The Journey Begins

March 24, 2003
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A dedication at Monticello honors Thomas Jefferson for his visionary role in conceiving and initiating the Lewis and Clark Expedition.



The “nickel view” of Monticello and the West Lawn.
Atop a mountain in Virginia sits an historic mansion—Monticello, former home of Thomas Jefferson, now in the care of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF). Amid the sweeping views of the Blue Ridge mountains, stunning even on a gloomy day in mid-January, lies a new addition to these historic grounds—a National Geodetic Survey (NGS) marker commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The marker is cast in bronze and imprinted with the logo of the Corps of Discovery, the original name of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It is a dedication to a survey yet to be repeated today.

Thomas Jefferson was a visionary when it came to the destiny of this country; he was fascinated by the prospect of what could be learned about the geography of the west, the lives and languages of the Native Americans, the plants and animals, the soil, the rocks, the weather, and how they differed from those in the east. He also hoped to establish trade with the Native American people of the west and find a water route to the Pacific. In January of 1803, then-President Jefferson sent a letter to Congress requesting $2,500 for the “Corps of Discovery” Expedition, an expedition to explore the land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase and seek out a waterway connecting the eastern and western halves of North America. Today many believe that what has become known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition is one of the most carefully conceived, brilliantly led and most profitable efforts in trailblazing history.

Jefferson’s commission of the Corps of Discovery Expedition, led by Jefferson’s secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and Lewis’ friend, William Clark, led to the development of the National Spatial Reference System (NSRS). Congress passed an act on Feb. 10, 1807, authorizing Jefferson to establish an organization to survey America’s coasts. Survey of the Coast, the first civilian scientific agency, began establishing permanent markers and coordinates for mapping. Today, the NGS carries out these functions.

Dave Doyle, senior geodesist of NGS, comments, “I find it difficult to be an American and not be fascinated with Lewis and Clark. As a surveyor I find it even more so, as Lewis and Clark’s survey opened up the whole western half of the continent, paving the way for western expansion.” He added that in his opinion, Jefferson was the best surveyor of all the presidential surveyors. Perhaps the folks in Illinois would beg to differ!

The Monticello Connection

This January, the NGS, the National Park Service (NPS) and the TJF joined in a cooperative effort to remember and honor Lewis and Clark’s awesome endeavors and Jefferson’s hand in making them possible. Curt Sumner, executive director of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM), caught wind last year that the NPS was planning events to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s great journey west. He felt that ACSM and the state surveying organizations should be involved in these events. Meanwhile, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail organization had chosen 15 signature sites as key Lewis and Clark expedition points. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is approximately 3,700 miles long, beginning near Wood River, Ill., and passing through portions of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Monticello was the first of these sites on the list.

After learning that Monticello would be the initial site on this westward journey retracing the path of Lewis and Clark, the NGS decided that setting a marker and adding it to the NSRS with the highest data standards attainable would be an excellent way to honor the occasion. All that was left to do was to convince the TJF leadership to allow alterations to the grounds of Monticello.

Doyle, who often heads up special projects for the NGS, mentioned to David Holland, LS, member of the Virginia Association of Surveyors (VAS), the proposed plan for Monticello. Holland had previously had contact with the TJF so he made the call to set up the initial meeting. Doyle thought that asking to dig a hole in the pristine grounds of Monticello to install a permanent marker might be akin to blasphemy. Even so, he had Berntsen International of Madison, Wis., make the dedication marker to approach the TJF with the idea. The day Doyle was to meet with a group from the TJF, he went over scenario after scenario in his head, trying to decide which would be the most effective way to ask for permission to install the monument at Monticello. He and his wife Nancy entered the room where Holland, Sumner, Alan Dragoo, National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) state governor for Maryland, and Linda Taylor of the National Oceanic Service’s communication division were seated. Doyle set the impressive 12-inch, 35-lb bronze marker on the table. Kat Imhoff, chief operating officer of the TJF and the key person to convince of the idea, took one look at the marker and loved it. Within 20 minutes they were all discussing where the marker should be installed. All Doyle’s energy spent trying to come up with the perfect pitch was for naught, but that was OK by him.

The gardens at Monticello, restored to the way they were planted in Jefferson’s day.

Locating the Point

Doyle and the others thought Jefferson would have considered the monument quite important and would have wanted it placed in a prominent position on Monticello’s grounds. Imhoff suggested the West Lawn, specifically the “nickel view” as an appropriate location. While standing precisely at the proposed spot, the same view of Monticello can be seen as the one on the back of a nickel. In honor of Jefferson’s strong affinity for science and precision, they decided to place the marker as symmetrically to his house as possible. This was done by finding the line forming the axis through the front and back doors and where that intersected with the u-shaped walkway around the edge of the West Lawn; it just so happened to be at the nickel view. On June 26, 2002, Holland, Sumner, Dragoo, Roy Anderson of the NGS, and Dave and Nancy Doyle conducted a survey to determine this exact point.

Since Monticello is private property, the TJF hired archeologists to dig at the spot for the marker as they didn’t want any potential historical artifacts to be overlooked. The major payload for these archaeologists turned out to be—a whole lotta nickels! Tourists had most likely dropped them over the years, having brought them to find the nickel view.

The next step of the plan was to run the GPS sessions for accurate location. Doyle invited all six manufacturers of dual-frequency GPS systems to be part of this phase. Four of the six manufacturers were able to make it the chosen day in October: Leica Geosystems, Atlanta, Ga., Thales Navigation, Santa Clara, Calif., Topcon, Pleasanton, Calif., and Trimble, Sunnyvale, Calif. It rained on and off all that day. Alan Dragoo, who is also the local technical representative for Trimble and ran the company’s GPS sessions at Monticello, commented, “the weather was terrible! It literally poured buckets all day, I was totally soaked and dried out three different times.” Nonetheless, all the diligent workers spent three days observing points and collecting data in what Doyle referred to as “a GPS group hug,” precisely locating the monument to within 1⁄2 inch relative to the NSRS of the United States. Once the data was collected, NGS processed and analyzed it and it is now published as part of the NSRS.

Anderson, Challstrom and Dragoo set the Lewis and Clark monument in place.

Ceremony Preparations

The day of the dedication ceremony, which also marked the opening of Jefferson’s West: A Lewis and Clark Exposition, dawned chilly in Charlottesville as preparations were finalized. The ceremony was held at 2 p.m. Around noon the pertinent players began to gather in historic Mitchie Tavern, restored to the way it was when Jefferson lived at Monticello, with everything from candles mounted on the walls to squatty doorways. Sumner, Nancy and Dave Doyle, Holland, Dragoo and Charles Challstrom, director of the NGS prepared to sign a certificate that was to be framed and presented to Kat Imhoff and the TJF. Holland created the certificate with the original field survey drawing done in June on yellow legal paper and the logos of the VAS, ACSM, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the NGS, the Maryland Society of Surveyors and the NSPS. All present placed the finishing touch on the certificate with the addition of their signatures. Sumner, Holland and Dragoo also placed their surveyor seals on the certificate.

Sumner, Doyle and Dragoo with Kat Imhoff and the certificate presented to her and the TJF.

Dedicating the Marker

On Jan. 14th, a crowd gathered on the West Lawn of Monticello to witness the dedication. The haunting voices and beating drums of five White Shield singers from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara American Indian Nations launched the ceremony. American Indian tribes are to be a major part of the Lewis and Clark events for the next few years, as they played a significant role in the expedition.

TJF President Daniel P. Jordan delivered the opening remarks, joking, “Welcome to Fort Clatsop East!” referring to the last stop on Lewis and Clark’s journey, where the Columbia River empties into the great Pacific Ocean at Fort Clatsop, Oregon. He also expressed his honor that Monticello was chosen as the first site on the Corps of Discovery II journey. “From the beginning the foundation’s goal was to present an all-American program in which there are many voices telling many stories,” Jordan said.

Gerard Baker, superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and full-blood member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, N.D., spoke of the Earth as a living thing and his hope that as the Corps of Discovery II travels across the nation, it will strive in the spirit of Lewis and Clark and the American Indians to teach of the spirituality of land.

Fran Mainella, director of the National Park Service, thanked the American Indian tribes. “Tribe participation is critical to the story of America and people need to hear it. It is a story of courage, enthusiasm and foresight,” she said.

Challstrom, representing the NGS and NOAA, officially dedicated the marker and presented replicas of the marker to Jordan, Mainella, and to Holland for his contributions to the effort. Holland presented the field map certificate to Kat Imhoff and the TJF.

Sumner, Holland, Dragoo and Doyle hold a replica of the Lewis and Clark commemorative marker.

The Celebration Continues

Later that week, on January 18th, a kickoff ceremony was held to launch the three-year bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Plans are in motion to set more markers along the journey at the 15 already chosen sites. The next one is at Falls of the Ohio near Louisville, Ky., where William Clark was living when Meriwether Lewis invited him to help command an expedition to explore the Louisiana territory and find a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. Events held at these locations are tentatively planned to fall as close as possible to when Lewis and Clark would have reached them 200 years ago.

The next three years promise an exciting and memorable bicentennial celebration. This dedication is just the beginning of a journey into the past to remember the epic passage of Lewis and Clark, who traversed uncharted wilderness for a nation still young—but with an eye toward the future.

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