(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Journals of Lewis and Clark

By the turn of the nineteenth century, interest in discovering a northwest passage across North America to the Pacific Ocean was intense. European powers Spain, France and Britain, along with the fledgling United States, strove to find a water route across the continent in order to facilitate easier trade with the East. The French had held the Louisiana Territory, a vast area stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, for more than a century prior to the American Revolutionary War. However, in 1762, during the Seven Years' War, New France faced almost certain defeat by the British, whose blockade cut off all aid to the region. In order to keep the land from falling into British hands, King Louis XV ceded all holdings west of the Mississippi River to Spain. By 1800 the nominally weak Spain feared that it could not hold Louisiana and secretly signed the Treaty of San Ildefonso, which ceded the colony back to the French. Led by Napoleon Bonaparte, the French initially hoped to establish an overseas empire in North America; these hopes were abandoned only a few years later when, needing troops for their renewed war with Great Britain, Napoleon offered the whole of Louisiana to the newly-formed United States. Signed in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the U.S. For fifteen million dollars, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S., purchased nearly one million square miles of land, and finally secured for himself the opportunity to fulfill his dream of exploring the entire northwest.

Born in 1743 in Virginia, Jefferson had long believed that the west would one day be populated by Americans. He often ruminated about the uncharted wilderness west of the Mississippi River, which had recently marked the western boundary of the country. Hoping to open trade with the Indians and with traders on the Pacific Coast from Europe and the Orient, Jefferson was adamant in his goal of finding a water route across the continent. He specifically wished to discover if there was a west-flowing stream emanating from the Missouri River and running into the Pacific. It was known that the Missouri River ran east from the mountains into the Mississippi River and that the Columbia River flowed west out of the mountains into the Pacific. Jefferson hoped to find that the headwaters of the Missouri and Columbia rivers were close together, forming a relatively easy water route to the Pacific Coast.

To lead the expedition, Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis, his personal friend and private secretary. Lewis was born in 1774 on a Virginia plantation less than ten miles from Jefferson's home on Monticello. Although Lewis had little formal schooling, he was considerably knowledgeable about the outdoors, spending a great amount of time hunting, teaching himself about plants and vegetation, and, with help, managing the family's thousand-acre farm, where he learned how to herd, make clothing, and maintain financial accounts. Joining the militia in 1794, Lewis enlisted in the regular army in 1795 and by 1800 had become a captain. By 1802, when first approached by Jefferson about the expedition, Lewis had several years of experience in the Northwest Territory. His first choice as his second-in-command was William Clark, a former captain in the military who had commanded Lewis in the Chosen Rifle Company, an elite group of sharpshooters, in the mid-1790s and who had become good friends with Lewis during their eight months together. Clark had little formal schooling, which resulted in a lifelong struggle with language and grammar, but he excelled at science, natural history, and math. Clark joined the military in 1789, but resigned his captaincy in 1796 in order to attend to family matters. Lewis commissioned Clark a second lieutenant for the expedition, though in practice Clark was considered a captain and on equal footing with Lewis.

The objectives of the expedition were clear—first and foremost, the explorers were to seek a water route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. In 1803 Jefferson told Lewis: “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream[s] of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan, Colorado, or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.” Second, the explorers were to gather scientific data, including notes about the mineralogy, climate, and geography of the region; perhaps most importantly, they were to survey and map the courses of the Missouri. In addition, the explorers were to study and return samples of vegetation and wildlife and provide an account of the native tribes of the western country, detailing their language and customs while serving as diplomats from the U.S.

Lewis planned the trip carefully with Jefferson, spending months preparing scientific and surveying equipment, weaponry, clothing, medicines, and tools, eventually assembling thousands of pounds of supplies. Both Lewis and Clark selected members of the company with great deliberation. Becoming known as the Corps of Discovery, the group initially consisted of approximately forty men, sixteen of whom traveled with the company only through the first stretch of the journey. Those sixteen returned to St. Louis, Missouri, when the expedition reached present-day North Dakota in late 1804, where the remaining group would spend the winter. This latter group included twenty-three regular army men along with two woodsmen who served as interpreters and hunters. One of these, Toussaint Chaboneau, brought along his Shoshone wife, Sacajawea, the only woman on the journey. Sacajawea, who gave birth to a son during the winter of 1805, proved invaluable to the expedition for her help in serving as a liaison between the company and various Indian tribes.

Equipped with one keelboat and two pirogues (smaller open boats), the Corps of Discovery began what would become their more than two-and-a-half-year journey in mid-May, 1804. Departing from St. Louis, they followed the Missouri River through what is now Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota, finally reaching a site they named Fort Mandan in present-day North Dakota, where they prepared for their first winter. From October 1804 to early April 1805, they camped near the Mandans, a group of peaceful Indians, sharing buffalo catches, gathering information from the Indians, and meeting with British-financed traders in the area. By mid-July, 1805, having restarted their journey in the spring, they had reached the headwaters of the Missouri and had begun the laborious western trek over the Rocky Mountains on the Montana-Idaho border. By the fall of 1805 the company had reached the Columbia River, which they then followed through present-day Oregon and Washington down to the Pacific Coast, which they reached on November 14th. Constructing Fort Clatsop on the Pacific Coast, the expedition wintered there, aided by the Clatsop and Chinook Indians, who counseled the company on when critical food supplies might arrive on foreign ships and on the locations of elk herds. In late March, 1806, they began their return trip. The company split into two groups in July of 1806, following two different routes eastward after crossing the main divide of the Bitterroot Mountains from what is now Idaho into present-day Montana. While Lewis crossed the Continental Divide and headed northeast to try to discover a shorter passage over the mountains, Clark turned southeast to travel down the Yellowstone River. The groups converged in present-day North Dakota and finally returned to St. Louis in late September, 1806. All total the Corps had traveled more than 7,600 miles, including 4,134 miles outward and 3,555 miles on the return trip. They had traversed regions unseen by European eyes, relying on information from Indian guides, who were well familiar with their expansive homelands. The Corps had also found a path across the continent, although not the water route that Jefferson had so desperately sought.

The captains also brought back a wealth of information, in essence an encyclopedia of the West, which inspired Lewis and Clark scholar Donald Jackson to dub them “the writingest explorers of their time.” Instructed by Jefferson to keep meticulously detailed journals during the expedition, Lewis and Clark filled notebooks with descriptions and narrative accounts of their travels, creating what many scholars have called an American literary treasure. It is generally believed that the bulk of the writing was done during the course of the expedition, although it is not clear whether events were recorded on the day on which they occurred or during the days and weeks following. Regardless, the journals depict the beauty of the landscape, the dangers of the wilderness, and the constant hardships the company endured. Among the latter were the numerous afflictions the men withstood, including bouts of malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, and venereal disease. Fatigue and hunger were common as well, as were the constant battles with ticks, gnats, and mosquitoes, which were often so numerous that the men could not keep them from getting into their eyes, noses, mouths, and ears. Encounters with wildlife are retold, including one meeting with an enormous grizzly bear, who took close to ten shots before swimming across a river and finally dying.

Lewis and Clark's accounts of the native tribes have been singled out as particularly invaluable, as they offer the first survey of the indigenous peoples west of the Mississippi before the influence of whites. Pointing out the customs, clothing, politics, and economics of the various tribes, the captains also provided transcriptions of as much of the native languages as they could, attempting to render the vocabulary into English spellings. This was a task difficult for both men—Clark in particular—as both had their own quirky ways of capitalizing, spelling, and using grammar, factors which have continued to vex as well as amuse scholars. Relations with native tribes are also recounted in detail. Lewis and Clark had been ordered to treat the natives in a friendly manner but not to take any unnecessary risks. They were also instructed to tell the Indians not to obstruct the passage of any white man and to make peace with one another for the good of European and American trade. If the Indians resisted, they would, as Lewis told a band of Otos in August of 1804, “bring upon your nation the displeasure of your great father, who could consume you as the fire consumes the grass of the plains.”

In addition, because of their accurate and comparatively objective observations of the wildlife, vegetation, and geology they encountered, Lewis and Clark became known as pioneering scientific naturalists. One of the main objectives of the expedition was to gather and send back botanical and zoological specimens for research. To this end, Jefferson had Lewis prepare by studying under the scrutiny of scientific experts in Philadelphia, who taught him how to collect specimens, write descriptions, store and transport wildlife specimens, and how to collect plant samples and press them. The captains took extensive notes on the trees and shrubbery they encountered; the wildlife populations, including buffalo—a very important food source for the company—grizzlies, mule deer, bobcats, and squirrels; and the conditions of soils, mountains, rivers, and minerals.

In late 1806, Lewis and Clark rented a room in St. Louis in which to commence “Wrighting,” though it is not clear whether they began recopying journal entries, writing to family and friends, or determining how to tell Jefferson that, in essence, the expedition had failed—no water route existed to link the two parts of the country together. Lewis was chosen to prepare the manuscript for final publication and within weeks had issued a prospectus outlining the forthcoming three-volume work, but he never finished the task. Lewis, who had been made governor of the Louisiana Territory, died in 1809 of an apparent suicide. Intending to reach Washington to settle bills for Indian affairs with then-President James Madison and to meet with Jefferson, who was still impatient for publication of the journals, Lewis spent the night at a settler's cabin near Nashville. Though two shots were heard during the night, and the proprietor of the cabin heard Lewis crying out for help, no one investigated. At daylight Lewis was found with two bullet wounds: one to his side and the other to his head. He died later that morning, on October 11th. Though the official version, supported by Jefferson, was that Lewis had killed himself, it has never been entirely proven whether his wounds were self-inflicted or whether they constituted murder.

It was left to Clark to tell the tale of their exploration. Finding massive amounts of notes in Lewis's room, most of which were in no order whatsoever, Clark realized that Lewis had made virtually no progress on the manuscript. Lewis's publishers informed Jefferson that although they had been in frequent contact with Lewis, he had never provided them with one line of manuscript. Requiring help, Clark procured the services of lawyer and scholar Nicholas Biddle, who agreed to abridge the extensive records brought back by Lewis and Clark and eventually published the two-volume History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark in 1814, eight years after the end of the expedition. Paraphrasing the various journals into a continuous account, Biddle gave the public a narrative of the expedition framed as a glorious western adventure. However, with the country at war with England, public interest in the expedition had greatly subsided.

In 1893, ornithologist and military surgeon Elliott Coues published the four-volume History of the Expedition Under the Command of Lewis and Clark, based on the original 1814 narrative. However, late in the course of Coues's research, he made the remarkable discovery of the original manuscript of the journals in the archives of the American Philosophical Society, where they had been stored. Since Coues's edition was already at the printer, he hurriedly pushed through a revision before publication. Ten years later historian and editor Reuben Gold Thwaites edited the original journals found by Coues, undertaking the monumental task of transcribing the journals verbatim. Included among Thwaites's eight-volume Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806 (1904-05) is an atlas, journals of two of the sergeants on the expedition, Joseph Whitehouse and Charles Floyd, and related correspondence. This first edition of the actual journals in their entirety appeared exactly a century after the expedition embarked from St. Louis.

In the years following the Thwaites edition, interest in the expedition appeared to be on the rise and grew even more so in 1953, when a major portion of Clark's field notes were found in a private collection in St. Paul. The first part of the notes, from December, 1803, to May, 1804, details the day-to-day preparations for the expedition at Camp Dubois, the company's winter encampment at the mouth of the Missouri. The second part, from spring of 1804 to April, 1805, records the 1600-mile trip north to the Mandan villages. Eventually published as The Field Notes of Captain William Clark, 1803-1805 (1964) by Ernest Staples Osgood, these rough notes, which were probably used by the captains to compose their journal entries, are now stored at Yale University. The most comprehensive collection since Thwaites's edition has been undertaken by Gary E. Moulton, whose Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition consists of twelve volumes to date.

It has been said that in the years after the expedition Lewis, in particular, may have begun to regard the expedition as a failure. His Indian diplomacy, for the most part, had failed—the immense tribes of Sioux and Blackfeet were still hostile to the U.S.; Americans had yet to populate the west; and no major trade relations had been established. Another great disappointment felt by both Lewis and Clark was the fact that their findings were never published to their satisfaction during their lifetimes. Even Clark, who outlived Lewis by almost three decades, never saw the word-for-word publication of the journals. The captains did, however, ultimately provide the world with the first maps of a previously uncharted landscape and succeeded in helping to open the western frontier to settlers. Clark, however, lived long enough to witness the great tide of Americans heading west and the subsequent upheaval of the native population. Active in an official capacity in Indian affairs throughout most of the remainder of his life, he helped ease the removal of Indians from their homes and assisted in their transition to an agrarian lifestyle, but was hardly able to negate the massive continental movement to conquer the natives and exploit the country's natural resources, consequences of the Lewis and Clark expedition that neither man could have foreseen.

Representative Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Frank Bergon, ed.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark (journals) 1989

Nicholas Biddle, ed.
History of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the river Columbia to the Pacific Ocean: performed during the years 1804-5-6 by order of the government of the United States 2 vols. (journals) 1814

Elliott Coues, ed.
The History of the Expedition Under the Command of Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri River, Thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, Performed During the Years 1804-5-6, by Order of the Government of the...

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Bernard DeVoto (essay date 1953)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953, pp. xv-lii.

[In the following essay, DeVoto offers a comprehensive survey of the political and historical state of affairs both before and during the expedition, and provides a detailed overview of the expedition itself—noting its objectives, its major finds and contributions, as well as its principal players.]

Toward the end of November 1802, President Thomas Jefferson asked the Spanish minister a carefully unofficial question. Would the Spanish court “take it badly,” he inquired, if the United States should send a small expedition to “explore...

(The entire section is 15702 words.)

James P. Ronda (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Writingest Explorers’: The Lewis and Clark Expedition in American Historical Literature,” in Voyages of Discovery: Essays on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by James P. Ronda, Montana Historical Society Press, 1998, pp. 299-326.

[In the following essay, Ronda surveys the publication history of the Lewis and Clark journals, detailing scholarly as well as public reaction to the various editions.]

On September 26, 1806, just four days after returning from the Pacific Coast, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark settled into a rented room at Pierre Chouteau's and “commenced wrighting.”1 Journal entries, scientific observations,...

(The entire section is 9809 words.)

Criticism: Fort Mandan

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Report from Fort Mandan, March 22-April 6, 1805,” in Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Simon & Schuster, 1996, pp. 202-10.

[In the following essay, Ambrose surveys the almost book-length report Lewis and Clark issued from Fort Mandan, providing a summary of the maps, correspondence, and descriptions of waterways, plants, minerals, and wildlife that the captains included in their final report.]

New life was stirring. On the first day of spring, it rained—the first rain since fall. The river ice began to break up. Ducks, swans, and geese sometimes seemed to fill the sky. The Indians set fire to...

(The entire section is 4747 words.)

Criticism: The Clark Journal

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Field Notes of Captain William Clark, 1803-1805, Yale University Press, 1964, pp. xiii-xxxv.

[In the following essay, Osgood provides background and analysis of the rough journal kept by Captain William Clark from December, 1803, to early April, 1805.]

The returning explorer has never been without an audience as he recounted his adventures. Men of all times and in all places, their minds reaching out from the known and familiar to the new and the strange, have listened to him. From the discovery of the New World until the last mile of coastline had been mapped, the last river ascended, the last mountains crossed, each generation watched...

(The entire section is 13933 words.)

Albert Furtwangler (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Themes for a Wilderness Epic,” in Acts of Discovery: Visions of America in the Lewis and Clark Journals, University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 192-207.

[In the following essay, Furtwangler examines the Lewis and Clark journals in terms of a literary epic, focusing on such themes as pluralism, heroism, exploration, and the act of writing itself.]

The term epic has often been used to describe the Lewis and Clark expedition. In its loose, modern usage, the word is an adjective that means grand, colossal, larger than life; it has been beaten to death in advertising blurbs for novels, films, and television spectacles. But as a noun, epic still...

(The entire section is 6516 words.)

Frank Bergon (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wilderness Aesthetics,” in American Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 128-61.

[In the following essay, Bergon considers the Lewis and Clark journals as characteristic of early American nature writing.]

The Lewis and Clark expedition, like the adventures in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, was a trek into an unfamiliar and often frightening wilderness—the first, longest, and largest of nineteenth-century US government expeditions into terra incognita. Launched from St. Louis in 1804 in a 55-foot masted keelboat and two pirogues carrying more than 8,000 pounds of food and equipment, the Voyage of Discovery, as it was...

(The entire section is 14206 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bakeless, John. Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1947, 498p.

Biography of the famous team of explorers, based on original documents and archival material. Emphasizes the entire length of Lewis and Clark's relationship, rather than just their years together on their expedition.


Botkin, Daniel B. Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995, 300p.

From an environmental perspective, compares the American West as seen by Lewis and Clark during their epic journey of 1804 to 1806 with the...

(The entire section is 683 words.)