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 thirteen), 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 …

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