In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the term adventurer was often used to refer to a person who launched a great commercial enterprise. Adventurers were the entrepreneurs or venture capitalists of their day. For example, Aaron Arrowsmith credited the “Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay” because they lent financial support to Arrowsmith’s momentous project—the preparation of his famous map of 1795. The Virginia Council of State minutes of May 25, 1763, mention “Members of a Company of Adventurers called the loyal Company.” This section of the exhibition examines several members of the Loyal Company—a group of Virginia land speculators—and their relationship with the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

In the mid-1600s in colonial Virginia, a hierarchical system of government based on the English model evolved. Sir William Berkeley, the royal governor of Virginia, recruited a group of men from England—the so-called “Cavalier Elite”—who, along with some favored lesser aristocracy and officeholders, came to control the governor’s council, the House of Burgesses, county offices, local parishes, and most of the land. Members of this Virginia gentry maintained their wealth and power through ownership of land and officeholding. Land was controlled through intermarriages and land grants from the governor’s council. By the eighteenth century, many of the most prominent families were interrelated, including the Meriwether and Lewis families, who had intermarried eleven times. In response to the scarcity of available nearby land and the growth of these families, the Governor’s Council began considering petitions for larger land grants. In 1730, Nicholas Meriwether received a grant of 17,952 acres along the Southwest Mountains. From this grant came the plantations of both of Meriwether Lewis’s grandfathers. The Jefferson property Pantops was originally part of a patent granted to Jonathan Clark, the grandfather of William Clark, and others. Shadwell, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, was part of a 1,000-acre grant to Jefferson’s father Peter in 1735.

In Virginia prior to the Revolutionary War, parish vestry boards had the responsibility of levying taxes. Every four years the vestry boards would appoint two freeholders from each precinct to verify property ownership and boundaries. This verification procedure was known as “processioning.” Nicholas Meriwether, Thomas Meriwether, Robert Lewis, and Thomas Walker were among those who served as Fredericksville Parish processioners. Vestry board members were also assigned to survey or “lay off” the changing parish and county lines and the property for parish churches and glebes. As a result, many of Virginia’s more substantial landholders gained experience and even proficiency in the art of surveying.

Even more importantly, cartography was a tool that enabled Virginia’s leading men to identify resources and control access to those resources. A knowledge of surveying gave the Virginia gentry inside information on choice new lands. For example, George Washington chose surveying as a career, in part to insure that he would have access to the most desirable properties. When laying off the bounty lands received for services in the French and Indian War, Washington reserved the best lands for himself.

The extent and location of some lands required members of the Virginia gentry to translate their surveying skills into mapping skills. Skilled surveyors such as Joshua Fry, Peter Jefferson, and Thomas Walker—who were also prominent members of the Loyal Company—were asked to map land patents, frontier territories, and Virginia’s boundaries.

To survey and map its huge land grant, the Loyal Company sponsored an exploration of eastern Kentucky in 1749. A short time later, several members of the Loyal Company proposed another expedition to explore the Missouri River and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. This scheme never came to fruition but it is likely that the interests of this group in cartography, exploration, and western expansion were passed down, through family and personal relationships, to Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis.

16. Loyal Company Grant. July 12, 1749.

“Aligany. Copied from a Map of Doctor Walkers laid Before the Assembly.” 1769.

“Map of the Most Inhabited part of Virginia, containing the whole province of Maryland with Part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina.” 1754.

19. “Order of the Fredericksville Parish Vestry Board.” November 25, 1767.

“A Map of the country between Albemarle Sound, and Lake Erie, comprehending the whole of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pensylvania, with parts of several other of the United States of America.”
In Notes on the State of Virginia. London, 1787.

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