While I was in the Pacific Northwest a few months ago, I was reminded constantly of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. In the “Upper Left,” statues and historical markers about the journey are everywhere.
To be honest, most of what I knew about the expedition, I learned in elementary school: that they were sent by President Jefferson on a journey of exploration to the Pacific Ocean and back; and that an Indian woman, Sacagawea, went along as an interpreter, with a baby strapped to her back.
I also knew why Jefferson sent them. In 1803, he had purchased the Louisiana Territory, which stretched from the Mississippi River to present-day Idaho. He wanted to know what he bought, and, for reasons of commerce, he hoped to find a water route to the west coast. There isn’t one.
Anyway, annoyed by such meager knowledge, I started reading up on the expedition, and I know a lot more now than I did before.
First, I read The Journals of Lewis and Clark, the daily logs kept by the two men along the way. The journals are fascinating to read, memorable for their quaint language, and amusing for their dreadful spelling and punctuation.
Then I read several books written over the years about the expedition, its significance, and the lives of the major players.
Next, I watched two videos on the subject, one by PBS (Ken Burns), the other by National Geographic. Both excellent.
Naturally, every new book and video revealed a few more interesting nuggets of information. Here are some tidbits I uncovered that seem worth passing on…
Jefferson named the expedition the Corps of Discovery. The mission was to follow the Missouri River upstream to its source in the Rocky Mountains, locate the source of the Columbia River, which everyone hoped was nearby, and follow it downstream to the Pacific Ocean.
The party consisted of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; four sergeants; one corporal; 29 privates; two French-Canadian interpreters; the wife and infant son of one of the interpreters; York, a black slave owned by Clark; and Lewis’ dog, a Newfoundland.
Each man in the party was given a daily ration of four ounces of whiskey. Four ounces is half a cup. That’s a lot of whiskey.
The interpreter’s wife was Sacagawea, a Shoshone girl of about 16. She had been stolen from her tribe at age 12. When she was 13, Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper, won her in a card game. He later married her.
The expedition encountered about 50 native tribes along the way. Some were peaceful farmers, some were fierce warriors. Except for a few incidents, the travelers were received cordially.
White people were not new to many of the tribes. The Spanish had been around for years, treating the Indians harshly. So had the French, who often cheated the tribes when trading with them. Not being Spanish or French was a definite advantage.
The very presence of Sacagawea turned out to be important. No Indian tribe would take a woman to war, so she was seen as evidence that the expedition had peaceful intentions.
Although most of the tribes were not aggressive, many were sticky-fingered. The expedition had to be on guard constantly to prevent the theft of horses during the night and the pilfering of knives, hatchets, and other belongings when the men weren’t looking.
One member of the expedition died, probably of a ruptured appendix. One member of the expedition deserted. He was pursued and captured, lashed by a gauntlet of his fellow soldiers, and later sent back east.
On the return journey, two Indians were killed by the whites. In Montana in 1806, during the night, a party of Blackfeet stole rifles and horses from the encampment. In the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, one Indian was fatally stabbed, another was fatally shot.
In the warmer months, most of the Indian villages were infested with fleas. Likewise, mosquitoes and ticks plagued the expedition terribly.
Grizzly bears were an ever-present threat to the party. A big male could be shot a dozen times and still give chase. A man’s best hope was to climb a tree — grizzlies don’t climb — and either wait for the bear to leave or start shooting.
When game was plentiful along the way, huntsmen kept the party well fed. But in the high mountains and some parts of the Great Plains, the travelers came close to starvation. When possible, they traded with the Indians for food.
To the dismay of the expedition, the headwaters of the Missouri and the headwaters of the Columbia are separated by the Rocky Mountains.
Most tribes kept domestic dogs in their villages as sentries. Early in the journey, the Americans were shocked when several tribes served roast dog for dinner. The majority of the tribes considered dogs to be pets and would not eat them under any circumstances.
Later, when game became scarce, the Americans were obliged to dine upon an occasional horse to avoid starvation. Reluctantly, they also began to purchase dogs from the Indians for food. The Indians did not conceal their scorn.
According to the journals, once the party got past their aversion to eating dog meat, most of them concluded that dog tastes better than elk or antelope.
For whatever cultural reason, the tribes placed a high value on blue beads. The party brought with them beads of all colors for gifts and trade, but only blue was prized.
When the party entered Shoshone territory, Sacagawea encountered a childhood friend who had been kidnapped with her years before, but had escaped. The woman escorted the party to her village — where Sacagawea’s brother was chief. Small world, eh?
After the party traveled down the Columbia River to the coast, they had the same experience I did: lousy weather. The violent surf defeated their dugout canoes utterly. Gales pounded the coast for days at a time. The travelers huddled under tarps, dined upon fish and roots, and grumbled.
In 1805, during the journey west, Sacagawea gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste, in North Dakota. He spent the rest of the journey strapped to a cradleboard on his mother’s back.
When Charbonneau and Sacagawea joined the expedition, they had been living with the Hidatsa tribe in North Dakota. On the return trip, they and young John Baptiste returned to their home in the Hidatsa village.
Captain Clark called the child Pomp, probably from a Shoshone word meaning leader. Clark was genuinely fond of the boy. At the end of the journey, he wrote Charbonneau and offered to raise Pomp in St. Louis and give him an education.
The offer was accepted. In 1809, when Pomp was four, Sacagawea took him to St. Louis. She and Charbonneau then moved to Nebraska to engage in fur-trading. There, Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter, Lizette.
In 1812, Sacagawea reportedly died of an unknown illness. Lizette was sent to St. Louis to live with Pomp and Clark, but she died later in childhood.
When he was 18, Pomp went to Europe, learned four languages, and lived among German royalty for several years. In 1829, he returned to America and led a group of Mormons to California, where he worked as a hotel clerk and magistrate. At age 61, he died of pneumonia while searching for gold in Montana. That Pomp, he led an eventful life.
Not everyone believes that Sacagawea died in 1812. Some historians think she left Charbonneau and returned to her Shoshone home in Wyoming. Some reports say she married into a Comanche tribe and lived until 1884. She would have been almost 100.
In 1925, a researcher located a Shoshone woman who claimed that Sacagawea was her grandmother and spoke often of her journey with the white men. The researcher said he was shown a silver peace medal bearing Jefferson’s likeness. It was the type carried by (and given frequently to tribal chiefs by) the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Meriwether Lewis died soon after the expedition. At an inn on the Natchez Trace in 1809, while on his way to Washington D.C., Lewis was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds, including one to the head. By then, Lewis was known to suffer depression, but whether his death was suicide or murder was never determined. He was 35.
William Clark went on to serve as Governor of the Missouri Territory and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He married twice and had eight children, not counting Pomp and Lizette. He named his oldest son Meriwether Lewis Clark. Clark the elder died in St. Louis in 1838 at age 68.
Hollywood, it seems, tackled the story of Lewis and Clark only once. The film was The Far Horizons, made in 1955, starring Fred MacMurray and Charleton Heston as Lewis and Clark, respectively, and Donna Reed as Sacagawea.
I don’t recall seeing that film, but by all accounts, it was painfully inaccurate. Using glorious VistaVision and Technicolor, Paramount reduced the epic journey to an insipid love story in which Heston and MacMurray alternately fought Indians and fought each other over the affections of Ms. Reed.
Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood. Wasn’t the real story good enough?
If you can bear still more information about the expedition, a good summary can be found here.