- 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
What would the explorers think of the two mighty rivers now? To them, the raging cataracts were magnificent, but they were also impediments. I can imagine Lewis noting ruefully at the Great Falls that their majesty had once reduced him to wishing for better words to describe their beauty—and then walking excitedly into the powerhouse to see how the turbines work. On the Columbia (and its tributary the Snake), Clark would be wide-eyed at the sight of deep-draft vessels blithely carrying cargo toward the twin cities of Clarkston and Lewiston, now officially designated as seaports though they are four hundred miles inland from the Pacific.
CLARK WOULD BE WIDE-EYED at the sight of deep-draft vessels on the Columbia at Clarkston and Lewiston, now designated seaports even though they are four hundred miles inland.
It would not escape their notice that the same dams that tamed the Columbia for boat traffic, and that generate electricity used as far away as California, have also virtually eliminated the salmon. The amount of salmon, Clark wrote in 1805, was “incrediably to say.” Even attempting to estimate their numbers seemed preposterous. I think he would find it equally incredible today if he went with me into one of the deeper recesses of the Bonneville Dam, where a single employee easily counts each adult salmon that manages to swim past a window looking out on the dam’s fish ladder.
Lewis and Clark would have other questions about wildlife. They would remember beaching their canoes for hours as a buffalo herd forded the river; going for several months during which encountering a grizzly bear was an almost daily event; seeing enormous elk herds and packs of wolves; being kept awake at night by the slapping of beaver tails; witnessing a midday sky darkened by huge flocks of wild geese; filling their journals with description after description of animals they had never seen before, in numbers beyond imagination; passing through a landscape in which, as they wrote, “the game is getting so plenty and tame in this country that some of the party clubbed them out of their way.”
As we retrace their steps, I can see the captains craning their necks at every turn, looking expectantly for an abundance of animals and then turning to me for answers to what happened. I would have to tell them that some of the species they recorded have vanished entirely, that others are struggling back from the brink of extinction. “Most of your animals can still be found,” I would assure them, “but in smaller numbers and more secluded locations. We probably won’t be seeing many on this trip.” Another side of the same coin upon which the nation emblazoned, “We proceeded on.”
Likewise we would encounter fewer Indians. Lewis and Clark had been the first to tell them they had a new “great father.” In their speeches the captains promised that he “has offered you the hand of unalterable friendship, which will never be withdrawn from your nation.” Moving from reservation to reservation along the modern trail, they would hear instead tales of lands lost and promises broken. For the Lakotas, the Nez Perces, the Shoshones, the Blackfeet, and the tribes along the Columbia, the offered hand had turned into a fist. Even for those tribes that never experienced war with the United States—like the Salishes and Hidatsas and Mandans—the handshake of friendship proved a bad bargain.
“Follow these councils,” Lewis had concluded his first speech to Western Indians, “and you will have nothing to fear, because the great Spirit will smile upon your nation, and in future ages will make you to outnumber the trees of the forest.” Even by the standards of the Virginia gentry, Lewis was acutely sensitive about matters of honor; seeing how his word was so cavalierly disregarded would start him sputtering and then, perhaps, send him into dark despair. Out of both anger and shame, Clark’s face, I think, would turn as crimson as his hair.
To cheer them, I’d take the captains through the White Cliffs of the Missouri in north-central Montana, protected by Congress from damming and development. This is another place where Lewis grew rhapsodic, writing for pages about “scenes of visionary inchantment.” I’d invite him to do what friends and I have done on several occasions: read passages from his journal and then look up from our campsite or canoe to see precisely what he had struggled to describe. With luck we might even see a bighorn on the cliffs.
On our journey together the captains would learn that the Western sky is still as big as it was for the Corps of Discovery, the horizons still as simultaneously intimidating and exhilarating. Nothing has changed the broiling summer heat on the plains or the startling fury of a prairie hailstorm—not to mention the maddening persistence of mosquitoes up and down the Missouri. And the mountains? To Clark they were the “Shineing Mountains.” Lewis called them “tremedious . . . covered with eternal snows.” Snow still covers their peaks in midsummer; from a distance they still shine. Farther west, winters on the Pacific coast are still sodden with rain.