An Idea

Program Information

Program: Virginia’s Lewis and Clark: Roots of a Legacy
Segment Number: 2 (Watch entire program)
Duration: 00:05:01
Year Produced: 2003
Description:

Jefferson had a lifelong fascination with the west, and his influence on Meriwether Lewis in this way is known to all, but it's also interesting to consider what were the influences on Jefferson, what part did Albemarle County play in this persistent dream of exploring the west.

Meriwether Lewis was born in what is now Albemarle County, and William Clark’s family had roots in Albemarle soil. Their ideas of what lay beyond the Mississippi River were nurtured by Thomas Jefferson, a “vicarious westerner” who had never traveled farther west than Hot Springs. Jefferson intended to establish the United States as a continental nation, an “Empire of Liberty” that reached from Atlantic to Pacific. To further his goal, Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark’s Expedition of North Western Discovery. Their remarkable mission began here in central Virginia.

For more information visit: http://ideastations.org/lc

Transcript

CINDER STANTON:
Jefferson had a lifelong fascination with the west, and his influence on Meriwether Lewis in this way is known to all of us but I think it's also interesting to consider what were the influences on Jefferson, what part did Albemarle County play in this persistent dream of exploring the west.

JOHN LOGAN ALLEN (Geographer):

Albemarle County in the 1750's was really a hotbed of speculative inquiry into the western country.

CINDER STANTON (Historian):

First there was Jefferson's father, Peter Jefferson, who with his close friend Joshua Fry surveyed boundaries westward across the Blue Ridge mountains and came back with tales of hardship and courage that were still being told by his great-grandchildren a century later. Another friend of Peter Jefferson's, Dr. Thomas Walker of Castle Hill, was the first white explorer to cross the Cumberland Gap and he actually named it, reaching what is now Kentucky and Tennessee.

JOHN LOGAN ALLEN (Geographer):

These gentlemen purchased land on the east bank of the Mississippi River and were going to use it as a staging ground for an expedition they were going to send up the Missouri River, which in the 1750's was viewed by Virginians as the logical route to get from Atlantic to Pacific.

CINDER STANTON (Historian):

Now this project was killed by the French and Indian War, but the Reverend James Maury thought this "a grand scheme," as he said, and was still talking about it enthusiastically years later when Thomas Jefferson was attending his school in the north part of the county.

JOHN LOGAN ALLEN (Geographer):

Now Jefferson at the time is a boy. He's 10, 11, 12 years old. But we know that he was of an inquiring mind, we know that he was a very bright boy, and I just can't imagine that he wouldn't have known about this, that he wouldn't have had some inkling of these plans. Really of all the places in the colonies, in the English colonies, it's Albemarle County where this peculiar constellation of intellects came together in the 1750's to start this planning process and I think this is where the genesis of Thomas Jefferson's ideas for a transcontinental water communication for the purpose of commerce begins.

CINDER STANTON (Historian):

The stories told by these Albemarle County men really fed the imagination of the young Thomas Jefferson, who dreamed of exploring what he called "the great western wilderness."

JOHN LOGAN ALLEN (Geographer):

And he would do this in an imaginary sense and that was enough for him. He would always try to get somebody else to do the actual physical journey.

CINDER STANTON (Historian):

He never went further west that Hot Springs which is within the boundaries of the present state of Virginia. Instead he sent, or tried to send off, other men into the unknown, off the edge of maps.

JOHN LOGAN ALLEN (Geographer):

He was a vicarious westerner. That's a phrase that a number of us have used about Jefferson, the vicarious westerner.

He had access to the best information that was available at almost any point in his life, he could have put his hands on the best books and the best maps. He had the great French travel accounts, Hennepin, he had the great French maps, Guillaume Delisle's maps and Dupratz's maps, along with Dupratz's History of Louisiana. And this was his geography of the imagination.

As early as the 1780's he's thinking about a western expedition, invites first George Rogers Clark to participate in this and that doesn't work out because Rogers Clark declines on grounds of health, and when he finally was in a position to make this happen, he made it happen. And he did so with Meriwether Lewis and later with Willam Clark added to the complex.