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FALL 2007

Vol. 08, No. 1


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Thinkin lewis and clark

Thinking Lewis and Clark

It didn't strike me how alien their situation was until the still January morning in 2000 when I drove up the dirt road to the overlook where the original Fort Mandan is thought to have been constructed. Located off a ragged section road about eleven miles north of Washburn, North Dakota, a sign and a stone cairn are the only markers for the site, and as I stood looking down at the hoarfrosted cottonwoods, steam roiled up from the frigid Missouri beyond. I was in suit and tie and wool dress coat, a far cry from the winter uniforms over fatigue frocks and added buffalo robes that the military men the Corps of Discovery would have worn two centuries ago on such a cold day. Thomas Jefferson called them that -- The Corps of Discovery -- and the term still reverberates in our day.

As I walked back from the overlook, I noticed that the left front wheel of my 1994 Buick Century had sunk into the snow at the side of the road. I had to dig it out before I got in and tried to rock the car out of its predicament. The sweat froze on my skin and beard in the sub-zero weather as I dug around the tire and the underbody of the car. All my extremities were quickly frost stung. I looked around and, as I began to entertain the possibility of freezing out there, wondered if I would be able to survive a walk back to the house a half mile back or the one that must be somewhere over the rise.

That was my epiphany. What Lewis and Clark did was dangerous! Just walking around unprepared for a North Dakota morning could be life threatening. For them, the journey up the winding Missouri to the Mandan and Hidatsa Villages was daunting enough during the season of 1804, but the trip beyond to the shores of the Pacific during the traveling season of 1805 was beyond what they could have imagined.

I began thinking seriously about Lewis and Clark when I got to North Dakota in 1996, and I have continued to think about them in the years that have followed as I led NDSU Lewis and Clark in North Dakota bus trips up the Missouri from Fort Rice to the confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone. Lewis and Clark spent a total of 146 days in North Dakota, longer than they spent anywhere else on their journey to the Pacific coast.

Jefferson's vision

There is an abundance of detail about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the first and most successful of President Jefferson's explorations of the Louisiana Purchase. The others, all later than Lewis and Clark, included the Hunter-Dunbar expedition of the Ouachita River, the Freeman-Custis exploration of the Red River of the Mississippi, and the Zebulon pike expedition into Colorado. But the detail of Lewis and Clark's journey, I call it ephemera, is important in defining the substance of the expedition as well as the times that crystallized its form.

Why is it that saga of the Corps of Discovery has captured the American imagination in a way that no other American expedition of the time has? They weren't the first Euro-Americans to cross the continent. The Scots fur trader Alexander MacKenzie, had made the trip more than ten years before them, and had provided Meriwether Lewis with valuable information on what to expect. It wasn't the first attempt in the fledgling United States to explore the continent. Thomas Jefferson had arranged a subscription by members of the American Philosophical Society in 1792 to finance such a failed expedition by the great French botanist, Andre Michaux. Even earlier when he was in France in the 1780s, Jefferson had spoken up for the eccentric John Ledyard who proposed to walk through Europe to Siberia, crossing what is now known as the Bering Straits then heading south and east across the North American continent until he reached the East coast. Jefferson was unsuccessful in negotiating access to Russia for Ledyard, but it didn't stop the explorer. Katherine the Great's Cossack Soldiers finally thwarted Ledyard's stroll, but not until he had made it across European Russia to Siberia.

But if the Corps of Discovery was covering a landscape that had already been discovered, its members were covering it in a far different way than any exploration that the United States had undertaken up until that point in time. The genius and the boldness of two men, Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis, were responsible for the unique nature of the expedition.

The planning for the expedition compares to few endeavors today as well as it does to those of NASA, where the engineering feats of getting people into and back from space is only matched by the numbers and kinds of experiments that are completed while a mission is in space.

Thomas Jefferson specifically asked that the expedition be more than just a cartographic exercise that would begin the map of the lands that would lead to much of United States' expansion in the century to come. It also was to be a scientific expedition of the first order, exploring geology, geography, the natural sciences such as zoology and botany, the economic potential and the cultures and demography of the inhabitants of the continent, those people who knew only vaguely that decisions made thousands of miles away would change their lives forever.

Jefferson himself explicitly saw the expedition as one that charted the potential of the vast expanse of land that the United States had recently bought from Napoleon, and that would determine her future as a nation. "The Age of Reason," "The Enlightenment," and "The Scientific Revolution" are terms that would have been familiar and acceptable as descriptors for Jefferson of his own time. The American Revolution had been the epitome of "The Enlightenment," and Jefferson saw the scientific exploration of the American continent as a logical outcome of a cutting edge approach to the future of the country.

The template for such a scientific expedition was that of Captain Cook's three circumnavigations of the globe that had begun in the late 1760s and that ended in Cook's tragic death at Kealakekua Bay on the Island of Hawaii in 1778. Meriwether Lewis knew Cook's voyages well, and Thomas Jefferson had copies of his third voyage in his library in Washington. He had been an American Emissary to the Court of Versailles when Cook's ships, under the command of Captain Charles Clerke, had returned to Europe in 1780.

Cook's three voyages were remarkable for the incredibly diverse and important additions to the knowledge base of the Western tradition. It might be argued that Lewis, a voracious reader and a very well educated man, (even if his spelling was only a little less erratic than William Clark's) saw Cook, through the publications of his voyages, as his intellectual mentor. Both Jefferson and Lewis knew that the America's place in the scientific world would be enhanced considerably by an expedition in the manner of Cook, and Lewis learned from Cook if he did not mimic him.

As a result, the Corps of Discovery was a well outfitted military expedition with myriad scientific goals solidly embedded in it. It collected more scientific specimens and information than any American venture until the U.S. Exploring Expedition led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes in the late 1830s. One of the main differences was that Wilkes commanded a party of two warships and five tenders and transports representing more than 300 men, while Lewis and Clark had a core part of thirty or so with a small contracted party of civilians numbering at various times between twelve and twenty

Some details are still murky

Besides the first systematic report and map of the Missouri River, the Corps of Discovery reported and described at least 120 species of animal, 182 non-replicated species of plants and considerable ethnographic and geological specimens. Some were lost in a shipwreck between Baltimore and Philadelphia, others were ruined in the spring flooding of the Missouri in 1806 at Great Falls, Montana, and still others were dispersed in sales to private collectors. In total, though, the Corps of Discovery was a successful scientific expedition in a huge number of ways. Like Alexander MacKenzie before him, Lewis brought a great dog to scare varmints and to warn of the great bears that he knew they would encounter on their journey above the Mandan Villages. Like Cook, he kept his men healthy. Only one death, that of the ill-fated Sergeant Floyd of a probably ruptured appendix, ruined a perfect record of survival, even though Lewis himself was shot in the buttocks by the one-eyed Private Pierre Cruzatte near the end of the journey. Cruzatte, half French and half Omaha, had joined the expedition at St. Charles, Missouri, in 1804. A great fiddler, hunter and riverman, his poor eyesight was known by all. Lewis, his wound salved, spent the most of the remainder of the journey lying on his stomach in one of the canoes.

Neither Lewis nor Clark lived to see the results of their journey published in any systematic set of volumes. The journals of the expedition as edited by Nicholas Biddle weren't published until 1814, and an annotated version of the complete journals wasn't available until 1893. The most recent and complete version of the journals was prepared by Gary Moulton and published by the University of Nebraska press between 1983 and 1999. The scientific results of the journey were published helter-skelter by a variety of scientists, and it is probable that there are still bits and pieces of scientific information lurking in the shadows waiting to be published, if only for their historic value.

Even bits of information about the journey itself are murky. The pronunciation of the name of Toussaint Charbonneau's wife, whether it was Sacajawea or Sacagawea, is a case in point. Captain Clark at one point in the journals just calls her "Our Janey." Its real pronunciation is still a matter of debate. The name of Lewis' dog is another example. Until 1985, when Donald Jackson showed conclusively that its name was "Seaman," most publications called the big black Newfoundland "Scannon."

A third example, and my final one here, is the type of air gun Lewis brought with him on the journey. Since it was disposed of in an auction of Isaiah Lukens' property in 1847, it has often been identified as a Lukens manufacture, and a Lukens air gun fitting its description, especially the fact that it had a repaired mainspring, is preserved at Virginia Military Institute and identified as Lewis' air gun. The identification is based on the fact that Lewis complained in his journal entry of June 9, 1805, that the mainspring of his air gun was broken and that they would therefore leave it at the Great Falls of the Missouri in present day Montana. The next day he reports that it was repaired by Private John Shields, the expedition blacksmith.

Interestingly, though, Isaiah Lukens was not engaged in manufacturing air guns in Philadelphia in 1803 when Lewis bought his gun. At 23, he was apprenticing with his father, a clock maker, in Horsham Township some miles north of Philadelphia. The diary of Thomas Rodney, who describes the gun as well as his meeting with Lewis at Wheeling, Ohio, in 1803, shows definitively that Lewis' air gun was not a single shot sporting weapon such as Lukens' guns were, but rather a 22 shot repeating rifle, a military assault weapon of the highest order.

Robert Beeman, a retired academic and one of the world's best known experts on air guns, had in his collection a .464 caliber air gun manufactured by Bartholomaeus Girandoni for the Austrian Army in the late 1780s and early 1790s. The weapon is a high powered 22 shot repeating rifle that may trace its pedigree to the Isaiah Lukens' collection that was auctioned in 1847. Interestingly, it has a mainspring that has been repaired with the use of a farrier's file and can fire 22 shots a minute in repeating mode. The disorderly collection of evidence makes it extremely likely that this weapon was the one taken by Lewis on his journey across the continent. If this is the case, it was not a sporting weapon at all, but an indication to Native Americans of the massive firepower available to Americans, and fits in with the cutting-edge, high-tech intent of the expedition. Beeman donated the weapon to the Army Heritage center Foundation last May.

The beauty in the details

My dad used to say to me, "Tom, you know more about nothing than anyone I know except your brother." When I got older, my brother Gerry told me that dad had told him the same thing. He was probably right about us both.

What is most important about the Lewis and Clark expedition is not in the ephemera noted above. These little things, though, can change the way we look at aspects of their voyage of discovery. Seaman's function on the trek was copied from the Newfoundland that MacKenzie had brought with him as protection. Seaman was a great choice. What had seemed to me to be a lark of Lewis', the air gun, appears now to be a way of demonstrating to Native people that the United States had more firepower and high-tech weaponry than they even knew existed, a non-verbal way to at least get their attention and to give them something to ponder. These are new takes on the expedition, and show the care with which it was planned and executed.

As I finally got my car onto the road that cold, cold day and slowly came up to the starkly white uplands, I saw what first looked like a herd of small cows, some lying down, some standing. "They aren't cows," I thought. "Maybe deer." But they weren't deer either. It was a herd of what must have been several hundred antelope, yarding against the cold. Steam was coming off the backs of the animals, and what appeared to be young males were standing guard on the perimeter of the large herd. I had never seen so many antelope in one place before. I remembered that Lewis first called them goats, and then decided that they were antelope. I stopped the car and watched them for a few minutes, and then crept along until I had passed the herd. The guard animals followed me with their heads, but didn't move. As I looked back I thought of the great herds of animals that Lewis and Clark saw as they crossed the huge expanse of the northern Plains, and I realized I was privileged to see antelope in numbers seldom seen today, though they might have been seen like this in the winter two centuries ago. It was a spiritual moment for me. As I drove on, I realized how majestic North Dakota's landscape is, and how it transcends all the attempts to contain the land. I thought, too, of the native Peoples here and how vital a force they are today in determining North Dakota's future direction. I think that is when I fell in love with North Dakota and all the potential that it still represents today.

-- Tom Riley

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.