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John Logan Allen Interview

What do you think it is about the L&C story that draws people to it...what's the appeal?

There are a number of things that, that draw people to Lewis and Clark. First of all, is first of all. They were the first. Nobody had done this before. They happened to be caught in really a fortuitous situation in that, although the expedition had been planned and was set in motion before the purchase of, of Louisiana, the timing was such that Louisiana had been transferred to the United States. And as a consequence, here's a set of, of people, Army personnel, going into the west at exactly the same time that the United States had purchased this huge chunk of territory that doubled the size of, of the US. And, partly because of that, I mean, because of being the first, there was an attraction for the American people, immediately. And it's something that hasn't really been lost. It was an adventure story. It was a romance. There was a woman involved. It was a... it was an epochal kind of thing, and when it's set against other 19th century exploration, in particular, it stands head and shoulders above virtually any exploration, with the possible exception of, of John Fremont's. Fremont, like Lewis and Clark, wrote enormously. And it's partly that volume of material that we have that's been reproduced in a number of different forms that, that has made it attractive to the American public. It, it's always intrigued me the degree to which you see Lewis and Clark appearing in, in a variety of forms, including "The Adventures of Lois and Clark" on, on, on television, which, which is obviously a, a play on words. It, it, it is The American Epic.

Was it like going to the moon??

In many respects, the, the expedition was like going to the moon. With, with one remarkable exception, that I think a lot of people forget about and that is that when Apollo 13 is having its difficulty, those people are in constant contact with, with Earth. They're, they're speaking with Houston, and, and they're getting advice on how to deal ... with, with problems. Lewis and Clark were on their own. Communications were, were absent. They had no way of, of communicating. Even during the first summer, when, when they're working their way up M..., the Missouri River, they haven't a way to communicate with, with anybody. They can send information back... it's going to take months for that information to work its way to, to Washington, to Jefferson. It, it would be impossible for anybody to catch up with them once they've left. They're, they're totally out of touch with, with the United States and, and with their sponsor. And, what this means, in a sense, is that they're even more cut off than the astronauts are. They're cut off physically. The, the time, even though the distance isn't as great, obviously, as a quarter of a million miles. The, the time factor i..., is so great, that, that they are detached. They're, they're by themselves. They're, they're operating, making their own decisions with no input from anybody else, and, obviously their very low level of technology.

If this is a early 19th century moonshot, who is NASA? Where's Mission Control??

Mission Control is, is Thomas Jefferson, with the Houston Space Center being the American Philosophical Society in, in Philadelphia. Those people, Jefferson and the Philadelphia scientists, along with Gallatin, in, in Washington, are the people who had made the key decisions from the, the point, the planning, to training Lewis. And, and that's the, that's the nerve center of the operation.

Give me a sense of in 1803, 1802, what's the state of geographic knowledge of the west??

The state of geographic knowledge of the west at, at this point in time, at, at the time Jefferson became President ... is, is myth and mystery, mingled with a few hard facts, which, in, on closer examination, don't turn out to be very hard, after all. Jefferson was a, was a terrifically good scientist, one of the best scientists in, in the world at that time. And, and yet he seriously believed and reported the existence of a mountain of rock salt 180 miles long and 45 miles wide ... in the western interior, in, in the new territory of, of Louisiana. Nothing was known because no one had been there. The various levels or grades of, of geographical information. There, there's good information based on, on empirical evidence. There's conjecture and rumor. W... what we're dealing with in the case of the American west in the early 19th century is conjecture, is rumor. ...nobody had been there to do the mapping. There had been explorers across Canada. But that's different. It wasn't the, the United States, or it wasn't below the 49th parallel. And, and so, Lewis and Clark essentially were entering an area for which there was a vacuum for any kind of, of hard information. This is what makes the success of the expedition even more of a remarkable story because they were able to deal at every step of the way with the inadequacies of their data and were able to discover those points at which their, their conjecture, their rumor, their belief was not matching up with the geography of reality. And to adjust their plans accordingly. Unsuccessful explorers aren't able to do that, and that's why they're unsuccessful.

What's the geography of desire??

The geography of desire or the geography of hope, to use Stegner's wonderful phrase, is the, the world as we would like it to be, or any part of the world as we would like it to be. From the time that Europeans recognized the existence of a continental barrier, between European commerce and the Orient, part of the geography at hope, of hope had been the discovery of some easy water communication between Atlantic waters and the waters of those seas that, that washed Asian shores. Literally, from of Columbus on and down to the time of, of Thomas Jefferson, part of the geography of the world as people would like it to have been, was the concept of, of a water passageway. And it took a number of different forms, and it evolved as geographical knowledge of the North American continent evolved. But, it was always there. It was an invention of, of geography that was designed to fulfill certain kinds objectives, commercial objectives, in, in many instances.

It helped that they'd never been there...?

Oh, obviously. If, if you, if you know nothing about an area, you can imagine all kinds of things about it. If you have no frame of reference... to tell you that, that it's impossible for rivers to flow out of both sides of a lake, with one river going to Atlantic and one to Pacific, then there's, there's nothing to say that that can't exist.

Tell me, as they set out in 1804, there are very few fixed points on their map. What are those??

The, the real fixed points are, are the Mandan villages on, on the east side of, of the Rocky Mountains. That's an area that was a nerve center of the Rocky Mount..., of the Missouri River fur trade. First contact between the Mandans and, and French traders in the 1730's. A point that had, had been fixed, had been mapped, and, and was well known. The other fixed point is, is clear at the other end of, of, of the trek and, and that's the mouth of, of the Columbia River... discovered in 1792. Vancouver and, and William Broughton had traveled up-river, nearly as far as, as, as the end of tidewater. And so, that lower stretch of, of, of the Columbia, roughly from, from the mouth of the Willamette down to, to the ocean was known. Between that, a, a vacuum of, of knowledge. There was considerable conjecture that the mountains visible from near the Columbia's mouth, were the same mountains that, that had been crossed by MacKenzie in Canada, were the same mountains that had been reported by the British fur trade, north of, of the 49th parallel, which no room really, in anybody's conception for something like the Rocky Mountains. There was no room in anybody's conception for the inter-mountain area between the Rockies and, and the Cascades.

There was just going to be a single line of... single ridge...??

One single ridge, or, or at best, a series of parallel ridges which were sort of western analogs of, of the Appalachians. With that last dividing ridge, between Atlantic and Pacific waters, being like the last dividing ridge of, of the, the Allegheny plateau that separated the upper Potomac, say, from, from the upper Ohio. One of the things it's important to keep in mind is that Americans at this time had a, had a notion of, of continental symmetry. This is something that goes all the way back to sort of Puritan theology, or, or even Puritan teleology: the idea that North America was designed for, by God, for certain, specific purposes, and, and in this idealized view of the North American continent, there was this sort of impression of, of, of almost fan shaped continental area bisected by the Mississippi River. On the east side is the Ohio, flowing into the Mississippi. The, the Appalachian system with waters having sources close to that of the Ohio. On, on the west side of the Mississippi is the Missouri, heading in mountains that are western analogs of the Appalachians with waters having their sources near those of the Missouri and flowing down to the Pacific. It, it, it seems far-fetched to us, but, to people who, again have no other information, have no better information, it, it's logical, it's sensible, and, and if you have an idea that the Creation is designed by God for specific purposes, to benefit the young republic of the United States, then there's nothing illogical about this at all. As a matter of fact, it makes perfect sense.

It's called the Corps of Discovery. What is it that they discovered??

They discovered, among other things, themselves. They discovered America in, in a 19th century sense. Their discovery of the west, of distance, and tremendous resources of agricultural potential, forests, furs, great rivers, mountains, was, was just as critical a, a set of discovery as, as John Cabot's landing in New England shores, or, or Columbus's landing in, in the Caribbean. And, to a very large degree, it meant the same kind of thing. It meant that after discovery could come exploration. Lewis and Clark, we think of as explorers. In, in a larger sense, they were discoverers. They were the first. The people who came after them were the people who filled in the gaps, and that's what explorers do, is, is fill in the gaps left by those critical discoveries. They also, I think, discovered, as I said, themselves... themselves as Americans in a new land. Dealing with totally unfamiliar sets of circumstances based in, in physical geography, dealing with totally unexpected and unfamiliar sets of circumstances, dealing with, with indigenous peoples. Dealing with, with distances that had never been conceived of. Dealing with, with heights and elevations that had never been conceived of. They learned how to cope with, with those kinds of things, and, and because they had discovered that they could do it, it was proven to other people that it could be done. And, therefore, within a very short time span after their return, other people are beginning to follow in their footsteps and, and to, to explore on the basis of, of their discoveries.

What kind of map maker was William Clark??

As, as a cartographer, Clark was without peer, not in the sense that he produced elegant maps, in, in the same sense that, that the Army topographers of, of the 1850's produced elegant maps. What made Clark so, so marvelous as a cartographer, even though his, his maps look to us today to be a bit crude, was that he had an incredible instinct and, and feel for the landscape. He seemed to know what was the most logical direction for a river to take, once it got out of his line of sight. If you look at, at Clark's maps as, as field exercises in and by themselves, as opposed to looking at them as finished products of, of cartography, you, you see a, a, a beauty in the ability of, of this guy to, to recognize the landscape, to convert what he's seeing in a horizontal perspective into that vertical map perspective. It, it's the hardest thing that people do in, in dealing with space. As a geographer, one of the things that I, I have to teach my students at the very beginning of their training, is how to convert what they're seeing to that map perspective. Most people can't do that, most people can't see that readily. Clark could, and he could see it better than, than almost any other explorer that I know of, and, and as a consequence, he is without peer as a map maker, given the state of his equipment, given the nature of, of overall cartographic technology, that nobody is his equal.

How do they rank as explorers and discoverers in American hx , or world hx??

As explorers, as discoverers in, in, in American history, or indeed in world history, I think, and obviously, I'm biased, I think that they rank right at the, at the very, very top. A, a big part of the reason for that ranking is the fact that they were so successful in dealing with field conditions that, that with only the loss of, of Sergeant Floyd, who would have died anywhere in the world, of, of what was probably a ruptured appendix at, at this point in time. They didn't lose anybody. They managed with, with really great style and grace to pull off this, this 2-year, 4-month journey, and, and live to tell the tale.

The second part is the telling of the tale. They were as, as Jim Ronda has said, as Don Jackson has said, as a number of people have said, the writing-est explorers ever. And they returned with, with voluminous amounts of data. They had fulfilled Jefferson's instructions, which were in themselves, voluminous. And Jefferson had this sort of Humboldtian concept of, of what exploration should be, and Lewis and Clark really pulled that off. They pulled off the Humboldtian ideal and, and they returned with this enormous amount of material. They also told us about decisions that they were making during the course of, of exploration. Why we're doing this instead of doing something else. Part of it is, is their success, part of it is the fact that we know so much about them, and that we don't know about so many other explorers that, that puts them right at, at the very, very top.

I want you to tell me the story of, your personal story of, your camping at the Bitterroots...??

Years ago, when I was doing research on, on the Lewis and Clark book, Passage Through the Garden, I was doing field work. One of the great beauties of, of doing this kind of, research is, is it gets you out into the field, out of musty libraries and archives. Far back up in the Bitterroot Mountains, trying to trace as much of the Lolo Trail as I could reasonably get to with, with a pickup truck. Almost evening, about ready to, to make camp, came around a corner in this incredibly narrow dirt road, and, and there, pulled off in, in a little niche by the side of the road was a guy taking the camping space that, that I'd figured to use. Stopped and visited with him for a minute and discovered there was plenty of room for both of us. We got to visiting and, and it turns out that this guy's a plumber from Boise. I wish I could remember his name, I've got it written down somewhere. I'm a university professor. I'm, I'm writing a book, I'm out doing research. This man is, is spending a part of his summer vacation retracing a section of, of the trail of Lewis and Clark and it's something that he did every single summer. A high school education, not terribly well-read, to, to put it mildly. But he knew Lewis and Clark, and he had a fascination with Lewis and Clark, and that encounter, which had to be similar, I guess, to, to some of Lewis and Clark's strange encounters, demonstrated for me the, the depth of their story and, and the depth to which it is felt among the American population. Particularly people from the west, for, for whom, Lewis and Clark's event is something that is, is fairly immediate in terms of time and, and space. Here's this guy who, who really is not approaching it from at all the same kind of scholarly perspective that I have. But he's getting just as much out of it and perhaps even more. And there are thousands exactly like him.

It's everybody's story.?

It is everybody's story. It's an American story.

There's something for anybody in the angles that you want.....??

Screenwriters, scripters have, have used the angles to, to a fairly well ad nauseam, one would say, in the case of, of a number of, of lamentable Hollywood productions. I'm sure that Sacajawea didn't look anything like Donna Reed, for example. The angles are there. It's, it's a lengthy expedition, and obviously they're out for such a long period of time and, and they're traveling through so many different kinds of environments that if you want to capture some kind of moment of drama, whether it's, it's human against environment, whether it's human against human, whether it's human against a, another antimate? part of the environment such as the grizzly bear, it, it's there. You can find it in the journals. It, it's there in the landscape itself.

What do you think the biggest misconception is about the expedition??

Well, I think there are, perhaps two central misconceptions that appear in, in almost all of the lower level stuff you read about Lewis and Clark. One, they were sent out to explore the Louisiana Purchase. They weren't. The, the, the expedition was mounted long before the purchase of Louisiana became fact. It happened to be fortuitous, that, that they were going in the area that, that had been purchased. But, but, it's not an afterthought. Louisiana comes first, and then Lewis and Clark. And that, that's a major misconception. The, the second misconception that, that also appears in, in most of the stuff, particularly that that's designed for, for kids, is Sacajawea guided Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. She didn't. She'd not been to the Pacific. She was an important of, of the expedition in a relatively small section of, of their, their travels in, in western Montana and in one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kinds of things, she paves the way for relationships with the Shoshones because she turns out to be Chief Cameahwait's long-lost sister, and, and so-forth. Hollywood scripters couldn't, couldn't write that or you'd say, "Well no, that, that's too hokey." Or, "It wouldn't work." But I think those are probably the, the two biggest misconceptions.

...what you were just telling me about William Clark and start William Clark was...??

I, I think if William Clark walked into this room right now that, that instantly I would like him a lot. I, I think he's an incredibly bright guy. He was inventive. He was a little "laid-back". He didn't tend to get as upset about, about things as, as Lewis did. And yet he was stern disciplinarian, as, as we've learned from the, from the journals at Wood River. more..... This is a guy who just had all kinds of qualities that, that I think I would, would, would really find very appealing and, and he's somebody I'd like for a friend, somebody you go out and have beer with. He seems to be a likeable guy.


Lewis, on the other hand, probably wouldn't come across as, as being as likeable. And maybe more depth. Lewis certainly was introspective. If you wanted to sit down and have a serious long discussion, with, with Lewis, he, he would be willing to accommodate you. But, probably not an awful lot of, of chit-chat. I get the impression that there's, that there's more business involved here. Certainly, a, a terrific person like Clark, extremely intelligent... My, my guess is that most of ..?.. wouldn't find him as likeable as, as we would find Clark.

Encapsulate for me fairly briefly, what kind of map maker was William Clark??

William Clark was one of the best field cartographers in, in the 19th century, no question about it. Of, of any century, for that matter. He's operating with limited technology. He's operating under horrible conditions. And yet he has this, this incredible ability, almost an instinctive ability to translate the landscape from, from a horizontal perspective like we all see the landscape, to a vertical perspective, as we see the landscape from within? a window of an airplane, or, or on a map. And he could do that. Most others can't, can't capture that as, as readily as he could.

But he wasn't trained for that was he??

He wasn't trained for it, as such, but nobody who served in the US Army during this time period got away with not learning how to do some field mapping. Lewis could do field mapping, too. It's just that Clark was better at it. And he probably had to do some of it in, in his Army service.

They're called the Corps of Discovery. What is it that they discovered??

The, the Corps of Discovery, or the Corps of Discoverers, I guess, in to a certain extent. I think they discovered a number of things. One of the things, obviously, they discovered was, was an unknown land, and, and that's one of the things that discoverers do. They were the first, up the Missouri, across the mountains, down the rivers to the Pacific. And they discovered many things, in, in terms of the physical geography and the cultural geography, and the economic geography of, of the American west. They also discovered themselves. They discovered that, that they, armed with their level of technology could, could deal with distances and altitudes and, and climates that no other Americans had ever had to deal with. And, and having discovered that they could deal with these kinds of things, it was a quick jump for others to make that, if Lewis and Clark can do this, we can do it, too. And in that sense, what they did through their discovery of themselves and of the land was to open the way for, for immediate American exploitation, travel and additional exploration in the American west.

Without them, what would have happened??

Without them, probably in the long run, by the end of, of the century, things might have worked out very much the same. I'm, I'm pretty much a believer in the notion that, that historical conditions and geographic conditions are as important as individuals, and I don't want to diminish the significance of Lewis and Clark at, at all, as individuals. But if it hadn't been them, it probably would have been somebody remarkably like them. Jefferson would have seen to it for, you know, for that matter, that somebody would, would do the kinds of things that they did.

You call your book Passage Through the Garden . They were expecting, their vision was that they were going to encounter the Garden and did they??

There, there were two dominant themes about the western interior of, of North America that had been current in geographical lore since the 16th century. One was the idea that somewhere through the interior, there was this water passageway to the Pacific. The other was that the western interior was an area of incredible agricultural potential. When Lewis uses the word 'beautiful' in the journals, he's talking about land that is good for agriculture. And, and most Americans of the time, assumed that, that the areas west of the Mississippi had enormous agricultural potential. When Jefferson talks about the territory of Louisiana, when, when the news is released of the purchase, he describes much of the area as tree-less, yes, but it's because the soil is too rich for the growth of, of forest trees. The, the old concept of the garden of the world is one that was very current, particularly among the, the rural populations, the agricultural populations, on the American frontier. This land to the west was a garden.

When you boil this all down, what's the story about... is it about the land, building an empire, discovery, encountering different...??

The, the essence of the story of Lewis and Clark is, is people in contact with, with new geographies. Not just the new geographies of reality, and not just the new conceptions of distance. Not just the, the, the new geography of mountains, where mountains had not been understood to be. Not just the geography of, of a, of a route across the interior to the Pacific. But, but the geography of, of other elements that are present in, in people's spatial perspectives. The, the geography of empire, that's certainly a part of it. The, the geography of, of a global economy, which focuses on this one part of, of the American west as, as a core area for the future. Lewis and Clark discovered the wealth of beaver and this sets in motion, almost a global reaction, in terms of, of, of economic enterprise and economic activity. So, I, I think what it all boils down to is, is Lewis and Clark as, as the openers of, of new geographies, both the geographies of, of reality, and the geographies of the imagination, of hope, of desire, of objective, what-have-you.

They made the ??? They opened up the door or a window or something??

They, they opened a window on the west. A window that had been closed and, and you could see through it sort of dimly and, and make out vague shadows. And, and they threw it wide open so that things came much more into focus. The, the view was a lot more clear from St. Louis in 1806 than it was in 1804.

If you had one moment on the Lewis and Clark on the Lewis and Clark expedition that you could be transported back to, what would it be??

If, if I had one moment that, that I, that I could capture and that I, I'd love to, to see, it would be Lewis's ascent of, of the final dividing ridge, at the head of, of Lemhi Pass. When I think he, he's anticipating to find just exactly what the Indians at Fort Mandan had told him he would find, and that is that last dividing ridge, at the foot of which would be a large river flowing through a plains area. This was the short portage from, from the upper part of the Jefferson across Lemhi Pass, and, and down to this great river which flowed to the Pacific. Obviously, he didn't see that and what he saw from the top of Lemhi Pass, is mountains after mountains after mountains. And, there, there's no comment in the journal about this. There's no comment in the journal about what he saw, or didn't see, for that matter. And I, I'd, I'd love to be there, to, to sample his reaction. It, it had to be one of the most dramatic moments of, of the expedition.

Two geographies come face to face there.?

Geography of reality and the geography of hope are, are clashing at that point, and, it, it has to be a, a situation in which he feels tremendous elation as he expresses in the journals, about thanking God that he's lived to describe / stride? the mighty Missouri, but tremendous disappointment at, at the recognition that his pre-conceived ideas about what was west of, of this last dividing ridge, simply weren't true.

What do you think it was like back at Mission Control when Jefferson finds out that there's no Northwest Passage??

I, I think Jefferson, by the time he discovers that, that the Northwest Passage doesn't exist, is not as disappointed as he might have been, had he learned three or four years earlier that it didn't exist. He's gone on to other kinds of things. The, the Desideratum, as he put it, of, of a short water connection, is becoming less of an issue because the, the ocean trade with the Pacific Northwest has begun to open up. Very shortly after Lewis and Clark, the, the Arikara and the Sioux begin closing off the Missouri River. Jefferson probably, at this point, began to feel, that, well, it, it's not as important as I thought it was going to be.

(End of interview.)