Why Lewis and Clark Matter

Amid all the hoopla, it’s easy to lose sight of the expedition’s true significance

Six accounts by Corps members (a woodcut, from Gass' journal, 1810 edition) have provided grist for generations of historians. Library of Congress

As the Lewis and Clark bicentennial approaches—the Corps of Discovery set out from CampDubois at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers on May 14, 1804—all the signs of a great cultural-historical wallow are in place. Hundreds of Lewis and Clark books are flooding the market—everything from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to Gary Moulton’s magnificent 13-volume edition of the expedition’s journals, to cookbooks, coloring books and trail guides. A gift catalog from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello offers stuffed versions of a prairie dog, a bison and a Newfoundland dog made to look like Seaman, the animal that accompanied Lewis on the trip. You can even order dolls of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Sacagawea and York "with detailed removable clothing."

There are Corps of Discovery television documentaries, an IMAX movie and dozens upon dozens of Internet Web sites. There are Lewis and Clark conferences, museum exhibitions and trail rides. Last summer Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders drove parts of the trail. When Harley hogs discover Lewis and Clark, you know something big is going on!

Now I would be the last person to dump mashed potatoes on all of this; after all, I’ve written four books about the expedition. Much of this bicentennial celebration is good, clean family fun that’s both informative and entertaining. But in all this hoopla I fear that we may miss the underlying significance of the Lewis and Clark story and the chance to connect these early explorers to the larger and richer stories of our past. On the road with Thomas Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery, or even standing alongside the trail as they pass by, we meet ourselves, and more important, we meet people who are not ourselves.

Lewis and Clark were not the first white men to cross the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of Mexico. (Scottish fur trader Alexander Mackenzie crossed Canada a decade earlier.) Nor did they visit places not already seen and mapped by generations of native people. You could even say that Lewis and Clark began the American invasion of the West, which aimed at making it safe for cows, corn and capital at the expense of bison, prairie grasses and cultures not fitting the expansionist agenda. If we want to be hard edged, we could even make a case that the Lewis and Clark story is a mainstay of the same shelf-worn narrative that glorifies and justifies the American conquest and dispossession of the North America natives. (Textbook history often portrays Lewis and Clark as the vanguard of America’s triumphant westward expansion, a movement that brought civilization and progress to a savage wilderness.) But it does seem to me that there are several reasons why Lewis and Clark do matter—and why we are so drawn to them.

First, what happened to the Corps is a great story, brimming with energy and full of forward motion. In extraordinary settings, a remarkable cast of characters encountered adversity of epic proportions and struggled through one adventure after another.

American novelist Willa Cather once noted that there are only two or three great human stories—and that we are destined to keep repeating them over and over again. One of these is the journey. Some of the oldest Indian stories are about journeys. There are the journeys of Africans and Europeans coming to North America, settlers pushing west by way of the Oregon Trail and the transcontinental railroad, and Chinese women and men traveling from places such as Shanghai and Guangdong Province to California, Idaho and Wyoming. Journeys took—and continue to take—Spanish-speaking men and women to El Norte. In the 20th century, the journeys of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban, industrial North re-made the racial, cultural and political map of the United States.

We are a people in motion, whether on the Trail of Tears, Route 66 or the Interstate System. From Jack Kerouac to Willie Nelson, the lure of the road and the promise of the journey still hold us. And it was Lewis and Clark who gave us our first great national road story.

Second, the Lewis and Clark expedition resonates because it’s not just a white man’s army, but rather a group of people from many different racial, ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds—a human community as diverse as any in America today. Consider York, William Clark’s slave and fellow adventurer, or Pierre Cruzatte, the one-eyed fiddle player, who was part French and part Omaha Indian. There was German-born Pvt. John Potts, a miller by trade and a soldier most likely by necessity. Here is Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who spent formative years with the Hidatsa Indians, and Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, a child of mixed Shoshone-French ancestry. Imagine the sounds around the campfire: William Clark’s Virginia-Kentucky drawl, Sgt. John Ordway’s New Hampshire inflections, George Drouillard’s Shawnee-flavored French, and the cries and first words of Jean Baptiste, the baby born to Sacagawea on the trip. This is the crazy quilt that was and is America.

But Sacagawea aside, isn’t the expedition a man’s story? Not entirely. A close reading of the expedition records reveals that women were a part of the journey every step of the way. Philadelphia seamstress Matilda Chapman sewed 93 shirts for the expedition; women did laundry and sold provisions to the expedition as it overwintered outside St. Louis; Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa women were a constant part of expedition life up the Missouri, providing food and friendship; Lemhi Shoshone women carried expedition baggage over the Continental Divide; a Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis brokered friendly relations between the Americans and her tribe; Chinook women, camped outside Fort Clatsop, offered themselves in return for valued trade goods, including metal tools, cloth and even uniform buttons.

Indeed, native people of both sexes lie at the heart of the Lewis and Clark journey; it is they who make it such a compelling story. On the day before the expedition’s official start, William Clark wrote that the expedition’s "road across the continent" would take the Corps through "a multitude of Indians." We can name the names: the Otoe chief Big Horse (Shingto-tongo), the Brulé Teton Sioux chief Black Buffalo Bull (Un-tongar-Sar-bar), the Mandan chief Black Cat (Posecopsahe), the Lemhi Shoshone chief Cameahwait (Too-et-te-conl), the Nez Perce chief Five Big Hearts (Yoom-park-kar-tim), the Walula chief Yelleppit and the Clatsop village headman Coboway.

Finally, this is a story of the kind novelist Henry James once called "the visitable past." We can still float the Upper Missouri and look on what Lewis described as "seens of visionary inchantment." We can stand at LemhiPass and see the distant Bitterroots. We can hike parts of the Lolo Trail and visit FortClatsop.

Historian Donald Jackson once observed that Lewis and Clark were the "writingest" explorers in American history. The expedition diarists—all seven if we count the still-missing Robert Frazer journal—wrote about everything from bison, thunderstorms and tribal politics to river currents, mountain ranges and prairie plants. Some of it is dull, recording miles traveled and campsites set up. But there are also passages of the most marvelous, flashing prose, which brings the West alive, leaps the abyss of time and dances for us across the page. And all of it, whether dull or delightful, is written in a way we can understand.

Lewis and Clark matter today because they act as a benchmark by which we can measure change and continuity in everything from the environment to relations between peoples. But more than that, their adventure reminds us that we are not the first Americans (native and newcomers alike) to face difficult choices in troubled times. William Clark, Sacagawea and Coboway lived in a complex, often violent age. The winds of change blew as hard then as now.

When honestly told, the Lewis and Clark story inspires without leading us into simpleminded platitudes. History humanizes us by giving names, faces and texture to our physical and mental landscapes. Not only do the Lewis and Clark stories entertain us, they serve as a map and guide for life on the American road.

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