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The Perilous Afterlife Of The Lewis And Clark Expedition
The explorers who set out two hundred years ago were in danger for three years. Their legacy was in danger for decade after decade—and it was Meriwether Lewis who almost killed it.
June/July 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 3
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the other members of the Corps of Discovery, thoroughly fed up with the long, rainy winter they had spent on the West Coast, left the home they had built for themselves, Fort Clatsop, in what is now Oregon, late in March 1806 and paddled into St. Louis six months later, on September 23. Of the two captains, Clark was the only one keeping a journal by then. Lewis had stopped writing when one of their men, Pierre Cruzatte, who was blind in one eye, had mistaken him for an elk and shot him in the buttocks. It became painful for Lewis to sit, and he left the journalizing to Clark.
Lewis had done so previously as well, not writing at all for long periods, even though he was the more eloquent of the two and by far the better speller. Clark was the more dogged writer, not missing a day over the 28 months they had been gone, save for 10 days in January 1805, when he took a small party to hunt deer and buffalo. And now he wrote on, even though they had returned to civilization and the expedition was over. There are entries not just for September 23 but for September 24, 25, and 26 as well. The entry for September 26, furthermore, the final entry in the journals, points not to the end of their labor as writers but to its continuation. “A fine morning,” it reads. “We commenced wrighting &c.”
The Lewis and Clark expedition was, indeed, the most written of any American exploration except perhaps the Wilkes expedition later in the nineteenth century. Not only did Lewis and Clark keep journals, but other members of the expedition did too. They were under orders to do so, or at least the sergeants were, and there were three sergeants, four if you count Charles Floyd, who died just a few months into the journey. We have Charles Floyd’s brief journal; we also have the journals of Patrick Gass, the private whom the men chose to replace Floyd, and of John Ordway, another sergeant, plus the journal of Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse. Yet another journal, kept by Pvt. Robert Frazer, is lost, but we know it existed. A prospectus for its publication appeared in 1806.
Altogether these writings add up to 13 sizable volumes in the most recent scholarly edition of the journals, Gary Moulton’s definitive edition, published from 1983 to 2001 by the University of Nebraska Press. Moulton’s volumes include a herbarium, an atlas, and an index, but otherwise we are talking text, 10 volumes of it, something like a million and a half words, a million written by Lewis and Clark themselves. Quite apart from their extraordinary achievements, Lewis and Clark stand out among the ranks of explorers simply as reporters.
However, it was nearly a century before the public could read what they wrote, and even then only in part. The bulk of the journals had lain forgotten in the library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia since 1818 — neglected, unstudied, more or less unknown. Other pieces of the whole, Clark’s field notes, for example, and Lewis’s journal of his trip with the famous keelboat down the Ohio, lay in bureau drawers or in old trunks in the attics of various family members. Until 1904 there was no scholarly edition, no edition at all of the actual journals of Lewis and Clark. The scientific findings of the expedition had never been published in any form. What the world knew about the expedition had been written not by Lewis and Clark but, after years of delay, by what we would now call a ghostwriter—and then by a second ghostwriter when the first wearied of the work. What the world knew of the expedition, in short, was a kind of summary. Until the Moulton edition, which brought all the scattered materials together for the first time, only a few people had had the opportunity to grasp the full extent of Lewis and Clark’s accomplishments.
And therein hangs a tale.
It begins in the enigmatic and troubled heart of Meriwether Lewis. He had already left a puzzle behind in the journals themselves, with his failure for long periods of time to write in them. It is all the more puzzling because Jefferson had been so explicit in his instructions about keeping Journals. But after the initial trip in the keelboat down the Ohio to St. Louis, during which for about three weeks Lewis wrote detailed (and fascinating) entries every day, he had simply stopped. Except for isolated instances, he had not taken up the pen again on a daily basis until more than a year later, when the expedition left Fort Mandan for the West. Lewis had spent two years as Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary; he and Clark had planned the trip together; both knew the central importance of keeping a record of their findings. They carried the journals in watertight boxes to make sure they would not be damaged even if the boats overturned. And Lewis was the better writer. Often Clark simply copied into his own journal what Lewis had already written. Why the silences? What was he thinking? What the two men “commenced wrighting” on September 26 we don’t know, but we do know that they understood their obligation to let the world in on their findings, and as soon as possible.