Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1357

Well before the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson had realized the need for more knowledge of the vast lands to the west of the settled United States. As early as November, 1802, he had inquired of the Spanish minister the official reaction of his country to a suggested investigating party of Americans passing through the Louisiana Territory (which was then Spanish, though, everyone knew, it was about to be given back to France) up to the source of the Missouri River.

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Jefferson’s purposes were multiple. In the first place, it was wise, he recognized, for residents of the United States to become more knowledgeable about the vast and largely terra incognita that lay westward to the distant sea, especially since this land was claimed by foreign nations who through its use could wreak great damage to the young republic in case of war. In the second place, information about these lands could always be useful. In the third place, although Jefferson played down this side of his purpose, there was a good possibility that much of the rich trade in furs could be wrested from the Canadian monopoly. In the fourth place, there was great concern over the need for that will-o’-the-wisp that had long haunted people on the eastern seaboard impatient to get to the Western Ocean, a water route across the land, with a minimum of portages; Jefferson conjectured that by going up to the mouth of the Missouri travelers could transfer their loads to a river running to the Pacific Ocean with only one portage, and thus cut immensely the time and expense of going around the Cape by sea. In the last place, there was great need to reach the Columbia River and help establish beyond doubt the authority of the United States on that river basin, the supremacy over which was still in doubt.

With the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson’s plans could be put into motion. For his purpose he chose Captain Meriwether Lewis of the First Infantry, who was at that time serving as Jefferson’s private secretary. Jefferson’s instructions were practically general: “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it’s course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” Numerous side duties and explorations were also to be undertaken. For his aide, Lewis chose William Clark, the youngest brother of George Rogers Clark, who had seen some Indian fighting. Lewis was twenty-nine years old; Clark was thirty-three.

Each man was to complement the other in the enterprise. Both were experienced as rivermen, though Clark was the better. Clark was an engineer, geographer, and frontiersman, and he had had greater skill at handling delicate negotiations with Indians. Lewis was the diplomat and had been trained in botany, zoology, and celestial observation. Both were highly intelligent. Both were to share equally in the responsibility and command of the expedition. In fact, in few expeditions of this complexity and length have two men worked so harmoniously and helpfully together, each ready and able to fill in the speciality of the other when occasion demanded, as it frequently did. Likewise, seldom have two co-leaders been apparently so free of envy and rivalry in their achievements.

The expedition consisted of the two leaders, fourteen soldiers, “nine young men from Kentucky,” plus two French-Canadians engaged as voyageurs, an interpreter, a hunter, and a Negro slave named York, owned by Clark. Never did the group consist of more than fifty persons, though the personnel in the lower ranks changed somewhat. The company, which trained during the winter, was camped on the east bank of the Mississippi close to St. Louis when on March 9, 1804, Louisiana was transferred to the United States. The first entries in the Journals are dated in May, 1804.

Journals were kept by various members of the expedition: by both Lewis and Clark, and by various other persons, with great or minimal perseverance. Lewis and Clark tried to make daily entries. Often their experiences had been similar or identical, and frequently the entries are virtually the same. Sometimes they are extended accounts, descriptions, including the flora and fauna, meteorological information, plus much more. At their briefest they are terse statements of the log of the day, the merest outline. Though there are other ways of distinguishing the entries, a notable one is Lewis’ greater literacy.

The route of the journey led up the Missouri into what is now North Dakota, then to and across the Rocky Mountains to the Snake River, and from there to the mouth of the Columbia. On the return trip much of the journey led back over territory previously traversed, with an occasional break for needed rest, provisions, or other reasons.

The journey constituted one of the great expeditions of all times. Bernard De Voto hailed it as a trip in daring and with a consequent exaltation equal to the voyage of Columbus. Few discerning people will argue with this praise.

The records kept by Lewis and Clark are remarkable in several ways. They are given in straightforward, practical prose, obviously written by men who had much to do but who were determined to keep accurate accounts of all happenings. Thus are entered various events, all with equal laconic style, the earth-shaking with the trivial. The result is a detailed recording, the total impact of which reaches the reader more in the total than in the parts. Some sections are tedious and dull; some, had they not been presented in such a matter-of-fact way, would be wildly melodramatic.

One entry by Clark is typical. On Sunday, August 19, 1804, an Indian chief came to camp to have breakfast with the expedition. He begged for a sun glass. His people were all naked, “Covered only with Breech Clouts Blankets or Buffalow Roabes, the flesh Side Painted of Different colours and figures.” After haranguing the Indians for a while, the men of the expedition brought out presents and gave some all around, including one “Small Meadel” to one of the chiefs and a “Sertificate to the others of their good intentions.” After some confusion about the purpose and value of the certificate, the Indians passed it back to the whites, then asked for it again. At this point they were severely lectured for being more interested in goods than in peace. After further negotiations, the Indians were satisfied, and Clark’s entry concludes with telegraphic speed: “those people beged much for Whiskey. Serjeant Floyd is taken verry bad all at once with a Biliose Chorlick we attempt to relieve him without success as yet, he gets worst and we are much allarmed at his Situation, all attention to him.”

As the trip to the Pacific had been beset with extraordinary, sometimes fatal, hardships, so too was the return. At the time of supposed departure up the Columbia River many of the men were ill. Also, the Columbia was swollen by floods from heavy storms, the river was whipped by strong winds, and the boats of necessity kept to the Oregon shore in order to avoid the most powerful winds and currents. Adverse conditions were made even more contrary by lack of food and plaguing Indians who seemed to mean the men harm, though actually the natives were innocent.

One nerve-wracking incident occurred on this return trip. Lewis, after taking a short-cut to the Missouri, had his camp approached at night by Indians. Contrary to experience and seasoned judgment, he himself fell asleep during his watch. The Indians then surprised the party in an attempt to steal their guns and horses. Such adventures were in fact common. From beginning to end, although they were daily occurrences, want and danger were never far from the explorers. The outcome, however, was successful far beyond the expectations of all who planned and participated in the journey.

Read in their entirety, the Journals do in fact substantiate De Voto’s claim that the trip was overwhelmingly successful and the account of it, as told by Lewis and Clark, superb.

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