Two hundred years ago this week, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery set out to explore the American West. Sunday TIMEOUT asks what the expedition, its leaders and the Shoshone woman who was their guide still mean to us today
|“Meriwether Lewis” (ca. 1807) by C.W. Peale|
“Our vessels consisted of six small canoes and two large pirogues. This little fleet although not quite so respectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. We were now about to penetrate a country at least 2,000 miles [3,200 km] in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden.”
– Journal of Meriwether Lewis, April 7, 1805
All hail Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as the bicentenary draws near of their May 22, 1804 departure from St. Charles, Missouri, at the head of a democratic, multiracial, female-piloted expedition through the American West, over the Rockies to the Pacific — and back again.
Their daring journey would win them a place alongside those great discoverers of the American continent, Christopher Columbus and Capt. James Cook, Lewis seemed to suggest in his journal in April of the following year. After all, the two men (aged just 30 and 34, respectively) were explorers of a nation — and their faithful “Corps of Discovery” embodied a multiethnic American Dream.
Well, not exactly.
The expedition was not “democratic” by any standards we would recognize today. Accompanying the 33 permanent corps members was the enslaved black “body servant” of Clark, a man known only as York. The guide was a Shoshone Indian woman whom history has chosen to cast as a princess, but who was in fact another slave, sold as a teenager to her metis trader master, Toussaint Charbonneau. During the trip her possessions — leather dresses, a blue-beaded belt — were traded at will by not only Charbonneau, but Lewis and Clark as well.
As for the mission of “discovery” — which was how American President Thomas Jefferson portrayed the expedition when drumming up support from lawmakers — a Canadian named Alexander Mackenzie had made the first overland trip across the North American continent to the Pacific a decade earlier. In 1793, Mackenzie traveled from Fort Chipewyan in present-day Alberta to Bella Coola, British Columbia, spanning 20 degrees of longitude. He published an account of his expedition in 1802, two years before Lewis and Clark set off.
So what is it, exactly, that we’re celebrating?
|“William Clark” (ca. 1810) by C.W. Peale|
Is it that the expedition broke new ground for American trappers, traders and — eventually — pioneers? Hardly. The corps encountered more than 150 white men along the length of the Missouri, as historian Thomas P. Slaughter states in his “Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men and Wilderness” (Vintage, 2004), one of the more thoughtful of a slew of books rushed into print for the bicentennial. “The news kept getting worse,” Slaughter writes. “Eventually, Clark made a list of 13 English and American traders who had beaten them to the Northwest Coast.”
Indians met along the way gave more insidious proof of the fact that Lewis, Clark and their men were not the first Westerners to cross the West — “I saw the name of J. Bowman marked or picked on a young squaw’s left arm,” Clark wrote in his journal (Nov. 21, 1805). “With the party of the Clatsops who visited us last,” he noted on another occasion, “was a man of much lighter color than the natives are generally. He was freckled with long dusky red hair, about 25 years of age.” (Dec. 31, 1805).
Lewis wrote his last journal entry in mid-August 1806, on the day his return party encountered two white hunters where they had expected to meet only Indians. “Meeting up with the white men and Lewis’ cessation of writing was cause and effect,” suggests Slaughter. “Why write? There could be nothing more of significance to document. They were neither first nor essential to those who came next.”
Should we celebrate the valuable information they brought back, as per the instructions of President Jefferson, whose private secretary Lewis had been? Alas, no.
Jefferson had requested that the travelers investigate various of his pet theories: the existence of an indigenous American mammoth; the spurious ethnographic notion that one of the Indian nations was of Welsh descent; the rumored presence of the Lost Tribe of Israel in the American wilderness; and, not the least chimerical, the existence of a “Northwest Passage” linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The explorers returned with bad news on all counts.
No lavish reception greeted Lewis, Clark and their Corps of Discovery when they paddled into St. Louis on Sept. 23, 1806 — only mild surprise that, contrary to reports from the interior, they were still alive. The explorers seemingly had little to show for their 13,000 km traveled and $38,000 spent (Lewis had budgeted just $2,500). Inevitably, after the two captains enjoyed a belated and remarkably brief season as the toasts of the town, reality bared its teeth.
The bitter aftermath of the expedition — a heap of debts, readjustment to civil society, the politics of local government (Lewis was appointed governor of Louisiana Territory, a position Clark later assumed, only to lose in the first contested election for office) — is captured brilliantly in “I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark,” by author Brian Hall (Penguin, 2003).
Hall’s work is impressive in many ways: for attempting to read between the lines of the journals; for “trying on” the voices of the various members of the party (most daringly the Shoshone woman); and for drawing us into the lives of two men who, from Slaughter’s account and the dry narrative of their own journals, appear remote and unsympathetic.
The beauty of the Lewis and Clark story, for a writer of fiction, is the number of alternative endings that branch off it like tributaries of the mighty Missouri River along which its protagonists traveled. The Shoshone woman has two lives, one of which ended with her dying of fever at age 25; the other, in which she dies at age 97 [see accompanying story]. Likewise, the black slave York’s history steals away into hearsay. He parted acrimoniously from Clark (his master did not grant him his freedom upon the expedition’s return, as popular myth had it), and may — or may not — have lived out his days as a tribal leader among the Crow Indians of south Montana.
And Lewis, the expedition’s de facto leader — its principal journalist who laid down his pen for months on end, the bachelor who (Hall gently suggests) may never have loved anyone as much as he loved his friend Clark — met his end just three years after the Corps of Discovery’s return. He was found by his manservant with gunshot wounds to head and chest, and died shortly after. Murdered by robbers, recorded the discrete hand of official history; suicide, says Hall, so compassionately and persuasively that it’s impossible to imagine otherwise.
Slave owner and, perhaps, suicide. Clark and Lewis are no longer the icons they were in the wake of the American Civil War. At that time, the 1860s, a newly forged nation was buoyed with a sense of its “manifest destiny” to civilize its territories. To further this, it needed heroes — and who better than two men who crisscrossed its wilderness, mapping for America the broad Louisiana Territory purchased from France for $15 million in 1803, an acquisition that marked the beginning of the young nation’s greatness.
These days, we’re more wary of the hubris of the explorer; more apt to acknowledge all those nameless, native others who were truly “first.” Scholars like Bernard Lewis, in his 2001 “The Muslim Discovery of Europe,” have taught us to ask who, exactly, discovered who. We have erased from our maps the names scribbled across it by come-lately colonizers, and have reverted to native nomenclature. (“Lewis River” has now reverted to Snake River, named for the Shoshone, or Snake, Indians who lived along it; “Clark’s River” never even took hold as a new name for Flathead River.)
So what remains? Two men who were no braver, or more intelligent, or more far-seeing than others. Men whose greatest achievement may have been the consistently high morale they maintained among their men, and the fact that they brought the entire party safely back, save one early casualty of fever. Men who strove to appreciate the good qualities of the native peoples they encountered (“They are frank, communicative, fair in dealing, generous with the little they possess, extremely honest, and by no means beggarly. Each individual is his own sovereign master,” wrote Lewis of the Shoshone), while freely passing judgment (“the chastity of their women is not held in high estimation, and the husband will for a trifle barter the companion of his bead [bed],” he also noted, and “most Indians . . . are great egotists and frequently boast of heroic acts which they never performed.”).
If we’re honest, we’ll see that Lewis and Clark don’t stand as titans astride of history, like Columbus and Cook. Rather they’re men borne along by the current of history in the making, symbols of a nation in the painful process of becoming.
To look at their story aright — skeptically, compassionately — is to look at our own. If the journals are “less reliable guides to external events than we have long believed,” writes Slaughter, “they are better guides to the interior wilderness — the minds and hearts of the explorers — than we have appreciated.”
On their bicentennial, we’re called to become “explorers of Lewis and Clark.” It’s an inward journey, and one worth celebrating.