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.

To this Captain Clark adds only one detail:

…The articles which floated out was nearly all caught by the Squar [Sacagawea] who was in the rear. This accident had like to have cost us deerly….

The grizzly bear, too, had like to have cost them dearly. Clark wrote:

Six good hunters of the party fired at a Brown or Yellow Bear Several times before t hey killed him, & indeed he had like to have defeated the whole party, he pursued them Seperately as they fired on him, and was near Catching Several of them one he pursued into the river, this bear was large & fat would way about 500 wt; I killed a Buffalow, & Capt. Lewis a Calf & a wolf this evening.

All in all, one feels that the Corps of Discovery deserved their gill of spirits at the conclusion of that eventful day, through a reprimand was surely in order for the crewm an who allowed Toussaint Charbonneau to have any part in the handling of the vessel. A month before, on April 13, Charbonneau had made exactly the same mistake, causing a similar though not quite so dramatic panic. Indeed, as I read the Journals on e of the comic subthemes of the narrative is the sublime incompetence of Toussaint Charbonneau, who did nothing much right his whole long life except stumble along beside the little Shoshone captive girl he had acquired from the Hidatsa and watch her beco me Sacagawea, myth-woman of the West.4

Many epic resemblances crop up in the Lewis and Clark narrative, for instance this little brush with the supernatural in South Dakota. Clark wrote:

In a northerley direction from the mouth of this Creek in an imence Plain a high Hill is Situated, and appears of a Conic form and by the different nations of Indians in this quarter is Suppose to be the residence of Deavels. that they are in human form with remarkable large heads and about 18 Inches high, that they are Very watchfull and are arm’d with sharp arrows with which they Can Kill at a great distance; they are Said to Kill all persons who are So hardy as to attempt to approach the hill; they State that tradition informs them that many Indians have Suffered by these little people and among others three Mahar men fell a Sacrefise to their murceyless fury not many years Since….

The Corps of Discovery had its y oung Elpenor too—Elpenor being the young friend of Odysseus who got drunk at Circe’s party, went to sleep on the roof, forgot he was on a roof, and stepped off and broke his neck. Lewis and Clark’s young Elpenor was the likable Sergeant Charles Floyd, whose mistake was to dance too vigorously with the Omaha and Oto girls, after which he was “taken verry bad all at onc with the Beliose Chorlick.” That was on August 18, 1804; by the 20th it was all over. Clark wrote:

we Came to make a w arm bath for Sergt. Floyd hopeing it would brace him a little, before we could get him into this bath he expired, with a great deel of composure, haveing Said to me before his death that he was going away and wished me to write a letter—we Buried him to the top of a high round hill over looking the river & Countrey for a great distance Situated just below a Small river without a name to which we name & call Floyds river, the Bluffs Sergts. Floyds Bluff—we buried him with all the honors o f War and fixed a Ceeder post at his head with his name title & Day of the month and year Capt Lewis read the funeral Service over him after paying everry respect to the Body of this deceased man (who had at All times given us proofs of impatiality Sincurity to ourselves and good will to Serve his Countrey) we returned to the Boat & proceeded to the Mouth of the little river 30 yards wide & Camped a butifull evening….

Sergeant Charles Floyd was the only man lost by the Corps of Discovery on their trip of between seven and eight thousand miles through a wilderness, a remarkable tribute to the skills of the two captains—and also to their luck. Visitors to Sioux City, Iowa, today will find that Sergeant Floyd has not been f orgotten; modern opinion is that he died of a ruptured appendix.

At times the reader wishes the narrative had a little more of the novel and a little less of the epic, mainly because of the vast range of characters the captains run into in this sup posedly empty land. The scene at the Mandan villages in the winter of 1804–1805 was a veritable international soirée—if Dickens, Balzac, and Gogol could have been there, their pens would have been flying. The captains, though, were new boys on the block and had to step carefully; their job was to survive it, not describe it. Still, one would like to see more of Le Borgne (or the One-Eye), the domineering chief of the Hidatsa, whom even the present relatively nonjudgmental editors describe as brutal, ugly, lecherous, and homicidal—though dead loyal to his friends. Or René Jusseaume, whose name gave Captain Clark fits, a frontier hustler who had already been with the Mandans some fifteen years and was to last about another forty. T he trader Alexander Henry the Younger described Jusseaume succinctly as “an old sneaking cheat,” but it was Jusseaume who, when Sacagawea was in labor and her midwife Captain Lewis rather worried, suggested giving her two rings of a rattlesnake rattle. Ca ptain Lewis, though skeptical, happened to have a rattlesnake rattle handy, two rings of which were given to Sacagawea in water. In only a few minutes her son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (Little Pomp to Captain Clark, who loved him dearly) was among the liv ing.

Little Pomp and his parents went all the way to the Pacific with the Corps of Discovery, and the baby’s mere presence was an immense help to the captains in their relations with the Indians, who reckoned correctly that a war party would not be traveling with a woman and a baby. Captain Clark offered to educate Little Pomp, and the Charbonneaus, good parents, in due course delivered him to St. Louis. William Clark took the young boy into his own home; later, then a youth, Baptiste attracted the attention of Prince Paul of Wurttemberg, who took him to Europe and educated him in his castle near Stuttgart. When Baptiste Charbonneau came back to America he spoke four languages and became a reliable and much sought-after guide.

As Captain Lewis first discerned with joy the dim outlines of the Rocky Mountains, we can, in the spacious flow of this narrative, discern the dim outlines of many genres to come: the domestic sitcom, for example. In the saga of the Charbonneaus—Toussaint the bumbling husband, Sacagawea the competent wife calmly picking up the articles that had floated out of the boat—you have the axle of American television comedies from The Honeymooners to Malcolm in the Middle.

Though a bumbler and “a man of no particular merit” (Lewis), Toussaint Charbonneau outlived them all, Sacagawea, the captains, Le Borgne, plus several members of the Corps who were quite a bit more competent: George Drouillard and John Colter for two. Once William Clark became superintendent of Indian affairs, Charbonneau got back on the payroll and stayed on it. He may even have squeezed into a group picture, Karl Bodmer’s The Travelers Meeting With Minataree Indians Near Fort Clark, in which a figure in buckskins who i s possibly Charbonneau is seen interpreting for Bodmer’s patron, Prince Maximillian of Wied-Neuwied. This is pretty good for a man who twice within the space of a month narrowly missed drowning himself, his wife, his baby, and several companions in the Mi ssouri River some thirty years before.

But that’s looking ahead. As the trek goes on, the West comes to seem less a place of wild savagery than a place of wild zaniness. The Corps splits up, and the lack of mailboxes is severely felt. Captain Lewis leaves Captain Clark a note on a pole, but a beaver chews down the pole and swims off with the note. Over the mountains at last but apprehensive of slim provisions downriver, the captains purchase forty dogs, a barking larder. Then there’s the problem of anticlimax, felt by so many vacationers since. The getting there is rarely as good as the going. “Ocian in view! O! the joy!” (Clark) But it wasn’t the ocean, it was only the estuary, and soon they were stuck on the north side of the Columbia River, wher e it was very wet. “O! how horriable is the day.” (Clark) The collective mood is not improved by watching the Chinooks zip through towering waves in their canoes as if on a freeway. The Corps had no such skills. The captains discouraged moping, but some moped anyway, while others slogged through the drizzle and kept busy by getting venereal diseases from local lasses who had previously been visited by sailors from big boats.

But spring comes, the snows melt in the passes, and the Corps heads home. In Montana, near the Marias River, while traveling with some Piegans (Blackfeet), there is an unfortunate scuffle over a rifle one of the Fields brothers has carelessly left unguarded. Reuben Fields comes to his brother’s assistance and stabs the would-be thief to death. Captain Clark wounds another, who shoots back and then crawls off into some rocks. This occurred on July 27, 1806. If Joe Fields had just been more careful with his gun the Corps would have made it across the West and back without hurting anyone. A few days later, while hunting, the usually reliable Pierre Cruzatte, the Frenchman who saved the pirogue, mistook Captain Lewis for an elk and shot him in the thigh, a painful wound.

Back in the Mandan villages by August of 1806, they pa y off Toussaint Charbonneau, who was due $500.33 1/3 cents precisely. Clark wrote:

We also took our leave of T. Chabono, his Snake Indian wife and their Son Child who had accompanied us on our rout to the pacific Ocean in the Capacity of i nterpreter and interpretes…. I offered to take their little Son a butifull promising Child who is 19 months old to which they both himself & wife wer willing provided the Child had been weaned.

But the child hasn’t been weaned and the couple is left to look for another job, Sacagawea no doubt aware that without the captains to restrain him and yell at him Toussaint will soon be smacking her again. Out of the mists she came, back into the mists she goes. The captains make the One-Eye a present of their swivel gun but the chief still can’t be bothered to go to Washington with them and meet the Great Father. It is on to St. Louis and, perhaps, another anticlimax. Clark writes: “a fine morning we commenced wrighting &c.”

There had been, however, transcendent moments, such as this one, August 12, 1805 (Lewis):

At the distance of 4 miles further the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we had spent so ma ny toilsome days and wristless nights. thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind had been unalterably fixed for many years, judge then of the pleasure I felt in allaying my thirst with this pure and ice cold water. …two mil es below McNeal had exultantly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri….

Like many teammates, once the great gam e was over the captains separated. Exactly when and how they produced this onflowing 200,000-word narrative is complicated; the present editors lay out these complications intelligently and fully. Captain Clark went on to a long and active career, most of it spent as superintendent of Indian affairs, which allowed him to hire the Charbonneaus again. Three years after the trip ended, Meriwether Lewis killed himself in a roadhouse on the Natchez Trace. He succumbed, perhaps, to that melancholy which Thomas Jefferson had noted in him long before, and which, perhaps, had been held in check by the demands of a great endeavor.

Lewis and Clark, two eighteenth-century soldiers writing the robust language of Johnson and Fielding—so robust that their fi rst editor, Nicholas Biddle, felt obliged to put some of it in Latin—were immediately and justly applauded for what they did, but, to my knowledge, they have never been adequately applauded for what they wrote. For almost two hundred years their stro ng words waited, there but not there, printed but not read: our silent epic. But words can wait: now the captains’ writings have at last spilled out, and fully, in this regal edition, which also includes the journals or narratives of four other mem bers of the Corps of Discovery: John Ordway, Joseph Whitehouse, Patrick Gass, and Charles Floyd. It will be good if some day there can be a cheaper, popular edition, but not, I hope, an abridged one. Keep it all! Even the measurements, which are part of t he achievement too. If we are lucky enough to have an epic, we should play by the epic’s rules. u

  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.

  4. 4

    In fairness, he could cook. Hired as an interpreter, Charbonneau was soon in demand for his signature dish, boudin blanc.