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The First American Epic

The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

edited by Gary E. Moulton
University of Nebraska Press, thirteen volumes, 5,448 pp.; volume one $20.00, subsequent volumes $75.00

The journey of the Corps of Discovery, under the command of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, across the American West to the Pacific Ocean and back in the years 1804– 1806 seems to me to have been our first really American adventure, one that also produced our only really American epic, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, now at last available in a superbly edited, easily read edition in twelve volumes (of an eventual thirteen1), almost two centuries after the Corps of Discovery set out.

Of course the West was aboil with explorers from the 1520s on: Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, De Soto, and other Spaniards from the south and southwest; a host of French coming down through the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, Father Marquette, LaSalle, with the La Vérendrye family a little farther west in 1738–1741. Escalante was at the Grand Canyon while the Revolutionary War was being fought. Santa Fe already gleamed as the New World Samarkand, though there was as yet no consensus among the caravaners as to how to get there. Pedro Vial startled his Spanish superiors in 1792 by informing them that it was only twenty-five days across from Santa Fe to the Missouri River& #151;or at least it was if one could avoid being captured by Indians, as he had been. His superiors had rather hoped that the Americans were farther away.

The remarkable, too little known Canadian explorer David Thompson was already quietly probing the Columbia River system, and even slipped down to the Mandan villages in 1797, where French traders had long been active. The Mandan villages were near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota; Lewis and Clark wintered there in 1804–1805, with represen tatives of both the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company right there with them. The polite French trader François-Antoine Larocque did his best to be civil to the Americans, but Larocque worked for the British and Captain Lewis was a confir med Anglophobe. There was tension, but the trading went on in such a lively fashion that an astute visionary might have even foreseen the outlet malls that dot that same area today.

But these men—De Vaca, Coronado, De Soto, La Salle, the V&#23 3;rendryes, Vial, David Thompson, Larocque, and many, many more—were all Europeans, or else were representing European countries or companies. Lewis and Clark were our own boys, working for Mr. Jefferson and the greater glory of the young republic. M onsieur Larocque, for all his civility, was probably a little startled to see Americans at the Mandan villages so soon, just as Pedro Vial’s bosses had been shocked to hear that the Americans were only a month from their doorstep. For Spain’s and France’s and England’s Western interests, the arrival of Lewis and Clark at the big trade depot of the Mandans was the beginning of the end. More remarkably, they would have been there even without the Louisiana Purchase—Captain Lewis was already on h is way to Pittsburgh to pick up his boat when that plum dropped in Thomas Jefferson’s lap.

Lewis and Clark were the first and most remarkable of a long string of American teams: Mutt and Jeff, Huck and Jim, Abbott and Costello, Butch and Sundance, and the like. Add the young Shoshone woman Sacagawea—who was only in her home country and able to be something of a guide to the captains for a few days of a very long trip—and you have the essential elements of a national myth. Many people have since traced out where Lewis and Clark went—most recently and perhaps most readably Stephen Ambrose in Undaunted Courage.2 Guides to the Lewis and Clark trail abound, and ther e are probably at least one hundred motels up and down the Missouri River named for Sacagawea, but very few have cared very much—except in the geographical sense—about exactly what Lewis and Clark said, and even fewer have paid attention to how they said it. Bernard DeVoto probably had some inkling that there was a rude literature in the Journals, but then did the worst thing you can to an epic, which is abridge it. Stephen Ambrose calls the Journals a “literary treasure” but is too busy with the history to elaborate.

To be fair, though, this important text has not been fully appreciated for what it is because of two centuries of incomplete and inadequate editing. All three editions previous to this excellent one from the University of Nebraska—Nicholas Biddle in 1814, Elliott Coues in 1892, and Reuben Gold Thwaithes in 1904—were flawed by significant omission. The last raw journal material to turn up—sixty-seven pages of field notes in Clark’s hand, with in terpolations by Lewis—was not found until 1953, or published until 1962. But even if all the far-flung materials had been gathered and slotted together correctly, the unwieldy and rather forbidding format of the Coues and the Thwaithes editions would have defeated most readers, and did defeat me several times. Thus my gratitude to the present editor, Gary Moulton, and his assistant editor, Thomas Dunlay, for bringing what I believe to be a national epic into plain view at last.

Captain Lewis and Captain Clark,3as many have noted, were unusually stable and levelheaded men; or at least they were while they were on this trip. As events came along, they dealt with them as calmly as possible. They knew that President Jefferson had sent them west not to write a narrative epic but to get the facts. They were told to measure everything and they measured everything that could be measured. It never occurred to either of them that they might produce a wo rk of literature, but, by the force and immediacy of their expression, they accomplished the one essential thing that writers must do: they brought the reader along with them, up that meandering river and over those snowy peaks.

Besides the natural history, the geology, the weather, temperature, longitude, distances that they had to keep up with, they had also been enjoined by Jefferson to make friends with the Indians and find out as much as possible about the disposition of the various tribes alo ng the way. This turned out to be trickier than the measuring. What they discovered right away about the Teton Sioux was that they were bullies. The captains made only one provisioning error: they neglected to bring enough of the ultra-desirable blue bead s. The Sioux had already been spoiled by the many traders from the north; part of their bullying may have been strategic, a means of keeping open their vital trade link with the Mandans, from whom they got corn. Had the captains not managed to remain calm and firm—Clark only once drew his sword—the whole party might have been wiped out then and there in the fall of 1804.

From a literary standpoint, the main residue of these few tense days in September was William Clark’s orthographical de ath-struggle with the word “Sioux,” the moral equivalent of Beowulf’s struggle with the sea monster. Clark’s efforts to subdue this slippery word were almost Joycean—unless I have miscounted he spelled it twenty-two different ways:

Soues, Sous, Sisouex, Souex, Seouex, Sciox, Sciouexm, Sioux, Seaux, Sieux, Scouix, Seauex, Seauix, Souix, Siaux, Sious, Sceoux, Sieuex, Sceaux, Shoe, Soux, Souis

Of course anyone who has ever had any contact with an unmodernized text of the Journals—few enough—knows that Captain William Clark was one of the most defiant, as well as most inventive, spellers ever to attempt to use the English language. He may be said to have invented the concept of windchill when he described a forty-below Dakota day with the wind blowing as “Breizing.” Despite his constant disregard for all orthographical rules Clark is never unclear; he is just exercising his right as an American to say things his own way.

Meriwether Lewis, who had for a time been Thomas Jefferson’s secretary, was a far better speller and a meticulous reporter. The word “animal” did bother him—he usually spelled it with three a’s—though he could describe the animals themselves with great precision. Captain Clark couldn’t spell “animal,” or “vegetable” either.

Because the captains frequently copied from each other’s journals—sometimes part days, sometimes whole days—the effect as they proceed across the continent is that of a kind of lamination, an overlaying of two points of view and habits of expression.

Here for example are the two of them on the eventful day of May 14, 1805, when the Corps narrowly survived both a shipwreck and a grizzly bear. They were then on the upper Missouri, in present-day Montana. Lewis wrote:

…We had been halted by an occurrence, which now have to recappitulate, and which altho’ happily passed without ruinous injury, I cannot recollect but with the utmost trepidation and horror: this is the upseting and narrow escape of the white perogue It happened for us unfortunately this evening that Charbono [Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s husband] was at the helm of this Perogue, in stead of Drewyer [Drouillard], who had previously stee red her; Charbono cannot swim and is perhaps the most timid waterman in the world; perhaps it was equally unluckey that Captain C. and myself were both on shore at that moment…; in this perogue were embarked, our papers, Instruments, books medicine, a great part of our merchandize and in short almost every article indispensably necessary to further the views, or insure the success of the enterprize in which we are now launched to the distance of 2200 miles. surfice it to say, that the Perogue was under sail when a sudon squawl of wind struck her obliquely, and turned her considerably, the steerman allarmed, in stead of putting her before the wind, lufted her up into it, the wind was so violent that it…instantly upset the perogue and would have turned her completely topsaturva, had it not been for the resistence mad by the oarning against the water;…Capt. C. and myself both fired our guns…but they did not hear us; such was their confusion and consternation at this moment, that they suffered the per ogue to lye on her side for half a minute before they took the sail in, the perogue then wrighted but had filled within an inch of the gunwals; Charbono still crying to his god for mercy, had not yet recollected the rudder, nor could the repeated orders of the Bowsman, Cruzat [Cruzatte], bring him to his recollection untill he threatened to shoot him instantly if he did not take hold of the rudder and do his duty,…the fortitude resolution and good conduct of Cruzat saved her; he ordered 2 of the men to thow out the water with some kettles that fortunately were convenient….I for a moment forgot my own situation, and involluntarily droped my gun, threw aside my shot pouch and was in the act of unbuttoning my coat, before I recollected the folly of the a ttempt I was about to make, which was to throw myself in the river and indevour to swim to the perogue; the perogue was three hundred yards distant,…the water so excessively could, and the stream rappid; had I undertaken this project therefore, there wa s a hundred to one but but what I should have paid the forfit of my life…. After having all matters arranged for the evening as well as the nature of the circumstances would permit, we thought it a proper occasion to console ourselves and cheer the sper its of our men and accordingly took a drink of grog and gave each man a gill of sperit.

  1. 1

    The thirteenth and final volume, an index, will be published in fall/winter 2001.

  2. 2

    Simon and Schuster, 1996; reviewed in these pages by Gordon Wood, April 4, 1996.

  3. 3

    Captain Clark, once Lewis’s superior officer, was not technically a captain on this journey—the army stiffed him—but this awkward fact was concealed from the men.

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