In April 1805 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sent a shipment to Thomas Jefferson from the wilds of what is now North Dakota. The crates included a 45,000-word report, plant and animal specimens, and gifts the expedition had received from the Mandan and Hidatsa people, with whom the captains had spent the winter.
The delighted President used many of the items as showpieces in a personal museum he created in the entrance hall of his home at Monticello. In 1809 he wrote to Clark, “Your donations & Governor Lewis’s have given to my collection of Indian curiosities an importance much beyond what I had ever counted on.” Now, for the kickoff of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, Monticello has re-created Jefferson’s “Indian Hall” as it might have looked in his time. The exhibit “Framing the West at Monticello: Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark Expedition” continues throughout this year.
Since there are, obviously, no photos of the original hall, and virtually nothing exists of the collection, Monticello curators studied historical documents—including Clark’s “packing list” from Fort Mandan, Jefferson’s correspondence, and visitor accounts—to learn what Jefferson likely had on display. Monticello owns just one original item, a set of elk antlers. But other institutions have pitched in; for example, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia is lending specimens from the expedition’s herbarium, and the Newberry Library in Chicago sent a two-volume set of the first published edition of the captains’ journals.
Most intriguingly, Monticello teamed with Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and tribal artists from North Dakota to create Native American objects representative of those sent back from the expedition. (The Peabody is home to a half-dozen confirmed tribal artifacts from the expedition. None are currently on public view, though the Peabody plans its own exhibition and accompanying book.) The painter Dennis R. Fox, Jr., who is Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Sioux, and the Lakota porcupine quill artist Jo Esther Parshall, both of New Town, North Dakota, collaborated to prepare a buffalo robe inspired by one presented to Lewis and Clark. “It’s almost a ‘re-gifting,’” says Fox, who also has a painted robe on display in the Hands on History Room at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. “You feel the spirit of what happened 200 years ago.”
Elizabeth Chew, associate curator of collections for Monticello, doesn’t view the tribal artists’ work as simple re-creations of originals. “Since we don’t know precisely what Jefferson had in the Indian Hall, I see the new pieces as representations that will communicate to our visitors that these traditions are still alive,” she says. Castle McLaughlin, associate curator of North American ethnography at the Pea body, adds, “We view these objects as artifacts of the bicentennial. They’re emblematic of creating new relationships between tribal people and our institutions.”
For more information on the exhibit and Jefferson’s role in the Lewis and Clark expedition, see