Meriwether Lewis at Harpers Ferry

Meriwether Lewis
1807 portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale. (Independence National Historical Park)

Meriwether Lewis relied on the Harpers Ferry Armory for guns and hardware that would meet the unique requirements of his expedition. He arrived at Harpers Ferry on March 16, 1803 to procure rifles, powder horns, bullet molds, ball screws, extra rifle and musket locks, tools, tomahawks, and knives.

He also attended to the construction of a collapsible iron boat frame of his own design. The unusual craft was comprised of an iron frame which came apart in sections, over which was stretched a covering of hide. Lewis planned to use the craft following the portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri River. The Armory mechanics assigned to the project, however, had considerable difficulty assembling the iron frame, and Lewis was forced to prolong his Harpers Ferry stay from the week he had planned to over a month:

My detention at Harper’s Ferry was unavoidable for one month, a period much greater than could reasonably have been calculated on; my greatest difficulty was the frame of the canoe, which could not be completed without my personal attention to such portions of it as would enable the workmen to understand the design perfectly. –My Rifles, Tomahawks & knives are already in a state of forwardness that leaves me little doubt of their being in readiness in due time. Meriwether Lewis to Thomas Jefferson, April 20, 1803

Lewis and the Armory mechanics finally finished the iron frame, and Lewis conducted a “full experiment.” To his satisfaction, he found that the iron and hides in the two sections he tested weighed only 99 pounds and could carry a load of 1,770 pounds. On April 18, 1803, Lewis departed Harpers Ferry to attend to other pressing matters in Lancaster and Philadelphia, Pa. Eleven weeks later, on July 7, Lewis returned to Harpers Ferry. The following day he wrote President Jefferson:

Yesterday, I shot my guns and examined the several articles which had been manufactured for me at this place; they appear to be well executed. Meriwether Lewis to Thomas Jefferson, July 8, 1803

Securing a driver, team, and wagon to haul his large supply of weapons and articles to Pittsburgh, Pa., Lewis departed Harpers Ferry for the last time on July 8, 1803. Although there would only be one skirmish in which the rifles were fired against Indians, the arms procured at Harpers Ferry kept Lewis and his men fed for 28 months, and several of the tomahawks served well as “Indian Presents.”

The collapsible canoe, on the other hand, did not work out as planned. When the expedition reached the Great Falls of the Missouri in late June 1805, Lewis was unable to find pine trees for pitch to seal the seams of the leather skins stretched over the framework. The failure of the collapsible boat “mortifyed” Lewis, and, lacking the time to attend to further modifications, he “relinquished all further hope of my favorite boat.”