The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Bernard DeVoto, Houghton Mifflin, 1958) was the next work on my reading list, and having finished it, I’d like to see it required reading in American high schools. While most Americans have a passing familiarity with the Expedition, to actually read the words of the Captains is breathtaking.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the territory of the US, and President Thomas Jefferson was anxious to find out what he’d bought. Army Capt. Meriweather Lewis was in nominal command of the effort, while 2nd Lt. William Clark was brevetted to Captain for the duration. Prior to the start, both men agreed that they would act as co-leaders, with duties divided according to each man’s aptitudes. This command strategy worked brilliantly.
Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis (reproduced in the book), took a ‘kitchen sink’ approach, as nothing was known of the territory west of the upper Missouri River. The Expedition was tasked with discovering a navigable water route to the Pacific and land north of the 49th parallel, contacting the natives and promoting peace between them and the US as well as other tribes, documenting the geography, climate, mineral resources, fauna, and flora of the area, and anthropological information on the various peoples. There was also some time pressure to establish a US claim to the Northwest before the British could gain a foothold. A daunting task, and they had to accomplish these goals with no support, and only 30-some people in the permanent party. The Captains didn’t blink an eye.
The introduction to the book is lengthy, but necessary to understand the geopolitical situation surrounding the Expedition, and the editor explains his editorial process. The book includes only about a third of the original Journals: omitted are nearly all of the descriptive text, and some of the more tedious stretches where nothing much happens. The editor selected and arranged the material to read like a novel, and this approach works well in forming a narrative. The editor kept the Captain’s original grammar and spellings, which to the modern eye are a bit jarring. In many cases the spelling of words changes in the same sentence. This editorial decision does much to put the reader ‘in the moment’.
And that moment is very early 19th century America. Once the Expedition leaves their winter quarters in early 1805, they only have about six months to reach the Pacific Ocean, over an unknown distance (which was severely underestimated) through unknown territory. Except for water travel as far as practicable, and horses over the Rockies, they’re walking the whole way. And these people are animals. Even over rough terrain, 30 miles a day isn’t uncommon. Not to forget they have to hunt and gather, or trade with the natives, for everything they eat.
The Journals are high adventure. There’s bear attacks, attacks by natives, supplies stolen, periods of hunger, misery from weather and terrain, tough decisions to make based on nothing more than experience and supposition. And always onward, ever onward into the unknown.
The Expedition is also a fascinating management study, as the Captains had to keep themselves and their party alive and intact for two years cut off from their country. They lose one man early on to appendicitis, and several members suffer serious injury, but they make the journey and return reasonably whole. If they’d done nothing more, it would be an astonishing achievement.
But they did so much more. It’s fair to say that the Expedition opened the American West. They were the first white men to see and document the territory between the western Rockies and eastern Cascades. The path they pioneered opened trade routes and established the American claim to the Pacific Northwest. They recorded the first anthropological data on the peoples of that area, as well as the first documentation of numerous plants and animals.
I would put Lewis and Clark in the first rank of explorers. It occurred to me while reading that we’ll likely never see such expeditions again, as any new lands will be thoroughly interrogated by our robots long before humans arrive. But to get an idea of what it was like to live in a time when large parts of the globe were unknown to Western civilization, this book is a worthwhile read.