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Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the first American scientific expedition that the United States government sponsored, which was also the first to cross the North American continent within the present United States. Much of the territory they traversed had never been seen by anyone other than native North Americans, and the expedition of the two explorers provided a thoroughly detailed map of the land.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Friends with Jefferson
Lewis was born on August 18, 1774, in the prominent Albemarle district of Virginia, near Charlottesville. Among his neighbors was Thomas Jefferson’s family. Lewis’s father died of pneumonia in 1779 after serving in the Revolutionary War. His mother remarried Capt. John Marks, a wealthy Georgia landowner, in 1780. Lewis was educated by tutors and spent much of his time hunting in the rough terrain where he lived. When his stepfather died in 1792, Lewis brought his mother and the rest of his family home from Georgia and truly took over as head of the family.
While the life of a farmer was more interesting to Lewis than the life of a scholar, he jumped at the chance for adventure in 1794, joining the militia to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, a farmer’s uprising in Western Pennsylvania against a federal tariff imposed on whiskey sales. The action was over before he reached the field, but Lewis loved the military, and fought with the army against Native Americans in the Northwest Territory. Lewis then became part of President Jefferson’s White House when the new president asked his old friend to become his personal secretary, a role that Lewis performed for two years.
President Jefferson made an enormous land acquisition in 1804, known as the Louisiana Purchase, in which he doubled the size of United States territory, extending it west to the Rocky Mountains, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and north to the Canadian border. Jefferson purchased the nearly one million square miles from Napoleon Bonaparte, the leader of France, for $15 million. Exploration was already a priority but the Louisiana Purchase increased the urgency; Lewis gained leadership of the project, enlisting his childhood friend William Clark as his partner.
Preparing for the Expedition
Jefferson sent Lewis to Pennsylvania to study extensively scientific topics that would aid the exploration, including botany and astronomy. Jefferson’s instructions were lengthy, explicit, and demanding. His first priority was discovering a water route to the Pacific, and the expedition was to note the latitude and longitude of “durable” landmarks for later navigators. In addition to mapping the water route, Lewis was to learn as much as possible about the people he met for the sake of future commerce. These exhaustive ethnographies would eventually aid commerce with the Indians and ”those who may endeavor to civilize and instruct them.” Lewis and his men were to act as ambassadors, foster peace between the tribes, and to invite their chiefs to visit Washington at the government’s expense. Jefferson also suggested that Lewis take some kinepox and teach the Indians how to use it against smallpox.
On top of all this, Jefferson wanted other information regarding the soil, vegetation, animals, mineral deposits, ”volcanic appearances,” climate, and the seasonal appearances of plants, animals, and insects. In addition to mapping his own route, Lewis was to gather information about other branches of the Missouri and the Columbia and any other rivers that might prove navigable. In particular, Jefferson wanted to learn about the northern source of the Mississippi, as well as the disposition of any Canadian traders.
A Historic Journey Begins
For the expedition, Lewis and Clark chose fourteen soldiers, and included Clark’s black servant (actually a slave), York. The party eventually grew to more than forty-five, including Toussaint Chaboneau, whose best claim to fame was his Shoshone wife, Sacajawea, the only woman on the expedition, who proved invaluable as a liaison with other Indians. The Corps of Discovery left Saint Louis in May 1804, proceeding up the lower Missouri River.
By the end of October they were looking for a good spot to spend the winter among the Mandans in what is now North Dakota. By mid-November Fort Mandan was completed, and the company spent the winter of 18041805 in councils with the Indians. In April the company left Fort Mandan. By mid-April they were entering territory never before seen by white people.
The Missouri, which at first glance would seem the easiest part of their voyage, became an ever more challenging river of shifting sandbars and collapsing banks. Aboard the boats, deft handling by the men was crucial in order to avoid disaster. The near capsize of a canoe on the Missouri near the Yellowstone (not far from the present-day border between North Dakota and Montana) in May 1805 almost finished the expedition before it ever reached the mountains, as it contained all of the instruments, medicines, and papers that had been generated on the trip. Their first real crisis came in early June 1805 when they had to decide which of two large channels represented the true Missouri. Lewis and Clark made a decision, challenged by their men but on Sacagawea’s advice, to follow the southern route, and for five anxious days the two hoped they were not leading their men up a pointless creek they would have to retrace. Finding a great waterfall proved their choice was the correct one.
In August, Lewis crossed the Continental Divide and found the source of the Missouri River. He also located a Shoshoni village, and after pacifying their initial aggression, convinced the chief to guide them. Sacagawea recognized the tribe as her people, and she was able to aid in translation.
From the Missouri to the Pacific, and Back
Even with Shoshoni help, the overland journey was arduous for the next few months until the group reached northwest Idaho in September and were cared for by the Nez Perce Indians. October brought them to the Oregon border, and they finally reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. There they built a winter shelter in modern-day Oregon, which now is the site of a national monument.
In March, Lewis and Clark began their return trip, scavenging for food at some points, and recovering stashed supplies at others. Lewis and Clark split up in June, with Lewis finding a short path to Montana. He was then accidentally shot in the leg by a hunter, injuring him for a month. Lewis met up with Clark and the rest of the party in August at the Missouri River. The group went on to St. Louis and then back to Washington, D.C.
Celebrated upon their return, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor of the Louisiana Territory, and Clark became superintendent of Indian affairs for the same territory. Lewis was also charged with formally writing the history of the expedition. He seems never to have started on this literary task, and his administrative appointment proved
disastrous. He encountered mounting political opposition in the territory, and after Jefferson left the presidency, the federal government refused to approve some of his expenditures. The evidence is scanty, but it appears that he became depressed and perhaps began drinking heavily. In the fall of 1809, traveling overland from Natchez, Mississippi, to Tennessee on the Natchez Trace, he set out for Washington, D.C., to attempt to get his account approved. On the night of October 11, 1809, he stopped at a lonely cabin in Tennessee, and he died there of apparently self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Works in Literary Context
The work of Lewis and Clark had a profound effect on the settlement of the western United States and for that reason their writings have endured as historically significant works. They also continue to provide a detailed view of the region prior to the dramatic changes brought about by the advancement of white settlers, a perspective that might otherwise be lost. However, most scholars agree that the best qualities of their writings are more informational than literary.
Lewis and Clark’s writing combines both literary flourishes as well as detailed scientific data. The text rarely sounds like typical nature writing, for while Lewis and Clark often refer to a scene as “beautiful,” their descriptions were often ordinary, if not downright consumerist: ”Our camp is in a beautiful plain, with timber thinly scattered for three quarters of a mile, and consisting chiefly of elm, cottonwood, some ash of an indifferent quality, and a considerable amount of a small species of white oak.” Their description of the waterfall begins with an elevated sentiment—”sublime spectacle … this stupendous object which since creation had been lavishing its magnificence upon the desert, unknown to civilization”— but these few lines are followed by pages of precise dimensions: ”gathering strength from its confined channel, which is only two hundred and eighty yards wide, [the water] rushes over the fall to the depth of eighty-seven feet and three quarters of an inch.”
The most important descriptions of all for official purposes were of their position: ”The latitude of our camp below the entrance of Portage creek, was found to be 47° 7′ 10” 3, as deduced from meridian altitude of the sun’s lower limb taken with octant by back observation giving 53° 10”. Descriptions of the grand views from bluffs or mountaintops become exercises in triangulation, with mountains described by their directions and positions as compass headings measured in degrees from the observer’s position. Clearly, Lewis and Clark viewed the mountains with a cartographer’s eye and saw the ”durable” landmarks that Jefferson had desired.
Lewis and Clark have become so inseparable in the history of the United States that historians have emphasized their differences in order to distinguish the two. Lewis has been characterized as a moody, sensitive intellectual and Clark as the barely literate frontiersman, perfectly adapted to the wilderness. Both men, however, belonged to land-owning, slaveholding families and might have considered themselves gentlemen. Lewis undoubtedly had more education than Clark, and the literary style of his journals—more verbose and literary than that of Clark—reflects this difference.
Thomas Jefferson noted in his sketch of the writers that Lewis suffered from ”hypochondriac affections,” which apparently refers to periodic depressions. Yet, Lewis was able to write detailed, technical descriptions of new plant and animal species, while Clark proved to be a skilled cartographer whose detailed maps of the route of the expedition make it possible to locate the position of the party on any given day with some precision. Lewis kept a journal for brief periods of the expedition from Pittsburgh to Saint Louis, and Clark kept one intermittently during their winter camp on the Mississippi and then throughout the rest of the trip. Lewis’s journals include substantial gaps in time (prompting some question about whether some of his entries have been lost), but Clark’s cover all but about ten days, although he may have copied Lewis’s entries for some months in early 1806. Their notebooks and loose sheets also contain undated materials, such as weather diaries, zoological and botanical notes, and digests of information about various tribes.
Works in Critical Context
Not counting the journals of four of the enlisted men, the two captains wrote more than a million words during their preliminary travels to St. Louis and the twenty-eight months of the expedition. The Lewis and Clark journals constitute one of the major travel and exploration accounts of American history, and for this achievement, the two are inseparably linked in history. Their journals, never published in their own lifetimes, constitute their principal literary accomplishment.
The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
The journals are not intimate personal records but instead are public documents, and their first purpose was to record valuable information. They were also scientific records of discoveries made in the pursuit of knowledge and records of events that occurred during that pursuit. Neither of the captains regarded them as opportunities to record or analyze their emotions or their philosophies of life. Although it would be difficult to write a psychological profile of Lewis or Clark from the journals alone, this does not deter some writers from trying. Many have found the journals to be works of lasting fascination. They are probably most interesting to readers with an abiding curiosity about Western history and with some knowledge of the country through which the expedition passed. Noted historian Stephen Ambrose, for instance, says the journals are ”part guidebook, part travelogue, part booster-like promotion, part text to accompany the master map.” Because the full scientific results were not published for a century, they have never received proper credit for their many discoveries about animal and plant life. Nonetheless, the published history of their expedition was, for many years, a primary source of knowledge about the land west of the Mississippi River and was not superseded until the series of expeditions sponsored by the government in the mid-nineteenth century.
- Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
- Bakeless, John. Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery. William Morrow, 1947; reprinted. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.
- Botkin, Daniel B. Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark. New York: Putnam, 1995.
- Cavan, Seamus. Lewis and Clark and the Route to the Pacific. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
- Cutright, Paul Russell. A History of the Lewis and Clark Journals. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.
- –. Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists. Chicago, 1ll.: University of Illinois Press, 1969.
- Hall, Eleanor J. The Lewis and Clark Expedition. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1996.
- Nobles, Gregory H. American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest. New York: Hill & Wang, 1997.
- Ronda, James. Lewis and Clark among the Indians. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
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