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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
Now Lewis and Clark are on everyone’s tongue. During the course of the expedition bicentennial, which began last year and runs to 2006, some 30 million people are expected to follow the course of the Lewis and Clark Trail at various points along its route. The official opening of the bicentennial at Monticello in January 2003, held on the lawn in front of the house, was nearly sold out despite bitterly cold weather. Symposiums, lectures, demonstrations, Indian dance ceremonies, and book exhibits went on for five days. Over the course of the next three years 15 major celebrations are planned, and countless minor ones. Novels based on the expedition have become something of a literary subgenre. The Shoshone woman Sacagawea, whose role in the expedition was minor, has become a national hero.
What happened? The revival of interest in Lewis and Clark is like any shift in public taste, difficult to trace to its sources. We can attribute some of it to the great popular success of Stephen Ambrose’s account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage , and perhaps to Ken Burns’s Lewis and Clark documentary on public television.
During the bicentennial,30 million people are expected to visit the Lewis and Clark trail.
But in fact this tide began to turn in the early 1890s, when a man named Elliott Coues, preparing the first scholarly reprint of the Biddle/Allen History , found and got in touch with Nicholas Biddle’s son, Craig. The younger Biddle knew the answer to the question no one theretofore had thought to ask: What had happened to the original journals of Lewis and Clark? “Why, don’t you know? They’re in the library of the American Philosophical Society, where my father left them many years ago.”
To Coues it was as if he had discovered the Comstock Lode. He begged his publishers to let him edit them, but they were in fact edited and published in 1904-6 by an experienced editor of Western travel narratives, Reuben Gold Thwaites. They were incomplete, to be sure, missing parts that have since turned up, but they were full enough to be a revelation. All the scientific material was there, and the vividness, and the excitement. The Thwaites edition numbered only 250 copies, but at last the journals were available. Scholars could consult them. The literature that comes to surround major historical events, that in its very quantity defines their importance, began to grow. More and more lost material appeared from its hiding places; Clark’s field notes were found as late as 1953. In the 1970s the University of Nebraska Press took on the task of editing all this material anew. The result is the magnificent edition edited by Gary Moulton and completed in 2001. We now have Lewis and Clark whole. We also have Lewisandclarkheads and Lewis and Clark coffee mugs and T-shirts and a Lewis and Clark Trail; we have reenactors; we have Web sites and exhibitions and books and a journal and a keelboat that will repeat their journey up the Missouri; we have Lewis and Clark archeologists and minute, detailed investigations of their equipment, their food, their weapons. We have a Lewis and Clark national frenzy. Their time has come.
But we shall never know what really happened inside the mind and heart of Meriwether Lewis. Jefferson, writing about him a few years after his death, said that he had “from early life been subject to hypocondriac affections.” When Lewis was working for him as his secretary, said Jefferson, “I observed at times sensible depressions of mind.” Along with Stephen Ambrose’s speculations that he was an alcoholic, scholars have speculated that he was bipolar, or that he was suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis. But no one knows, or will ever know, and in the end it remains difficult to reconcile the maddened nature of his death with the Lewis of the journals. Here he is again, leaving Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, setting out into the unknown:
“Our vessels consisted of six small canoes, and two large perogues. This little fleet altho’ not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs. ... we were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves, however as this the state of mind in which we are, generally gives the colouring to events, when the immagination is suffered to wander into futurity, the picture which now presented itself to me was a most pleasing one. entertaing as I do, the most confident hope of succeading in a voyage which had formed a da[r]ling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”