Two hundred years ago this month, Capt. Meriwether Lewis left
Washington, D.C. for St. Louis to prepare for the epic journey that
would blaze a trail through the American West and fire the
imagination of generations to come. America will celebrate the
Lewis and Clark Bicentennial over the next several years with
events, traveling exhibits, reenactments and tours along their
route from St. Louis to the Pacific.
At Monticello in January, Interior Secretary Gale Norton kicked
off the celebration and said the bicentennial gives Americans “a
chance to think like Thomas Jefferson.” Tribal chiefs blessed the
bicentennial, while soldiers in period uniforms mingled with fur
traders, explorers, and Indian dancers in the Tent of Many
Pageantry aside, the land that awaited Lewis and Clark is still
there to be explored. Many of the places they visited have changed,
peoples they found have been displaced, and wildlife and plants
that inhabited the wilderness have been reduced in number or
supplanted by exotic species. Still, the land remains, as do the
journals kept by the explorers to document their discoveries.
To get a taste of what these intrepid explorers faced and what
has changed since their day, follow even a small portion of their
route or read their first-hand accounts that tell how they muscled
pirogues over rain-swollen rapids or shivered through the winter in
a smoky log fort.
Many sites along their path reveal how little and how much has
changed since their voyage. Washington state’s Tucannon River
crosses the overland trail they took on their return trip from the
Pacific in 1806. Stand on a sandbar today and all sign of
civilization melts away. As the sun descends over rimrock, it’s
easy to imagine the orange tongue of a campfire, the shouts of a
hunting party returning with game, and the smell of buckskins
drying on driftwood.
St. Louis was then a frontier town, where French trappers
brought a winter’s haul of pelts down the Missouri and Mississippi
rivers to trade for traps, gunpowder, and whiskey provisions for
another season in the wilderness. When Clark set sail up the
Missouri, with Lewis flanking the three-boat fleet on horseback,
territory unknown to all but a handful of white men lay only days
ahead. Today, crowded interstates leap over both rivers on steel
bridges, while a busy city hugs their banks far below.
The 3,700-mile Lewis and Clark National Historic trail links
hundreds of such sites and offers modern travelers a chance to
follow in the explorers’ footsteps for part or all of their journey
from their pre-expedition winter camp at Wood River, Ill., to Fort
Clatsop on the Oregon coast.
Perhaps we can’t all spend a day on the trail of Lewis and
Clark, but we can surely read their journals, which reveal in word
and diagram more than all the costumes, ceremonies and speeches of
modern reenactors. Lewis and Clark did not come to Wisconsin, and
the Corps of Discovery II traveling show will likely miss us, too,
since it is scheduled to stop in towns along the route they
traveled. But there is a solid Wisconsin connection to Lewis and
Clark, via the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS).
Among the 18,000 pages of historic documents that will be posted
on the WHS website (www.americanjourneys.org) this year in its
American Journeys Project are the diary of Sgt. Charles Floyd, the
only member of the expedition to die en route (apparently of
appendicitis); drawings by Lewis and Clark; the first two volumes
of the 1904 edition of Lewis and Clark’s Journals; and Lewis’s
first account of their discoveries, written at Fort Mandan in the
spring of 1805 and sent back to Jefferson by courier.
A condensed version of the Journals was published in 1815, nine
years after their voyage ended and six years after Lewis’s untimely
death in Tennessee. The complete journals, however, sat in a dusty
vault in Philadelphia for 100 years until WHS director Reuben Gold
Thwaites brought all the known documents related to the expedition
to Madison and edited them for publication in time for the
centennial of the journey. This was the first time the
illustrations, scientific notes, and much of the daily narrative of
the trek were made available to the public.
Wisconsin’s unique contribution to the expedition was to share
with the world the discoveries of Lewis and Clark in their
entirety. What they saw and noted still strikes a chord with anyone
who ventures outdoors and tries to record his discoveries, whether
with pen, paper and sketchpad, as they did, or with digital
There are many mundane passages, where the explorers noted, “Set
out at 8 o clk and proceeded on verry well,” or “One buffaloe only
and 2 antelopes killed today.” But there also are lyrical passages
where Lewis in particular recounts the amazing beauty or emotional
power of a place seen for the first time, such as the Rocky
Mountains: “They appear to be formed of several ranges each
succeeding range rising higher than the preceding one untill the
most distant appear to loose their snowey tops in the clouds.”
This, says Michael Edmonds, deputy director of the Wisconsin
Historical Society’s archives and library division, was new then,
and it is still fresh today.
“Prior to the expedition, Americans generally thought nature was
threatening, as if God didn’t want us to be there,” Edmonds said.
“Lewis and Clark embodied a romantic attitude toward nature still
alive today. That’s one reason we like to go up north, get up early
and watch the sun rise over a lake.”
President Jefferson’s charge to Lewis and Clark reflected the
nation’s need to inventory its natural resources. Jefferson thought
his envoys might find wooly mammoths. Instead, they met pronghorns,
elk, and grizzlies. For the most part, today’s outdoorsmen venture
into a much tamer landscape, but our observations today are every
bit as valid as the depictions of Lewis and Clark.
“We talk about America,’ as if everybody agrees on what it
means,” Edmonds said. “But one thing that is not debatable is that
it means a place. You start with eye-witness accounts like this and
say what the land was like when the first white people moved
through it, then see how it has changed over time. This kind of
source can establish America as a place, which you can’t get any
Retracing the steps of Lewis and Clark, Edmonds said, and
connecting the dots to the past, is worth the effort. Doing so
establishes a link between then and now, gives us a sense of what
we have saved and lost, and provides a basis for envisioning the
future of our relations with the land. Perhaps this is what
“thinking like Thomas Jefferson” is all about.
This exercise should prove helpful whether we’re simply
recording the events of a fishing trip or wrestling with bigger
issues, like exotic species, urban sprawl, or chronic wasting
disease. It all starts with an assessment of our resources as they
now stand. From their perspective of 200 years ago, perhaps Lewis
and Clark can help us understand and deal with the natural
resources issues we face today.