Jocelyn Nicole Johnson is the author of the debut story collection My Monticello, available from Henry Holt & Co.


Johnson’s writing has appeared in GuernicaThe Guardian, Phoebe, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere. Her short story “Control Negro” was anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2018, guest edited by Roxane Gay, and read live by LeVar Burton as part of PRI’s Selected Shorts series. Johnson has been a fellow at Hedgebrook, Tin House Summer Workshops, and VCCA. A veteran public school art teacher, she lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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It was All Saints’ Day. A perfect time to visit our local legend, Thomas Jefferson.

People talk about Jefferson in Charlottesville, anchored by the university he founded, as if he were alive. “Jefferson would want us to build the road around the park, not through it.” “Jefferson would not let high-rises obscure the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” Instead of “What would Jesus do?” people ask, “What would Jefferson do?”


Mitt Romney is staking his presidential candidacy on his long business career and the values reflected in the photograph below, taken from a Bain Capital Christmas card in the 1980s. If recent polls are any indication, a majority of American voters might be ready to buy in.

— One —

Thomas Jefferson

…As late as 1803, indeed until Lewis and Clark returned from their expedition, Jefferson believed there must be a viable water route to the Pacific from the Missouri River. Strange as that may seem to us, this assumption of a passage to the “South Sea” had been common among geographers and scholars of geography for three hundred years. It was the residue of Columbus’s dream of reaching the Indies across the Atlantic. A rough estimate of the size of the planet had been known since antiquity, but for a number of reasons the scale and width of the North American continent remained something of a mystery. Perhaps one factor was the difficulty of calculating longitude. It was only when the chronometer was developed around 1705 that reasonably accurate calculations of longitude could be made.

The great blank on the map that needed to be filled in was the area from the eastern edge of the Rockies to the coastal waters near the mouth of the Columbia River. No one but Indians had crossed that land or knew its heights or extent. Jefferson had a precise and detailed sense of geography. Had he not been so busy with all his other interests and obligations, one might imagine him as an important mapmaker, with his passion for accurate representation, his draftsmanship and devotion to the study of land.

“Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri,” he wrote to Lewis, “you will take observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places . . . that . . . may . . . be recognized hereafter.” Jefferson, long fascinated by tools and instruments, gave his explorer instructions in the use of compass and logging of distance and told him to note the variations in the magnetic compass readings as he moved up the river to the west.

Neither Jefferson nor anyone else was prepared to learn of the hundreds of miles of forbidding terrain that separated the head of navigation of one river from the head of navigation on the other. Certainly some of the Indian tribes in the region could have told the president differently, but they were out of communication for reasons of language, distance, and war. Besides, the Native Americans had many horses for travel and it might not have occurred to them that it was even desirable to haul boats and tons of baggage from the Missouri watershed, through weeks of travel, to the Pacific watershed.

“The interesting points of the portage between the heads of the Missouri, & of the water offering the best communication with the Pacific ocean,” Jefferson wrote, “should also be fixed by observation . . . Your observations are to be taken with great pains, & accuracy, to be entered distinctly and intelligibly for others as well as yourself.” To ensure survival of the documents, several copies should be made and carried by different members of the party.

And then Jefferson added one of the most unexpected and often quoted sentences in the letter. “A further guard would be that one of these copies be on paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper.” Knowing that the records of the expedition would be carried in canoes and mackinaw boats, on horseback and human backs, through rain storms and snow storms, Jefferson was concerned about the vulnerability of paper. Where Meriwether Lewis was to acquire such pages of bark along the Missouri is not clear. Perhaps Jefferson meant for him to procure a supply of the bark in the East before setting out. Or maybe Jefferson thought Lewis’s party could pause to chop down birch trees and peel their bark on the way up the river.

One of the best known passages in Jefferson’s directions to Lewis is the list of things to be noted about native people along the way. Since commercial interest in the West “renders a knoledge of those people important,” a special effort must be made to learn the names of populations of each nation encountered, as well as

the extent & limits of their possessions;
their relations with other tribes of nations;
their language, traditions, monuments;
their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting,
war, arts, & the implements for these;
their food, clothing, & domestic accommodations;
the diseases prevalent among them, & the remedies they use;
moral & physical circumstances which distinguish them from
the tribes we know;
peculiarities in their laws, customs & dispositions;
and articles of commerce they may need or furnish, & to what extent.

Jefferson also wanted Lewis to gather information about “the state of morality, religion, & information among” the natives. Like most enlightened men of his time, Jefferson believed that those who went among the Indians should seek to “civilize & instruct them,” but he also realized that to do so Europeans must “adapt their measures to the existing notions & practices of those on whom they are to operate.” The last clause of the sentence shows something of Jefferson’s sophistication. English missionaries and administrators usually failed with the native people because they wanted to teach Indians to behave like Europeans. French and sometimes Spanish missionaries were often more successful because they understood that they themselves had to adapt to Indian customs before they could have any effective impact. Had all Americans been as sensitive to this particular issue as Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis, our history might have been very different. To negotiate with others, trade with others, live beside others, we must first know something about who they are and how they view us and their own world. It is a simple principle to state but hard to practice in strange places and on dangerous occasions.

Significantly, Jefferson places study of the indigenous population ahead of his other lists of scientific objects of study. Only after he has described some of the things he wanted to know about the natives did he catalog his other scientific interests. For Jefferson the West was not just the land but also the people who had lived there for thousands of years. The priority of his scientific interest was the study of the people.

One of the most memorable passages in Jefferson’s letter to Lewis is his instructions about the treatment of native people. In no place does Jefferson’s idealism show through more than in this section. “Treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner,” he urged, and “allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it’s innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S., & of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them.” He authorized Lewis to arrange visits of the chiefs to Washington at public expense, if they desired it, and to offer to educate their young. He also told Lewis to carry with him on the expedition “some of the matter of the kine–pox” to inoculate against small pox, which had already killed so many Indians. The inoculation might be especially important in the village where they would pass the winter.

Since it could not be known beforehand whether a given Indian tribe or nation would be welcoming or hostile, it was important for the expedition to have enough men to defend itself. But if a large group of Indians adamantly stood in the way of the expedition, “you must decline it’s farther pursuit, and return.” Not only must the lives of the Corps of Discovery be saved, but the information they have accumulated must be protected.

Jefferson recommended that Lewis commission friendly Indians to carry back letters and copies “of your journal, notes & observations of every kind,” to the settlements at Cahokia and Kaskaskia on the east bank of the Mississippi. That way he could be informed at every stage of the progress of the expedition up the river and to the West Coast. Sensitive messages should be put in code.

And then he gave Lewis a list of his interests in the physical landscape that reads like a passage from a poem by Walt Whitman or a paragraph by Henry David Thoreau.

the soil & face of the country, it’s growth & vegetable
productions, especially those not of the U.S.
the animals of the country generally, & especially those
not known in the U.S.
the remains or accounts of any which may be deemed rare
or extinct;
the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly
metals, limestone, pit coal, & saltpetre; salines &
mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last,
such circumstances as may indicate their character;
volcanic appearances;
climate, as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion
of rainy, cloudy, & clear days, by lightning, hail,
snow, ice, by access & recess of frost, by the
winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at
which particular plants put forth or lose their
flower, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds,
reptiles or insects. 

Jefferson added that he thought it especially important to know the land between the headwaters of the Rio Brava, meaning the Rio Grande, and the headwaters of the Rio Colorado. He was not sure whether the country between these rivers and the Missouri was mountainous or flat land. Few people had studied the existing maps of the west as thoroughly as Jefferson had, yet he thought that by going up the Missouri Lewis might be able to learn “anything certain of the most Northern source of the Missisipi & of it’s position relatively to the lake of the woods,” which English and French traders had described. And Jefferson wanted to know the distance from the mouth of the “Ouisconsing” (Wisconsin) River to the mouth of the Missouri. But it is not clear how Lewis was expected to acquire that information while going up the Missouri, unless he happened to meet someone who knew the exact distance.

Furthermore, if the Pacific coast was reached, the prospects for the fur trade there should be studied. The present center of the fur trade was farther north, at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where British and Russian companies were already dominant. Most important, Lewis should find out if the United States could conduct business in the far northwest by going up the Missouri instead of sailing all the way around Cape Horn, as was the present practice.

When Lewis arrived at the Pacific coast he was to look for a port and if possible send two of his crew back to the United States by sea with copies of the journals and notes made crossing the continent. And if Lewis determined that it was too dangerous to return overland, Jefferson urged him to return with all his men by sea, either around the tip of South America or Africa. Since he would be without money, he must use letters of credit to pay for his passage.

If Lewis decided to return by land, Jefferson asked him to again make such observations “as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.” Each member of the expedition would not only be paid in full when they returned to the United States but would also be given a grant of land, as other soldiers were. Last he tells Lewis, “Repair yourself with your papers to the seat of government” once other duties were discharged.

And then Jefferson thought of one more contingency. In case Lewis should suffer death on the journey west, he should leave a signed document written in his own hand “to name the person among them who shall succeed to the command on your decease.” But as the voyage continued he should feel free to change the desigznated successor as he learns more about the character and competence of his men. And such a successor should be given authority to name his successor in case of his own demise. It does seem that Jefferson thought of everything on that day, June 20, 1803. Reading certain passages of the letter to Meriwether Lewis we are reminded that among his many other accomplishments, Jefferson was a gifted if reluctant lawyer.