The Captain Meriwether Lewis Pipe Tomahawk Sells Privately at Cowan's

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  • May 06, 2015

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Captain Meriwether Lewis Pipe Tomahawk

Cowan's Auctions, Inc. has announced the private sale of the presentation style pipe tomahawk carried by Captain Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809).  Deemed one of the most historically significant objects of American history, circumstantial evidence suggests that this tomahawk accompanied Lewis during his great exploration up the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean and back (1804-1806).

The identity of the purchaser, as well as the price paid remain confidential, though according to Wes Cowan, President of the eponymous company  “The price paid for the pipe tomahawk is commensurate with its historical rarity, and importance.”  It is the intention of the new owner to eventually donate the artifact to an institution for its safekeeping and protection.   “The family is delighted that it has found a home with someone who recognizes the great responsibility that comes with owning such a national treasure” said Cowan, a frequent guest appraiser on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow and host of the long-running PBS series History Detectives.  “The Lewis tomahawk is quite simply an icon of American history.” 

The Lewis tomahawk is one of a handful of items that can be reliably identified as belonging to a member of the Corps of Discovery.  Besides a rifle belonging to co-expedition leader Captain William Clark, it is the only weapon that has survived.  Historical documentation indicates that the tomahawk was with Lewis when he died in Tennessee in September 1809 at the age of 35.  At the time of his death, Lewis was traveling to Washington from St. Louis where he was serving as the Governor of Louisiana Territory.   

Lewis’ pipe tomahawk is no mere utilitarian tool designed for daily use.  Rather, it was crafted to reflect the status of its owner and for use as a tool of diplomacy with Native Americans.  Diplomatic relationships were often cemented by smoking tobacco, and as an Army officer schooled in encounters with Native Americans, Lewis would have been well aware of the war-peace symbolic dualism of the pipe tomahawk. 

In contrast to a standard pipe tomahawk of the day, Lewis’ “presentation-style” tomahawk is made of the finest material, and is the work of a master gunsmith.  Both the blade and maple shaft are heavily embellished with coin silver inlay; even the mouthpiece is of silver.   The blade displays inset silver medallions engraved with the initials of Lewis, and his half- sister.   

After Lewis’ death, the tomahawk was returned to his family in Virginia, becoming the property of his mother, and then his half-sister Mary Garland Marks.  When Marks married and moved to Alabama early in the 19th century, she took the tomahawk with her as a prized heirloom. It has remained in the hands of her descendants since. The tomahawk was featured in Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition (2004-2006), which traveled nationally to four major museums, ending at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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