Too Much Lewis & Clark History?


Mr. Mould is Professor of Telecommunications and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies, Scripps College of Communication, at Ohio University. He has written and produced public television and radio documentaries on the history of settlement in Ohio and on Appalachian labor history and traditional culture, and is the author of Dividing Lines: Canals, Railroads and Urban Rivalry in Ohio's Hocking Valley, 1825-1875 (Wright State University Press, 1994). He traveled the Lewis and Clark trail (mostly in an SUV) in 2004.

The story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as author Stephen Ambrose aptly titled it, is one of “undaunted courage.” A 2 ½ year, 8,000-mile journey by river and land, to the Pacific and back, full of dangers and hardships. But the explorers would need a fresh dose of courage to face the deluge of history marking the 200th anniversary of their expedition.

From St. Louis to the West coast, there are dozens of Lewis and Clark visitor centers and museums—from major exhibits to small displays in county historical societies. And literally hundreds of road signs and historical markers.

A living history group, The Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, is reenacting the expedition, with a replica keelboat and canoes, a changing cast of crew members in period costume, and a busy schedule of community events. Other re-enactors portray expedition members at Lewis and Clark fairs and festivals.

There are new books on all aspects of the expedition. On Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. On Native Americans. On commerce and Western expansionism. Biographies of Lewis, Clark and other expedition members. Books about what they took on the expedition—and what they brought back. Books about the expedition’s contributions to geology, botany and biology. Novels, essays, poetry, recipe books and pulp fiction.

There is history for every reader—from the definitive 13-volume edited version of the Lewis and Clark journals by University of Nebraska history professor Gary Moulton, through Ambrose’s popular history to the story of the expedition as told by Seaman, the expedition’s dog. And all along the trail, the history is rehashed in newspapers and tourist brochures.

Moulton spent over 20 years holed up in the library working on his magnum opus, the first major edition of the journals since the Reuben Gold Thwaites centennial edition of 1904. Over 60,000 volumes of the journals have been sold, making Moulton an academic celebrity, touring the country to speak and participate in Lewis and Clark events.

“It’s hard to believe,” he says. “We expected this to be purchased by research libraries and a small group of scholars. But it’s been accepted by a wider community of Lewis and Clark enthusiasts.”

Moulton believes publication of the journals has “democratized” the text. “It’s available to anyone, not just to scholars. Now we can all look at it and make our own decisions about what it says and what it means to us.”

When he is not on the road, Moulton is busy reviewing or writing forewords for new works. “It’s been really difficult keeping up with all the new stuff coming out,” he says. Some works are attractively packaged but “lack depth.” But others uncover new evidence and provide fresh perspectives.

All this new history has raised new questions. How democratic was the expedition? Was there really a vote on where to make the winter camp on the Pacific coast, or did Lewis and Clark, as the leaders of a military expedition, simply canvas opinion before making a decision? Who was Sakagawea? Shoshone or Mandan, interpreter or guide, heroine or traitor? And if Clark treated his slave York as the equal of other expedition members, why did he later send him away from his family and write that he had “licked him into shape”?

These battles are mirrored by an intense ground war over the route of the expedition—a war involving local politicians, state tourism boards, businesses, and historians. The journals’ entries on landmarks are often terse or vague. The late Martin Plamondon II, a professional mapmaker who spent 30 years using old and new maps and field observations to retrace the trail, reckons that Clark, a skilled surveyor who did most of the expedition mapping, was “almost always 40 to 45 per cent off in his estimates.” Lewis, who briefly took over mapmaking duties, did even worse. “Virtually nothing was where he said it was.”

Nature has made plotting the route even more difficult. On the Missouri River, spring floods have changed the channel, sweeping away landmarks or changing others. This makes the location of historical markers something of an act of faith. “Lewis and Clark camped somewhere near here” rarely satisfies local boosters or devoted Lewis-and-Clarkies, but is probably as close as you can get in some places.

“Lewis & Clark slept here (146 times)” is the pitch for North Dakota’s Fort Mandan, where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1804-1805. Actually, they didn’t. The original fort was swept away in a flood, so today’s fort several miles from the site is a reconstruction based on the explorers’ notes and sketches.

Other states along the trail have their own claims to rival North Dakota’s. The expedition set out from Missouri, and had its first council with tribes in Nebraska. And as Clint Blackwood, executive director of Montana’s bicentennial commission, is quick to point out, his state has over 2,000 miles of Lewis and Clark trail—more than any other—because the expedition split into four parties, each with a different assignment and route, for the 1806 return trip.

At the end of the trail on the Pacific Coast, Oregon has long held historical bragging rights because Lewis and Clark made their winter camp on the south side of the Columbia River, near present-day Astoria. But Washington cashed in on the 18 rather soggy days the expedition spent on the north side of the river. The town of Long Beach invested $2.4 million in an eight-mile Discovery Trail that leads north along the peninsula to the seaside resort. Some locals jest that the Lewis and Clark trail ends at “every merchant’s cash register in Long Beach.”

For Native Americans, the bicentennial has provided an opportunity to offer perspectives on what happened to tribes in the next half century as they were decimated by wars and disease, removed to reservations, and forced to abandon language, religion and culture.

The federal bicentennial commission mandated Native American involvement in official event planning and programming, and states named Native American representatives to their Lewis and Clark advisory councils or commissions.

Federal guidelines included Native American participation in panels and symposia, equal recognition for tribal council members and elected officials, the placing of the eagle staff alongside the Stars and Stripes, and prayers in native languages.

“What we’re striving to do is to have the tribes participate in ways that are meaningful to them,” says Amy Mossett, tribal involvement coordinator for the federal bicentennial commission. “And if anyone is going to be doing Indian things, they’d better be Indian. We have real Indians. We don’t want re-enactors.”

Moulton worries about historical balance. “Perhaps there’s been too much emphasis on Native Americans in the bicentennial,” he says. “It’s almost flip-flopped. Now it’s the Native Americans and Lewis and Clark rather than Lewis and Clark and the Native Americans.”

Although he commends the commission for wanting to “bring Native Americans back into the story,” Moulton believes that requirements for “strong Native American content” for grant funding for national signature events were too rigid.

On their westward journey, “Lewis and Clark did not meet a single Indian between Fort Mandan and the Three Forks of the Missouri, so how can Great Falls [Montana] have Native American content? It’s kinda hard.”

But not impossible. At the National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls, visitors can take two parallel routes—one following the Lewis and Clark trail and one documenting the experiences of the tribes they encountered.

Visitor centers and museums along the trail feature Native American exhibits. However, with a few exceptions such as the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in eastern Oregon, most major historical exhibits are in facilities run by federal and state agencies, not on reservations.

Mossett hopes the bicentennial will challenge claims about the expedition’s role in charting river routes and opening up the west to commerce and settlement. She points out that Lewis and Clark used existing maps to navigate up the Missouri to the Mandan villages, which were at the center of an international trading network stretching from Canada to the Gulf.

“You know Thomas Jefferson is given so much credit for the Lewis and Clark expedition and for westward expansion,” says Mossett. “People talk about his vision that this land would be settled, that this land would be mapped and charted, that this land would be farmed, and that his country would engage in international trade. But you know what? We were already living that vision long before he was ever born.”

Moulton also hopes the interest in the expedition will dispel myths. “Some people still have this image of Lewis, Clark and Sackagawea, paddling their canoe all the way from St. Louis to the Pacific,” he admits.

As the re-enactors head back downstream to St. Louis to mark the return of Lewis and Clark in late September 1806, there’s no sign that the formal end of the bicentennial—and all the books and exhibits—will settle the historical arguments. The struggles over the history and meaning of the expedition will be as keen as ever. And require more “undaunted courage.”

Related Links

  • David Mould: Why Indians Aren't Celebrating the Lewis and Clark Expedition

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    More Comments:

    Oscar Chamberlain - 8/17/2006

    There's no point in complaining about the intersection of tourism and history (which is what the title implicitly does). In fact, most of what David Mould discusses sound like good examples of utilizing the combinations in ways that encourage tourism without bastardizing the history.

    As for the tourism side, the northern plains need money (and more people) badly. There are wonderful people there, both inside and outside of the profession--I'm lucky to know some of them--and if following Lewis and Clark brings the historians and the residents some money and encourages a few more people to settle there, that is fine by me.

    Nancy REYES - 8/14/2006

    This quotation is slightly inaccurate: "For Native Americans, the bicentennial has provided an opportunity to offer perspectives on what happened to tribes in the next half century as they were decimated by wars and disease, removed to reservations, and forced to abandon language, religion and culture."
    The depopulation of Native Americans predates L&C, and indeed may predate the pilgrims, who survived by eating grain in deserted villages...
    The book "AmericanPox" has a section on how smallpox spread via trading routes in the mid 1700's...