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mastadon jaw bone
Matt Kelly
The mastadon jaw bone on display at Monticello was unearthed by William Clark in Kentucky and moved to Brooks Hall after Jefferson's death.

Tracking down Lewis and Clark artifacts

By Matt Kelly

Most of the souvenirs of the trip are missing.

The search is on for artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition. The explorers sent a variety of items to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1805. Some of them later ended up at Harvard, some were given to U.Va., but, with a few exceptions, most have been lost.

“It’s worth turning over every stone,” said Elizabeth Chew, associate curator at Monticello. “At this point, we just want to know what happened to things.”

Tracking artifacts through nearly 200 years of history can be daunting. Chew said that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, two Virginians Jefferson charged with exploring the Louisiana Purchase, had sent the bulk of the items to Jefferson in after their winter in North Dakota. They sent soil and mineral samples, plant specimens, Indian artifacts, animal skins, horns and skeletons.

Elizabeth Chew
Matt Kelly
Elizabeth Chew

Chew is seeking out specifically items that Thomas Jefferson had displayed from the expedition in his front hall collection of curiosities, mixing natural and native artifacts with European artwork and statuary. The records of what Jefferson exhibited are drawn from his letters, Lewis and Clark’s shipping inventory and the written remembrances of visitors to Monticello. Jefferson, in a letter to Charles Willson Peale, said he retained for his display “horns, dressed skins, utensils &c …”

There are some original items, such as the elk antlers, on display now that were featured there in Jefferson’s time. But there are others, such as a buffalo robe with a battle scene painted on it and a map of the Missouri River between the Platt and Yellowstone rivers, also on buffalo hide, that have disappeared.

Chew, who described these two hides as “show-stoppers,” said they were listed in visitors accounts of what was on display at Monticello. But there is no record of what happened to them, whether they were donated to the University after Jefferson’s death, sold off to pay his debts or stayed in the family for a while.

The paper trail gets harder to follow after Jefferson died. Chew said that Thomas Jefferson Randolph, planning a sale at Monticello to pay off the late president’s debts, donated some items to the University, but there is no inventory of what was donated. Chew said there were citations from the minutes of a Board of Visitors meeting in 1827 noting a donation from “the Rector,” referring to Jefferson. Katherine Woltz, a U.Va. graduate student in American art history, said she is searching for the letter, which she thinks might have contained an inventory of the items being donated. She said Board of Visitors references to the Lewis and Clark artifacts continue through the 1940s.

Katherine Woltz
Rebecca Arrington
Katherine Woltz

Chew can track things donated to U.Va. for a while, knowing that the Board of Visitors dedicated a small Rotunda room in 1826 for the preservation and exhibition of natural and artificial curiosities. In 1828 the items were moved into a basement room, a year later moved to an upper gallery, and then in 1840 moved into the Rotunda library. In 1848 they were moved into a room on the Lawn, Chew said.

The collection may have been scattered, according to Chew, who said that some of it was put under the jurisdiction of the professor of chemistry in 1829. Woltz fears some of Jefferson’s specimens may have been combined with educational pieces from other collections and lost their identities.

So far, no trace of the Indian artifacts have been found on Grounds. Some of these items, of which there are rudimentary descriptions, are being duplicated by artist Wallace “Butch” Thunderhawk and some of his art students at the Tribal Art Institute in Bismark, N.D.

“The map is hard to recreate because there are not a lot of examples of Native American cartography,” Chew said.

Woltz, working through the U.Va. archives, said she found an article in a contemporary student newspaper about Jefferson’s collection moving into Brooks Hall in 1876.

Jeff Hantman, the unofficial historian of Brooks Hall, said he has not seen any records indicating that Lewis and Clark artifacts were displayed in Brooks Hall, which was a natural history museum. There is certainly nothing there now from them, he said.

“In the 1970s when we moved the anthropology department [into Brooks Hall] we went through everything,” Hantman said. “There was nothing that was from the Plains Indians or the Northwest Indians.”

Jefferson sent some of the Lewis and Clark collection to Peale, an artist and museum impresario in Philadelphia. Peale’s collection, which included most of the skins and skeletons as well as a living magpie and a prairie dog, was later divided, with part going to showman P.T. Barnum and the remainder to Moses Kimball. Kimball’s share of the artifacts became part of the Peabody collection at Harvard, the largest known collection of Lewis and Clark items.

Chew said elk horns from Lewis and Clark and moose antlers and a mastodon bone (which Clark unearthed in Kentucky after the western expedition) were on display in Brooks Hall, along with a rack of sheep antlers unconnected with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Some of these items were returned to Monticello in 1949, when Brooks Hall closed as a museum. Some of the items from Brooks were thrown out, she said. In 1960, the geology department returned to Jefferson’s estate Clark’s mastodon bone.

There would have been some other threats to them as well. In October 1895 the Rotunda was destroyed by fire and if some of the Lewis and Clark items were there, they would have been destroyed. In 1829 some of the items fell under the jurisdiction of the chemistry department, and the chemistry building was destroyed by fire in January 1917. Chew said author Sylvio Bedini, in his book on Jefferson, Statesman of Science, speculated that some of the Lewis and Clark artifacts were destroyed then. Woltz said she found no evidence that any of the collection was held in the chemical building.

“They would have just become old artifacts,” Chew said. “They were all organic, they would deteriorate, they would be eaten by bugs.”

Woltz said there is a slim chance that some of the artifacts still exist, in private collections or in the accumulations of people who don’t know what they have.
“It’s hard to say how valuable these things would be,” Chew said. “They would have historical value because there are so few native American artifacts.”

Anyone with information about artifacts should contact Elizabeth Chew at 984-9831.


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