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Go West, Young Men

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003
The Lewis and Clark Journals: An American Epic of Discovery. Edited by Gary E. Moulton. University of Nebraska Press. $29.95.

The bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is upon us, and it won’t go away for a long time. Unwilling to wait until May 2004, the real bicentennial of the Expedition’s departure up the river from St. Louis, commemoration organizers decided that the proper place to begin was at Monticello or, more accurately, in the capacious mind of the Expedition’s sponsor, President Thomas Jefferson, on the bicentennial of its conception. If all goes according to plan, we’ll still be at it during the summer of August 2006, 200 years after the bedraggled Corps of Discovery—”almost forgotten” and generally presumed dead by their countrymen (though “the President of the U. States had yet hopes of us”)—floated down the Missouri to a “harty welcom” at St. Louis.

Will the intrepid explorers wear out their welcome with us in the meantime? Probably not. Indeed, the early signs are that this will be the most successful bicentennial in modern memory, eclipsing celebrations of the Revolution and Constitution that combined patriotic and commercial excess with eye-glazing exercises in civic edification; it also promises to obliterate all memory of the rancorous quincentenary celebration of Columbus’s “discovery” of America (leaving aside the much-bruited question of whether or not that “discovery” was a good thing, celebrating it seemed in bad taste). Just as Lewis and Clark successfully navigated through a treacherous zone of chronic intertribal warfare (the Expedition’s only fatality, Sergeant Charles Floyd, died of a ruptured appendix), they have risen triumphantly above the Culture Wars of our own time. Dialecticians may see this as a backlash to the trashing of Columbus; or it may be a tribute to the astute diplomacy of the commemorators, who have successfully enlisted native peoples in their new corps of rediscovery; it may also be that the Lewis and Clark Expedition is so firmly entrenched in the popular imagination that the urge to celebrate is more or less spontaneous and organizers simply have to provide appropriate opportunities for its expression. I lean toward the last explanation.

With nary a nudge from the spin-meisters, the Expedition’s mythic West provides a multicultural common ground for Americans of all backgrounds and persuasions, a place where white pioneers and Indians made love, not war, a place where the spirit of adventure remained unsullied by imperialistic impulses to kill, conquer, and exploit. Sacajawea, the “Indian princess” (actually the wife, and arguably—as a Shoshone captive among the Mandan—the slave of interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau) has long played a starring role in Corps mythology, and William Clark’s black slave York is now making a strong bid for equal billing. Together, their presence gives the Expedition a satisfyingly modern complexion—they are us—while blurring the racial binaries—white over black, white over red—that dominate the new conventional wisdom (in school and college curriculums at least) about early American history.

Perhaps our next big commemoration, of Jamestown’s founding in 1607, will also conjure up images of happy interracial encounters, though it will be much harder to suppress the imminent and pervasive brutality, insensitivity, and all-around nastiness of the hapless colony’s early history. The great advantages of the Lewis and Clark Expedition are that it lasts so long but has so little immediate impact: the first encounters, however great the intercultural divide—however we may lament our heroes’ failure to learn more from the Indians about living with the land and living in the cosmos—were not tainted by the immediate aftermath. It was not until the discovery of gold in California that the “wilderness” was definitively breached: miners, railroad builders, ranchers and federal troops rushed west, obliterating Indians and transforming the landscape. This was the “winning of the West” that once gripped the American imagination but now gives rise to a collective blush (I hope). We would rather win the West the way Lewis and Clark supposedly did, by getting along with the Indians. In a compensatory way, it is gratifying to imagine that Indians then held the upper hand: they easily could have wiped out this tiny, ragged, poorly equipped, and generally clueless band—rumors did occasionally reach camp that one nation or other “intended to kill us”—but held back (would that the world’s only superpower exercised similar self-restraint); and, if Lewis and Clark were agents of empire, they were prudent enough not to throw their weight around—though Lewis certainly had some bad moments—and wise enough to learn some lessons in survival from their “savage” hosts.

Historians love to puncture mythological hot-air balloons, though I suspect revisionism will have little impact in this case. (For a game effort to offer an Indian-centered counternarrative, see Thomas P. Slaughter’s recently published Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men and Wilderness [2003]. Slaughter plumbs the explorers’ psyches in a way that can only, perversely, deepen their mythic resonance in our self-obsessed, therapeutic age.) The best historians can do is to insist, as I have done above, that the Expedition didn’t really matter very much in its own time. But that is not to say that it doesn’t matter now, and that its contemporary significance may, in fact, be a function of its historical irrelevance, or rather its disconnection from the larger narrative of American westward expansion. The modern West, in Patricia Limerick’s influential formulation, is a Legacy of Conquest (the title of her 1987 book, subtitled The Unbroken Past of the American West); Lewis and Clark tell us it can be something more and better than that, that its future history can recapture the spirit of their Edenic moment. Who would be so churlish as to quarrel with such a Noble Lie? As myths go, this is not a bad one, and it gets better the more we reenact the journey—really and imaginatively—and immerse ourselves in the fascinating evidence now available in Gary Moulton’s magnificent 13-volume documentary edition of The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1979-2001) and in the excellent single-volume abridged edition now under review. In this case good history—the assemblage of a vast and reliable historical record—serves mythological purposes. In a perverse way, the authenticity of the record is important, for it licenses us to project ourselves into the past and to identify more fully with our heroes. We forget that “the past is a foreign country.” Instead, we find ourselves with Lewis and Clark, imagining what it must have been like to encounter for the first time “this truly magnificent and sublimely grand” Western landscape.

In other words, the massive detail and particularity of the journals create problems of historical perspective. For one thing, modern readers know much more than their subjects. Our bewildered travelers often felt lost in a sea of mountains; without help from the Indians, Lewis confessed, “it would have seemed impossible ever to have escaped.” Meanwhile, we (almost always) know exactly where they are—that is also to say, when they’re there—as the explorers lose track of time in a trackless wilderness. Thanks to Moulton, we also know exactly what it was they encountered, for instance that the “large Buzzard” that flew by on October 30, 1805, was a California condor. What was strange, unfamiliar, and sometimes dangerous and frightening to them is familiar and safe to us, even if we leave our armchairs and take to the trail. The more we know, alas, the less we can share their sense of wonder. Lewis wrung his hands in frustration, when he first viewed the Great Falls of the Missouri in June 1805, at his inability to describe “this majestically grand scenery,” a landscape that had been “concealed from the view of civilized man . . . from the commencement of time.” Lewis was at a loss for words, but words are no longer necessary: the view is there for all to see—should anyone care to look.

If we can’t see with our explorers’ eyes, if our way of seeing is now so radically different, we also are hard pressed to recapture their broader view of the world. Lewis and Clark were not sent west to satisfy Jefferson’s scientific curiosity, or to test their own manhood in a wilderness adventure. They were intensely aware that the trans-Mississippi was contested ground, only recently (and nominally) annexed to the United States. Much of the region up the Missouri and along the Northwest Coast was well known to French, British, and American traders; even where Indians had not yet seen—or “discovered”—whites, they were linked to the Euro-American world through trading and raiding networks, or by the spread of contagious diseases (smallpox devastated Western Indians in the early 1780s). For the Americans to establish effective control, President Jefferson had to assume the role of “Great American Father,” dispensing favors, securing trade connections, and making the Indians “sensible of their dependance on the will of our government.” On the return trip, Lewis led a small party north into present-day Montana, hoping to prove that the Missouri River system extended to 50 degrees, thus pushing American claims north at the expense of the British. The Marias River, he earlier predicted, “was destined to become . . . an object of contention between the two great powers of America and Great Britin.”

Lewis and Clark were the advance guard of a new American empire. Their goal was not to subjugate the natives—in view of their numbers, this would have been a suicidal enterprise—but rather to forge a new alliance system that would eliminate European imperial rivals and establish a pax Americana in the region. Chronic conflict among the Indians provided them an opening. High in the Rockies, Shoshone chief Cameahwait was eager to cut a deal: “if we had guns, we could then live in the country of buffaloe and eat as our enimies do and not be compelled to hide ourselves in these mountains and live on roots and berries as the bear do.” Needless to say, Indians could not know what lay in store for their children and grandchildren. While a few nations—usually far offstage—made ominous noises, most welcomed the expedition. In some cases, the explorers’ white skin was their passport: Lewis was “overjoyed” at the first sighting of a Shoshone and “had no doubt of obtaining a friendly introduction to his nation provided I could get near enough to him to convince him of our being white men.” Under the circumstances, the explorers needed all the help they could get. Geopolitical considerations drove their information gathering: they needed to know as much as possible about native manpower and firepower, alliances and enmities; ethnographic observation—understanding the Indians on their own terms— was, at best, an afterthought.

The expedition was largely irrelevant because it proved premature. Lewis and Clark could not fully grasp the diplomatic situation in Indian Country, and their efforts at pacification had little lasting impact: they could scatter medals (inscribed with Jefferson’s image) throughout the region—in one grizzly case, “about the neck” of a Blackfoot Lewis had shot to death, so that his fellow Indians “might be informed who we were”—but they could not, literally, deliver the goods. Instead, it was enterprising Indian traders from St. Louis—naturalized under the Louisiana Purchase treaty—who consolidated the new nation’s commercial hegemony in the Missouri watershed. Meanwhile, the Rockies would remain beyond the pale of American influence; the Anglo-American struggle for empire that Lewis had predicted would not take place on the northern plains, but rather on the Northwest Coast, culminating in the partition of the Oregon country in 1848. With all due deference to chaos theory, these developments would have taken place whether or not the expedition had succeeded, or even taken place. But if they don’t explain history, history does explain them. Moulton’s superb editorial work enables us to better grasp these historical circumstances, and historical understanding in this rare case does not come at the cost of mythological resonance—think of Jefferson, race, and slavery as a conspicuous counterexample.

Future generations of readers will turn to The Lewis and Clark Journals for entertainment and inspiration, untroubled by the intermittent rumblings of academic revisionists. After all, the stock of the Founders, with all their warts—even Jefferson, wartiest of them all—has been rising recently, not only in the “general public” but among serious historians as well. By comparison, Lewis and Clark are relatively uncomplicated, benign figures. Of course, Lewis was a tormented soul, ungraciously and imprudently prone to vent hostile feelings for his Indian hosts (sympathetic readers will speculate endlessly on the “issues” that bedeviled the poor man); mapmaker Clark is probably more the man for our own times, with his feet more firmly on the ground, his openness to experience, and his comparatively enlightened racial attitudes. At the end of the day, the explorers did little harm (leaving aside that Blackfoot, who may have been up to no good himself), and the Indians might agree that they even, occasionally, did some good, as they dispensed trade goods, medicine and medical services—word of “our skill as phisicians and the virture of our medecines have been spread it seems a great distance,” Lewis noted in May 1806—and, most dubiously, political counsel that was, due to translation problems, probably unintelligible and in any case useless. The harm came later, and it’s comforting to think that the explorers set a higher standard then—before a later generation’s reign of terror spread like wildfire across the plains—a standard that we can imagine we are living up to now.


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