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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
It was precisely what it said it was, a history; it drew upon the original journals, paraphrased them, and sometimes even used their language, but it was not the Journals themselves. Perhaps because the public thought it already knew the story from Gass’s book, perhaps because the book was expensive, the map even more so, perhaps because there was no scientific volume, or perhaps because the whole thing was coming to seem old hat, a thing of the past to a public now preoccupied with a war, the book sold poorly. The publisher printed 2,000 copies, but more than 500 of them were imperfect and never reached the public. Meanwhile, Gass’s journal went through more editions, and spurious accounts of the expedition appeared from time to time, cobbled together from Gass, from reports of other travelers to the West, and from Alexander Mackenzie’s account of his expedition across Canada to the Pacific in the 179Os. But demand for Nicholas Biddle’s version never developed. Nobody reprinted it until 1842, and then only in an abridged version. Because it sold so poorly, it has become one of the great rarities in American literature. A copy in the original binding, in excellent condition, and with the map, recently brought $180,000 at auction. In time, with Jefferson’s help, most of the manuscript journals, including the scientific papers in Benjamin Smith Barton’s care, got to the library of the American Philosophical Society, where they were put away and forgotten. Such was the disorganized state of affairs surrounding the book’s publication that it was two years before William Clark ever saw a copy of it.
It is the words of the explorers themselves, of course, that we want. However smoothly Biddle and Allen wrote, however intelligently they redacted and retold the story from the journals Lewis and Clark left them, nothing can be as immediate and vivid as what the two men wrote down, in the evening, about that day’s events. Here is Lewis, alone on the plains above the Great Falls of the Missouri in present-day Montana, having just shot a buffalo, when a grizzly bear rises up some 20 paces away and he realizes that he’s forgotten to reload: “in the first moment I drew up my gun to shoot, but at the same instant recolected that she was not loaded and that he was too near for me to hope to perform this opperation before he reached me, as he was then briskly advancing on me; it was an open level plain, not a bush within miles nor a tree within less than three hundred yards of me; the riverbank was sloping and not more than three feet above the level of the water; in short there was no place by means of which I could conceal myself from this monster until I could charge my rifle.” He retreated. He ran. He managed to reach the river just before the bear.
Here is Clark on the Yellowstone, digging some bones out of the riverbank a few miles from Pompey’s Pillar, which he had just named: “dureing the time the men were getting the two big horns which I had killed to the river I employed my Self in getting pieces of the rib of a fish which was Semented within the face of the rock this rib is [about 3] inchs in Secumpherance about the middle ... it is 3 feet in length tho a part of the end appears to have been broken off I have Several pieces of this rib the bone is neither decayed nor petrified but very rotten.” This was, of course, no fish but a dinosaur. Clark was the first white man to discover dinosaur bones in Montana.
Here is Lewis describing his first successful contact with the Shoshones, Sacagawea’s tribe, who had never seen a white man before: “we had not continued our rout more than a mile when we were so fortunate as to meet with three female savages, the short and steep ravines which we passed concealed us from each other untill we arrived within 30 paces, a young woman immediately took to flight, an Elderly woman and a girl of about 12 years old remained. I instantly laid by my gun and advanced towards them. They appeared much allarmed but saw that we were to near for them to escape by flight they therefore seated themselves on the ground, holding down their heads as if reconciled to die which [they] expected no doubt would be their fate; I took the elderly woman by the hand and raised her up repeated the word tab-ba-bone [which meant, Lewis thought, “white man"] and strip up my shirt sieve to s[h]ew her my skin; to prove to her the truth of the ascertion that I was a white man for my face and ha[n]ds which have been constantly exposed to the sun were quite as dark as their own.” It is one of the most important encounters in the history of the West. Had they not found the Shoshones, they would not have been able to trade for the horses they needed to cross the Rocky Mountains and reach the Pacific.
We want it in their words, but the nineteenth century never saw these firsthand accounts, and nineteenth-century American historians had almost nothing to say about Lewis and Clark. Hubert Howe Bancroft gave them 86 pages in his History of the Northwest Coast . His was hardly, however, a sanguine assessment of their accomplishments. “For thrilling experiences,” he wrote, “for deeds of great daring, for heartrending suffering, for romantic adventure, we must look elsewhere.” (One wonders what expedition he was writing about.) Scribner’s five-volume history of the United States, published late in the nineteenth century, gave Lewis and Clark a single paragraph. The authors spelled Clark’s name wrong.