling stop at Logstown just as he was beginning the famous Lewis&Clark expedition to explore what white men could do with 530 million acres of Indian land America just bought from the French.
But, before we get into that, let’s take a quiz to review information about Logstown covered in the first three parts of this series.
Do You Know Logstown Yet?
- A French Jesuit Priest noted in his journal that he dined inside the tree with 28 other men. They were not hobbits.
- A French trading company built log houses for Indian suppliers as it tried to stave off English companies intent on obtaining and developing Indian land.
- Indians called George that because they remembered that was the name they gave to his great-grandfather after he wiped out Indian towns in Virginia and Maryland four generations earlier. George went on to order a campaign of annihilation against Iroquois allied with the British during the Revolution.
- The Iroquois, based in what is now New York State, was a powerful alliance of six nations that controlled (or tried to) tribes in Pennsylvania.
- Indians had been trading for European goods for 200 years. They were dependent on them. They also wanted to maintain their independence both culturally and politically.
How did you do?
If you got all five right, you can treat yourself to a free keg of rum at the trading post.
Lewis & Pittsburgh
If not, don’t worry about it. You know enough now to read how Meriwether Lewis got past Logstown to become one of America’s biggest celebrities, and likely its first celebrity suicide.
His Corps of Discovery expedition boat was built in Pittsburgh. That was a mistake.
Lewis knew Pittsburgh. He had spent the late 1700s in military service here, battling and negotiating with Indians, and also putting down the much-romanticized rebellion by whiskey tax dodgers.
It was an unruly frontier town notorious for drunkenness at a time when heavy drinking was common everywhere.
In fact, Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne, despite his nickname, would not train young men here to fight Indians. It was too undisciplined. He set up the nation’s first military academy at the abandoned Logstown site instead.
Fort Pitt, at the flood-prone Point, had been torn down in 1792. Fort Fayette, a smaller fortification, was built along the Allegheny River in what is now Pittsburgh’s Cultural District.
It was named for that French darling of the American Revolution (Lafayette). The fort was used to stage the so-called Indian Wars in the Ohio Territory, and also for boat building.
Lewis was stationed there. Then, he became President Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary.
Jefferson had arranged for the U.S. to purchase 530 million acres in the Midwest from Napoleon Bonaparte. The emperor needed the $50 million francs ($11.25 million) to stage a comeback in Europe. He came back, but it only led to his Waterloo.
Science & Wilderness
Jefferson really wanted people with scientific backgrounds to explore the territory gained through the Louisiana Purchase, but he couldn’t find anyone with such knowledge who had the ability or inclination to spend a few years in the wilderness.
So, he turned to his secretary.
Lewis was a capable woodsman, and he proved a quick learner after Jefferson sent him to Philadelphia for crash courses from top scientists.
The first priority of the expedition was to find the so-called Northwest Passage, an imagined water route that would transport people and goods across the continent. No such rivers or series of rivers exists.
America’s Inferiority Complex
Another matter of longstanding importance to Jefferson was to prove to European intelligentsia that this continent was not inferior. Men of science in the Old World were claiming as much.
Inferiority was reflected in size. If a North American creature is smaller than its Old World counterpart, it is inferior.
If it is smaller, they deduced, it is because of North America’s climate. If it’s climate creates inferiority, then people living here for any length of time will also become inferior.
French scientists, in particular, falsely noted that American Indians were shorter than Europeans.
It was poor enough science, but it was really bad marketing. America’s business plan was to develop land — Indian land — and get Europeans to move here.
So, size mattered.
But, Lewis couldn’t even get started to gather big specimens .
Not Pittsburgh’s Proudest Moment
He explained it in a letter to the President.
It was not until 7 O’Clock on the morning of the 31st August (1803) that my boat was completed. She was instantly loaded, and at 10. a.m. on the same day, I left Pittsburgh, where I had been most shamefully detained by the unpardonable negligence of my boatbuilder.
On my arrival at Pittsburgh, my calculation was that the boat would be in readiness by the 5th of August. This term, however, elapsed . The boat was so far from being finished it was only partially planked on one side.
In this situation I had determined to abandon the boat, and to purchase two or three perogues (pronounced pee-rowgs, an Indian word for small flat-bottom boats) and descend the river in them, and depend on purchasing a boat as I descended, there being none to be had at Pittsburgh.
Lewis learned he would not likely find a big boat to buy downriver. Besides, the boatbuilder promised to have the vessel done by the end of the week.
However, a few days after, according to his usual custom, he got drunk. He quarreled with his workmen, and several of them left him, nor could they be prevailed on to return.
I threatened him with the penalty of his contract, and exacted a promise of greater sobriety in future, . . . which he took care to perform with as little good faith as he had his previous promises with regard to the boat, continuing to be constantly drunk or sick.
He never names the boatbuilder, nor where in Pittsburgh the boat was built. The town had at least eight watercraft manufacturers.
It’s been a subject of much historical research, but the picture remains as foggy as a drunk man’s memory.
River Keeps Sinking
As Lewis paced and fretted, the already-low Ohio River got even lower. River people told him to forget about joining William Clark and the rest of the expedition crew in Louisville, KY, until the following spring.
When the boat was finally done, Lewis went into the river anyway.
Let’s read his journal:
Set out at sunrise, 2½ miles to a riffle; got out and pulled the boat over it with some difficulty.
9 o’clock reached Logstown riffle; unloaded and with much difficulty got over; detained 4 hours.
. . . supposed I had gotten over Logstown riffle, but we find ourselves stranded again; suppose it best to send out two or three men to engage some oxen or horses to assist us.
Obtained one horse and an ox, which enabled us very readily to get over; paid the man his charge, which was one dollar.
The inhabitants who live near these riffles live much by the distressed situation of a traveler, are generally lazy, charge extravagantly when they are called on for assistance, and have no philanthropy or conscience . . .
So, Lewis didn’t like the people he found at Logstown. He explained to the President that “riffle” was a word used by locals for shallow water flowing over a bar of stone or sand.
Going by inflation rate alone, the dollar the farmer received is equivalent to $21 today. That’s less than a AAA membership, and much less than today’s towing fees.
On the other hand, we have to remember that labor was much less valued then — back before labor unions.
Most men earned less than a dollar for a whole day’s work.
That’s why Lewis felt taken. And, he wasn’t sure how far he would get before he’d have to fork over another dollar to get pulled off the rocks again.
As it turned out, farmers and oxen rescued the nation’s discovery vessel four or five more times before it reached Wheeling.
An Explorer’s Best Friend
For many people, the best purchase Lewis made in Pittsburgh was a dog.
He bought a Newfoundland, an intelligent, gigantic breed from Canada, but rare in these parts. Lewis paid $20.
Originally bred to help fisherman pull in nets and carry loads, the dog was with the expedition from beginning to the end three years later.
Dozens of bronze statues are erected today along the route, most of which include Seaman.
That supposedly was its name, Seaman. In this case, Riverdog would have been more appropriate.
At one time, the dog’s name was thought to be Scannon.
That was the name read by an historian going over Lewis’ journals in 1916. Then, in 1984, it became Seaman when another historian with better eyes took to reading the journals.
Lewis, who became governor of upper Louisiana, carried the journals around with him for years, but he never got around to editing and publishing them.
That left it to others to figure out what he wrote.
Lewis first mentioned the dog as he left Pittsburgh. He said the dog was good at catching squirrels, and that fried squirrel makes excellent eating.
He also noted a buffalo calf once followed the dog around. A full-grown buffalo bull also charged into camp one night, but Seaman drove it away.
It was a beaver that nearly killed the dog.
It bit into the dog’s leg, severing an artery. Lewis and Clark managed to stop the bleeding. The dog recovered in short order.
The same could not be said for Lewis himself.
He has been diagnosed by modern-day armchair psychiatrists as a manic-depressive (now bipolar), and/or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Like many of today’s celebrity suicides, he called it quits at a room rented for the night.
Lewis, only 35, was found shot in Tennessee while traveling to Washington, D.C.
Those who knew him best were sure it was suicide. They believed the innkeeper who said she heard him talking to himself like he was arguing a case before a judge. Then the shots.
Former President Jefferson and his co-explorer Clark both said they were quite sure he killed himself.
Others suspected murder. Many conspiracy theorists still do.
As it happens, Clark is believed to have been trained at Legionville, the military academy built atop the remains of Logstown.
We’ll look into Legionville in the next post.
Did I miss something? Did I get something wrong? Fill us in at comments section below.
Lewis&Clark at Heinz History Center
More on Lewis’ Mysterious Death
Next: Indian Killers Trained at West Point Prototype, Batman’s Ancestral Connection
Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher