Review of The Journals of Lewis and Clark

The Journals of Lewis and Clark
Written between 1804 – 1806

My History Reading Challenge is complete, and I end it on a great note.  The Journals of Lewis and Clark was last on my list; however, it was one that I anxiously looked forward to reading most.

Clark and Lewis
I guess it is not such a spectacular idea today to know about a few men who embarked on a wild journey through unknown territory for two years – facing language barriers with apprehensive Indians, angry bears, harsh weather, rough terrain, massive mosquitos, near-starvation, and, of course, sickness – and to come out alive, losing only one man to appendicitis attack, which they could do nothing about anyway.  However, if you consider what it must have been like in 1804 - and what a grand scheme it must have been  - I think it is rather exciting.

Departure from the Wood River Encampment, by Gary Lucy 
It all began with Thomas Jefferson,  who devised this plan, long before he became President of the United States, for scientific, geographical, and political reasons.  Jefferson made numerous attempts to get teams together to begin the excursion, but it wasn’t until he became President that he was able to set his proposal in motion. 

Army Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark were chosen to lead the expedition, and at least 33 other military personnel were part of the group, as well as Clark’s servant, York, and Lewis’s dog, Seaman.  In addition, other non-military members joined them later, such as Frenchman Charbonneau, his young Indian wife, Sacagawea, and their newborn son, “Pomp.”

Sacagawea with Lewis and Clark at Three Forks (detail)
Lewis and Clark were complete opposites, yet they worked very well together.  Lewis was the emotional, solitary one, while Clark was personable and easygoing.  You can see their personality differences through their writing: Lewis gave beautifully emotional descriptions of scenery, while Clark was direct and usually unaffected.  I really enjoyed Lewis's entries overall.  

In addition, they saw themselves as equals, even with their men.  And while everyone suffered at some point and to some degree, Lewis and Clark were sympathetic toward them in their ailments.  In turn, the men were loyal to Lewis and Clark and kept high-spirited morale throughout the journey.   (That's because, it pays to be nice to people.)

Lewis and Clark in the Bitterroots 
Interestingly, I immediately saw the failures of Columbus' voyage to the New World, while I witnessed the results of courageous, fair, and compassionate leadership, strong accountability, and excellent communication of Lewis and Clark.  Also, the men were bold, serious, and diligent who accompanied this expedition as opposed to the newly released convicts - ignorant of sailing, afraid of adventure, and extremely selfish - who sailed with Columbus.  (Duh!  That was not going to work out well.)

Basically, Lewis and Clark and the majority of their party took this opportunity seriously.  At the very onset of the journey, there were a few episodes of unruly, unprofessional conduct from a member or two, and Lewis and Clark applied justice swiftly with a court martial and physical punishment.  Either they never wrote about similar situations again or every man present learned instantly that Lewis and Clark made no excuses for bad behavior.  Columbus never did seem to establish himself as a significant authority over his men when they were out of control.

Captain Lewis and the Grizzly, by Ken Laager
There were numerous purposes for this expedition, including to collect plant and animal samples, map out rivers, lakes, mountain ranges, and Indian tribes, and to find a trade route to the Pacific Ocean, but it also was meant to encourage friendly relations with Native American tribes, to learn their languages, and to open trade routes with them specifically.   Most Indians they met were apprehensive about the group, but when they saw Sacagawea with them, they understood no war party would have a woman with them.  And with the help of interpreters, including Sacagawea, the tribes were pleased to obey the council of “their White Father in Washington,” which was to be at peace with neighboring tribes, because they were often at war with each other, and to trade with men from the United States. 

However, a few tribes were a disappointment, such as those Indians who committed theft against Lewis and Clark and their party, even after making peace with them.  The thieves stole their horses or weapons, and once an Indian was stabbed to death and another shot.  Lewis and Clark told the Teton tribe that they were not afraid of them and that they would make sure no one from the U.S. ever traded with their tribe because of their thievery. 

Lewis and Clark at the Mandan Village
Some strange tribal customs permitted Indian men to give their wives to other men, for favors, but the party of Lewis and Clark rejected them, stating the importance of married relationships and that the men made a vow of celibacy to Lewis and Clark.  So there was to be no fooling around on this long journey, even though the Indian men were practically throwing their wives at them.  Even the Indian women were “highly disgusted at [their] refusing to accept…their favors.”   (But that is what I liked about these guys: they stood firm upon their principles.  Not like Columbus' men!)

I shouldn't say anymore because I am going to do further analysis using Fanda's history questions, and I probably will speak more about their hardships and burdens.  But for now, I am grateful to have read this piece of history because today I have total respect for the men (and woman) who made this journey.  (If I were on this journey, I would have probably checked out on week one.)

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