If Lewis And Clark Came Back Today


Gerard smiled at me. “I’ll be all right,” he answered, and he unrolled a fancy down-filled sleeping bag next to my buffalo robes. “This one’s guaranteed to twenty below.”

I have been out and back across the entire Lewis and Clark Trail three complete times since that evening in the earth lodge with Gerard. And more often than I can count, I have visited individual sites along their route. Yet every time my path has crossed theirs, I have wondered what the two captains would think if somehow they could be transported back to life in the modern world and sent out as, say, a Corps of Rediscovery. What would they recognize? What would confound them? What would they regret? What would they appreciate?

Certainly a frigid night on the northern plains would be painfully familiar to them. These were two Virginia-born gentlemen, accustomed to the mildest of winters; I doubt that they could ever forget their experience at Fort Mandan, where they were exposed to one of the harshest weather extremes this continent has to offer.

THEY WERE JEFFERSONIAN MEN of the Enlightenment. “We proceeded on” could summarize their view of how the universe works and their likely reaction to many stark changes.

I, too, have stood on the banks of the Missouri and been awestruck by its raw power as huge chunks of ice floated relentlessly downstream, only to be even more awed the next morning on finding the mighty river frozen solid, conquered by the cold. It’s something you remember. (In my case the memory is aided by a minor case of frostbite in my nasal passages, which still acts up whenever the mercury drops below zero.) In the column titled “Unchanged,” place a big checkmark for the ferocity of winters on the upper Missouri.

Nor would the captains find anything new in a meal of buffalo or in a Mandan’s willingness to share it with a stranger. But Lewis, I imagine, would be fascinated by Gerard’s sleeping bag—so light yet so warm, just the kind of scientifically advanced equipment he had scoured Philadelphia to find when outfitting his expedition. Whether the captain would appreciate the irony that in this case it was an Indian showing off the latest in technology to a white man—and poking a little fun in the bargain—depends on your own assessment of Lewis’s psyche. Personally I doubt it. In my mind’s eye I see him bristling silently as he tucks himself in between the buffalo robes. Clark’s the one who might have enjoyed the joke, even if it was on him. But he would also have been the one more troubled by a story Gerard told as the embers turned crimson.

In 1836, while an aging Clark was still Indian agent for the territory, the government sent two doctors up the Missouri with instructions to vaccinate all the tribes along the river against smallpox. They inoculated most of the tribes, but winter turned them back before they reached the Mandans, Ankaras, and Hidatsas. For some reason, the Secretary of War did not dispatch them to finish the job the next spring (and even misled Congress into believing the project was completed). That summer catastrophe struck.

When a fur-trading boat filled with supplies paid its annual visit, it also unwittingly brought the smallpox virus, which quickly spread among the unprotected Indians. Gerard has read all the eyewitness accounts as well as listened to the oral histories passed down through the tribes’ generations. Smallpox, he says, causes a “very, very ugly death”—sores that ooze and burst, swelling, aching, vomiting, delirium. In the villages people began dying at a rate of eight to ten a day. Corpses piled up; the stench of rotting bodies could be smelled for miles.

Fearing their protective spirits had abandoned them, some Mandans sought escape through suicide. After debating the bravest way to die, one warrior cut his own throat while another forced an arrow into his own lungs. Some drowned themselves in the Missouri.

Among those struck by the sickness was Four Bears, a Mandan chief of some note. As a warrior he had killed five chiefs of other nations in hand-to-hand combat, wrested a knife from a Cheyenne warrior and used it to kill its owner, taken many prisoners, and survived an enemy arrow and six gunshot wounds. Like the rest of his people, he had always felt nothing but friendship for the white man. When the fever first hit him, he put on his ceremonial garments, mounted his horse, and rode through his village, singing his sacred songs. Then, as he, too, began to succumb to the disease, he gave a final speech to his people. A fur trader transcribed it, and it’s preserved in a book of tribal history that Gerard loaned me:

“Ever since I can remember, I have loved the Whites. . . . To the best of my Knowledge, I have never Wronged a White Man, on the Contrary, I have always Protected them from the insults of Others, Which they cannot deny. The 4 Bears never saw a White Man hungry, but what he gave them to eat, Drink and a Buffaloe skin to sleep on, in time of Need. . . . And how they have repaid it! With ingratitude! I have Never Called a White Man a Dog, but to day I do Pronounce them to be a set of Black harted Dogs, they have deceived Me, them that I always considered as Brothers, has turned Out to be My Worst enemies.