Skip to main content

Beyond the Shining Mountains: the Lewis and Clark Expedition as an Enlightenment Epic

ISSUE:  Winter 1987

From Cotton Mather’s Magnalia to Charles Olson’s Maximus, American writers have produced works which qualify—for the most part self-consciously—as epics, and a preponderance of these works deals with the unfolding imperial diagram that became the United States. As a literary form, the epic has traditionally been an expression of the imperial élan, which in America is identified with the process we call the frontier, or with the expansionist adventures and industrial growth which served as surrogate—and corporate—expressions of the westering spirit. In six years we shall once again celebrate the first voyage of Columbus to the New World, an epical journey the 400th anniversary of which provided the occasion for Turner’s great essay on the American frontier. We may be sure that in 1992 some sober assessments will be forthcoming concerning the closing down of America’s post-frontiers, including corporate and technological perimeters that have carried the epic to Southeast Asia and the moon.

In 1987, moreover, we will be celebrating the bicentennial of the Constitution, the magisterial document that established the laws upon which the United States was founded, and 1987 is also the bicentennial year of Joel Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus, a poem which used the epic form in order to put forward the chronicles of North America as a progressive extension of the voyages of Columbus. Both the Constitution and Barlow’s poem are products of the Enlightenment, that complex ideational amalgam which for our present purposes may best be defined as a consensus faith in man’s capacity to improve himself and his world through the exercise of his reason, a process of improvement moreover which was as inevitable as Calvin’s predestinarianism and Marx’s economic determinism. We need only to consider the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States to comprehend the universality and implications of Enlightenment idealism in North America during the 1780’s, for in that truncated pyramid of 13 steps—one for each of the original colonies—the definitive dimension is the mystic triangle which completes the design. Surrounded by a blaze of light, it contains the eye of the Architect Deity, a providential aura that will dictate the shape of the new order of the ages, insuring not only strength and duration but extension— growth.

But perhaps no single work of art engendered during the bicentennial period through which we are now passing so succinctly delineates the Enlightenment connection with American enterprise as does Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1784. Though hardly an epic in conception or execution, Jefferson’s little book does sketch out an imperial plan for the United States, couched as a typical expression of Enlightenment inquiry. Written like Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) as an epistolary account of the New World, intended to improve European notions of America, Jerferson’s Notes shares with Crevecoeur’s Letters a physiocratic, agrarian bias. But where Crevecoeur’s book celebrates a static, middle landscape, Jefferson provides an expansionist diagram, wherein Virginia is presented as the entranceway to the territories west of the Alleghenies, through virtue of the Potomac River system. Because of this connection, and because of Virginia’s old colonial claim to a corridor all the way to the Pacific shore, Jefferson included in his Notes an extended description of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, which formed, in his words, “the principal channels of future commerce for the country westward of the Allegheny.”

He numbered among those channels the Missouri River, which, though outside the limits of the then United States, would make possible “extensive communication with the western and north-western country.” Within 20 years, through a questionable stretch of his executive powers, Jefferson secured for the United States both the Missouri River and much of the land through which the tributaries of that great stream passed. But even before his magnificent gesture of imperial aggrandizement, Jefferson as president had begun to mount what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition, one (and the chief) function of which was to define the extent of communication “with the western and north-western country” provided by the Missouri and its tributaries. The documents of that expedition and the published record of its accomplishment may be seen as a lengthy demonstration of the Enlightenment spirit of inquiry in America, the which, with the Notes on the State of Virginia as prolegomenon, may also be read as the kind of imperial adventure we call “epic.” Thus I would like to sketch out those aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition which recommend it to us as the premier epic of the Enlightenment in America.

Let us start with the element of symmetry, essential to any epical action on a neoclassical plan. By the late years of the 18th century, American students of geography believed that the convenient, pyramidal structure of the Allegheny Mountains would be repeated in the Rocky—or as they were then called, “Shining”—Mountains, that the proximity of the headwaters of the Potomac to those of the Ohio would be shared by the headwaters of the Missouri and the Columbia—or “Oregon”—rivers. Drawing upon the mythic, wishful landscapes delineated by Jonathan Carver and other dreamers of the old dream of waterborne passage to India, the accepted but entirely imaginary map of the Western regions put forth an accommodating pattern, repeating on a larger scale the “gateway” idea associated by Jefferson with Virginia and the Potomac. On Jefferson’s imaginary map of North America, therefore, the twin pyramidal ranges of the Alleghenies and the Rockies put forth an image much like the great suspension bridges that would become symbols of unity for a later age: from the mountain heights hung a reticulated web of rivers which held together the otherwise disparate parts of the continent, montane coefficients and tributaries to the sublime system of streams that fed and sustained the Mississippi, both as river and as waterway for commerce and national expansion. As a collective idea, this diagram suggested a harmonious, unified, and above all else natural (or God-given) plan, the geometrical symmetry of which was pure beauty to an eye trained by Palladian ideals. As an image, it was completely in keeping with the Maison Carre or the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States.

The expedition of Lewis and Clark was mounted for the purpose of verifying this beautiful diagram, and from the start the project was conceived as an imperial venture and an heroic exercise. Its errand (like Barlow’s epic poem) was an extension of the original purpose of Columbus’s first voyage to what became America, and it likewise shared (though not intentionally) a certain degree of Quixotism. Like so many of Jefferson’s inventions and designs, it was neoclassical in shape and of the Enlightenment in spirit, but along with a number of Jefferson’s pet schemes it took its definitive shape from circumstances beyond his expectation and control—in this case the true lay of the land. Lewis and Clark were successful in that they brought back a wealth of information concerning Western flora and fauna as well as geography, but their expedition was a failure in ironic proportion to the accuracy of the geographical data they compiled, for the improved map that resulted put to rest forever the hope of a waterborne passage to India. Yet again, though it destroyed the beautiful idea of symmetrical geography, the Expedition in terms of American design did lay down the base line along which the course of empire would follow, filling in the diagram dictated by God’s all-seeing eye. In terms of proportion that line would prove to have its own terrible symmetry, but for our present purposes we shall concentrate on the Expedition, both in terms of what it was intended to do and what in fact it accomplished. Nothing we will consider diminishes the epic design of the action, but certain aspects do act to dim the lustre of the Enlightenment spirit with which it was conceived.


Promoted by Jefferson as both (or either, depending upon whom he was addressing) a scientific and a commercial venture, the Expedition as a voyage of inquiry was bent to the utilitarian necessity which defined so many expressions of the Enlightenment in America, in which pure science was valued to the extent that it promised to bring forth useful, which is to say profitable, returns. Dr. Franklin was perhaps America’s greatest gift to the Enlightenment, but the wand held by our native-born Merlin, the wizard of Perm’s woods, turns out upon close inspection to be a lightning rod. Even William Bartram, whose Travels through the American south-east provides a companion volume to the Expedition of Lewis and Clark, sustained his mystical flights of Enlightenment fancy by supplying his English patron with seeds and other horticultural samples. Following the purchase of Louisiana, moreover, the Expedition took on an even more pragmatic aspect, adding to its scientific and commercial errands a pointedly geopolitical assignment. What was early on a covert became an explicitly nationalistic reconnaissance, with a paramilitary, quasi-diplomatic scope and purpose— much like Dr. Franklin’s highly ambivalent residence in France as an Enlightenment saint with an expandable portfolio.

As befits a complex action, the Expedition as epic had not one but two heroes, a double agent of empire that violated classical decorums but expressed the American necessity: from the Leatherstocking Tales to Huckleberry Finn, the literature of adventure in America puts forth a series of uneasy partnerships, marriages of genteel and vernacular values that express the disjunction inherent in a republican scheme. In a metaphorical as well as a chronological sense, the published account of the Expedition of Lewis and Clark is an extension of Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry, a picaresque novel of the period which established the two-fold heroic pattern: set primarily in the western regions of Pennsylvania, the book describes the adventures of the aristocratic Captain John Farrago and his unlettered, unmannerly but ambitious servant, Teague O’Regan. The parallels are hardly perfect, but a similar contrast may be established between the characters of Meriwether Lewis and his companion-explorer, William Clark.

Captain Meriwether Lewis provides the aristocratic element, albeit with a rustic profile: a hunter by inclination and a military man by training, Lewis may be located in terms of character as well as home place in the neighborhood of Washington and Jefferson. A soldier-statesman by birthright, Lewis had a natural aptitude for science, demonstrated by the quickness with which he picked up the knowledge necessary to the success of the Expedition. As a writer, Lewis was capable of graceful prose periods and brought to the Wild West an aesthetic sensibility as worthy of its mountains as was his physical courage, suggesting that his rage for order was poetic as well as scientific and martial. By contrast, his companion officer, William Clark, was both a simpler and more pragmatic person, in outlines more closely resembling Daniel Boone than either Washington or Jefferson. Springing from the same squirearchical Virginian stock as Lewis, Clark like his fellow officer was a soldier by inclination and training, but there the resemblance stops.

Younger brother of George Rogers Clark, William shared with the great Indian fighter and hero of the Revolution a requisite association with the regions beyond the Alleghenies, for as a boy he had migrated with his family to Kentucky. If Lewis belonged to that class of Virginians who founded and led the new nation, Clark was related to those who poured through the Cumberland Gap to settle its western regions. Thus the two leaders provide symbolic counterpoise, and, had the Expedition been purely a poetic invention, no writer could have invented a more suitable pair to head it. By accident, Lewis enjoyed superior rank, and though Captain Clark was his equal in commission and authority, he played perforce symbolic squire to Lewis’s knight, much as Clark’s journals provide vernacular balance to the self-consciously elegant compositions of Lewis. In summation, it may be said that where Meriwether Lewis was a nearly perfect prototype of the Enlightenment Man in America, William Clark was the kind of Natural Man whom the Man of the Enlightenment liked to celebrate as indigenous to the American landscape. Again, a perfect pairing, but the partnership of Lewis and Clark was in some ways a marriage of convenience, and like many such had its tensions, there being a considerable disparity between Enlightenment Man and Natural Man when yoked together. One example by way of illustration will have to suffice.

In the course of his preparations for the Expedition, Lewis hit upon what he conceived to be a happy invention, a cast-iron canoe whose portable frame was to be carried over the Rocky Mountains to the headwaters of the Columbia River. There it would be assembled and—having been covered with animal hides—would serve to carry the explorers down the great river of the west to the sea. Lewis supervised the construction of his canoe at the Harper’s Ferry arsenal, delaying the expedition at the start, and further delays were caused by his efforts to assemble his canoe on the other side of the Continental Divide. This dubious craft was christened “The Experiment” by Clark, a wryly unkind allusion to Lewis’s quixotism, for the boat was never able to fulfill its intended function. But the cast-iron canoe, for all its impracticality, does testify to Lewis’s Enlightenment spirit, which. if ineffectual in this particular, was indefatigable in other, more important regards. Moreover, though Clark thought Lewis’s canoe a joke, he was grateful for the spare rifle parts his partner thought to bring along from Harper’s Ferry, that being the kind of technology which the frontier spirit appreciates.

Because of its association with Captain John Brown, the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry is fixed in the American mind as a symbol of armed revolt and disarray, but it plays a far different role in the epic of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson described the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers in a famous passage, the meeting of the waters put forth in terms connoting the energies and prospects of an expanding nation: as Jefferson’s gateway to the West, therefore, Harper’s Ferry was a suitable setting for the start of the Expedition, the arsenal and the armaments it provided putting both a martial and technological stamp on the endeavor. In the strictest sense, however, the Enlightenment aspect of the epic began in Philadelphia, the center of 18th-century inquiry, where Captain Lewis received his scientific training and purchased a number of important instruments. In terms of symbolic action, therefore, the epic begins to the east of the Alleghenies, with the second “canto” taking Lewis across the mountains to Pittsburgh—where after much more delay a flatboat was built— and the third “canto” is occupied by the voyage down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to the Expedition’s first winter camp. Captain Clark joined the Expedition at Louisville, where with a number of fellow Kentuckians he introduced the frontier spirit to the venture, and together the two young officers spent the winter of 1804 making final preparations for the journey. If this laying-over period can be called canto four, then the truly exploratory action begins with canto five, commencing with the voyage from St. Louis to the Mandan village on the Missouri, where the Expedition spent the second winter, in preparation for the great push forward through the mountains.


During the first leg of their journey up the Missouri, Lewis and Clark became literal harbingers of empire, carrying the news of the Louisiana Purchase with them, providing the occasion for bureaucratic delays in St. Louis on the part of Spanish officials, nor were French and British fur traders delighted that the United States would be actively entering their business. It was all the more important, therefore, that the two young officers do everything possible to secure the goodwill of Indian tribes along the Missouri, for not only their safety but the fate of future commerce on the great river and its tributaries were at stake. As harbingers of empire, then, Lewis and Clark were also bringers of order, giving out presents and presidential medals by way of establishing alliances with various tribes. They made peace not only between red men and white but between red men as well, settling local grievances in order to smooth the path for empire to follow. Their efforts in this regard were particularly earnest during their winter layover near the Mandan village, which was located on the margin of hostile Sioux country.

Captain John Smith had attended to similar business while exploring the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay for a northwest passage two centuries earlier, and a romantic adjunct to his peace-making efforts was provided by Pocahontas, the Indian princess who lent a friendly even promiscuous presence to the virgin land. For their part, Lewis and Clark had Sacajawea, wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, the French-Canadian guide who provided the questing knights their Sancho Panza. Sacajawea was by far the more useful half of the family, and, though neither princess nor maiden, she was instrumental at a critical point in the journey, when the expedition reached the mountain stronghold of her people, the horse-trading Shoshoni. Despite their differences, Pocahontas and Sacajawea are joint symbols of mediation, testifying to the ubiquitous yet ambivalent presence of the Indian in the epic of New-World empire, at once a necessary adjunct and a potential adversary to the heroic action. Like the rivers they lived along and which bore Indian names, the native people were both essential to the westering progress of civilization and resistant to it, and Lewis’s many observations about the shifting, treacherous waters of the Missouri are coupled to his remarks concerning the equally unstable and undependable nature of the Indian.

Along the way collapsing cutbacks and shifting oxbows, sawyers and sandbars gave dramatic evidence that the great river was a violent and moody ally to the advance of personified Enlightenment toward the West. This instability was epitomized by the melting away one night of the sandbar on which the explorers had pitched their camp. The remains of Indian towns and fortifications were likewise a constant reminder of the “unsteady movements and tottering fortunes” of a nomadic people, who lived in a constant state of warfare that had caused the disappearance of entire tribes in the recent past. Thus the zone defined by the winding, turbulent course of the Missouri was one of constant flux, upon which the expedition as an arm of Enlightenment attempted to impose an element of order, mapping the river and its environs and through treaties hoping to stabilize Indian relationships, a familiar pattern of imperial design with predictable results. Eager to gain the superior firepower of the Americans in their tribal battles, and glad to accept their gifts and medals in the bargain, the Indians were willing to smoke pipes of peace and shake hands over past differences. But they fell to burying the hatchet in each other’s skulls as soon as Lewis and Clark had passed on up the river.

In order the better to impress the Indians with United States might, Lewis and Clark in their negotiations along the Missouri took a firm line and gave it a suitable backdrop of ceremony and strength, in effect a primitive form of gunboat diplomacy. Shortly after arriving at the Mandan village, the Americans met with the chiefs in council “under an awning of our sails, stretched so as to exclude the wind. . . . That the impression might be the more forcible, the men were all paraded, and the council was opened by a discharge from the swivel [gun] of the boat. We then delivered a speech which, like those we had already made, intermingled advice with the assurances of friendship and trade.” One old chief became impatient and interrupted the ceremony, but he “was instantly rebuked with great dignity by one of [his fellows] for this violation of decorum at such a moment,” and the proceedings continued with the ritual handing out of presents, the amount and quality of which were adjusted to the rank of each chief.

This carefully staged pageant is a kind of imperial theatrics, lending the business of power play a certain aesthetic grace, a combination of forms understood and appreciated by the Indians yet one which was intended by the Americans to be an extended instrument of law and order. As in the clasped hands that appeared under the profile of Jefferson on the medals given to each important chief, the presidential arm had a very long reach, an Enlightenment extension whose intention was likewise displayed in the iconography on medals given to lesser chiefs, “representing some domestic animals and a loom for weaving” and “the impressions of a farmer sowing grain.” Agrarian and pacific symbols withal, and presumably positing the conversion of Indians from a nomadic hunting culture to a more advanced and stable way of life, the meaning of the medals as prophecy is illuminated by an epsiode that occurred early in the voyage, where the Americans planted a red, white, and blue flag on the great funeral mound of the powerful Indian chief, Blackbird, who “seems,” according to Lewis, “to have been a personage of great consideration.”

This aesthetic dimension dominates the narrative throughout the Missouri voyage, an orderly dispensation that informs Lewis’s description of the cliffs along the river, which looked to him like “elegant ranges of freestone buildings, with columns variously sculptured, and supporting long and elegant galleries, while the parapets are adorned with statuary. On a nearer approach they represent every form of elegant ruins—columns, some with pedestals and capitals entire, other mutilated and prostrate, and some rising pyramidically over each other till they terminate in a sharp point.” The terminal image evokes the divine architecture of the Great Seal, and though Lewis fancied these natural approximations of “productions of art” as having a “romantic appearance,” being “visionary enchantment,” they notably resemble not Gothic but classical buildings and ruins. At times Lewis does evince what appears to be a protoromantic enthusiasm for wilderness scenery, but in his figures as well as his prose style he is still a Jeffersonian neoclassicist, expressing an imperial aesthetic which was shared by his companion officer. Discovering a great rock carved over by Indians with “figures of animals and other objects,” Clark named it “Pompey’s Pillar,” and standing on its top he obtained an excellent prospect of “a large extent of variegated country,” converting an Indian totem pole into a pedestal for heroic statuary, becoming himself the chief figure on a monument to American empire.


If the winter layover near the Mandan village provides canto six of the expeditionary epic, then the voyage to the great falls of the Missouri supplies the material for the seventh, a movement into hitherto unexplored territory that culminates in an episode of sheer power and beauty central to the meaning of Lewis’s narrative as literature. This part of the book is given added tension by the arrival of the explorers at a twin fork in the river, and the necessity therefore of determining which channel was the true Missouri, a decision on which rested the success of the expedition, posited as it was on the proximity of the headwaters of the Missouri to the sources of the Columbia. Lewis and Clark chose the right river but the wrong direction, for it was the other (Maria’s) river which led to the shortest way through the mountains, yet as Elliott Coues observed, the “worst possible” direction from which to reach the Columbia led the two explorers through some unmatchable scenery. In terms of utility, therefore, their decision was wrong, but in terms of beauty—and literature—it was right.

Led to the Great Falls of the Missouri by a Mosaic cloud of “spray, which . . .arose above the plain like a column of smoke,” Meriwether Lewis “hurried with impatience” to the spot, where he “seated himself on some rocks near the center of the falls,” so as to “enjoy the sublime spectacle of this stupendous object, which, since the creation, has been lavishing its magnificence upon the desert, unknown to civilization.” Edmund Burke had instructed Lewis’s generation on what to do when confronted by a natural phenomenon of this magnitude; and by seating himself near its center Lewis became an audience of one, the necessary figure in the aesthetic scheme, without which even the grandest manifestations of landscape are wasted, like a theater filled with scenery but empty of people. Exploring the river above this sublime manifestation of wilderness power, Lewis discovered its Burkean counterpart, “one of the most beautiful objects in nature,” another and contrasting waterfall which “with an edge as straight and regular as if formed by art, stretches itself from one side of the river to the other for at least a quarter of a mile. . . . The scene which it presented was indeed singularly beautiful, since, without any of the wild, irregular sublimity of the lower falls, it combined all the regular elegances which the fancy of a painter would select to form a beautiful waterfall.” Here again the aesthetic is neoclassical, determined by a linear hence regular ideal, and, following the river even further upstream, Lewis came across still another picturesque vista, one which gave the place a certifiably imperial seal: On “a little island in the middle of the river, well covered with timber,” stood a cottonwood tree in which “an eagle had fixed her nest, and seemed the undisputed mistress of a spot, to contest whose dominion neither man nor beast would venture across the gulfs that surrounded it, and which is further secured by the mists rising from the falls.”

Ascending a nearby hill, Lewis obtained an approximate Pisgah prospect, “a delightful plain, extending from the river to the base of the [Rocky] Mountains,” and through which “the Missouri stretches to the south in one unruffled stream of water, as if unconscious of the roughness it must encounter, and bearing on its bosom vast flocks of geese; while numerous herds of buffalo are feeding on the plains which surrounded it.”

Descending to the plains, Lewis shot a buffalo for his supper and, having neglected to reload his rifle, was surprised by a “larger brown bear,” which he escaped only by running to the river and jumping in, thereby giving his scenic excursion a nearly tragic but finally comic conclusion. He was next menaced by a large “brownish-yellow animal,” probably a wolverine, and then, “as if the beasts of the forests had conspired against him, three buffalo bulls, which . . .left their companions and ran at full speed toward him.” Lewis was successful in facing them down, then continued his return to camp in quick-falling darkness, “reflecting on the strange adventures and sights of the day; which crowded on his mind so rapidly that he would have been inclined to believe it all enchantment, if the thorns of the prickly-pear, piercing his feet, had not dispelled at every moment the illusion.”

Of these several rude encounters, which like the thorns of the prickly-pear acted against the aesthetic impulse, introducing to the scene hostile agents of the landscape, the bear adds most meaning to the epic framework of the expedition. Among the American fauna first recorded by Lewis and Clark was the grizzly, which by its various colorations at first confused them, appearing in brown, white, and truly grizzled coats, but which distinguished itself by its concealed testicles and by its seldom concealed hostility to their presence, as if “reluctant. . .to yield . . .dominion over the neighborhood.” Grizzlies became more numerous as the expedition approached the Great Falls, and Lewis’s nearly fatal encounter testifies to their acute sense of territorial imperative, counterpart to the eagle’s occupancy of her undisputed domain. As so often in American literature, the bear makes a seriocomic entrance, being a mixture of dangerous potential and often ridiculous reality, as here putting to flight Jefferson’s agent of empire, who as Enlightenment man was anxious to classify the grizzly bear for science but had no desire to share the embrace of this wilderness spirit incarnate.

Moreover, the episode of the sublime and the beautiful falls and the terrible but comical bear occurs at a critical point in the narrative, for thenceforth the expedition will be following unnavigable waters, and as the distance lengthens and the terrain increases in roughness, the inherent fallacy of the pyramidal theory of geography will gradually become apparent. Passage to India is possible through the Rocky Mountains, but it will be made by other means than water carriage. Thus the reluctance of the bear and other beasts to yield domain is a symbolic coefficient to the terrain itself, a combination of barriers that had its human equivalent in Sacajawea’s near-fatal illness at this point in the expedition. All things seemed to conspire against the advance of civilization, yet even as Lewis and Clark pursue their increasingly dubious quest, the spirit of the expedition becomes if anything even more expressive of both a nationalistic and an enlightenment élan.


Following the Missouri to its ultimate source, the explorers gave the various headwaters names reflecting their errand, a series of triads that lend the narrative a self-consciously symbolic thread. Thus the first three forks of the Missouri were named “Jefferson,” “Madison,” and “Gallatin,” and the tributaries to the greatest of these were called “Philosophy,” “Philanthropy,” and “Wisdom,” qualities associated with both Jefferson and the ideal Enlightenment man. Yet these sparkling waters were reached only by passing through the formidable “Gates of the Rockies,” “a most sublime and extraordinary spectacle. . . . Nothing can be imagined more tremendous than the frowning darkness of these rocks, which project over the river and menace us with destruction. The river . . .seems to have forced its channel down this solid mass,” notes Lewis, but the rock has “given way . . .reluctantly.” This region, notes Coues, is also called “the Bear’s Teeth,” and into the mouth of the Great Bear of the Mountains the expedition passed.

The Jefferson River led Lewis and Clark to what they presumed was the ultimate source of the Missouri, from which they drank a sober but triumphant libation, feeling “themselves rewarded for all their labors and their difficulties.” Then, crossing over the ridge of the Great Divide, they drank “for the first time the waters of the Columbia.” Yet the subsequent exploration of the Great River of the West only further verified the truth already discovered, that the heads of navigation of the Missouri and the Columbia were not near but very far apart, and though Clark persisted in mapping the most direct overland route between the two, the great hope that had inspired the expedition proved chimerical, and what lay ahead proved nearly fatal as well. The narrative continues to maintain its epic coherence, and the canto-like divisions of the action continue also: the ninth canto takes them to the mouth of the Columbia, the tenth is concerned with the hardships of the long winter in Fort Clastrop, the eleventh with the return in springtime up the Columbia to the Great Divide, and the twelfth and last with their return trip down the Missouri to St. Louis. Nor do Lewis and Clark seem to have been discouraged by their negative discoveries, for they continued to explore and map the territory on the far side of the mountains, gathering data concerning the wildlife, the minerals, and the people who lived there. Yet this last part of the narrative lacks something of the exuberance of the earlier sections and takes its spirit from the hardships endured by the expedition while on the Pacific Coast.

Failing to encounter the trading vessels from which they could obtain the beads that passed among the Indians as currency, the Americans found themselves increasingly at a disadvantage when bargaining for food and the souvenirs which were for them of scientific interest. Though continuing to act as peacemakers, the ragged group of half-starved soldiers lost much of their impressiveness as agents of empire, and the Flathead Indians with whom they dealt correspondingly lacked the good looks and dignified bearing of the people of the western plains. But they did however turn out to be very sharp businessmen, for being experienced at trade they drove hard bargains, and did not hesitate to take advantage of the Americans. Where the Great Falls of the Missouri provided a sublime and untenanted spectacle, the falls of the Columbia was a place where the Indians periodically met for purposes of commercial exchange, much as the great river itself acted as a geopolitical boundary between the powerful Salishan tribes and lesser tribes beyond.

Among Jefferson’s Enlightenment theories was the idea that commercial exchange could affect peace and harmony between men, but this Utopian scheme was posited on a balance of supplies and needs that was lacking in the dealings between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Flathead Indians. As the winter wore on, the supplies were mostly in the hands of the Indians, the need on the part of the Americans, and tensions predictably mounted, exacerbated by thefts and sharp dealing by the Indians. There were occasional outbreaks of violence, but an uneasy truce was generally maintained, and throughout their stay the soldiers frequently slept with Indian women—though seldom for free. The Americans even developed a liking for that staple of Plains-Indian diet, dog meat, which at first they had found repugnant to civilized palates, and, despite Lewis’s industry in gathering and classifying scientific data, one gets a very definite sense that the Enlightenment nimbus surrounding his enterprise was gradually dimming. At times a very thin line distinguishes white men from red, civilized from savage beings, much as the Indians themselves demonstrated an almost seamless progression from the intelligent and mannerly Shoshoni, the horsemen of the mountains, to the Yahoo-like Chinooks below.

In terms of Enlightenment imagery, the Oregon of Lewis and Clark may be said to lie on the far side of the shining mountains, in the dark shadow of primitivism whose reality always gives the lie to Rousseauistic notions of nature’s noblemen. If the Missouri led Lewis and Clark into the bear’s mouth, the Columbia carried them out the other end, a digestive process which belied a number of Enlightenment assumptions. Wilderness, as John Colter’s decision to leave the Expedition and return to the mountains testifies, is more infectious than law and order, which depend for their authority upon force beyond persuasion, while the wilderness draws upon deep, dark springs in the human psyche. Whether as the bear, the manlike personification of the woods, or the man of woods and waters himself, the Indian, what lies beyond the Great Divide in the American psychogeography serves to mock the orderly dispensations of Enlightenment man. For such would seem to be the meaning of the otherwise insane action of Meriwether Lewis in 1809, when, in a dreary and isolated spot on the Natchez Trace he took up a pistol and blew out his enlightened brains. Whatever the reason for that tragic suicide, the memorial raised to Meriwether Lewis in 1848—as the United States was rushing to fill in its appointed space—provides a suitable counterpart to the reverse side of the Great Seal. An unfinished column on a truncated pyramid of seven steps (one for each lustrum of Lewis’s life), it symbolizes a tragically interrupted career— not a destiny yet to be fulfilled but one forever halted. As we comtemplate the divinely sanctioned pyramid on the Great Seal, illuminated by a blaze of providential glory, we should bear in mind also that other unfinished pyramid, which lends a peculiar order and meaning of its own to the wilds of Tennessee in which it stands.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading