Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Lewis and Clark Journals--Review

American kids grow up hearing about the Corps of Discovery--more commonly known as the Expedition of Lewis and Clark. We learn that Jefferson bought an enormous expanse of land from Napoleon, who had grown less than enchanted with dealing with overseas colonies after a terrible uprising in Haiti, how the land deal worked out to something like 3 cents an acre, how the young woman Sacajawea supposedly led the expedition with a baby on her back, etc. etc. I had been to a few of the heritage trail sites over the years, including Fort Clatsop on my very first trip to the Pacific Northwest:: (These building are, of course, reproductions, as the original log structures rotted away in the interminable rain--more on this later--but the site, near Astoria, Oregon, is still very evocative:

And later on, when my family was moving across the United States, we accidentally followed part of the trail, stopping at the wonderful museum at Great Falls in Montana (site of an arduous portage around the cascades and now home to a wonderful museum, partly funded by Stephen Ambrose:

Yes, I know this is a quilt, and not a diorama, or a display of artifacts, or one of the many other things the museum has on display, but it is a very nice quilt, and a fine symbol of how stylishly the museum is put together. There is a great deal of emphasis on the many different nations that the expedition encountered, and it is well worth a long detour for anyone travelling across the upper Great Plains.

Undoubtedly, however, the stop I enjoyed most on the Lewis and Clark trail was seeing Pompey's Pillar--the one--yes, the only one--actual physical evidence of the expedition. Actually, it was only William Clark who passed that way, as he and Lewis had split up for several weeks in order to survey more territory. We  were pressed for time at that point in our own travels, and we waved between seeing Clark's signature and the Devil's Monument, and it was worth it; the Devil's Monument will have to wait for another day.

It's strange how events will play out; call it serendipity, or fate, or just paying-more attention, but just a few weeks before I started the journals, we drove right by the entrance to William Clark's house in Lexington, Kentucky:

This is the home where William Clark celebrated his return from the expedition, and where he died some years later. Did we drop in for a look around?. Noooooo! We were in a hurry to get out of town before the Wildcats celebrated their basketball victory, and we had lingered far too long in our quest to pet every pricey Thoroughbred we could at Claiborne Farms, just down the road. The kids would have killed us if we had stopped at one more historic house, anyway.

American Philosopical SocietyBut the coincidences didn't stop there. The day before--yes, the very day before--I had planned to start reading the journals, we found ourselves in Philadelphia. Now, the field notes and journals of the expedition are scattered around--Yale University has a large chunk of the papers as well--but the majority of the material, including Lewis and Clark's botanical specimens, are in the keeping of the Philosophical Society, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin. It's located adjacent to Independence Hall, and I was extremely excited to take a peek of the actual journals. Yes, I was going to see the very pages that the two men had penned: I couldn't believe it. So this is what I saw:

Yes, a building. Well, I did see the interior, which housed a small celebration of the transit of Venus--very prettily done up, of course, but NOT the journals. They are almost never on display. Yes, they are fragile, yes, they are irreplaceable, but couldn't they just show one in rotation? Apparently not. Sniff.

But the weird timing wasn't quite finished. I started the journals the next day, May 6th. (And yes, I am several weeks behind on my blog, but that's neither here nor there.) I looked at the journal start day. May 6th. Call it karma; I don't know. At any rate, it was certainly strange.

But back to the journals themselves: I picked the abridged edition assembled and edited by Gary Moulton, which was published by the University of St. Louis Press in preparation for the celebration of the bicentennial of the expedition. I chose it not only because it is the newest version of the journals, but because it preserves the--shall we say quirkiness of the spelling and,  occasionally, the grammar of the men. And when I say men, I don't just mean Merriwether Lewis and William Clark;  the excerpts from several of the other expeditionary members are also included.

The book starts out quite slowly. Part of the problem is that Lewis's initial journals have gone astray, and so it is up to Clark to tell the story. He was a fairly taciturn man, so there aren't so many poetical observations, or fits of introspection that Lewis indulged in. (The end of the expedition is also told only by Clark, after Lewis got shot through the buttocks by a member of their own party and could barely sit down for the last few months of the trip....but that's another tale.) There's lots of canoe crashing, and much complaining about mosquitoes,  which the men, in penning their epithets, spelled  in many creative ways; I counted ten. What really struck me, and what really isn't emphasized in school, was that this was a military expedition of exploration: several men are flogged, and two are court-martialed  for desertion during the first few months as Lewis and Clark were determined to bind the men together and enforce discipline. Things really don't get going until the next spring, after their first winter in South Dakota, and after they hire the services of Charbonneau and his wife, Sacajawea.

About Sacajawea. I had read some complaints on Good Reads  that neither Lewis or Clark respected Sacajawea,  etc. Nonsense. As Moulton points out, the young woman was their interpreter, and not their guide, but it's quite clear that both leaders esteemed her for cool thinking and intelligence. They even named a river after her. Yes, they refer to her as the "squar" quite often, but Lewis also called her "Janney", and in Astoria, when the expedition held a long debate on where to build their winter quarters, all of the men's votes--even York, Clark's slave and manservant's--were dutifully recorded. "Janney's vote (she didn't care where they set up as long as food was plentiful) was added in a footnote at the bottom of the tally. This seems to me an amazingly egalitarian gesture for that time and place.

It was fascinating to read about the men's eagerness to meet the great "white bear" (grizzly) and how they first pooh-poohed the various tribes's wariness of this animal, and then, after being charged by several grizzlies which refused to stop even with several bullets lodged in their bodies, their assessment was dryly amended to "our curiosity has been well satisfied." It was amazing, too, at what good luck--as well as good directional instincts--the group leaders had. There was only one point--near Great Falls, actually--that the expedition thrashed around and really couldn't decided in which direction to go; even then they picked the correct fork of the river. Astonishing,also, was the peacefulness of the journey. There was only one violent encounter during the almost three years of the expedition, and that was when Lewis had split away from Clark and Sacajawea, whose presence, along with her son, "Pompey" seemed critical in lending a pacific air to the proceedings. Considering the great difficulties they had in communicating--often five or six interpreters would be lined up in an intense game of "telephone" when they came across different tribes, this seems a wonderful achievement.

You could tell that the expedition, collectively, had mentally decided that they were finished when they reached the Pacific coast. Oh, the complaining! From everyone. They hated the food, they hated the rain, they hated the people they encountered, who were a bit jaded after centuries of coastal trading with Europeans and drove a hard bargain for foodstuffs. There were more laments than when they were starving to death when they crossed the Rocky Mountains on the cusp of winter. Since I've lived for some years in the Pacific Northwest, I thought their remarks were very funny. They did know their land, however. Lewis remarked in his journal at one point that a bit of land they'd come across was the best place they'd seen for a large population since they'd left St Louis...which turned out to be the future site of Portland, Oregon.

The end of the journals, wass a bit anti-climatic, which is only natural. Even though Lewis continued to catalog and describe the flora and fauna until his heart of the great adventure was over. They hurried home. Charbonneau and Sacajawea's services were dispensed with, after Clark struck a bargain with them to educate Pompey once the little boy wass old enough to leave his mother. And so he did.

I enjoyed reading the journals. It was sad, of course, to read descriptions of birds that are long-ago extinct, and to see how we have altered the landscape. Much of it, however, still remains relatively unaltered. I can't really rate the journals as they were never intended as a work of literature, just the day-to-day recount of a commissioned expedition, and they are often dry. They are still very worth while for anyone who is interested in American history.


1 comment:

  1. Lewis and Clark were very important to my childhood in Oregon. Even on my honeymoon, we went whitewater rafting along a route that they took while they explored. You just can't escape it in that space. I've been to Fort Clatsop so many times (and in the rain, every time, that's Oregon for you).