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  • Seeing Like a Stomach: Food, the Body, and Jeffersonian Exploration in the Near Southwest, 1804–1808
  • Michael D. Wise (bio)

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“Map of the Jeffersonian Expeditions of the Near Southwest and their Rivers, from the Continental Divide to the Mississippi River,” Michael D. Wise, 2017. The precise courses of the major southwestern tributaries of the Mississippi River, particularly the Red River, remained a mystery to the Jeffersonian expeditions and their contemporaries. Alexander von Humboldt, for instance, mistakenly believed that the Pecos River represented the upper reach of the Red River. When Zebulon Pike reached the Rio Grande, he also incorrectly believed that he had found the Red River’s upper stretch. The above map illustrates the labyrinthine watercourses that so disoriented the Jeffersonians during the first decade of the nineteenth century.

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Thomas Jefferson’s friend, the celebrated French traveler and gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, marked the end of his early nineteenth-century work, The Physiology of Taste, with a jest directed at the world’s emerging class of bourgeois eaters: “Sated already in the midst of plenty, and dreaming now of novel dishes . . . you will never see what travelers as yet unborn shall bring from that half of the globe which still remains to be explored. How I pity you!”1 But this joke, in fact, indicates an unsung motivation of American exploration in the first decade of the nineteenth century. In addition to the fact that food provided necessary fuel for the explorers’ bodies, their search for both new and familiar tastes also framed their visions of the lands and people that they encountered over the course of their travels. Their geographic and diplomatic sensibilities were shaped not only by formal political and scientific training, but also by epicurean preferences that structured their everyday decisions. As they trudged across the vast expanses of western North America, their stomachs led the way.

The surprising fates of two bears whisked away to Philadelphia illuminate how Jeffersonian tastes for the exotic helped shape the scientific and diplomatic prerogatives of the southwestern expeditions. In the spring of [End Page 463] 1807, while marching back to the United States from captivity in Chihuahua, Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike purchased a pair of grizzly bear cubs from a Rarámuri hunter at the base of the Sierra Tarahumara. For several days Pike and his soldiers took turns carrying the cubs on their laps as they rode mules alongside the Spanish dragoons who were tasked with leading the American trespassers back to Louisiana. During a pause on the trail, the men built a cage out of branches and lashed it to two mules as a better means of transporting their ursine companions through the mountains, valleys, and deserts of Nueva Vizcaya, Coahuila, and Texas. Instead of bear milk, they nursed the cubs on a steady diet of cornmeal mush. After traveling for three months over 1,600 miles, the grizzlies safely arrived in New Orleans, where Pike embarked them on a merchant ship named the Neptune, bound for the White House via Baltimore, along with a box of pecans.2

President Jefferson loved eating the pecans, but he was less enamored with the two grizzly bears. Though Pike’s gesture surely sought to capture Jefferson’s heart, as usual the president’s head prevailed, and the Sage of Monticello found the live gifts to be an irritating inconvenience. Having matured on their journey into adolescent specimens of what he had declared the “most formidable animal of our continent,” the grizzlies could not remain residents of the White House lawn.3 On the same November day that the bears arrived in Washington, D.C., Jefferson wrote to the Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale, asking his eccentric friend to take the two grizzlies off his hands.

Peale would have understood the dangers of keeping captive brown bears more than anyone else in Jefferson’s regional universe. Four years earlier, in the fall of 1803, he had purchased a grizzly taken “from the sources of the Missouri” by a Frenchman who had brought the animal to Philadelphia with the intention of selling it to an exhibitioner. That...


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