Selected African-American Resources Unique to The Filson Library

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The Filson's Lewis and Clark Collection

By James J. Holmberg
Curator of Special Collections

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 most of its documentary heritage and some of the artifacts have survived. Many of the surviving documents were ultimately housed in five or six institutions. The same is true for the specimens collected. One of those institutions is The Filson. The basis of our Lewis and Clark collection was given to us by our benefactor and longtime president, Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston.

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, there are documents complementing them. Jonathan Clark’s diary notes the departure and return of the captains from and to 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.

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 Sergeant Patrick Gass’s journal, the 1814 official expedition history, prepared by Nicholas Biddle following Lewis’s tragic death in 1809, 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 newspapers throughout the country heralding the return of the explorers.

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 longtime interest in the expedition’s history. 

More about The Filson's Lewis and Clark Collection.

Volume 1, Number 1

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