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On the Trail with Lewis & Clark

A Conversation with Gary Moulton

HUMANITIES, November/December 2002 | Volume 23, Number 6

As the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition approaches, Humanities magazine reflects on how America was looking west at the turn of the nineteenth century, past the Mississippi River, which until then had marked the western border--and toward the fabled Northwest Passage, an intercontinental waterway which, it was imagined, would link the east with the west. One year before the expedition set out, Thomas Jefferson had made his historic bargain with Napoleon and purchased the Louisiana Territory, doubling the size of the United States. Neither the Spanish nor the British nor the French had found the Northwest Passage in the as-yet-uncharted terrain; it was the hope of President Jefferson that Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery would succeed where the European nations had failed.

Gary Moulton has completed editing a thirteen-volume edition of The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition after twenty years of work. A one-volume version will be published in January to commemorate the bicentennial of the expedition's launch. He speaks with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the expedition's exploits, the character of its leaders, and what Moulton calls their “endeavor of scientific proportions.”

Gary Moulton: I can't tell you how much the support of NEH has meant to me over the years.

We had three years to sink or swim. The University of Nebraska and the state said, “We really want to do this project, but we can't do it without federal help.” The fact that NEH accepted my proposal and then continued to fund the project over the years was very important, and it wouldn't have been done without NEH funding.

Bruce Cole: The agency has been delighted to help make the journals edition possible. This is a monumental piece of scholarship that I point to with pride.

Moulton: Thank you very much.

Cole: How did you get started?

Moulton: Well, I was hired to love Lewis and Clark. I didn't come in with quite the pure motives that many other people have. I wasn't drawn to it by reading the journals in the way that so many people get started.

The University of Nebraska--actually someone over at the press--first got the idea that the journals of Lewis and Clark needed to be reedited and published again. The Center for Great Plains Studies, which had just gotten started on our campus, thought this was a great opportunity to get its name on the academic map.

I didn't know much about Lewis and Clark, but I had been involved in documentary editing. I'd gotten money from the NHPRC [National Historical Publications and Records Commission] to edit the papers of Chief John Ross of the Cherokees. I was finishing that project and was going to be unemployed and saw this as a real opportunity.

Cole: How many years did this project take, roughly?

Moulton: The project was twenty years. I started in July of 1979. We were turned down the first time by NEH, and it was a little bit hard on my ego because people could see that I didn't know much about Lewis and Clark.

Cole: I'd say you got up to speed pretty fast.

Moulton: Yes. I started reading hard. The next time, our grant application was accepted and then NEH funded me throughout the twenty-year life of the project. Our money from NEH and the state support for doing that project ended in July 1999. I went ahead and worked another year or so finishing up the comprehensive index.

Cole: What was the previous scholarship on Lewis and Clark?

Moulton: It's been done a number of times in varying degrees of completeness and competency. Lewis was supposed to do the work, but he failed at that and committed suicide without having written a single word. Then the project languished, while Clark, who didn't feel competent to do it, went looking for a ghostwriter.

He found Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia. Biddle did not do a verbatim edition. What he did create was a narrative paraphrase. He read the journals and wrote an account of each day's events. That was published in 1814.

Other sorts of things were done over the years. A sergeant on the expedition had his journals published even before Lewis and Clark got theirs out. The first fully edited, annotated edition came out at the centennial of the expedition, 1904-05.

As new manuscripts were discovered over the years, they in turn were published. By the late seventies the desire was to bring all these things together in one comprehensive whole. That's what spurred the University of Nebraska Press and the Center for Great Plains Studies to get on it.

Cole: So yours is the first comprehensive modern edition? Are things still being discovered along the way?

Moulton: Well, we haven't seen any journal discoveries. The last thing of that nature was discovered in 1966. What was found, though, were letters from Clark during the expedition and afterwards that reflect back on the expedition. This material has been very good to supplement our knowledge of Clark's later life.

Cole: You've lived with Lewis and Clark for many years. What have you learned from this? Have your ideas about them changed?

Moulton: One of the things that I learned first was that I wasn't really competent to do this because I'm a historian and Lewis and Clark were engaged in a great number of scientific inquiries. I found out quickly that I had to go and find experts to help me.

Cole: Things like botany and geology and--

Moulton: Botany and linguistics and ethnology and meteorology and astronomical observations and on and on and on, all the sciences they were engaged in. That was a revelation and it challenged me intellectually more than I'd ever been challenged before.

That was one of the biggest things I learned: Lewis and Clark was not just a trek across the wilderness west--it was an endeavor of scientific proportions as well.

Cole: Let's talk about what resulted from this great voyage of discovery. What contributions did it make in terms of cartography and botany and the understanding of the various languages and the like? Was this a successful expedition?

Moulton: The phrase I use is that Lewis and Clark were successful in spite of their failures. Some of the things that were set as goals for them by Thomas Jefferson they didn't succeed in. No one could have succeeded, because the tasks were unrealistic: that is, find an all water route and Northwest Passage to the coast. No such passage existed. The geographical conceptions of the time were that the Rocky Mountains were a low-lying set of hills, and that there were connecting streams between the Missouri and the Columbia that were easily portaged; Lewis and Clark disproved all of those ideas under the hardest of circumstances.

But I think they were successful because they accomplished getting there and back without any great loss of life. Only one member of the party died on the whole trip. Two Indians were killed. In spite of the confrontation with the Blackfeet Indians in Montana, almost all of their meetings with Indians were friendly and helpful and mutually beneficial.

Many other exploring parties failed. They would just have to turn back, give up. They would lose lives. They would lose equipment. They would have things befall them that they had never planned on.

The other things--many of the scientific accomplishments--have been coming to light in just the last twenty or thirty years.

Let me give you an instance of that-- their botanical collection. There are more than 240 plants at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. People are taking small pieces of those plants and doing cellular studies to try to get a snapshot of the environmental conditions before industrialization.

That is just one thing. People are working with the maps and the journals and Indian tribal materials and the weather data and bringing up all sorts of new studies.

Cole: So this project of discovery still goes on?

Moulton: Absolutely.

Cole: What about Lewis and Clark themselves? What kind of people were they? They spent a lot of time together. They got along, right?

Moulton: Right. They were famously friendly.

Cole: They somehow were able to work with a very disparate group of people, some of them pretty rough and ready. What was that dynamic like?

Moulton: They were simply two people, very different characters and personalities, who were able to work together. I don't see how it happened. There were only two or three instances of disagreement, and those were over minor matters. Do you like salt? Do you not like salt? Do you like dog meat? Unimportant things. In terms of sharing the command of the men, there is not a breath of disagreement or antagonism between them.

Lewis and Clark have been stereotyped over the years. Lewis is seen as this moody, sensitive intellectual who was aloof and a bit remote from the party. He was more often the one to get out on shore and hunt up a new plant or describe a new bird. Clark was the friendlier, accessible person who was on the boat and shared in activities with the men.

They shared the duties as well. Lewis was the scientist. He took the astronomical observations. He was the naturalist. Clark was the cartographer. He did the surveying, made the maps. So they had these different personalities, but somehow it worked for them. They were able to overcome any personal desire for promotion or self-aggrandizement and just go on with their work.

Cole: Even though they weren't of the same rank, right? How did that happen?

Moulton: It was sort of a snafu in the War Department. Before the expedition, Lewis had served under Clark in a different military situation. That's how they came to know each other. Then Clark resigned his commission and went home to care for his older brother, while Lewis stayed in the army. He kept his commission when he went to work as Jefferson's private secretary.

He had risen to captain. When he called Clark to be his co-commander, he promised him equality in rank and grade, but when the order came down from the War Department, Clark got only a lieutenant's commission, not a captaincy. They hid that fact from the men, and Clark would usually sign himself as a captain of the Corps of Discovery.

Cole: Very interesting.

Moulton: He never showed any bitterness or rancor during the expedition. Years later, this Biddle I was talking about wrote a letter to Clark asking him about it and Clark showed that he was still a little sensitive to that matter. He wrote back and told him the whole story and then said, “But I was equal to Lewis in every sense of the word.” And Lewis certainly would have accepted that.

Cole: Do you think there was a moment when they thought that this expedition would fail?

Moulton: I don't think there ever was. They would just get up each day and go ahead. Any sense of foreboding or any negative feelings don't appear in the journals. You can stand today and look at what they had to face in terms of the mountain ranges and you think, oh, they must have been discouraged here, but you pick up the journals and there's no sense of that. More often they would write “The men in high spirits. I'm going ahead.” “We proceeded on” is a phrase they used in the journals quite often, and I think it adds more than a sense of just forward movement.

Cole: What happened to them after the expedition?

Moulton: Well, Lewis, as you know, committed suicide three years after the expedition. It ended in September of 1806. In October of 1809, he committed suicide. Now there are some people who don't accept that. They believe he was murdered. But the evidence all points to suicide. Jefferson accepted suicide, Clark accepted suicide--the two people who knew him best.

Lewis had gone through some very difficult times in those three years. He had been looking for a wife and couldn't find someone to go back to St. Louis with him. He got involved in administrative difficulties. He got involved in the fur trade, sort of the dotcom of his day, and was probably over-extended financially. He had sent some men up the river to take an Indian chief home. They had failed and so he hired a larger group and committed federal funds to it. When he sent in the bills on that, some clerk in the War Department just stamped it “Reject” and sent it back. In his day you were individually responsible for those debts if they were rejected.

Cole: It sounds like a bad idea.

Moulton: I knew you wouldn't like that one. (Laughter.)

So his creditors started pushing in and he was in difficult straits altogether. Jefferson was out of the White House and was writing him notes, “Why aren't you getting that book done?”

Clark, on the other hand, had a very successful career. He was married twice, had several children, was a government official. He didn't die until the 1830s and is buried in St. Louis.

Cole: Let's go back to Jefferson for a minute. When did this idea hatch in Jefferson's mind? What did he expect and were his expectations met?

Moulton: Jefferson's ideas about western exploration really started twenty years before Lewis and Clark. He had tried to send out at least four other groups to explore the West, but, either from one misstep or another, it was never accomplished.

In 1802 he read an account by a Canadian explorer named Alexander MacKenzie, who was working for the Hudson's Bay Company, and made a trek across the continent. It was a challenge to the United States.

Cole: Kind of like Sputnik?

Moulton: That's right. And like Kennedy, he said, “We've got to do something.” He marshaled all his resources to meet that challenge and to plant the American flag out on the Pacific Coast and make a statement about the United States' geopolitical ambitions. He had Lewis there as his private investigator--he had known him for years. He had had this vision, and he wrote out for Lewis a set of instructions that encapsulated all the things he had been planning and dreaming and thinking about for twenty years.

The mission was to go before the Louisiana Purchase was consummated. But with the Louisiana Purchase completed, then Lewis could be investigating American lands as well as new lands.

Cole: Were his expectations met?

Moulton: Well, this letter lays out an incredible range of items--all sorts of scientific studies and national goals and meeting with the Indians and on and on and on. His expectations were grand. This was going to be the young Republic's first endeavor in this.

Cole: You often think about Jefferson looking eastward instead of westward. What do we know about his reaction to the expedition? Was he satisfied?

Moulton: I think he was very satisfied with it. He was in correspondence with scientists all over the world and he was sending them botanical specimens from the expedition. He was telling about the discoveries along the Missouri River and to the coast. You can see in his correspondence that he's delighted with the exploration and with the discoveries. I think, though, he was disappointed that Lewis wasn't able to get a report out to the nation and make the world aware of all the discoveries. And Clark's work with Biddle was rather condensed. Though he never spoke of it, I think Jefferson was disappointed that the science was rather missed in that work.

Cole: Is there life after Lewis and Clark?

Moulton: Well, I'm not through with Lewis and Clark. I've just completed an abridged version of the thirteen volumes. That will be coming out in January at the same time that Monticello is going to initiate the bicentennial. We hope to have the volume ready to present.

Cole: So you've culled the most interesting parts of the journals?

Moulton: Yes. I guess I have more of a feeling for this book. It seems more my own book. The other was Lewis and Clark's book; this is my view of Lewis and Clark.

Cole: What you've done is a monumental piece of scholarship, but it's not exactly bedtime reading. And this will be. You can get the kernel of Lewis and Clark.

Moulton: That's what we're hoping. There are other one-volume treatments, but I think I've done a better job in some ways. For one thing, I used the modern text and I draw from more parts of it than other editors have.

Cole: Let me ask you about editing. What does an editor do in a massive project like this? What is your role?

Moulton: Well, editors really do two things: first we try to ensure that we have an accurate text. That's first and foremost: multiple readings, careful checking, going back to the original sources, not being satisfied until we have done everything we possibly can to get a reliable text.

The second part is the explication of the text. We want to make sure that we explain to the readers all the parts of the text that might be unclear or need expanding--that is, who are these Indians that they're calling by this name, what is their modern designation, what is this plant that they discovered? We provide the common name and the scientific binomial.

The part that was most difficult was the scientific work. During the life of the project I used more than one hundred people as consultants. I was lucky to find really wonderful people to work with.

Cole: Did you start this work with a typewriter?

Moulton: We started it with an IBM Selectric, but I went over to computers very quickly. We published every volume through electronic means, starting with Volume 2. Volume 1 was an atlas of maps and didn't have much text. So starting with Volume 2 it was all electronically published.

Cole: As an art historian I want to ask you a few questions about images. One of the things that fascinates me is the Indian Peace Medal. This is an object that comes really right out of the Renaissance. Of course, that was not the first Indian Peace Medal; is that right?

Moulton: Absolutely. It began with Washington's administration and goes back to a European tradition. Lewis and Clark took some of the Washington medals with them. They had different grades and sizes--some for chiefs, some for headmen, some more prominent persons. They gave different sizes and qualities to different people. The Jefferson Peace Medal was the one that they reserved for the most prominent people.

Cole: Clark brought along a slave, York.

Moulton: Yes.

Cole: What was their relationship during this expedition? Did that change when they returned?

Moulton: The traditional view of Clark's relationship with York has been that it was a paternalistic, almost brotherly relationship. They were about the same age. Clark had received York as an inheritance from his father. They had probably grown up together as youngsters and he had been Clark's body servant. Kids were given slaves when they were young to play with, and to help them, and that sort of thing. So that was their background.

On the expedition York had experiences that were very different from those of Virginia slaves as a whole. For one thing, he was allowed to carry a rifle and to hunt, and Virginia slaves were not allowed to have weapons. Moreover, on one occasion where they took a vote on where to stay, York's vote is recorded also. This is always seen as significant. The idea that York had some degree of equality on the expedition has always been taken as the gospel.

Now this may be true. If you read the journals, he seems to have played a role as a hunter and a helper and just-one-of-the-guys sort of thing. After the expedition, this changed considerably. We only know this because in the last few years a stash of letters from Clark to his older brother have been discovered and there's quite a bit about York in this newly discovered material.

It shows that Clark was rather a harsh slave master. He beat York on a number of occasions. He sent him to jail. He talked about selling him down the river to New Orleans, to put him with a harsh master so he would become more compliant. It's just a terrible story. People who have studied Clark say, “Well, this just shows you what the institution of slavery can do to a person. If someone as good as Clark can be corrupted by it, it could corrupt anyone.”

After the expedition he didn't free York immediately. He kept him as a slave. Only in later years did he free him and help him out somewhat in a wagon operation that York had. But their relationship had really deteriorated.

Cole: What was Sacagawea's role? Is she romanticized?

Moulton: Sacagawea. She was a young woman Lewis and Clark hired to be an interpreter. They hired her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, who was a trader at the Mandan villages in North Dakota. She had been captured when she was about thirteen by the Hidatsas. She was a Shoshone, who lived in the Rocky Mountains. The Hidatsas had swept in and attacked a group and taken her and some other women and children back to North Dakota. They had traveled several hundred miles on the raiding operation and captured her.

She became the wife of Charbonneau. It was a marriage of the country. There was no priest, but it was acceptable in the standards of that time and place. She was pregnant when Lewis and Clark met her. They hired her husband as an interpreter with the Hidatsa people. They wanted her to go along because they knew they would meet the Shoshone Indians in the Rocky Mountains and need to trade for horses.

Her job was to be an interpreter when they reached the Rocky Mountains. She fulfilled her assignment admirably. She provided entree to the tribe and helped the party get horses. As it turned out, her brother was chief of the band they met. It was a fortuitous circumstance.

She had the language skills. She was very helpful. They worried about her when she was sick. Lewis helped in the birth of her child at Fort Mandan before they left. Clark was particularly friendly with her. He later raised her children back in St. Louis. She died in her mid-twenties in northern South Dakota but her burial site is now beneath the waters of the Missouri River.

Cole: Have you followed in their footsteps?

Moulton: Yes. I've traced the trail off and on over the years. There's a national organization of Lewis and Clark enthusiasts that meets once a year somewhere along the trail. On a couple of occasions my wife and I rented a van and took off, following Lewis and Clark. We've camped in the Rocky Mountains and floated on the upper Missouri. It's a really nice trip to take. There are spots that are just wonderful.

Cole: I have another question--about Seaman.

Moulton: Seaman the dog is a Newfoundland. Lewis bought him in Pittsburgh for twenty dollars, which was an enormous amount of money for a dog in that day. He bought him as a traveling companion. He used him to hunt with sometimes, jump in a river and catch a squirrel or something like that. He barked at bears and buffalo coming in through the camp and would alert the men. So he served as sort of a watchdog.

We last have a reference to him in July of 1806 on the return trip. We don't know what happened to him after that, according to the journals.

Just recently a reference to a dog collar with his name on it came up in some old literature, and the hope is alive now that Seaman lived to the end. There are even reports that he was with Lewis when he committed suicide and stories that he would not leave the grave.

Cole: So, you're going to do your compilation, but what are you going to do after that?

Moulton: I'm working on a book tentatively called Lewis and Clark: Day by Day. I'm writing a narrative of each day, so that if you want to go quickly and find out what they did on that day, you have it. I see it as the companion to the abridged book. You can read their words, but I will skip days here and there and I will only pull part of the passage out. The day by day will give a full narrative account.

Cole: That sounds fascinating. I want to thank you so much and thank you for the kind words about the NEH. This is really an exemplary project. We're just as proud as we can be of this edition.

Moulton: Thank you very much.