- Historic Sites
If Lewis And Clark Came Back Today
AFTER THREE TIMES traveling the trail they blazed, the author imagines what the two captains of Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery would make of the civilization we have built on the tremendous promise they offered
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
“I have been in Many Battles, and often Wounded, but the Wounds of My enemies I exhalt in, but to day I am Wounded, and by Whom, by those same White Dogs that I have always Considered, and treated as Brothers.
“I do not fear Death my friends. You Know it, but to die with my face rotten, that even the Wolves will shrink with horror at seeing Me, and say to themselves, ‘That is the 4 Bears the Friend of the Whites.’”
Along with Four Bears, 90 percent of the tribe perished in the epidemic. The prosperous nation, whose villages had constituted the biggest city on the plains during Lewis and Clark’s time, was reduced to barely a hundred individuals, huddled together with remnants of the Ankaras and Hidatsas.
Word of the devastation would have reached Clark in St. Louis shortly before he died. He was experienced in the loss of friends, but it must have greatly saddened him, “the Red-Headed Chief,” to ponder the fate of the people who had so warmly welcomed the expedition thirty years earlier. Showing up in Gerard’s earth lodge nearly two centuries later would undoubtedly have flooded him with even stronger emotions. Outside, the three villages once teemed with life and noise, while the smoke of cook fires curled from the tops of hundreds of earth lodges, and neighbors and explorers alike shared food, music, and laughter to ward off winter’s chill. Now there are only large, circular depressions in the ground marking where each lodge stood, like so many supplicating palms outstretched on the barren plain.
My guess is that Clark would have had the same trouble sleeping that I did that night, hearing echoes of Four Bears’s words whenever the night wind hissed or a cottonwood groaned as it shook in the gale. And I imagine that he, too, would have hoped that Gerard had adequately appeased the spirits of friendship with the smudge of his sweet grass.
“We proceeded on” is the most recurrent phrase in the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Charles Floyd wrote it several times in the brief diary he kept before he died far from home—the first U.S. soldier to die west of the Mississippi but certainly not the last. His comrades Patrick Gass, Joseph Whitehouse, and John Ordway used it all the time as well. So did the captains.
With three matter-of-fact words they could describe the act of getting up each morning, facing an unknown horizon whose only certainty was another day of hard work, and pushing forward with, if not confidence, then at least dogged determination to move just a little farther toward that horizon before the sun went down.
“We proceeded on.” It became, in effect, the Corps of Discovery’s motto, a mantra that kept them going in the face of every obstacle. When I travel in their footsteps, I usually adopt it as my own. It reminds me that they didn’t have the luxury to look backward, to pause and contemplate the past. And it helps me conjure up their spirits to join me on my modern journey.
The captains in particular were Jeffersonian men, imbued with the Enlightenment notion of steady progress. “We proceeded on” could summarize their view of how the universe works. It would also influence their reaction to many of the starkest changes to be found along their route across the continent.
Lewis, who devoted so much time to scientific descriptions, would no doubt be enthusiastic about the agricultural transformation of the Louisiana Territory. The Missouri, he wrote his mother from Fort Mandan, “waters one of the fairest portions of the globe, nor do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country equally fertile.” He would probably nod his head, as if to say, “I told you so,” upon learning that the area is now the food basket for the nation and much of the world.
Clark, with his keen eye for terrain, had marked locations on his map as likely places for future forts and settlements. The mouth of the Kansas River, where the Missouri bends sharply toward the east, was such a spot. He would enjoy, I think, the vista from his old campsite. Where once two rivers met in the wilderness now rises the skyline of Kansas City, the largest city along the Lewis and Clark route west of St. Louis. Later I would show him Omaha and Bismarck and Portland, other towns that grew up at strategic places he had identified. “We proceeded on,” he might say.
More changes. A series of dams, built to prevent flooding and to provide irrigation and hydroelectricity, has turned much of the Missouri into more lake than river. The “sublimely grand spectacle” of the Great Falls, which Lewis described so ecstatically, is now dominated by a concrete barrier; except in times of unusually high water, the falls themselves are dry rocks. The same goes for the Columbia. Celilo Falls, the Long and Short Narrows, the Cascades—places that Clark noted for the “horrid appearance of this agitated gut Swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction”—are now entombed under reservoirs.