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The Perilous Afterlife Of The Lewis And Clark Expedition

May 2024
19min read

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.

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.

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.

It was nearly a century before the public could read what Lewis and Clark wrote.

Gass’s publication ought to have galvanized Lewis into making extra efforts to get his own book out, and he did arrange with a Philadelphia publisher, John Conrad, to print it. He sat for Charles Willson Peale for his portrait. He arranged with a man named Frederick Pursh, a German naturalist living in Philadelphia, to make drawings of the plants he had brought back and paid him $70 in advance. He met Alexander Wilson, the ornithologist, and asked him to make drawings of some of the birds discovered on the expedition, and Wilson did. Lewis ran a few personal errands for Jefferson. He worked on the expedition’s accounts. He went to dinners and to balls. He courted someone we know only as Miss A-n R—h, who refused him.

But he seems not to have written a single word of his book. Stephen Ambrose, in Undaunted Courage , suggests that Lewis was drinking too much and was on the path to alcoholism. Richard Dillon, Lewis’s biographer, is more reluctant to explain the delay. It is not entirely certain in any case where Lewis was from the summer of 1807 to the early spring of 1808, when he finally arrived, a year late, to take up his duties in St. Louis as governor of the territory. Wherever Lewis was, whatever he was doing, he was not preparing the journals for publication.

In St. Louis at last, Lewis fell into a hornets’ nest of bickering and backbiting. His second-in-command, a man named Frederick Bates, turned out to be his enemy and undercut him at every turn. The U.S. military commander in the area was Gen. James Wilkinson, in whom Jefferson placed great trust but who was in fact a spy on the payroll of the Spanish government.

Dealing with still unsettled affairs of the expedition while trying to adjudicate between the various factions in St. Louis —between new American settlers and the entrenched French, between fur traders and farmers, the usages and their enemies the Sauks, must have taken most of his time. To make matters worse, Lewis had few skills as an administrator. He was a military man, a superb leader, but not adaptable, not subtle, not political . The pressures on him were intense, and he was not fitted for them. They left him no time to write, and he did not write. He did not even reply to Jefferson’s increasingly anxious letters. This was odd, almost unforgivable. Thomas Jefferson was not only his friend but the President of the United States, and he, Meriwether Lewis, was a governor. He was supposed to keep the President up to date on the affairs of Upper Louisiana. But he did not write.

When Clark heard of Lewis’s death, he wrote “I fear O!...What will become of his paprs?”

Matters came to a head in the spring of 1809, when the War Department authorized Lewis to pay $7,000 to Pierre Choteau, one of the leading figures in the fur trade in St. Louis, to conduct a mission into Indian territories. Lewis added $500 to this amount on his own authority for gifts to the tribes. Lewis was used to doing this; he was always personally in debt and had spent many thousands of dollars more outfitting the Corps of Discovery than he was authorized to spend. But Jefferson was no longer President, and the new Secretary of War wrote Lewis a sharp letter questioning what he had done. Lewis thought his honor had been impeached. “I have been informed,” he wrote to the new Secretary of War, William Eustis, “Representations have been made against me.” He referred to the traitor Aaron Burr: “Be assured Sir,” he wrote indignantly, “that my Country can never make ‘A Burr’ of me—She may reduce me to Poverty, but she can never sever my Attachment from her.” Early in September, determined to prove his innocence, he left St. Louis for Washington. He planned at first to go by way of New Orleans but opted instead to move overland through Tennessee. He wrote ahead to President James Madison, to alert him to his pending arrival, and told him he was bringing all his invoices plus “the original papers relative to my voyage to the Pacific ocean.”

In late September he left Fort Pickering, on the Mississippi, for Washington, in the company of a man named James Neelly, an Indian agent to the Chickasaws. In a letter to Jefferson dated October 18, Neelly said that he found Lewis “at times deranged in mind.” On the way they lost two of their horses, and Neelly stayed behind to look for them. Lewis told him he would wait for him at the first house inhabited by white people. He arrived at the door of a Mr. Grinder and took lodgings there. “The man of the house being from home, and no person there but a woman who discovering the governor to be deranged, gave him up the house & slept herself in one near it.” About three in the morning she heard two pistol shots. Lewis was still alive when she went into his room, but it was too late to save him. He had killed himself. Two years later, after an investigation into the circumstances, the last person to see him alive, a young boy, quoted Lewis as saying that he had killed himself “to deprive his enemies of the pleasure and honor of doing it.”

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.

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.

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.”

These are the words of a man fully aware of the historic importance of what he is undertaking and confident of his own success. And he did succeed, splendidly and courageously. That he should kill himself just three years after achieving all he had set out to do is close to being unthinkable. Books have their fate, as the old tag puts it, but this was a strange fate indeed. Who would have guessed in 1806 that it would take nearly 200 years to see the words of Lewis and Clark fully into print? “Words can wait.” said Larrv McMurtrv in his review of Moulton’s edition. To be sure. But Meriwether Lewis did not just kill himself in that country inn in Tennessee. He very nearly killed his book as well.


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