Lewis and Clark Expedition Pocket Compass

In the spring of 1803, Meriwether Lewis began to purchase scientific and mathematical instruments for a pending expedition into the northwestern region of North America. Among the items he purchased from Philadelphia instrument maker Thomas Whitney were three pocket compasses for $2.50 each, and this silver-plated pocket compass for $5. It has a mahogany box, a silver-plated brass rim that is graduated to degrees and numbered in quadrants from north and south, a paper dial, two small brass sight vanes, and a leather carrying case. Whether Lewis purchased the silver compass for himself or intended it as a special gesture for William Clark is not known.
Following the instructions of President Thomas Jefferson, the Corps of Discovery, under the leadership of Lewis and Clark, ascended the Missouri River in May 1804 to obtain detailed information on the natural resources of the region, to search for a northwest passage, and to make official diplomatic contact with Indian leaders.
By the time they returned to St. Louis in September 1806, few of the instruments that were purchased for the trip had survived the journey. The pocket compass, however, was kept by Clark as a memento. He later gave the compass to his friend, Capt. Robert A. McCabe, whose heirs donated it in 1933 to the Smithsonian Institution.
Object Name
compass, pocket
Date made
ca 1804
Clark, William
Whitney, Thomas
Physical Description
wood, mahogany (overall material)
brass (overall material)
silver plate (overall material)
closed: 3 1/2 in x 3 1/2 in x 1 1/2 in; 8.89 cm x 8.89 cm x 3.81 cm
Place Made
United States: Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Government, Politics, and Reform
Science & Mathematics
Measuring & Mapping
Lewis and Clark Expedition
See more items in
Political History: Political History, General History Collection
The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Related Publication
Kendrick, Kathleen M. and Peter C. Liebhold. Smithsonian Treasures of American History
Additional Media

Visitor Comments

11/14/2012 10:42:04 AM
Meriwether Lewis received much of his surveying training from one of my ancestors, Andrew Ellicott, who was also instrumental in the completion of the layout of Washington. I wonder if there is any information in your archives relating to Andrew? He was also a mathmatics teacher at West Point.
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