Thomas Jefferson Papers

David Porter to Thomas Jefferson, 17 August 1809

From David Porter

Bay S Louis West Florida August 17. 1809


Alone supported and allmost a stranger to you, I with the utmost diffidence and respect take the liberty to present you the enclosed plan and prospects of a Voyage of discovery to the N.W. Coast of America—I should not have been emboldened to take this step, notwithstanding the repeated entreaties of Gentlemen whom I esteem as my Friends and who pass for men of science, had I not thought I discovered from the tenor of a conversation I had with you sometime since that such a Voyage would be a desirable object to the United States—The knowledge you possess of that Country derived from the Travels of Messrs Lewis and Clark as well as from other sourses, will perhaps cause you to consider as chemerical the hopes of discovering a Northern or North Western Communication between the Atlantic and Pacific and indeed I cannot for a moment seriously harbour such a hope—yet, notwithstanding all I have heard and seen on the Subject from Messrs McKinsey and Hearne, and others, I am strongly induced to believe that a more easy and direct mode of communication between the Atlantic States and the shores of the Pacific may be made than has yet been discovered—I have to apologise for having offered this plan prior to having any knowledge whatever of the discoveries of Lewis and Clark; their observations may in a measure overthrow my Theory—This sketch was drawn up prior to their return; it stands in its original form, for I have waited, with the utmost impatience, for the publication of their Journal to enable me to correct, and perhaps induce me to suppress the whole—I cannot however help thinking that they have left some valuable gleanings on that field for discovery—

You will please to observe that I have presented my plan in a rude, unpolished, unembellished state;—I have attempted no ornament, I have trusted solely to the strength of facts there stated to bear me up in my feeble efforts to be of Service to my Country.

I have stated the facts in nearly the words of the Navigators and I beg the whole to be considered a compilation, serving to point out the objects already perceived and remain yet to be examined—An enterprise of this nature offers to us prospects far superior to those of any other, we proceed on a certainty of making valuable discoveries and all must (from their local situation) tend to the exclusive interest, as well as the fame of our Country—

I have already laid a copy of my plan before the Honorable Secretary of the Navy and I know not its success—I have presumed to depend greatly on your patronage, should you consider an undertaking of this nature beneficial to our Country: and with the same pleasure I engaged in it, I shall relinquish the further prosecution when I am informed by you that circumstances do not render it necessary; or, that it would not be beneficial to the United States—

To effect a Voyage of the nature proposed, not less than two Vessels would be necessary; they should be small Frigates, large Brigs, or Bomb Ketches;—very little equipment would be requisite beyond their Ordinary equipment for Service, and I am under an impression that full Crews would not be requisite, consequently no additional expence of importance would be required—

Should you Honor this plan with your attention and deem it worthy your notice, I consider it unnecessary to request you to give it your patronage, I merely solicit you to Honor me with one Line expressive of your opinion, by which alone my conduct shall be governed and whatever may be the fate of my prospects I shall feel highly gratified and honored if any feeble effort of mine should be deemed an object worthy of your notice—

I have requested leave of absence from my present Command which has been granted me and I calculate on arriving in the Atlantic States in the latter part of October, must therefore request, if you will, that you will do me the favor to direct your Letter to the care of the Honble William Anderson Member of Congress at Chester Pennsylvania—

I have the Honor to be With Great Consideration and Respect Your Ob servt

D Porter

RC (DLC); in a clerk’s hand, signed by Porter; at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr Late President of the United States”; endorsed by TJ as received 8 Oct. 1809 and so recorded in SJL.

David Porter (1780–1843), then in command of the naval station at New Orleans, entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1798 and rose to lieutenant in 1799, master commandant in 1806, and captain in 1812. He saw combat in the Quasi-War with France and in the Tripolitan War, when he spent time as a prisoner in Tripoli. As captain of the frigate Essex, Porter made the first capture of a British warship (HMS Alert) during the War of 1812, disrupted British whaling in a daring voyage to the South Pacific, and made an ultimately unsuccessful effort to claim one of the Marquesas Islands for the United States. He served on the new Board of Navy Commissioners, 1815–22. Porter resigned his commission following his court-martial and conviction for insubordination in 1825 and then spent three years in command of the naval forces of Mexico. Following Andrew Jackson’s election, Porter served briefly as American consul general at Algiers and from 1831 until his death as chargé d’affaires and (from 1839) minister resident to the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; David F. Long, Nothing Too Daring: A Biography of Commodore David Porter, 1780–1843 [1970]).

mckinsey and hearne: Alexander Mackenzie, Voyages from Montreal, on the river St. Laurence, through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans (London, 1802; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4087) and Samuel Hearne, Journey from Fort Prince Wales in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean (London, 1795; abridged ed. Philadelphia, 1802).

On 20 Sept. 1809 Charles Goldsborough, chief clerk of the Department of the navy, sent Madison a copy of Porter’s proposal, noting: “Altho’ you may not, at this time, approve the project, yet it will I hope afford you pleasure to find that we have in our navy men of columbian ambition” (Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, John C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, 1962– , 31 vols.: Congress. Ser., 17 vols.; Pres. Ser., 5 vols.; Sec. of State Ser., 6 vols description ends , Pres. Ser., 1:388). Porter himself optimistically commented that “Mr Jeffersons patronage I do not hesitate to pronounce as secured—Mr Smiths is to be hoped for and I do not despair of Mr Madisons.” Neither TJ nor Madison responded to Porter, however, and despite his continuing requests, this particular voyage never took place (Porter to Samuel Hambleton, 20 Aug. 1809 [DLC: David D. Porter Family Papers]).

william anderson was Porter’s father-in-law.

Index Entries

  • Anderson, William C. search
  • Atlantic Ocean; and northwest passage search
  • Goldsborough, Charles Washington; chief clerk of Navy Department search
  • Hamilton, Paul (1762–1816); secretary of the navy search
  • Hearne, Samuel; Journey from Fort Prince Wales in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean search
  • Journey from Fort Prince Wales in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean (Hearne) search
  • Lewis, Meriwether; and publication of journals search
  • Lewis and Clark Expedition; publication of journals search
  • Mackenzie, Alexander; Voyages from Montreal search
  • Madison, James; and D. Porter’s voyage of discovery search
  • Navy Department, U.S.; and D. Porter’s voyage of discovery search
  • Navy Department, U.S.; chief clerk of search
  • Northwest Coast; exploration of search
  • Pacific Ocean search
  • Porter, David; identified search
  • Porter, David; letters from search
  • Voyages from Montreal (Mackenzie) search