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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
They had already, on the twenty-third, written the first letters announcing their return and summarizing their success in finding a route to the Pacific that would be valuable to the fur trade. In the early nineteenth century, letters and newspapers were the primary forms of communication across the long reaches of the continent, and it was common practice to transmit important news in letters to friends and relatives, which the authors then expected the recipients to publish in local newspapers. Other papers would then reprint them, and thus the news spread. That was precisely what happened to Clark’s letter to his youngest brother, Jonathan, in Louisville, Kentucky, which he wrote the day they returned. It is clearly a letter meant for publication; the next day Clark wrote a note to Jonathan making the point explicit: “please to have my letter to you of yester published if you think proper.” Jonathan did indeed see to its publication, in the October 9 edition of the Frankfort, Kentucky, Palladium . It then appeared two days later in the Western World , also published in Frankfort; on the twenty-eighth, the Pittsburgh Gazette ran the letter; then, on November 3, so did the National Intelligencer of Washington, D.C. From there papers all over the United States picked it up. Much of the country had given Lewis and Clark up for dead. Now they had returned from out of the unknown; they had lost only one man, Charles Floyd (to what appears to have been a ruptured appendix); they had opened up the continent and filled in the map. They were heroes, possibly the most acclaimed heroes since the Revolution.
Congress voted all the permanent members of the expedition double pay and gave them sizable land grants west of the Mississippi. Lewis was made governor of Upper Louisiana, the entire territory, that is, above what is now the southern border of Arkansas. Clark became agent for Indian affairs in the same territory and was made a general in the militia. For the rest of his life people called him General Clark.
All that remained was to publish the journals. Jefferson was particularly eager to see them in print. Lewis and Clark had clarified the river systems of the far West, and Clark was a brilliant mapmaker. They had shown that the Rocky Mountains were not like the Appalachians, low and easy to portage, but high and wide and difficult and crowned with perpetual snow—that they were killers. They had made contact with whole new tribes of Indians, and their ethnological descriptions are, for their time, superb. They had discovered 178 new species of plant and 122 new species of animal, including the prairie dog, the coyote, elk and deer, reptiles and birds and insects. Lewis was the first white man to describe the California condor. He was a gifted naturalist; his observations were careful and couched in scientific language, and his measurements were precise; he was a patient observer of animal behavior, and he had a keen eye for plants as well. Publication of all this material would not only ensure their reputation and their place in history, it would add significantly to the scientific knowledge of the time.
Everyone knew what was at stake, and Jefferson urged haste. Interest in Lewis and Clark was high all across the country. Now was the time to strike. And at first Lewis seemed to move quickly enough. He spent the winter in Washington, evidently tidying up the expedition’s affairs. Early in March Clark left for St. Louis to take up his new duties. It was understood between the two men that publication of the journals was Lewis’s job. Clark had no illusions about his own abilities as a writer; he knew his style was not “correct.” On March 18, shortly after Clark left, Lewis published a prospectus in the National Intelligencer promising a three-volume work, two of them devoted to a narrative of the expedition itself while the third would cover its scientific aspects. There would also be a map—Clark’s great map—available separately. In April Lewis rode up to Philadelphia to find a publisher. He successfully headed off an attempt by Robert Frazer to publish his own journal of the expedition by letting the public know through the National Intelligencer that Frazer had no scientific credentials. He bought the journal Sgt. John Ordway had kept to prevent him from publishing it. He knew that priority of publication was important; he knew that time was of the essence.
The first setback came when a Pittsburgh publisher named M’Keehan issued the journal of Patrick Gass under the title Journal of the Voyages & Travels of a Corps of Discovery, under the command of Captain Lewis and Captain Clarke in July 1807. Gass was nearly illiterate, but he had kept a journal, and someone, perhaps the publisher himself, had taken Gass’s raw notes and turned them into what the early nineteenth century considered high style. The results are sometimes rhetorically over the top, but the book does tell the story of the expedition, however sketchily, and because of the interest in Lewis and Clark, it was in demand. From 1808 to 1814 six other editions appeared, three in Philadelphia and one each in London, Paris, and Germany.