Probably the most well-known book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition is Stephen E. Ambrose’s 1997 volume Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Ambrose originally wanted to name the book “Of Courage Undaunted,” that phrase originating from Thomas Jefferson’s description of Meriwether Lewis. (Ambrose 15). The phrase, while poetic and heroic, partially distorts the characters of Lewis and Clark and those under their command. It highlights their adventurousness, their strength of spirit, their American individuality, with the moody shades of Romanticism. What is lost in Ambrose’s title is Jefferson’s full description of Lewis, his care of those under his command, his commitment to order and discipline, his knowledge of Native American cultures, his scientific understanding of plants and animals, and his “sound understanding” and “fidelity to truth” (qtd in Ambrose 8). In other words, Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis to lead the Corps of Discovery as much for his scientific knowledge and rational intelligence as for his bravery and manly skills of hunting and woodsmanship. The expedition was, therefore, more a project of the Enlightenment than a demonstration of Heroic Romanticism, expressed as American individualism. But that is often not how the expedition is viewed. As James Rhonda writes, “Lewis and Clark, . . . in . . . lecture halls, are occasionally brought out, more to add a dash of color and adventure than to suggest something of substance” (146). In this essay, I will offer a few instances of Meriwether Lewis’ and William Clark’s process of rational decision making as counter examples to their images as undaunted explorers.
In his letter of instruction to Lewis, Thomas Jefferson makes quite clear the purpose of the expedition: to find a passage from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean “for the purposes of commerce.” (qtd in Brandt xxviii). However, the details and tone of Jefferson’s orders make equally clear the scientific and cultural significance of the effort. Jefferson lists the kind of geographic information that should be collected, the ethnographic background of native tribes that is required, in addition to a full range of biological and zoological and geological information As this point, it was facts that were considered most important. Jefferson goes so far as to suggest the keeping of journals, who should keep them, and how they should be preserved. If at all possible, danger should be avoided: “In the loss of yourselves, we should lose also the information you will have acquired” (qtd in Brandt xxxi). Donald Jackson says that Jefferson’s instructions “barely conceal his excitement at realizing that at last he would have facts, not vague guesses, about the Stoney Mountains, the river courses, the wild Indian Tribes, the flora and fauna of untrodden places” (139).
Second, Lewis’ preparations indicate a thoughtful leader seeking education and scientific skills, not an impetuous, proud thrill seeker. One of his early acts was to enlist his friend William Clark in the venture as a co-captain of the expedition. Much is made of this unusual decision. In most cases in military operations, clear lines of command are established. Co-leadership is considered confusing and disruptive. If the expedition had failed, scholars would now be indentifying this situation as one of the causes. Instead, observers consider Lewis’ decision to invite Clark as a wise assessment of the portfolio of his own skills and talents. We do not have documentation about how Lewis arrived at his decision, but general consensus is that, in some form, Lewis cataloged the skills and education needed for command of the expedition, measured his own against that list, and realized his old friend Clark possessed those talents that he was lacking. He carried out a rational assessment, and finding himself lacking, sought a logical means of correcting that lack.
In addition, Lewis did not just rush into the adventure. Much of the first six months of 1803, Lewis spent in Harper’s Ferry and Philadelphia making preparations, purchasing weapons and foods, learning how to use recommended scientific instruments, and taking medical lessons from Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most highly regarded physician of his day. He was also carefully identifying men who would join the journey. Similarly, from June, 1803, to May, 1804, Lewis and Clark traveled down the Ohio to St, Louis and environs, where they completed the selection of their company and trained them for the adventure ahead. Unlike some previous expeditions into the Great Plains by others, Lewis and Clark’s, as one supported by the American government, was organized as a military unit, which insisted on a great deal of order and discipline. This is reflected both in how work was organized, but also in how Clark and Lewis approached their duties in the collection of scientific information
In the early days of the journey, which headed up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804, unruly behavior became an issue. On the 17 a courts martial was held for three men who left camp without permission (Bakeless 29). On June 29, another was held for two men who were drunk on duty (Bakeless 31). On July 12, still another court for a man who slept while on sentinel (Bakeless 37). In each case, the men were found guilty and given lashes, of varying numbers, relative to the crime. The reports of these events occur in the journals and official records of the expedition in a passionless and perhaps pitiless, but joyless, manner. Whether today we believe in the method of punishment, the documents indicate that the commanders were enacting military code without favoritism or emotion. Clark and Lewis were not leading by dash and verve and a cult of personality; they were attempting to lead fairly and without prejudice, by the book.
Another example of their attempts clearly to provide order to the expedition is Captain Lewis’ “Detachment Orders” of May 26, 1804. The men were now 12 days into their journey, and we might suppose that the captains were discovering unforeseen problems with order communication among their company as they made their way up the Missouri, against the flow of the river. This set of orders focused on the rolls of the three sergeants. One at helm, one at center, and one at bow, each sergeant has specified duties and is excluded from other duties assigned to privates. Also noteworthy, each sergeant is expected to keep a notebook detailing “passing occurrences, and such other observations on the country, etc., as shall appear worthy of notice” (Brandt 26).
In a expedition as long as Lewis and Clark’s and with a record as full, the number of examples of their dedication to rational, patient, scientific principles rather than rash hyper-masculine domination is numerous and too lengthy for a essay of this nature. Three more examples will suffice: their dealings with the Sioux, their first confrontation with the Rocky Mountains, and their return trip over the Continental Divide.
If there ever were an incident in which Lewis or Clark could have demonstrated their commitment of courage and heroic action, it was on September 28, 1804, when a few Sioux warriors became belligerent. The Sioux, of course, were a fierce tribe and the dominate one in the region. At this time, during the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, there was a “sustained movement by the Sioux that resulted in the disposition or subjugation of numerous tribes and made the Sioux a major Indian power on the Great Plains during the nineteenth century” (White 321). In other words, they were not easily intimidated. Grabbing the towropes and refusing to let the boats leave shore, the warriors began demanding more gifts than they had yet received. Both Clark and Lewis responded. Clark drew his sword, and Lewis manned the swivel gun on one of the boats. The Sioux responded by readying their bows and arrows. It was a moment of decision for both Lewis and Clark. Should they fire? Should they accept fire? Stephen E. Ambrose enjoys writing a six paragraph fantasia about what violence might have occurred, and credits the Sioux chief Black Buffalo with defusing the crisis. “Luckily for them, one of the red leaders stepped forward to avert hostilities” (171). But Clark’s journal entry for the day hints at another contributing factor: “I threw a carrot of tobacco to 1st chief. Took the port fire from gunner. Spoke so as to touch his pride. The chief gave the tobacco to his soldiers, and he jerked the rope from them, and handed it to the bowman” (Bakeless 76). My reading of the incident highlights William Clark’s presence of mind and skill at communicating by action and by words. Even at the height to tension, Clark searched for the reasonable, peaceable solution, rather than impulsively acting when strength and determination had already been demonstrated..
After a winter in the Mandan village, still on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, Lewis and Clark and their men were ready to find the source of the Missouri and the passage across the range to the Columbia River. John L. Allen points out that up until their crossing of the Rocky Mountains, the expedition had actually been working from pretty reliable information supplied to them by previous French, British, and American explorers and trappers, and by Native Americans. In analyzing the exploration process, quoting from John K. Wright’s “Geographical Lore of the Time of the Crusades,” Allen categorizes three levels of information Lewis and Clark possessed:
We can divide a region into zones of first-degree knowledge, obtained “through active, commercial, diplomatic, ecclesiastical, military, and scholarly enterprise”; second-degree knowledge, derived from travelers’ accounts and/or fairly reliable hearsay; and third-degree knowledge, acquired only through rumor and conjecture. (14)
As the expedition, continued west, it moved from the region of first degree and even second degree knowledge into the third degree. As Allen writes, “The section of the journey from the Great Falls to the Three Forks did still more to erode confidence in the Indian lore” (30). Passages in the journals from late July to mid-August, 1805, portray both Lewis and Clark as careful, thoughtful men, measuring what they had been told to expect against what they were seeing. For instance, Lewis writes on July 27,
We are now several hundred miles within the bosom of this wild and mountainous country, where game may rationally be expected shortly to become scarse and subsistence precarious without any information with respect to the country, not knowing how far these mountains continue, or where to direct our course to pass them to advantage or intercept a navigable branch of the Columbia; or even were we on such as one . . . . (Bakeless 217)
Instead of wild and careless actions, instead of randomly choosing one route and committing to it come hell or high water, Clark and Lewis continue to employ methods they had developed earlier of exploring various options carefully with small parties of men, analyzing the information they gathered, and making the best decision they knew how to make. On August 8, after determining which of three forks of the river to follow, and after consulting Sacagawea who originated from this region, Lewis “determined to proceed tomorrow with a small party to the source of the principal stream of this river and pass the mountains to the Columbia, and down that river until I found the Indians” (Bakeless 223). Four days later, Lewis was able to identify a tiny trickle of a stream as the source of the great Missouri, and over the ridge what he mistakenly thought was the source of the Columbia. “In his search for the Shoshones, Lewis was no longer guided by the Mandan-Minnetaree information but followed his own geographical intuition and awareness. The distinction between real and perceived zones of knowledge had been made at the top of Lemhi Pass, and the expeditions entered a new operational zone” (Allen 31). Certainly it was a zone requiring courage, but more importantly it called for organized field work, careful observation, and calm reasoning.
A final example of Lewis and Clark’s decision making occurs in 1806 on their return trip. It is a moment where their assessment of a situation failed them, where their determination outstripped their reasoning. Indeed, eventually their courage was daunted, and they were forced to re-evaluate their situation. On March 18, 1806, the expedition abandoned Fort Clatsop and began moving east. In May and June, they camped among the Nez Perces. For a while, Clark served as local doctor, and the men traded goods, collected horses and foodstuffs and waited for snows to melt on the mountains so that they could continue their journey home. By mid-June, Lewis felt a particularly strong urge to get moving. He tried to persuade members of the tribe to accompany them, but “They declined going until the latter end of the summer” (Bakeless 325). By June 10, Lewis felt “ourselves perfectly equipped for the mountains,” so they headed into the mountains without any Indian guides. The trails got steeper and strewn with fallen trees, then covered in snow, and impossible to pass. Finally, Lewis evaluated that the going was so slow, the temperatures so cold, and the grazing for horses so scare that the troop had to turn back. “This was the first time since we have been on this long tour that we have ever been compelled to retreat or make a retrograde march” (Bakeless 328). The corps moved down the mountain out of the snows where better grazing was available. Ten days later they were joined by some Native American young guides who led them through Lolo Pass in only a few days.
Much speculation has occurred concerning Lewis decision to proceed. Was it simply impatience or was he actually concerned about the amount of time that he and Clark would have to perform further explorations on the other side of the mountain? “And for what was he taking such a rise? To get home a little earlier?” (Ambrose 369). Whatever the case, it serves as an example of how easily it was to make errors in judgment in this trek from St. Louis to the Pacific and back. A rash determination, a too large dose of “undaunted courage,” could have led to disaster and death at many, many stages. Instead, however, order, discipline, rational evaluation of evidence, and logical decision making prevailed throughout the journey. Although the temptation is great to credit the Romantic image of courageous American individualism as the source of the expedition’s success, I would argue it was calm focused rational Enlightenment-influenced thinking that proved to be the determining factor.
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