While many in Indian country might argue that Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery didn't actually "discover" anything, the corps' voyage was, by most measures, a remarkable achievement. The intrepid wayfarers traversed a vast continent, mapping terrain, describing and cataloging hordes of plants and animals, and making first contact or renewing ties with a number of the indigenous peoples of the land. Their journey is an incredible tale - one great way to hear it is in the voyagers' own words.
Earlier this year and in time for the expedition's bicentennial, the University of Nebraska Press released an abridged version of journals kept by the explorers, which the Press originally published in 13 volumes in 2001. In the abridgement, Editor Gary E. Moulton, professor of American history at Nebraska, presents daily journal entries covering the duration of the expedition - May 14, 1804 through Sept. 23, 1806 - in a readable and well-annotated single volume.
These entries come primarily from the personal logs of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, with supplemental material from diaries kept by sergeants John Ordway and Patrick Gass, and Private Joseph Whitehouse. Also included are some writings from Sergeant Charles Floyd, who died of a burst appendix barely three months into the trip.
It may take the reader several pages to get used to the haphazard spelling and grammar of the early 19th century, as well as the stilted style of writing - those who don't get bogged down are in for a quite a trip. The explorers describe, often in painstaking detail, the high and low points of their 28-month journey - from the cold and hunger experienced in the Rockies to admiration for various tribes they met along the way; from details on the flora and fauna encountered to medical assistance given to Indians.
Editor Moulton's annotations are helpful - they clarify references to Indian tribes as well as plant and animal life encountered by the explorers and correct Lewis' imprecise longitudinal measurements. Also included are the locations, as nearly as can be determined in some cases, of the party's campsites.
Captivating indeed are the frequent descriptions of the plains teeming with scores of animals - buffalo, antelope, elk, deer and others - as far as the eye can see. Even with knowledge of how many creatures, particularly the buffalo, were driven to near extinction, it is difficult to comprehend the sight of "20,000 buffalow" in the wild, as Clark describes at one point.
Clark had high praise for a group of Cathlamet Indians, calling them "the best Canoe navigaters I ever saw" after watching them paddle across a five-mile wide stretch of the Columbia River "through the highest waves I ever Saw a Small vestles ride."
Sacagawea, the Indian wife of a French interpreter, receives occasional mention though not often by name. Though often referred to as "the squar" or "Sharbono's Indian woman," Clark credits her for advising him to take the Bitterroot Pass on the way home over the Rockies. Her interpretive assistance and knowledge of geography, plants and wildlife were no doubt invaluable; her insistence on accompanying a Clark-led detachment to see a beached whale on the Pacific shore gives some insight into her character.
Of interest is the difficulty the explorers' often experienced in communicating with the Natives. Conversations and speeches often had to be translated through three or four languages, certainly a time-consuming process. Yet in spite of clumsy communications, the explorers and many Indians they met on the journey developed sincere friendships and great respect for each other. Indians provided the Corps invaluable information regarding the route ahead, the availability of game, fish and other food, and the disposition of other tribes.
Many Americans view the expedition as an important stepping stone in the growth of the United States; many western Indians see it as the beginning of the end of their traditional ways of life. Important to remember, however, was the intent of the mission was peaceful - to gather knowledge and cultivate friendship and commerce with the Native peoples. Both Lewis and Clark stress often in their writings the peaceful nature of their journey and their desire to treat the Indians fairly.
The 50-page introduction provides a narrative of and perspective on the daunting task facing Lewis, Clark and their small party while the thorough index helps navigate the chronological text by topic. Moulton's abridged edition is an excellent resource for those unwilling to tackle the full 13-volume set of the Lewis and Clark Journals.
An idea for an accompanying text might be to collect and present stories of the explorers from the oral traditions of the tribes encountered by the corps, if the tribes are willing to share them.