Blogs > Cliopatria > Only a Few of the Artifacts Said to Come from Lewis & Clark Are Real

Apr 1, 2004 9:47 pm

Only a Few of the Artifacts Said to Come from Lewis & Clark Are Real

Stephanie Simon, in the LAT (March 30, 2004):

When they pushed up the Missouri River into the wilds of America on a spring day in 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark commanded a keelboat groaning with supplies: gunpowder, muskets and brass kettles, beads and mirrors to trade with the Indians, compasses and chronometers to map a path into the unknown.

In 1997, as the bicentennial of that bold departure approached, historian Carolyn Gilman decided to find out what had happened to that inventory.

She had no idea what she was getting herself into.

It took Lewis and Clark 28 months to make their way from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back. It took Gilman seven years to track down the few dozen artifacts she can be certain accompanied them.

Thanks to the remarkable journals the explorers kept, scholars can recount each day of the expedition in intimate detail: what the men ate, where they hiked, what they saw, who suffered diarrhea, who pitched with insomnia, who stole whiskey from the commanders' stash.

But the objects that the Corps of Discovery used, traded and collected during that epic trek have been subjected to far less scrutiny.

Dozens of museums from Massachusetts to Oregon display artifacts that have been billed, over the years, as expedition originals: an air gun that could fire 22 rounds, a buffalo-skin robe painted with fierce warriors, silver peace medals handed out to tribal chiefs.

Until Gilman started her project, however, no one had attempted a comprehensive catalog of Lewis and Clark memorabilia — or tried to separate the authentic from the fraudulent. No one had tried to figure out, piece by piece, what happened to the scientific specimens, the supplies and the Native American curiosities the explorers brought back to this frontier town in September 1806.

"This was one huge detective story," said Robert Archibald, who is directing three years of tributes to the expedition as president of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

Working mostly alone, sometimes with a researcher, Gilman finished her sleuthing just in time to mount a museum exhibition for this year's commemorations. "Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition" opened in January here at the Missouri History Museum and will tour over the next two years to Philadelphia, Denver, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C....

Why did it matter if this iron battle ax was the precise one the explorers forged in the icy bleakness of what is now North Dakota to trade with the Mandan Indians for corn? Why was it important to know if this brass spyglass was the very one Lewis put to his eye in a sun-streaked valley, straining to see whether the approaching warriors were friend or foe?

Gilman answered her doubts with this: She had a duty to set the record straight.

"Museums deal in the authentic," she said. "That's what sets us apart from theme parks and those restaurants that put old-timey stuff on the walls."

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