Looking Back at Lewis and Clark

One of the best perks of our internet era is the easy availability of classic literature. Literally thousands of classic works in every genre are available for free download at sites like www.gutenberg.org; nowadays, they even come preformatted for use in ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle and smartphone apps like Aldiko. For me, having hundreds of books accessible on my Android phone in seconds is a major quality-of-life enhancement. Those previously wasted moments spent waiting in line at the bank or hanging on a strap on the metro are now spent in the company of Tolstoy, or Dickens, or not infrequently, a history book; ever since my interest in history was piqued by a great high school teacher (thanks again, Dr. Buchanan), I haven’t been able to read enough of it.

ac037_thumb Looking Back at Lewis and Clark

It was this interest in history that led me to download the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, recorded during their monumental 1804-1806 journey through the then-mysterious territories purchased from France by the administration of Thomas Jefferson on April 30, 1803. The Lewis and Clark expedition was one of three sent by Jefferson to explore the vast region, which included all or part of fifteen current U.S. states.

The expedition’s goals were not purely exploratory; they were also political and commercial. Jefferson wanted to impose the young nation’s sovereignty over the territory’s Indian tribes, which had in the past been used as proxy forces by European powers battling for control of the region. Moreover, he sought a water route to the Pacific — the so-called Northwest Passage – which would give U.S. businessmen access to the lucrative Asian trade without the excruciating and hazardous detour around South America via Cape Horn. The president hoped that this could be accomplished by finding an intersection of the Missouri River watershed, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans, with the Columbia River system, which empties into the Pacific at the present-day border between Oregon and Washington state. In addition, Lewis and Clark were to map the area and make scientific observations, including describing potentially useful plant and animal species.

What ensued over the next two years, four months, and ten days was certainly one of the most astonishing true-life adventures ever experienced by human beings. The journals are primary source history, written by participants, but they read like a thriller, filled with harrowing incidents like the expedition’s tense encounter with Sioux Indians in September 1804; Lewis’s narrow escape from a grizzly bear on June 14, 1805; several periods of near-starvation; a skirmish with Blackfeet Indians in July 1806 which resulted in the deaths of two Blackfeet; and the accidental shooting of Lewis by another expedition member in August 1806. The journals are available in a variety of versions; for most readers, one which edits Lewis’s original text for readability is recommended (Lewis was a intrepid explorer but a terrible speller, especially with French names like “Drouilliard”, which he rendered differently from one page to the next). There is ample raw material here for a brilliant TV miniseries — are you listening, History Channel?

The two Army officers held the expedition together through strict military discipline, which they maintained even under the most extreme circumstances, sometimes horrifying the Indians by flogging soldiers for minor infractions. Such measures were justified by the extreme dangers the men faced in the unmapped lands of the upper Missouri and Pacific Northwest: wild animals like cougars, grizzly bears, and rattlesnakes; armed and potentially hostile Indians; wild, unknown terrain with no mapped roads or trails; high mountains; sharp rocks; fast water; harsh weather; diseases which the medicine of the time could do little about; and the ever-present threat of starvation.

The region may have been unknown to whites, but it was hardly empty; in fact, it was peopled by tens of thousands of Indians, from dozens of different tribes, whose cultures were as varied as the cultures of Europe or Asia. Fortunately for Lewis and Clark, most of the Indians were friendly and much more interested in trade than in fighting. The Sioux (or Lakota) were the most problematic tribe for the explorers; some Sioux groups were amenable to peaceful relations, but others showed larcenous and violent tendencies, especially when intoxicated (Clark referred to the Sioux as “vile miscreants”). Remarkably in light of subsequent history, the explorers killed only two Indians — and these were not Sioux, but the aforementioned Blackfeet, who ended up dead after attempting to steal rifles from the explorers. In fact, sometimes the Indians were a little too friendly, as when the expedition’s extended stay with the Mandan tribe during the winter of 1804-05 left a number of Lewis’s men with VD!

Funny how I don’t remember learning about that in history class. One point I do remember, though, which is definitely true, although its prominence in modern textbooks certainly reflects the influence of political correctness, is the fact that Lewis and Clark could not have survived without Indian help. Famously, no Indian was more helpful than the Shoshone girl Sacagawea, the teenaged wife of the French-Canadian explorer Toussaint Charbonneau. In one memorable incident, Sacagawea (whose likeness was recently immortalized on a dollar coin) helped to win crucial assistance from a potentially hostile Shoshone band because one of the group was her own brother, Cameahwait, unseen by her since her abduction by another tribe in childhood. Sacagawea’s services as an interpreter were extremely useful, although not absolutely necessary since pidgin and sign language (a sadly lost skill in modern America) could usually substitute. Arguably, Sacagawea’s greatest utility was the mere fact of her presence; since Indian war parties were invariably all-male, the sight of a native female with the group was very helpful in convincing Indians of the expedition’s peaceful intentions.

And speaking of peace, anyone who believes that “smoking the peace pipe” is a Hollywood cliché should read the Lewis and Clark journals. Smoking tobacco with emissaries from another tribe while discussing matters of mutual interest was a universally accepted custom of the American Indians. Practically every group the expedition encountered understood this custom, and without frequent recourse to it (they even carried their own peace pipe), the explorers would not have survived.

Ultimately, Lewis and Clark did not find the water route to the Pacific they sought (it doesn’t exist — the Rocky Mountains are in the way). However, they largely succeeded in their other goals: they proved that overland travel to the Pacific was possible; met with dozens of Indian tribes; produced a vastly more accurate map of the region; were the first whites to observe wonders like the Great Falls of the Missouri, which Lewis called “the grandest sight I ever beheld”; and described more than 200 plant and animal species then unknown in the Western world, including the bighorn sheep. Their biggest accomplishment may have been their own survival — the expedition took so much longer than planned that when Lewis and Clark finally returned to civilization on the lower Mississippi, they learned that official Washington had long given them up for dead. In fact, amazingly, only one expedition member, William Floyd, had died — from a ruptured appendix early in the expedition.

The narrative is filled with fasc
inating details, such as the now-forgotten technology of caching, which Indians and frontiersmen alike used to hide possessions in the wilderness for later retrieval. The basic idea was to pick a dry place, cut a circular cap of sod and set it aside, then widen the hole below the cap, creating a cavity several feet deep. As Lewis says, “the dimensions of the cache are in proportion to the quantity of articles intended to be deposited.” The floor of the cache was covered with loose sticks to prevent water damage, then these were topped with hide; the goods to be stored were kept away from the walls with more sticks. When the cache was full, it would be sealed with hide and tamped earth, then the original cap would be restored and great care taken to remove all signs of the cache’s construction. At the same time, it was necessary to carefully remember or record the cache’s location relative to local landmarks, so it could be found again when needed. Lewis observed: “In this manner, dried skins or merchandise will keep perfectly sound for several years[.] … The traders of the Missouri, particularly those engaged in the trade with the Sioux, are obliged to have frequent recourse to this method in order to avoid being robbed.”

From a 2012 perspective, the most interesting aspect of the cache technology may be that it demonstrates how difficult life can be without plastics. The inability of the men to protect themselves and their possessions with synthetic materials like polyethylene and nylon created life-threatening problems: food spoiled; boats rotted away and could not be repaired; men fell ill due to exposure; critical supplies were destroyed by water damage. The humble plastic bag has such a bad reputation, thanks to years of environmentalist hectoring, that reading Lewis and Clark’s journals is a useful reminder not only of how incredibly useful this 20th-century artifact can be, but also of the fact that it had no pre-industrial counterpart.

Another startling aspect of the trip from a modern standpoint was the critical importance of firearms and hunting. The expedition survived only by nearly constant slaughter of practically every animal they encountered: buffalo, deer, bighorn sheep, beavers, even horses and dogs when necessary — although they did consume fruit and fish when these were available. Of course, the hunting was done not with malice, but rather out of true necessity: absent civilization, the only way to survive was to predate, and hunger was a constant companion on the expedition, sometimes reaching desperate proportions. It hardly needs to be said that hunting and guns are politically incorrect nowadays, but without superior arms, which the Anglo settlers — unlike the Indians — had access to in unlimited quantities, the United States would not exist in its current form.

Overall, the journals show a refreshing lack of political correctness. Lewis was to ensure that any Indians they met submitted to U.S. sovereignty, or as Lewis put it in his dozens of meetings with tribes, “accept the leadership of the ‘Great Father’ in Washington.” (Despite his liberal reputation, Jefferson did not hesitate to assert control over the native Americans.) As diplomats, Lewis and Clark used both the carrot and the stick. The “carrot” consisted of a wide variety of gifts (tobacco and presidential medallions were the most popular); the promise of trade; and medical treatment for the natives. Despite limited supplies and limited knowledge (not to mention that much of what they did know was wrong according to modern medical practice), the explorers frequently helped Indians with their numerous health problems, as in a May 1806 episode where they cured a chief of the Chopunnish nation by using a kind of sauna treatment. The “stick” was represented, of course, by the guns the men carried; particularly an “air gun” powerful enough to kill a deer, which awed the tribes to whom it was demonstrated.

This imposition of U.S. sovereignty may have been a textbook example of imperialism, though what Lewis and Clark did was no different from what every other European explorer had been doing for centuries. Nevertheless, the practical effect of the expedition was to spread peace, not war; this was due to the many conflicts among Indian tribes which predated the whites’ arrival. Indeed, in many cases, the hospitality shown to Lewis and Clark by the Indians was largely because they hoped the whites could compel another tribe to redress their grievances, or at least help them to arrange a peace with an opposing group. Lewis and Clark did their best to resolve tribal disputes whenever possible, even at great personal risk.

Although the men spent two years in the wilderness, their loyalty to and affinity for their own culture never wavered. One illustration of this is that, on their return trip down the Mississippi River, when the men saw cows — not bison, but domestic cows — for the first time in two years, their joy and relief was overwhelming. Imagine weeping with joy at the sight of a cow! Yet this was a perfectly appropriate response, because cattle symbolized the presence of the Anglo-American culture, and the milk and beef that comes with it.

Lewis’s entry for August 3, 1805 begins this way: “We set out this morning very early on our return to the Forks. Having nothing to eat, I sent Drouilliard to the wood-lands to my left in order to kit a deer.” The journals are filled with dozens of similar orders to several different men, although the half-Shawnee Drouilliard seems to have been Lewis and Clark’s most reliable and productive hunter, sometimes returning from such sojourns with hundreds of pounds of meat. Still, from a 2012 perspective, Lewis’ laconic directive is truly astonishing. Allow me to fill in the details that Lewis left out: he was ordering Drouilliard to leave the group and go off, by himself, in a dangerous wilderness, with no means of communication, and to not only survive, but to kill at least one edible animal, with only the weapons carried on his back, clean the beast, and bring the meat back to the main group, which of course he was expected to be able to find again, despite having wandered possibly many miles, in a wilderness with no artificial signs or landmarks. It is remarkable that Lewis does not even mention the incredible risks faced by the men on these little excursions — they could be injured, or killed, in countless ways, or lost without hope of rescue. This silence is not because he was unaware of the dangers; in fact, in many journal entries, Lewis fretted about the fate of party members who had become separated from the main group for one reason or another. Rather, Lewis’s silence was because frontiersmen like Drouilliard faced such dangers almost every day of their lives; Lewis’s order was therefore nothing extraordinary to either man.

There is a sobering lesson here about the risk-averse culture of today’s America. In Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, about the ill-fated attempt of a young Virginia man, Alex McCandless, to lose himself in the Alaskan wilderness, Krakauer discusses the similar case of oilfield worker and photographer Carl McCunn, who died of starvation on a trip to Alaska’s Brooks Range in 1981. Mark Stoppel, an acquaintance of McCunn’s who was interviewed by Krakauer, observed that McCunn might have survived his various mistakes but for the lack of a certain ruthless will to survive: “the part of the interior where Carl went is a remote, very blank part of Alaska … it gets colder than hell there in the winter. Some people in his situation could have figured out a way to walk out or maybe winter over, but to do that, you’d have to be extremely resourceful… you’d have to be a tiger, a killer, a[n] … animal. And Carl was too laid back. He was a party boy.”

The Lewis and Clark expedition was filled with men who were exactly what McCunn was not: men who, like Drouilliard, didn’t blink in the face of extreme danger. These frontiersmen could not only survive, but thrive, in an environment which was almost inconceiv
ably dangerous to urbanized Americans today with our risk-phobic, pantywaist frappuccino culture. Drouilliard was the kind of guy you could drop in the middle of a remote jungle with nothing but a pocketknife, and return five years later to find that he had become emperor of his own mini-state, and taken several native wives. Drouilliard and the rest didn’t need WiFi or hand sanitizer or organically grown phosphate-free arugula: they just did what needed to be done.

What a difference from today, where the handwringing of nervous housewives (“God forbid little Jimmy should encounter peanut traces in his food”) dominates our daily existence, and the liberal imperative of nanny-state overregulation promises the illusion of lives lived in perfect safety and perfect comfort, without risk or suffering or even unpleasantness. Self-sufficiency is anathema to this mentality, but the Lewis and Clark expedition was self-sufficient to an almost unbelievable degree: they not only hunted their own food, but, when necessary, built their own boats; sewed their own clothes; and when it was too cold to travel, built their own forts — not once, but twice.

In our modern republic, where large segments of our population compete to be declared helpless victims so they can receive government handouts, one cannot help but think that little Jimmy might benefit from being sent out with Drouilliard: “Here’s a musket, son — now go kill that deer, and don’t miss, because if you do, there’s a strong possibility you might starve.”