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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
William Clark got the news late in October 1809 through a Kentucky newspaper titled the Argus . He wrote his brother Jonathan: “I fear O! I fear the waight of his mind has over come him, what will be the Consequence? What will become of his paprs?”
What would become, that is, of the journals of Lewis and Clark?
If the path to publication had been difficult before, now it became tortuous. The journals came into Clark’s hands, and he rode east in December. He stopped at Monticello and tried to persuade Jefferson himself to undertake their editing and publication and then, when Jefferson declined, headed to Philadelphia to try to find a writer there. Clark was a bluff, practical man, well liked by the Indians he dealt with (they called him Red, for his red hair), but his writing abilities were limited. Larry McMurtry, reviewing the Moulton edition of the journals, counted 27 different spellings for the word Sioux . Said Charles Willson Peale, “I would rather Clark had undertaken to have wrote the whole himself and then have put it into the hands of some person of talents to brush it up, but I found that the General was too diffident of his abilities.”
Eventually a young man named Nicholas Biddle agreed to take on the job. Biddle was a lawyer and budding man of letters with a brilliant mind; he would go on to become the first president of the Bank of the United States. In April 1810 Biddle traveled south to Fincastle, Virginia, where Clark was staying with his wife’s family, and for three weeks went over the journals with Clark and took notes. Biddle then returned to Philadelphia and set to work. He issued another prospectus, similar to the one Lewis had circulated three years earlier. The work would be in two volumes, the first (in two parts) a narrative of the expedition, the second, which he put into the hands of the distinguished American scientist Benjamin Smith Barton, one of the men Lewis had consulted before he left for the West in 1803, an account of the all-important scientific discoveries. A map would be issued separately. Biddle was eager to forestall a reprint of Gass’s book that he had heard was about to come out (it came out anyway). He set to work. He got up at five every morning and toiled away for seven or eight hours; he was both enthusiastic and assiduous: He studied up on American Indian tribes to develop the text more fully. A little over a year after he began, in June 1811, he let Clark know that he was nearly done.
But it was not to be so simple. Biddle may have nearly completed his part of the project, but Benjamin Smith Barton, aging and feeble, had done nothing. No scientific volume, no account of the animals and plants, the weather in the northern Rockies or on the Pacific Coast, no reports on the minerals of the West, or on the Indians, would be forthcoming. This was a serious loss. Then the publishing firm of C. and A. Conrad and Company, which had waited three years for Lewis to produce a manuscript and had spent money on engravings and maps, went under. Then the War of 1812 began, disrupting business and stopping trade all over the country. Then Nicholas Biddie decided that he could do no more. To finish the book, for which he neither asked nor received any compensation whatever, he had neglected his work as a lawyer and his responsibilities as a Pennsylvania state legislator. But he was not done, not quite. He paid another man of letters, a graduate of Brown University named Paul Allen, $500 to finish the job. He continued, moreover, to be involved. In 1813, after two other publishers had turned him down, Biddle at last found a third, Bradford and Inskeep. Early in 1814, more than seven years after Lewis and Clark had pulled into the quay at St. Louis, History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean finally appeared.