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A Library of America: Exploring the West from Monticello

A View of the Book Room in MonticelloJefferson's interest in the geography of North America doubtlessly came from his father Peter Jefferson, who employed himself as a surveyor of boundaries and maker of maps from 1745 to 1750. The elder Jefferson's work with Joshua Fry as senior surveyor on the Fairfax Line and on a subsequent map of the Virginia territory helped make his reputation and his fortune, and became the pride of his son.

Jefferson's first book on America was Ogilvie's Description of America, which he inherited following his father's death in the autumn of 1757 . During his school years, Jefferson continued to add to his collection, but he lost most of this first library to a fire that destroyed the family house at Shadwell in 1770. Thomas Jefferson informed his friend John Page of the loss:

"My late loss may perhaps have reached you by this time, I mean the loss of my mother's house by fire, and in it, of every paper I had in the world, and almost every book. On a reasonable estimate I calculate the cost of the books burned to have been £200 sterling. Would to god it had been the money; then had it never cost me a sigh!"

Books were crucial windows on the world for Jefferson, and he immediately began to amass another library. He purchased "two of the best libraries in Virginia" (the libraries of Richard Bland and Peyton Randolph)&—both with excellent records of early Virginia history—and, by 1773, had a library totaling over one thousand two hundred and fifty-six volumes.

Thiswas just the beginning, for Jefferson's library would eventually "contain more books about the region than any other library in the world." Jefferson looked for books everywhere. He wrote to friends, scoured bookstores, and ordered from abroad. While serving as minister plenipotentiary to France in Paris, Jefferson said he "devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science."

Using the unparalleled resources found within his library and the associations made at the American Philosophical Society, Jefferson was able to supply the best information and the best training available to Meriwether Lewis during his preparations to lead the Corps of Discovery. Of the two books on the American West that Lewis took with him on the voyage, both were titles in Jefferson's library.

Books on American Geography in Jefferson's Library
A list of over 180 titles on the subject from Jefferson's library.
Books that Lewis and Clark Brought on the Expedition

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Acknowledgements and Credits
Excerpted with modifications from Jefferson's Library of the Americas,
a report by Christine Coalwell, Monticello Research Department.


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