Legend has it that Meriwether Lewis stayed at the Lochry Blockhouse on his way to Pittsburgh. From Pittsburgh he traveled to St. Louis, where he and William Clark, leading the Corps of Discovery, embarked upon their epic exploration of the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. Evidence from Lewis’ letters argues against this oral tradition, but just as the apocryphal story about young George Washington and the cherry tree can lead to discussions of Washington’s reputation for integrity, so can the story of Lewis and the Lochry Blockhouse give occasion for meditating on Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis and what light those instructions can shed on the study of the liberal arts.

It is plausible that Meriwether Lewis stayed at the Lochry Blockhouse. The blockhouse dates to 1780, and Lewis (1774-1809) was in its neck of the woods in 1794 and in 1803. Today, the Lochry Blockhouse has been restored, and the twenty-five-acres around it form the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve of Saint Vincent College. The blockhouse is a two-storey structure roughly twenty feet square made of logs hewn from local chestnut trees, and it has a stone foundation, as well as a stone fireplace and chimney. Cedar shingles cover its gabled roof.

In 1794, Lewis was a new member of the Virginia militia and was in western Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. His unit, though, would have marched well south of the Lochry Blockhouse. In 1803, Lewis was in Harper’s Ferry, in what was then Virginia, to see about firearms from the armory there, and he wrote to Jefferson saying he was going to be leaving for Pittsburgh. He told Jefferson he would be going through Uniontown, a route that would take him well west of the blockhouse.

So, although Meriwether Lewis was twice within a few dozen miles of the Lochry Blockhouse, he most likely never stayed there. All the same, that blockhouse stands as a representative of the few remaining structures in western Pennsylvania that Lewis would have known. Wherever he stayed in that region, Lewis would have come across residences that in their architecture and materials were much like the Lochry Blockhouse.

A visit to the Lochry Blockhouse can then serve as a place for a thought experiment: At such a rugged log cabin, with hundreds of miles to St. Louis before even beginning the long journey west to the Pacific Ocean, what would Lewis have done? Along with eating and sleeping, walking with his dog and smoking his pipe, part of his time could have gone to re-reading his official instructions from the President of the United States.

In June, 1803, Jefferson had written to Lewis explaining his mission. He was to treat the Indians “in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit,” and he was to observe and note down their customs, languages, traditions, and social structures. Moreover, Lewis was to keep a record of any birds, mammals, reptiles, trees, minerals, volcanoes, and weather patterns he encountered.

As Lewis read and re-read his instructions, he saw what today could serve for a course of studies in the liberal arts. In effect, Jefferson meant for Lewis to study anthropology and geology, languages and meteorology, religion and botany, geography and archaeology, economics and ornithology, as well as the political organization within and the diplomatic relations among the numerous tribes. All these studies Lewis was supposed to write about in a journal. Over three years, he and Clark kept up the journals for the expedition, a task ultimately filling eighteen notebooks with more than a million words.

Those now-famed journals of Lewis and Clark are available in several paperback abridgements. By far the most compact edition is John Bakeless’ 1964 version of the journals, first published by Mentor, now by Signet. As do other abridgements of the journals, Bakeless’ includes a revealing entry by Lewis for August 18, 1805. “This day,” Lewis wrote, “I completed my thirty-first year, and conceived that I had, in all human probability, now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this sublunary world.” As Bakeless indicated in a footnote, Lewis lived only another four years; whether Lewis’s fatal gunshot was self-inflicted or from an assailant remains a question for debate.

“I reflected,” Lewis went on, “that I had as yet done little, very little, indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation.” Here a reader can marvel that from within an American adventure comparable only to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the perspective was one of near futility. Lewis then regretted all the time he had wasted in his life, and he reminded himself not to dwell on the past but to resolve to commit anew to using “that portion of talents which Nature and fortune have bestowed on me.” Marcus Aurelius could not have put it better.

Of course, not everyone can retrace the trail of Lewis and Clark. Even so, an afternoon or after-dinner stroll down the gravel paths around the Lochry Blockhouse and the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve more generally can give fleeting glimpses of their world. Under arching branches of locust trees and hackberry trees, alongside sumac and bush honeysuckle, one can see rabbits and deer, groundhogs and squirrels, redwing blackbirds and cedar waxwings. Robins and cardinals abound, with flickers and woodpeckers being less common. Overhead are often raucous crows and ever-voluble Canada geese. Earlier generations knew how to see in the woods not only meat and eggs for the table, but also seasonal fare from walnuts and elderberries, not to mention starch in cattails, flour from acorns, ink from pokeberries, and cold relief in boneset tea.

An hour or two away from a desk, away from an easy chair, and yet, it remains eminently safe. After noting in detail all the equipment that Lewis and Clark took with them, Frank Miniter, in his Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide, asked, “Could you survive for two years on this list?” It is a challenging question, worth pondering in a cozy hobbit life free from adventure, especially an adventure everlastingly more epic, because real, than any mythic traversing “there and back again.” Even more haunting is Lewis’ question, how or even whether one is furthering the happiness of the human race and advancing the information of the succeeding generations.


Condensed from the 2023 issue of Conversatio.