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The Filson Historical Society and Lewis and Clark

The Filson Historical Society
The Filson Historical Society

By James J. Holmberg, Curator of Special Collections
The Filson Historical Society

The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803 to 1806 is an American epic. Almost two hundred years after this intrepid band of explorers journeyed to the Pacific Ocean and back, their story still inspires enthusiasm and awe.

Following the instructions of Thomas Jefferson, the explorers kept journals and collected natural and ethnographic specimens over the course of their 8,000 mile trek. Unfortunately, some of these national treasures were lost in the years following the expedition. However, we are fortunate that the majority of its documentary heritage and some of the artifacts collected have survived. Many of the surviving documents ultimately became housed in five to six institutions. The same is true for the specimens collected. One of those institutions is The Filson Historical Society. Our patron and longtime president, Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston, gave us the basis of our Lewis and Clark collection.

The Filson is fortunate to have six William Clark letters and one Meriwether Lewis letter written during the expedition. Our Clark expedition letters are the most held by any one institution and among the most significant. In addition to these letters written by the explorers, are documents complementing them. Jonathan Clark's diary notes the departure and return of the captains from the Falls of the Ohio. Wilson Price Hunt's letter from St. Louis reports information from the explorers about the Great Falls of the Missouri. An account book kept by Louisville merchants Fitzhugh and Rose record what Clark purchased upon his return. A prospectus published by Meriwether Lewis advertises the official expedition history and solicits subscribers.

Excerpt of 28 October 1809 letter from William Clark to Jonathan Clark regarding Lewis's untimely death
"I fear, O! I fear," excerpt of 28 October 1809 letter from William Clark to Jonathan Clark on Lewis's untimely death

While these are the Filson's manuscript highlights, we also have a significant Lewis and Clark book collection. Included in it are the 1807 edition of Sgt. Patrick Gass's journal, the 1814 official expedition history, prepared by Nicholas Biddle following Lewis's tragic 1809 death, and other early publications regarding the venture. We have the edition of the Frankfort newspaper The Palladium announcing the successful return of the expedition. This was the first published account and was the basis for articles in papers throughout the country heralding the explorers' return.

Title page from Patrick Gass' 1807 publication: A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery Under Command of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clarke of the Army of the United States
The Filson Historical Society

Our museum collection also includes significant expedition-related items. The most important item is the horn of a bighorn sheep that was given to Clark's sister Fanny. Many historians believe that this is the only verified animal artifact from the expedition.

In addition to the horn are four portraits related to the undertaking. Joseph Bush's portrait of William Clark depicts the explorer in his militia general's uniform some ten years after his return from the expedition. Two portraits of brother George Rogers Clark, one by John Wesley Jarvis and the other by Matthew Jouett, portray the man whom Jefferson first asked to lead an expedition into the unknown West twenty years earlier. The final portrait is Jarvis's likeness of James Wilkinson, who while serving in the West treasonously counseled the Spanish to stop the Corps of Discovery.

With a significant Lewis and Clark collection such as this, The Filson has naturally had a long time interest in the expedition's history. Articles devoted to facets of the expedition and its members have been published in The Filson Club History Quarterly over the years, programming has been scheduled, and in 1991 the Filson was the host of the annual meeting in Louisville of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Filson staff has served - and continue to serve - on both local, regional, and national committees and boards regarding Lewis and Clark.

As can be seen, The Filson Historical Society's connection to the most famous exploring venture in the history of the United States is a long - and strong - one. Our past and ongoing programming, together with special projects planned for the bicentennial years, will assure that the Filson continues to be recognized as one of the most prominent Lewis and Clark repositories and institutions in the nation.

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