Dayton Duncan Interview
What draws us to this story of L&C? What in the beginning is our attraction to it?
It's America's story, I think. There's something in there for, for everybody. It's accessible to so many people for so many different reasons. If you're interested in an adventure, a road trip--it's got that, you know. Two guys go West. If you're interested in science, you know, they're out discovering new plant, new animals, new territory. If you're interested in, "What did the Indians look like before the United States moved West," it tells you that, it answers those questions for you. Whatever it is that you want, it's there. It's a tremendous cast of characters, it's an adventure story, it's science, it's history. It's everything rolled up into one. I know a guy who has a doctorate degree in Lewis and Clark--he's studied it all his life. And one night he was camping in the mountains of Idaho, and next to him he discovered as he was camping, he came to a guy who was a plumber, who spends part of his summer camping somewhere along the Lewis and Clark trail. So here was a guy who has a doctorate degree, a man who had a sixth grade education--the only thing they had in common was this desire to camp where the first Americans who went west camped. So it brings us together.
But this story doesn't begin with these 2 guys. Another person, Thomas Jefferson, who makes this happen. Tell me about his interest in the West.
The Lewis and Clark expedition begins in the mind of Thomas Jefferson. From the very, for a long time he'd been fascinated by stories of the West. Like many Enlightenment people, he wanted to learn more. I mean, he was insatiable for knowledge, and he wanted to know what was out there farther west. He tried three times before he was president to mount expeditions, American expeditions, to cross the continent, to find a northwest passage. And once he became president, he could finally accomplish it.
What were his misconceptions about it?
Well, it's odd. I mean, here's Jefferson, one of the smartest men of any age. He had, his library had more books about the West than any library in the world. And yet, what did those books tell him? They told him that there might be wooly mammoths wandering in the West. That there were mountains made out of salt. The volcanoes erupting. That there were Indians who had blue eyes and spoke a Welsh language. I mean, the West was a rumor, it wasn't a fact in Jefferson's mind, or in the mind of Europeans at that time.
Tell me about Meriwether Lewis.
Lewis was, Lewis was Thomas Jefferson's right hand man in the White House. He lived in the White House, with Jefferson, just the two of them. He lived in the East Wing, and Jefferson lived in the presidential quarters. Ate every night with Jefferson. He knew Jefferson's mind. He was Jefferson's hand-picked man for many tasks, and for this pet project of Jefferson, there was only one man he wanted. It was Meriwether Lewis. He was brash, sometimes impulsive. One of the cabinet members warned Jefferson, "Well, watch out. Lewis might try to do some things too brashly, too rashly, and endanger the whole expedition." But he was gonna be Thomas Jefferson's eyes and ears in the West, and Jefferson trusted him. Lewis had what Jefferson described as "occasional depressions of the mind." It's, I don't like to get into psycho babble, but it's pretty easy to read into Meriwether Lewis a manic depressive. He could be full of vigor and effusiveness, and other times almost completely close down.
Why did he select William Clark?
I think Lewis knew that he needed somebody to help him on the expedition. I think somewhere deep down, he knew that he needed somebody he could count on. And the person he could count the most on was William Clark. I think he, he offered Clark not only to be a co-captain, but he said, "If you can't do this," when he wrote him a letter, "if you can't do this, how about going at least part way up the river. And then go home." But I think that somewhere deep down, Meriwether Lewis knew that he couldn't make it on his own.
I begin to suspect that first and foremost this is a story about friendship.
Lewis and Clark are kind of joined at the hip in American history, you know. People don't distinguish between them. They're two very different men, but they, they form a unit. And I think at the core of the Lewis and Clark expedition is a bond, a friendship, a brotherhood, between two very different men.
This is a great team.
They are the best team... excuse me. I think they're the best team the U.S. ever, ever, ever put together.
They're going out to explore the West. What is this territory, the West?
When Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States, there were 5 million people living in the United States. Two-thirds of them lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic seaboard. There were only four roads that crossed the Alleghenies. Anything west of the Alleghenies was, you know, sort of way out there. The Mississippi River was the border of the United States. Everything beyond then was, first, foreign territory, and number two, almost completely unknown to the Americans.
Did TJ consider this the Lewis and Clark expedition?
Jefferson always thought of it as the Lewis expedition. He sent his man, Meriwether Lewis, west. He let Lewis pick a co-commander, but then didn't give Clark a captain's rank. He left him as a second lieutenant. So for him, it was the Lewis expedition. For us, it's the Lewis and Clark expedition.
And for Lewis, it's the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Lewis saw it entirely as the Lewis and Clark expedition. I mean, he saw it as a team. The two of them making decisions together. It was the most, it's very unorthodox. It went against all military tradition, you know, not to have one commander and then a chain of command. The two of them shared decisions, they shared hardships. They got to the point, I think, where they could, you know, operate independently and make the, reach the same conclusion. They were a phenomenal, phenomenal team that worked together.
What did TJ want them to do?
Jefferson was, had so many different things. He was a multi-faceted person himself. He wrote out page after page after page of instructions to Lewis and Clark. Look at the Indians, what are they like, what's their languages, what are their customs, what are their medical habits, what plants are out there, what kind of minerals are there, what are the trade possibilities? What are the mountains like? How big is the sky? Everything, he wanted to know everything he could, and he wanted them to bring back as his eyes and ears, all this information about what might be out there, what the future of the United States might hold.
This is what this is really about--it's sort of an expedition into the future.
They go into the American future. That's what this, their expedition was about. It was a journey into the future. They did, the United States following them spent a century retracing their steps, both literally going across the United States, going across to the ocean, and figuratively. Encountering Indians peoples, looking at the landscape, dealing with phenomenal wildlife. So they, they went there first. We're a nation who loves firsts. We are obsessed with it, you know. Here is the first church of this town, or here was the first school house. Well they are first in so many, many respects that they hold this special niche, I think, for Americans because we love firsts.
He gave them a letter as well.
It was the most extraordinary credit card any traveler could, could, could ever hope for. Thomas Jefferson set down with his own hand and wrote out for Meriwether Lewis, "If anybody, if you need any money, if you need anything, the full faith and credit of the United States is at your disposal. Just present this letter that has my name on it, that will tell you, you know, what do you want to buy? It's yours. And the United States will back you up." Boy, you know, if you could travel with that credit card now, you could have a hell of a time.
The Louisiana Purchase.
It was the greatest land deal in history. It's impossible to imagine the United States without the Louisiana Purchase. I mean, we could have been the Brazil of North America. This cluster, this small nation on the Atlantic seaboard and in the center there'd be a French-speaking country, and down in the southwest, Spanish speaking. Way up in the northwest, a British country. Without the Louisiana, Louisiana Purchase, the United States' future would be totally different. It was the single, I think, greatest act, that Thomas Jefferson did as president, that and sending Lewis and Clark out to discover what was out there.
And yet there were those who didn't want this to succeed.
People said, you know, "Why do we want land, of which we have so much, and pay money, for which we have so little." There are alot of people, mostly New Englanders, who questioned it, who are political enemies of Jefferson. They thought it was a waste of money. They questioned whether Jefferson had the authority to do it. And they were, would have liked nothing better than for Lewis and Clark to come back a failure, or to come and say, "Not much out there."
And there were foreign powers that were also interested in this not succeeding.
Jefferson was playing a big geo-political chess match with Lewis and Clark. The Spanish had Mexico and alot of part of what's now the United States. They're very jealous, very concerned that anybody that went in their direction might come down and take Mexico. The French had interest, the English had interest. The West at this moment was a contested area. It was part of this big international competition of who would control the destiny of North America.
There were those who didn't want this to succeed--foreign powers.
The Spanish are paranoid, you know. They've got, they were the first into the New World and their history had been, everyone's trying to crowd 'em out. And they were worried that Jefferson was sending an expedition, not to explore, but to pave the way for taking Mexico. They had reports, it turned out, from an American general who was a spy for them, about the expedition. They called it "Captain Mary." But they knew that there was this expedition going up and they sent at different times, different expeditions out to intercept them and hopefully, you know, kill them or capture them or somehow stop them from proceeding into the West.
Can you start me off from St. Louis?
Well, it's May 14th, 1804, in the afternoon, and they've been camping for a winter on the, what had always been the American side of the Mississippi River. Only recently was the west bank American soil. And they push off from their winter encampment under a gentle breeze, as William Clark describes it. It's sort of a cloudy, rainy day, and they get four miles.
We think of this as the Lewis and Clark expedition...two men. They weren't alone, were they?
They had a, they had a rough group with them. I mean they'd been recruiting for a year for people to go with them. Some of them volunteered--exciting adventure. Some of them were sort of pawned off onto the expedition by the army. There was a man that Clark said only drinks water. I'm sorry. There was a man, Clark said, who never drinks water. There were discipline problems all the time. They had guys who were, talked back to the Captains. They'd get in fights. They'd go AWOL. They had an incident at the mouth of the Kansas River where Kansas City is now. During the night, two of the men broke into the whiskey kegs. Well, that's pretty serious business, breaking into the whiskey. And they had to deal with those things. It's a shake-down cruise at the start. I mean you gotta, you can't go into this unknown territory with everybody fighting, breaking into the whiskey and not following orders. So, they're, how they dealt with it, they would have the men line up with willow sticks or the ramrods for their muskets and they'd whack 'em--50 to 100 hundred hard lashes to the back. And that's how they had to deal with the discipline problems, to try to make them into a cohesive unit, a Corps of Discovery. They weren't a Corps of Discovery when they left. They were, you know, rowdy frontiersmen, but they had to be molded into a Corps of Discovery.
They're on the Missouri River right now.
The Missouri River was a big, big, broad, wild, tough river in those days. It was coming down all, from the mountains far away. It would tear river banks out as Lewis and Clark were going up stream, there'd be whole river banks would fall down and almost endanger the boats. There're big snags, trees, whole trees coming down, some of them floating, some of them submerged. It was tough, tough going every day. They'd get up in the morning, send the hunters out, and then they'd have to get this big, heavy keel boat, had tons and tons of supplies in it. They had to get it against the current. The current's going five, six miles an hour, just pushing them, trying to push them back to the Mississippi. And everyday they gotta go a little bit farther.
What kind of territory--can you tell me what they're seeing on this next leg of the journey?
Well, they all came from the East, you know--New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio. They came from this area of the United States, they used to say, a squirrel could start at the Atlantic Ocean and go from tree branch to tree branch and make it all the way to the Mississippi. Well, when they get on the Great Plains, that's where the squirrel stops. These are guys who are used to looking up and seeing trees. And now, no trees. It's just a horizontal land of a horizon forever. It had to be mind-bending. I mean, they knew, they'd heard rumors, so they knew enough that they knew that this might happen, but they'd never seen a picture of it. It must have just been stupefying to them to come out on to the Great Plains. You feel so small. You feel like, you know, the wind can blow you and do at will with you what it wishes. They started seeing animals that they, no one had, well that they'd had no reports of. Indians had seen it, a few French and Spanishmen had seen it. But, they were new to science. They saw antelope, they saw jackrabbits, they saw coyotes, prairie wolves, all these things, every day, something new. They'd write it down in their journal, they'd try to shoot it, make a specimen to send back to Mr. Jefferson because they knew he'd be interested in it.
Is this really the unknown that they're in at this point?
They're going up, the first summer they're still on a map. They've got a map that says St. Louis is here, and you go up the Missouri River and there's a village of Indians up here. And people have been up there. So it's not really quite the unknown at that point. But for these guys from the East, it's still new. Just because somebody else has been there before you doesn't mean it's, wow, this is something here, it's a new animals, new, a whole new landscape.
Can you tell me the story of their encounter with this new animal?
They had been seeing all these other new animals and shooting them and making specimens of them, their skins, their skeletons, sometimes even stuffing an entire antelope to send back to Thomas Jefferson. And one afternoon they came, Lewis and Clark actually together were out walking. And they came across this big, broad area, it was about an acre to four acres of these mounds. And there are these little animals there making all these noises and diving into the holes. They were prairie dogs. And they decided, "This is, we gotta have one of these." And they spent an entire day hauling water up from the Missouri River, they tried to dig into the prairie dog holes and they couldn't get them that way. They rammed rods down six feet, they still couldn't get them out. They started hauling water, you know. They had every man in the expedition except a couple of people guarding the boat involved in trying to capture a prairie dog. Which they finally caught, and they sent it back live to Thomas Jefferson.
Are they meeting Indians?
The Indians that they met on their first summer were accustomed to seeing White people. They'd see French and Spanish, Spanish traders. And they started meeting Indians at a place that they called Council Bluffs, where they had the first official contact between the United States of America and the Indians of the West. They had a, they had a sort of a routine that they went through. Sort of a combination of serious business and traveling road show that they'd do. They'd parade all the men in front of the Indians with their guns, sort of say, you know, "Here we are, we're the new nation, we're here, this is our land now, not just yours any longer." They'd hand out gifts, they'd give out these peace medals that had Jefferson on one side and two hands shaking on the other. They'd give out these little certificates that say, you know, "Spotted Weasel's now an official Chief." And they'd give out presents of mirrors and cloth and tobacco, and sometimes whiskey. Although one tribe said, "Why would you give us something that would make us fools? And we don't sure that you understand us fully." Then they would show off for the tribes. They'd fire their guns and they had a big cannon that they'd shoot to say, "We're," you know, "we're from a very mighty country." And then they'd have the speeches.
They're not just traveling with White man, they bring along someone else. Can you tell me about York?
Clark brought along his slave. Sometimes he gets referred to as a servant, but servant he wasn't. He was owned lock, stock and barrel by William Clark. He had been Clark's property since he was a young boy. He was about the same age as Clark. He was big, he was strong. And to the Indians of the West, he was a phenomenon. They called him "Big Medicine" because they saw in him this new color of skin and the size and this physical power that they thought must come from some sort of special power. It's hard to, Clark, you wished that York had kept a journal because what must be like for a guy who comes from being a slave, owned, everything you do is at the behest of someone else, and suddenly you're in these cultures that honor you, they say, "Whoa," you know, "you're something special." For him he was, going west was going into a land of not just adventure but of freedom.
I'm struck by the beauty of the land. How are they receiving this?
For the men, you know, every day is, it's not just an Outward Bound experience. It's hard work going against the Missouri River. They're down in the river bottom. There are mosquitoes and there got boils and they've got sunstroke and it's hard, hard work. But if you go up out of the river valleys a little bit, you see this incredible, incredible landscape, hills rolling forever, green grass, they, they struggled to find words to describe it.
What happened with the Teton Sioux.
The Teton Sioux are Lakota, very used to sort of controlling the flow on the Missouri River and taking a boat from somebody if he's trying to go up. They got very close to a big, hard fight with them. I mean, the warriors had their arrows notched, they were ready to go and Lewis and Clark and their men had their guns ready to fire. And if it hadn't been actually for the cool-headedness of the, of the, of the Sioux chiefs, not Lewis or Clark, it would have come to blows and if it did, that would have been the end of the expedition. I mean, they might have won that initial flurry but they wouldn't have gone any farther up the river.
Now take me to the Mandan village. From their point of view.
The Mandan Hidatsa villages were actually, that's like New York City of the Plains in 1804. There were forty-five hundred people living in the villages. That's more than live in St. Louis at that time. That's more people that live in Washington, D.C. at that time. These are, the Mandans and Hidatsas were Indians who were prosperous farmers. They were used to seeing people come to them to trade for their corn and their beans and their squash. They had seen, a Frenchman had come, given them a flag and said, "You're part of us now." A Spaniard had come and given them a flag and said, "You're part of us now." The British fur traders were living among them. They brought their flags, their medals, said, "You're part of us now." So for them, you know, here comes a big boat, it's a big boat, bigger than anything they've seen but, you know, it's no big deal. I mean, people have been coming there before saying, "You're part of us." It's just, for the Mandans, you know, it's just a new customer.
But they took them in that winter.
The, you know it was good business for the Mandans and the Hidatsas to have, there's this big boat, tons of stuff in there that they would, you know, any one, any tribe would become even wealthier if they could have everything that was in the boat, so it was in their interest to have these new guys from the East staying among them. But it's also part of their culture, hospitality was, is part of the Indian culture of the plains. So you welcome somebody in, even if they may originally have been your enemy, you bring them in and you, and you shelter them and you're hospitable to them. And the Mandans were great for, for Lewis and Clark. They gave them corn when they needed it, they sold them corn when they needed it as well. They showed them how they hunted buffalo. That winter was a, it was two communities trying to get to, you're not sure who's exploring who sometimes, you know. Lewis and Clark are writing down the customs of the Mandans. The Mandans are coming over to see, "Hey, what's going on in this, in this fort?" They loved to have the expedition come to the village, play the fiddle, there was a one-eyed boatman named Pierre Cruzatte who played the fiddle and everyone enjoyed that. And to watch the Americans dance for them. And then the Americans would watch the Mandans do a dance for them. It was as a, it was a cold, cold winter, but it was made alot warmer just by the friendship of the different cultures.
What did the Mandans think of York?
Well, York, you know, was always astonishing the Indians that the expedition met because he was big and because of his color. One Hidatsa chief came strolling into the, into the fort one time and said, you know, "My men, I've heard these rumors that there's somebody here who has a different color skin, and obviously, you know, these are, these are tales, you know, told around a campfire that aren't true." And they brought York out and he looked at him and he said, "Well, you've just sort of greased him up or something like that," and took his hand and tried to rub the grease off, and when he couldn't, then he said, "Well this really is a big medicine here. This, this person is something special."
How cold was that winter?
There's no place in America where the temperature extremes are as much as they are in North Dakota. They have hot, hot summers and nobody has a colder winter than north of Bismarck, North Dakota. It was 30 degrees below zero, 40 degrees below zero, hard winds blowing. They had to shift the sentinels in front of Fort Mandan every half hour because the men were getting frostbite. If they sent somebody out to hunt, they'd come back and have to deal with frostbite. One man who was answering a call of nature, apparently, got part of his private parts frostbitten. I mean, that's cold. There was warm inside, they had a fire going. But, boy, they didn't want to venture out on the Great Plains in the middle of the winter unless you really had to.
It seems clear that this expedition wouldn't have survived without the help of many Indian tribes.
I think one of the, Lewis and Clark in general had great relations with native peoples. They were respectful of the Indians they met. Recognized that they were there before them and that they were important to whatever the future of the United States might be in the West. And the Indians as well said, "Well, here's a new trading partner, here's some people and maybe we can work something out." With very, very few exceptions, they had peaceful relations. And more important, without the Indians, the Lewis and Clark expedition would never have made it to the, to the West coast and they never would have made it back. They were critical to it. They were essential to the Lewis and Clark expedition.
How did they come to know and to hire a man named Charbonneau?
When they got among the Mandans for that winter, they started finding out, "Well, what should we expect farther west." Well, they're told there's a waterfall. Then there's this change, chain of mountains, "Shining Mountains" the Indians called it. And there's a tribe there who have horses that might be useful to you if you're trying to cross those mountains. As it turned out, one of the great windfalls of the Lewis and Clark expedition, among the Hidatsas was an young Indian woman named Sakagawea, sometimes called Sack-a-ja-wea. She'd been captured by the Hidatsas, so she spoke the Shoshoni language, and they decided, "We need her." I don't think they hired Toussant Charbonneau for his skills. They are hiring Sacagawea because they knew they needed horses and she might be helpful to them. She's a, she's a teenager, she's about sixteen years old, she's one of two wives of Toussant Charbonneau. She's pregnant when they hire her, but they knew that she would be essential and she became one of the most important members of the expedition.
Did she have another name?
She's called by a whole... She's called alot of different names. Sakakawea, Sacagawea, Sackajawea, Birdwoman. Lewis and Clark are always struggling with writing down Indian names and spelling it sort of phonetically. They would spell sort of like "Sacargawea," but they also called her Birdwoman. She spoke Shoshoni and Hidatsa and, so they never, there would never be any real conversation, I don't think, directly between Clark and Lewis and Sacagawea.
What are their objectives with the Indians?
Every time that they met an Indian tribe, they had three things they wanted to do. They wanted to find out about them for Jefferson. They wanted to establish trade relations because that's gonna be part of an empire for the United States. And they wanted to say, "You are now part of the United States. You have a new Great Father." And part of all of that was, "You gotta stop fighting one another. You know, it doesn't help us for trade, it doesn't help us, you know, as a nation if you're fighting one another." And they just couldn't understand how traditional it was on the Plains, and how for tribes to fight one another. I mean, it makes sense, you know, they all had different objectives that they wanted to, things that they want to do. Hunting grounds, raiding, all those things were imbedded in the Plains warrior culture, and they'd thought that if they just said, "Now we're here, just stop fighting, we'll give you some goods and it's ok." Clark was trying to explaining this one time to an Hidatsa warrior, about well we've got these plans for peace and everything. And the warrior listened for a while and then he just said, "But if we have peace, how will we have chiefs?" Because the way that their culture ennobled somebody, to make them rise in the ranks of the tribe, was through warfare. So he said, "If we don't fight one another, how do we exist, how do we have chiefs?" And I think that moment is, shows the, still this misunderstanding between two cultures.
In the spring of 1805, can you set me off from Fort Mandan?
They're going into the blank of their maps. In 1804 they'd been on the map, they had been on places that they could trace already, people had been there. When they leave Fort Mandan, they're going into this unknown. Lewis said, "We're about to trod 2,0000 miles on which the foot of civilizi, civilized man has never trod." They were going into the void. They had Indian information but they knew not what to expect or, you know, what it was that they were gonna get themselves into.
I'm curious about this peace plan. It presages the next 100 years of trouble.
Well, they didn't, while they're wintering among the Mandans, they almost got into another fight with the, with the, with the Sioux. The Sioux came up and stole some horses and almost got in a fight with the Lewis and Clark expedition. They're trying to talk the Hidatsas out of going other places. The Hidatsas said, "Oh, sure, right," and then sent a war party out on their own. It was, there were, there's really two expansionist powers that are starting to come into contact. There's the United States, which is gonna be moving west, and the Lakotas. They've been moving west for a century and they're just now playing around the edges of it, that something's gonna happen big in about 70 years.
Perfect. Roll out. Great.
I'll just tell you what I got on my mind. It's this, it's that the expedition that left Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805 was a different expedition than had left St. Louis in 1804. They're smaller, but more importantly, they now really are a group. They had left St. Louis a group of individuals. They're gonna leave Fort Mandan as a cohesive team. They've spent a long year going up the river together and they've spent a really hard winter together in North Dakota. So now they're gonna work as a team, and they're gonna need it, because they're leaving where the map is and they're about to go into the real unknown.
What is the Northwest Passage? Why has it animated so many dreams?
From the time Christopher Columbus bumped into North America, everyone kept looking for a way to get through this continent. And everyone figured there must be an easy way through, there must be a water route that gets through the Atlantic to the Pacific. The objective is to try to trade with the Orient. And everything in between is an obstacle. And the best way to try to get there is by water. It helps in trying to draw geography, not to have ever been there before. For people in the east, they figured, mountains must be like the Alleghenies. There could be a river that runs right through the mountains. Or if, at most, you know, you pick up a canoe and you haul it over for half a day and you put it in and you go on the stream that runs in the other direction. It was a key. Whoever controlled the Northwest Passage was gonna control the destiny of North America. Jefferson knew that, believed it, and everyone else believed it too. Every European believed it. If you could find the Northwest Passage, that's the key to controlling North America and all the riches there, and the trade with the Orient that would flow from it.
Tell me about Grizzly bears.
The, during the winter in North Dakota, the Hidatsas had told Lewis and Clark about there's this ferocious animal that lives where you're gonna be going. It's a big bear, a bear the size that you've never seen, you know. Some of our warriors have killed and look, we've got the claws, they're big claws aren't they, and it's a real mark of honor for us to kill one. Well, as they're going west into Montana they start seeing some big bear tracks, they think, "Hey, this must be it." But they're more curious than frightened of it. And, as they came into what's now Montana, they saw a grizzly bear, and it was big, but they shot it and killed it. And that night Lewis was writing in his journal, "Well, you know, I can understand how the Indians with, armed as they are with just some bows and arrows might be frightened of this monster. But in the hands of an experienced woodsman with a good rifle, they're nothing to be afraid of. Well, about 2 days later, they come across another grizzly bear and they fire 8 or 9 shots into it can't kill it. It chases them off the, off the Plain and into the river. They meet another one who chases some men up a tree. Everywhere they're going, they're meeting these big grizzly bears that they just have trouble killing. And finally, Lewis sits down one night to write in his journal, he says, "I find the curiosity of our men with respect to this animal is pretty much satisfied."
How do they name? This is the unknown--they are giving the first names to...
In the, that summer, they're going into places where they're off the map, you know, and so every stream that they come across, every landscape that they come across, not only do they have to map, but they've got to come up with a name for it. So they would name it after every member of the expedition. There's a, every member who went with Lewis and Clark had a creek or a hill or something named for them. Sacagawea, the dog named Semen has a creek named for him. Everything had it. Then they started saying, well, maybe it's something that happens there. They came across a river that was the color, Lewis said, of "tea with it has milk in it." Milk River. They came across a creek that had just a tiny bit of water. Teapot Creek, 'cause it only had enough water to fill a teapot. They came across another creek that had nothing in it. Big Dry. Then they had a campsite where a buffalo bull came, emerged out of the Missouri River and rampaged around the camp until Lewis's dog scared it off. Bull Creek. They came across a place where there were hundreds of buffalo carcasses with wolves feeding on it. That became Slaughter River. And finally they came to a river that Clark thought was a beautiful, bold stream. And so he named it after his girlfriend back in Virginia.
Tell me about Charbonneau. He seems like a disreputable character.
If you try to read between the lined of what the Captains say, I don't think they had a great amount of respect for Charbonneau. They hired him more for his wife than for him, I think. He was, he was a terrible boatman. He almost capsized one of the boats that summer and they had to point a gun at him to get him to grab the helm again and to keep everything from turning over. They almost lost all of their journals, their instruments. It'd been a catastrophe and they blamed him for it. But the one thing they thought he could pretty good was cook. He would make this concoction, he would take a buffalo intestine and he'd squeeze all the things that you wouldn't want to eat out of the buffalo intestine and then he'd chop up buffalo meat and kidneys and push it, push it back in. Then he'd dunk it in the Missouri River and then he'd boil it for a while and then he'd fry it in, in grease, and Lewis said it was a great delicacy--"Boudon Blanc(?)." White Pudding.
They, they were going through all sorts of hardships, you know. They were fighting a river's current. It was hot. It was tough going. And what do they complain about? What every person who goes out and camps complains about--bugs. Lewis said, "We have our great trio of pests, greater than ever poor Egypt ever labored under." There were gnats, always flying around their face. There were prickly pear cactus who would puncture their moccasins and make going tough. But mostly it was mosquitoes. And they struggled to try to even describe what they are like. The dog was howling at night, you learned, because of the mosquitoes. The men were always complaining about. They start off being, "The mosquitoes were troublesome." Then it says, "Mosquitoes, very troublesome." Then, "Mosquitoes, uncommonly troublesome." Then, "Mosquitoes exceedingly troublesome." And finally, "Mosquitoes immensely numerous and troublesome." They were just, they were the bane of their existence.
What about the dog? The dog seems a constant companion.
Lewis brought along a Newfoundland dog. Why, no one, I don't think, understands, but there it was. It was a big, big dog. It suffered mightily. You know, going up the river, the mosquitoes were always, you know, swarming around it. It would dive into the water and chase beaver. It would, it captured an antelope one time that was trying to cross the river. It did one time scare a buffalo bull out of the campsite that it sort of blundered into the, into the campsite. But he took it with him everywhere he went and it was a member of the expedition.
They are coming into the unknown and some spectacular scenery. Can you describe it.
There was nothing in their lives that could have prepared them for the majesty, the immensity, the distances of the West. They sent a man one time out to go reconnoiter a hill which they thought, you know, might be, you know, a couple of miles away. Well, the distances of the West are deceiving. They sent him out and he went half a day and came back and said he'd only gotten half way there. Everywhere they looked, there was something new. The Great Plains stretched on forever. They finally got a glimpse of the mountains, way, way, way off in the distance. It was a big moment for Lewis and Clark to see this is part of their objective to get over there. But they're gonna keep seeing those mountains for weeks and months before they finally reach them.
The White Cliffs.
"Scenes of visionary enchantment," is what Lewis used to describe these incredible formations. They look like cities, they look like statues, they look like, they're straight walls. Lewis said, "I would think that it was made by the hand of man until I realize that nature did those things before there was a hand of man." It was a gorgeous, gorgeous scenery. I'm not sure that the rest of the men felt that. Lewis was, Lewis in his journals sometimes gets very effusive. You wish that he wrote all the time. There are times where he just shut down and there's no journal entries for long periods of time. We can only speculate that he was probably in a, you know, depressed mode or something. He was, he was still there with the expedition but he disappears entirely. And then suddenly he'll come back in with his journals and he'll rhapsodize about the, about the landscape. But meanwhile, the men are slogging through against the current. The mud on the shoreline is pulling their moccasins off. It's hot. The bugs are driving them crazy. But it's through a, it's through a wonderland. It's something that, even today, if you go look at, it just takes your breath away.
Can you talk to me about the quandary at the Marias?
The Indians had told them of certain things to expect. A river that they called, "The River That Scolds All Others" they would meet. And then they would come to a great waterfall. They'd went past the river that they thought was "The River That Scolds All Others," but then they come across a river that they weren't prepared for. It looked to the men like this was, this was the Missouri. And this other branch that went off to the south, all the men, to a single man, believed that that could not be the Missouri River, the one that's gonna lead to the waterfall, the one that's gonna lead them to the Northwest Passage. Except Lewis and Clark. Both of them thought immediately, "That's the one we ought to take."
We're at the Marias.
To a man, all the members of the expedition thought this one that goes north has got to be the right one, except for Lewis and Clark, who said, thinking better than the other men, that this clear running stream, which is different than the Missouri that we've known so far, is probably the one that's gonna take us to the mountains. But how they solved that, I think, is the core of how they worked together as Captains, as a team. Rather than just saying, "We say it's this way, we're going this way," which they could do as military commanders, they said, "We'll stop, we'll reconnoiter, and we'll check up this river, we'll check up that river." 'Cause they wanted to bring these people along with them. They're way out there now, I mean, they're a long way from anywhere, and if they make the wrong choice, they're sunk. There's nothin' they're gonna be able to do. The whole thing's gonna be up. And so you don't want to take those men with you if they're not agreeing. So they reconnoitered one, they reconnoitered another, and the captains were right.
After the Marias...
Let me just continue one. Actually, they reconnoitered both. After, after Lewis and Clark had reconnoitered, they were still, they were still sure that they had been right. The men are still pretty sure that they're not, but the men finally said, "We will follow you, if that's the way that you think it is." I think that was a big moment for that expedition in which the men who had been flogged on the way up to, the first summer, men who had been unruly before, now said, "We'll follow you anywhere, 'cause we'll, we believe in you. You, you listen to us and we'll go."
And after the Marias, they come across a bitter pill...
It was a great moment for Lewis. I mean he saw this, he saw steam rising on the Plain, seven miles away, and then he started hearing a roar. And, he must have just been racing across the plain, because if he can find a waterfall, he knows he's on the right track. And finally he comes, and there is this enormous, enormous waterfalls, just cataracts going over, there's rainbows shooting up from the spray. He's, he struggles to try to, you know, to try to bring it to life with his pen. It's just a glorious, glorious moment. And then he finds that there's another waterfall, and then another, and another. So it's, it's awful pretty, but it's not gonna be a half day getting around these things. It's gonna take them a long time.
Describe that portage--what's happening?
It's the middle of the summer in central Montana, I mean it's hot. The men are having to pull these heavy wooden canoes, these dugout canoes, on land on these rough wheels, over broken terrain. They're wearing out two moccasins... I'm sorry. They're wearing out a moccasin...ok. So it's hot, it's incredibly hot. They're trying to pull these canoes on these rough wagons that they've, they've constructed. You know, 98 degrees, the men are collapsing sometimes, they get dehydrated, they're wearing out a moccasin every two days, they have to replace their moccasins. There's rain storms that almost wash away Clark and some other people. There's a hail storm, they're out in the middle of the Plains and there's a hail storm with hail stones seven inches in circumference. They don't have any hats on and it almost kills some of the men. They had to give them extra gills of whiskey to calm them down. It is a tough, tough portage. It was supposed to be half a day, and it takes them, you know, two weeks of hard labor and then a couple of weeks on each end just to prepare and rest from it.
And now it's a countdown...
Yeah, yeah, every... They delayed to find out which was the right river to take. The portage was supposed to take 'em half a day. It uses up almost a month. Not only are they tired and in the middle of what to them is nowhere, but times a wasting. They can see these mountains out in the distance, and they've got to get over 'em before the snows comes.
Tell me about The Gates of the Mountains...
After they left the Great Falls, they're going along the river against the current of the river, but now they're going south, they're paralleling the mountains instead of going into them. And finally they come across this place where there's these, the cliffs come in to the river itself, and as you pole up the river and get out into it a little bit, they seem to open up. And Lewis said, " By the remarkable appearance of these, I have named them The Gates of the Rocky Mountains." So they felt they were now getting into the mountains, that they may be making progress. But they weren't. They still had a long way to go.
What were the Gates like?
They're straight perpendicular cliffs rising straight up, rocky places, it was a, it was sort of a gloomy day, it was rainy. And it's hard to, hard to find a place to camp. But at least they felt they're making progress now, they're getting into the mountains.
July 4th, 1805.
On July 4th, Independence Day, which they celebrated every time on that expedition. I mean, you know, these are, these are the sons of the people who fought the Revolution. It's a serious, serious holiday. They'd named a creek Independence Creek their first, their first Fourth of July. They'd finally completed the portage. All that sweat and labor was over, and so they celebrated. Cruzatte got out his fiddle and played it. The men danced with one another. And they gave out the last of the whiskey. It was the last of the whiskey and they knew it. And so they celebrated pretty hard and the men got a little tipsy according to Lewis. They had a great time. But for the Captains, I think, it's also a time where they know that the men are happy and they're celebrating and they're happy about that. But they know that they're behind schedule and you can see from there way off in the distance are these mountains that are alot bigger than any mountains you ever saw in Virginia or New Hampshire.
You could you describe the frustration at the Three Forks?
When they reached the Three Forks of the Missouri where there's three rivers that come together to form the Missouri River, Lewis named them after Albert Gallatin who was Treasury Secretary. It's his money that they're spending on the expedition. They named it after James Madison. He had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. And the stream that they thought was the best stream and the stream that they were gonna follow they named for Thomas Jefferson because he had sent them west. But now the rivers are getting smaller, they're getting, you know, they're shallower. It's harder and harder going. They're poling the canoes in the water, you know, over rocks and things like that. And it's hot, it's early August, late July, and yet they can see in the distance that it's snowing up in some of the mountain peaks. And that's mind boggling. I mean, that doesn't happen in Virginia. You don't, you're not down in the valley in the middle of the summer in Virginia where it's hot and look up and know that it's snowing up in the mountains.
Could walk me to the ridge of Lemhi Pass with Lewis?
From the time that Lewis had been working in the White House with Thomas Jefferson, he'd been looking, he'd been preparing himself for a day when he would come to the Continental Divide, find the Northwest Passage. He was gonna climb a ridge and when he looked out he would see what all geographers had said you were supposed to see. You were gonna see the mirror image of what you just saw. It was gonna be a vast plain, a river flowing out to the sea, maybe even you might see the sea itself. And as he's walking up that ridge, he stands across a little stream so he's bestriding the heretofore unconquerable Missouri, he stopped at a fountain to, at the headwaters, and his heart must have been racing like crazy because it's this supreme moment of the expedition. And he walks up to this ridge and when he got there he looked out and all he saw were more mountains. They're just mountain after mountain after mountain after mountain. It' August. There's snow on those mountains. The, you know, the dream of an easy water route across the North American continent was just dealt a mighty blow on that moment that Lewis is the first one to experience. It was, it was a moment in which elation and disappointment were intermixed. That they came together right at that moment. He is standing, he was standing not only at the Continental Divide, he was standing at the limits of the United States at that moment. Everything on the other side did not belong to the United States. But everything on the other side was far different than what he had expected.
And the information placed the expedition in jeopardy as well.
You... He'd, he'd expected, they'd expected that, you know, you could bring canoes up to the headwaters of the Missouri River, you know, pull them out and maybe, in half a day, you put 'em in another big river and, you know, it'd be a nice little float down to the Pacific Ocean. And when he was standing there and you see all of those mountains, you know that it's not going to be a half-day portage. It's gonna be alot harder than that. And times a'wasting. It's August and it's already snowing in certain places, and you'd better get a move on.
Their objective is to what now?
Their objective became, they've got to get through those mountains before it snows, because if it snows, they're done. They're gonna die. There's no way, there's no way they can build a fort in this area. There is no way that they can survive unless they get through the mountains and it's too late to turn back.
Tell me about meeting the Shoshonis after being through this mountain experience.
The Shoshonis were a small tribe, desperately poor. They didn't have guns and all their enemies, the Blackfeet and Hidatsas had guns, and they'd kicked them off of the Buffalo Plains. So they didn't have access to buffalo, so they ate roots, they ate the bitterroot, which Lewis said didn't taste very good to him, but that's all that they had. Or fish. They had just been raided by some enemy tribe. They were down to one tipi that they let Lewis stay in. So they were generous, but they were suspicious, they'd never seen White people before and Lewis is trying, struggling to communicate with them, to say, "Come with me, back over the other side of the mountain. There's another group coming and if you come, we can trade with you and you'll get guns and you can do these things because we need your horses. When Cameahwait and Lewis left the village to go meet the rest of the expedition, the women in the village started singing a wailing song, thinking that they might be being lead to their death. It might be a trap. But everything rested on whether you could convince the Shoshonis to trade for those horses. 'Cause without the horses, you're gonna have a long, long winter in the mountains of what's now Montana, and you're not gonna make it.
And what is the extraordinary coincidence?
If you were a novelist and you were writing a story about an expedition going somewhere, and you tried to put in it that the Indian woman that you were bringing along with you turned out to be the sister of the chief who's got the horses you need, you'd be laughed out of every literary circle imaginable. But that's what happened. Sacagawea was Cameahwait... Sacagawea was Cameahwait's sister. She had been captured by the Hidatsas five years earlier, and here she is being brought back by these strangers. So she can help you translate, which helps. But more important than anything else, you've brought one of their own back. We'll that makes getting horses a little bit easier. I want to say too, it's a combination, the fact that she's Cameahwait's sister is both a great stroke of luck for Lewis and Clark. But let's not forget, when they were back with the Mandans, they decided they needed to hire somebody who was a Shoshoni. I mean, it was, it was planning that they had done. Foresight on their part that made the luck possible. And without Sacagawea, they still might have gotten horses, but it would have been alot harder.
Tell me about Lewis's 31st birthday.
Lewis had just become the first American citizen to stand at the Continental Divide. He had just completed the negotiations for the horses that his men were gonna need to get through the mountains, and succeed on their expedition. And as he sat down on the night of his 31st birthday, he recounted what he'd done that day. And then he turned inward in his writing. He starts questioning of whether he had done enough. I mean, he's 31 years old. Had he done enough? My God, what more could you hope to have done at that age? He may have been writing to the crowds a little bit, you know, maybe a little bit of false modesty. But I still think there's something in Lewis, this element of him, that could take, you know, a supreme moment in someone's life and somehow find something dark and moody to write about.
Tell me about the Flatheads. They're in a rush, but they stop with them and something happens.
The most important thing for Lewis and Clark is to get through the mountains. To find a way through these mountains so they can get to the Pacific Ocean. They come across another tribe that had never encountered White people before. They turned out to be the Salish(?) and they speak this strange language, unlike the Shoshonis or any other people. And they thought, maybe these are those Welsh Indians, because a couple of the journalists say, it sounded maybe a little bit Welsh, and maybe we didn't find a Northwest Passage, but hey, here are these descendants of Wales that we've been looking for. So they stopped to try to take down what their language is about. And, in order to communicate, they have to say, someone has says something in Salish, there's a Shoshoni captive who can speak Shoshoni, he translates to Sacagawea in Shoshoni, she translates to Hidatsa to Charbonneau, Charbonneau translates to French for one of the Frenchmen with Lewis and Clark, who translated into English for Lewis and Clark. Five chains of language that you've got to go through. Just saying, "Hello, how are you. What's the best way across those mountains," would probably take you half and hour.
Travelers Rest. Can you explain the shortcut they missed?
They had been coming up, actually coming down the Bitterroot River and right off to their left every day are these jagged, jagged peaks. It's fall now, the leaves have turned. There's waterfowl. But up in those mountains they can see it's snowing already and they gotta get through those places. And as they're getting ready to do that, they're talking with some Indians and they find out that from Great Falls to where they are, there's a shortcut that they can do in maybe four or five days. Four or five days--it had taken them 53 days to get there. I mean, it must have just been a kidney punch before you're trying to get through those mountains to find out that, you know, you've just wasted essentially two months and you're now in jeopardy because it's gettin' to be snow time in the mountains and you could a done it a month and a half earlier.
It's a shock they had.
The Bitterroots, the Lolo Trail. How desperate was it?
The dream of a northwest passage had been struck a heavy blow at Lemhi Pass, but it died a very cold and miserable death up in the Bitterroot Mountains. It was, it was cold. They're in moccasins, you know, they wake up and it snowed on 'em. They're out of food, they're wandering around, there's trees across the paths, the horses are slipping and rolling down these mountainsides. And, and they're hungry, they're starving, they killed a colt to eat. They ran out of that. They killed another one to eat that. They run out of it. They ate their candles. They ate anything they could get their hands on. The whole thing is right on the edge, I mean they're really starving and every time they get to a little peak and look out, more mountains. Mountains as far as they could see. Beyond belief. It had to be, you know, it was the scariest moment, I think, for the expedition, in which it was possible that they might not make it out and if, if they vanished, they vanished. I mean, no one would know what would happen to them.
They tumbled out of the mountains and they met some people.
They met the Nez Perce and that was, you know, I think if you could pick a tribe, if you could pick a tribe you wanted to wander down into, starving and lost, not lost, but essentially lost, you couldn't pick a better tribe than the Nez Perce. They gave them food, they let them cut down trees. Showed them how to, how to make them into canoes. They were, Lewis said, "the most hospitable people that we have met on this voyage." There was a critical moment in the expedition, and thank God for them that that was the Nez Perce that they met.
How did they meet the Nez Perce? What happened?
They, Clark came down out of the mountains ahead of the rest and ran into some Indians. The Nez Perce had never seen a White person before either. You know, they would have been at a moment where these guys are starving, they're weak with hunger. They'd have been easy pickings for any tribe that came across them if that was their inclination at the time. But they decided instead to help them.
They gave them, they gave them these...these are, these are men who had been eating nine pounds of meat a day when they're out on the Buffalo Plains. Nine pounds of meat, and that was essentially all that, all that they would have. Lots and lots of meat they're used to. And they went through the Bitterroot Mountains and they've had almost nothing to eat and now the Nez Perce give them this feast of salmon and these rich roots that they, that they, that grew in the area. And what happens, they gorge themselves on it, as any starving person would and immediately they're just, they're all lying down, they've got dysentery, they're bloated, they're sick. Three quarters of the men are sick, and, of course, what does Lewis, what did Lewis do, he gets out this bottle of Rush's Thunderbolts to give 'em. I mean these are people who have dysentery and are bloated and they give them a laxative and that makes them all worse. I mean, they almost, they almost died from starvation, and then they almost died by the cure.
But now we're traveling with the current.
You know, time's a wasting and, but at last, it must have been a supreme moment for that whole expedition to push these dugout canoes out on to the Clearwater River because for the first time in a year and a half of hard, hard labor, the current's with them. It's pushing them. They're moving along. It's tough going. They spilled their canoes, they took chances that they shouldn't have taken, they ran rapids, they even, you know, catapulted over some small waterfalls that, in their, in any other kind of moment they would never would have tried. But they've got to get to the sea because, you know, they're way behind schedule.
What are they eating?
Lewis and Clark had eaten their way across North America.
Stop. We'll do this again.
The Columbia river system is like the... Let me start again. Back up a second. Lewis and Clark and their expedition ate their way across the West. They'd had buffalo, elk, antelope, big horn sheep, they'd even tried a prairie dog back in, back on the Great Plains. They'd eaten berries and everything, they'd tasted everything. And now they were in the greatest salmon fishery the world has ever known, the Columbia River basin. And there's salmon beyond belief. Clark saw some houses where he thought ten thousand pounds of dried salmon must be resting there. And instead, what did the men want to eat? They didn't want fish, they wanted meat. That's what they were used to eating--nine pounds of meat a day back on the Plains. There's no meat to be had, so they started buying dogs. They'd come into an Indian village and they'd trade whatever they could to buy dogs. They'd be sitting right next to the river bank where the salmon are, are, you know, swarming, and they'd have, you know, dog for dinner. You know, they were wiping out the canines of the Northwest as they moved through. Lewis said that he and most of the men liked the taste of dog after a while. Clark was the only one who said, "I find that I have not reconciled myself to the taste of dog."
But they never ate Seamen.
Lewis's dog was spared, you know. He would have been a meal for the whole, for the whole group. He was, he was big enough. But he was spared.
They see Mt. Hood. What does this mean?
As they came down the Columbia River, you know, they're in a wholly different terrain. It's, it's arid. It's a desert. There aren't any trees. The wind's blowing and it's harsh, harsh country. But off in the distance they saw this cone sticking up, snow-covered volcanic cone. It was Mount Hood. That was the signal that they're leaving that big gap, that unknown spot on their maps, and now they're coming back into the map, they're coming back into the known. Ships had come up the mouth of the Columbia River and had seen Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams and had named them. They were on their map. The map that they had with them, that was the sort of, that was the edge of the maps, so when they saw Mount Hood, they knew at least they're back on the map and they're back on schedule.
And then they go into the gorge.
There's, there's few places in the world, I think, where the climate and terrain changes so dramatically as it does when you go through the Columbia River gorge. On one side, it's a desert. It's harsh, harsh land. And then you come into it and you come through this place that traps all those moist winds off of the Pacific, You know, there's moss growing, it's rainy, it's huge, huge trees. There's water everywhere, waterfalls. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous spot that they, that they went through and it was like this that the climate had changed on them. And they're gonna be in a very, very damp place. It's a rain, it's literally a rainforest that they entered.
And then the ocean...
November 7, 1805.
Let me stop you... They know they're close to the ocean because of the water.
As they're coming down the Columbia, they're seeing all these different types of Indians. People, you know, the shores are crowded with Indians. There's as many Indians there as people, White people, living in the East. And they're people who have been in contact with White people. They started seeing people wearing sailor coats and brass buttons and tea kettles on the fire, so that they know that they're coming into contact with Indian peoples, who've come in contact with, with their own kind. They start hearing reports that maybe farther down there might even be a settlement of White people, a fort, a trading fort, or something. The Indians have flattened heads. They live in big plank houses. It's a very strange and different world for 'em, but they're mounting, mounting anticipation because they know they're getting down, number one, to the ocean, which is one of their objectives, and number two, there's this chance that there'll be some trading vessels there and they can give them their reports to take back to Thomas Jefferson. They can get more supplies from them. So, every day with that mighty current of the Columbia River behind them, they're getting closer. They start to smell salt air. The water itself has a little bit of salt in it. There's tidal motion in it, and their, the anticipation must've just been unbearable for them. Finally, on November 7th, they rounded a bend of the Columbia River and it opened up in front of them after the fog lifted, and Clark wrote in his journal, "Ocean in view. Oh, the joy!" Thinking that, you know, we've made it at last. Well the Columbia, it turns out to be, a very big river, and the mouth of the Columbia is a very big mouth. And they weren't at the ocean yet. They were still about 20 miles from it. The weather turned on them. They were pinned against the shore of the Columbia River. The tidal motion was coming in, you know. Big, big logs crashing up against them. They had trouble finding a camping space. It's raining, it's miserable. Clark wrote, Clark usually in his journals is fairly laconic. As he's approaching the ocean, he starts using exclamation points! "Ocean in view!" Exclamation point. "Oh!" Exclamation point. "The Joy!" And then it turns to exclamation points of, "Miserable is the day! Oh, how miserable!" It's raining. It's pounding them. It's keeping them away from finding the place that they can camp. They're the most miserable that they've been.
What does that vote mean that they take?
I think when they decided to hold a vote to decide where they're gonna spend their winter, that moment to me is a quintessential American moment. I mean, they could have just, the Captains could have said, we're heading back up the river or we're camping over there, or we're doing this or we're doing that. And instead, they decided, each person is gonna say what they think in the presence of everybody else. So one by one, they had the men say what they wanted to do. And then they let York vote. He's a black man, he's a slave, it's sixty, seventy years before slaves will be emancipated and get to vote. Sacagawea casts her vote. She's an Indian and a woman and it's gonna be a century before Indians and women get to vote in the United States. They're not really in the United States at this moment, but they are, they had jumped out ahead of time. And it's a great moment. I would have... That's the time I would have, would have loved to be there. It was, it was, it was Lewis and Clark at their best, which is America at its best.
That's great. Want to stop? Stop.
They'd just been through this incredible year. 1805 was the year of discovery for Lewis and Clark, you know. First they'd just gotten to the edge of a map and then they gotta get to the other edge of a map. But 1805, think about. They went from a place where it had been 40 degrees below zero. They'd been to a place where it was 98 degrees. They'd been through hail storms. They'd seen a waterfalls, they had crossed the continent. Every day, every single day was something new. Places that no White people had ever been before. It was discovery after discovery after discovery. And now, they know, in ways that no Americans could know at that time, that there was a continent between them and home. That, and they knew how big that continent was in ways that no other American knew at that time. They knew how hard it was to get across. They knew that there wasn't a small chain of mountains. It's a big, big chains of mountains. And yet, that's between them and home now. And going back is going to be a very, very different experience. They're separated. That's the only time that you start to read in their journals that they feel this pang of separation, that they're homesick. Fort Clatsop is a winter of being homesick. It's wet. Every day it's raining. The meat is bad. It's just elk, and half the time it's spoiled, and sometimes some pounded fish and some roots. There's nothing to do. Nothing worthy of notice, of mentioning, becomes a constant refrain in the diaries. It's just raining and raining and raining on them and they have been used to being on the move, discovering new things, and all they know is that there's a really big continent between the misery that they're in the midst of, and getting back home.
So it's time to go home. Take me out of Fort Clatsop.
They had never turned back before. I mean, they, the west was the direction that they had been going, you know. The sun is behind you in the morning and it's in your eyes at the end of the day. And now it's gonna be the opposite, you know. You're gonna be going into the sun in the morning and it's gonna be falling behind you. And you're going back through terrain that you knew. Everything between that's gonna happen to you, between now and home, is not an adventure, it's not something new, it's an obstacle. It's something preventing you from getting back to the people you know. It's getting back to tell people what you've discovered. If you don't get back, you never went in the first place, because all your information is there with you.
When they headed home, there's a different mood in the expedition. They're irritable. Lewis in particular is short-tempered. Alexander Willard forgets something and he reprimands him in ways that even Lewis said, I probably shouldn't have. The Indians are real irritants to them. They're stealing a few things, which had happened before, but this time, Lewis struck an Indian. Never done that before. He mentioned, I think the men are, you know, would kill some of these people if I, if I let them. They stole his dog, and he was ready to burn down a village in order to get his dog back. Part of it, I think, is they want to get home so badly and unless they get home successfully, you know, it would be as if they hadn't gone at all. But, I think it's also that they're not, now that they've headed home, they're thinking more that they're back home. You know, they still need the Indians, but not quite as much as they did before because they're traveling a route that they've been over before. When you're out in the new territory, the people who live there are very important. When you're traveling through just to get through is when you think of the people there maybe as rubes or obstacles. I think people always react that way.
What about their second time through the Bitterroots?
They got back to the Bitterroot Mountains, "the most terrible mountains I ever beheld," one of the men wrote. They'd been dreading it, I mean they'd almost died going through it and they know they got to get back over them to get home, and they got back to the Nez Perce too soon. The snows are still too deep. There's, it's impossible to get over. So they had to spend some time with the Nez Perce. Well, you know, that's the tribe you want to spend the time with. They had games. Lewis and Clark wanted the men to be in shape so they had a foot races, they played games, they played a game of base, a pre-cursor of baseball, with the Indians. And the Indians, the Nez Perce were tremendously hospitable to 'em again. And they made a couple of attempts and it was on the second time that they finally made it through.
Tell me about their splitting up into smaller units, particularly around Travelers Rest.
They were trying to get home but they still had a little bit of exploring to do. Clark was gonna explore the Yellowstone River. Lewis wanted to find out, is that shortcut we heard about real or not. I mean, we've heard things that turned out not to be true. We don't want that to be a myth as well. And he wanted to see how far north the drainage of the Missouri River was, and therefore how big the Louisiana territory in the United States was now. So they split up and as they split up, they'd split up into smaller groups. There was one time on the way back that they're in five separate groups, moving east, you know. Lewis is one place, Clark in another place, men in other places. It was partly their confidence, I think, that they knew that they could survive split up, a little bit of recklessness of trying to find out some, some information. But, there was this time where spread out across Montana, which is a big state, there were five little Corps of Discovery moving home.
What happened with the Blackfeet.
When Lewis met with the Blackfeet Indians, he told them essentially this. Besides the general things, you're now part of an American nation, he also said, we're gonna be doing business with the Shoshonis, we're gonna be doing business with the Hidatsas, we'll be bringing them trade goods too. Well, that's like telling, that's like telling Russia that you're giving the secret of the atom bomb to the Ukrainians or something. It's, it was telling them that things had changed, that the Americans were gonna change the power structure of the Plains. And that's not good news for the Blackfeet. And it led to the only time that they really had any bloodshed on the whole Lewis and Clark trail.
After they escaped the Blackfeet, now they're really heading back.
Once they got rejoined, I mean it's all just a question of how many miles can we cover today. We got the big Missouri River behind us, 60 miles, 70 miles, 80 miles a day. Those guys were leaning into the paddles as much as they could because, you know, we want to get home. They'd been out of, they'd been out of whiskey since July 4th, 1805. They've been out of tobacco since Christmas, 1805, so, you know, there's, besides getting home, there's some other things that you're gonna want to do as well. And they started meeting traders coming up who already, in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase, in the wake of some of the initial information that had come back from Lewis and Clark about beavers and things like that, there's already a change afoot on the Missouri River. People are going there to trade with the Indians, to scout things out, but those guys are going as fast as they can. They get some whiskey from a trader. That was a day you wanted to be there with the group. They started getting tobacco. They got news from home. Lewis is a politician. He learns that Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, two of the giants of American politics at the time, had had a duel. And Hamilton was dead. They learned that Jefferson had already sent Zebulon Pike to explore a different part of the Louisiana Territory. And they learned that many people in the United States had already given them up for dead or lost. They'd been gone so long, and they had been not heard from for so long that many people just assumed they went into that wilderness, that blank in the map, and they disappeared somewhere there.
Tell me about that moment along the Missouri when they realize they are home.
They see a cow, and a cow means home. I mean, they'd seen ten thousand herds of, ten thousand head of buffalo out on the Great Plains, they'd seen astonishing numbers of prong-horned antelope. They'd seen grizzly bears. They'd seen everything. But seein' a cow, that means you're home, and it was a there, a shout rose up from the men because they were, they were returning.
Tell me about buffalo.
There's, everyone has things that they would like to have been with on the Lewis and Clark trail. I, there's many of mine. To stand on a, on a hill on the Great Plains and see ten thousand buffalo, as Clark said he saw at one time, is a staggering thing, blanketing the Plains. When they're snorting, you know, it reverberates. The ground could shake from the number of buffalo they saw. It was awesome, it was a paradise for them. It meant that you could eat and eat hearty without any worry. It was a marker, I think, that they saw on the Great Plains, of the wildlife that they saw. If you go on the Great Plains today, the things that Lewis and Clark remarked the most on, are absent. Ten thousand head of buffalo in one glance, elk living on the Plains. Grizzly bears were a Plains animal. It was, it was bountiful in wildlife as today it is a desert of wildlife, it is a bountiful today of growing food and of cattle, but it is a desert of wildlife of what Lewis and Clark once saw.
Was York excited about returning?
I think of all the, of the expedition as they're racing, racing to St. Louis, they decided they wouldn't even bother hunting, you know, we'll just eat grapes, or whatever we can find, Captains, just let us keep, keep going. I can't imagine that York felt that same way. For him, he's leaving a moment in his life of freedom, where people had treated him as an equal. He'd voted with the rest of the men. He'd been having his gun and hunting with them. The Indians had, if not revered him, at least respected him as an equal or more than equal. And he's coming down with the current behind him, not toward a hero's welcome, not toward a return to something more than he'd left. He's returning to slavery. He's gonna be somebody's property. I hope that he was holding the canoes back a little bit as they went down.
What was the public's response when they returned?
They were heroes. Somebody said that they looked like Robinson Carusos. They'd been to a place that was like returning, like astronauts coming back from the moon. They didn't have ticker tape parades in those days. But every town that they came through wanted to put on a dance and a ball to celebrate, to hear from them what it was that they had seen. They were surprised, the public was surprised that they still existed, and now they wanted to know what it was that they had seen. They were, they were heroes.
Does this compare, in some ways, with the space program?
The Lewis and Clark expedition is the, is step one on the Americans going to the moon. It was the first time that the government decided we'll explore as a nation. It was launched by a young, I would say democratic president, who wanted to both explore new places, he was in a race with other, other nations, "I want to be first." Nationalism, we should be first, we're Americans, but it's also important because it'll be good for business. He sold it to Congress for that. They were going to the unknown, and yet, for them it was more of an unknown than going to the moon. When the astronauts went to the moon, they'd seen pictures of it, they knew what to expect. When Lewis and Clark headed out into the West, they didn't have the slightest notion of what to expect. It was more unknown to them than to the astronauts.
What happened to the people after the expedition?
Most of the men sort of disappear into the mists of time. Clark tried to keep track of them. Clark was that kind of guy that would try to keep track of people. And about 20 years later he started making a list and a number of them were dead or killed or died in mysterious circumstances, meaning that he just didn't know how. Some of them, he just didn't know where they were. But a few of them we know what happened to them. John Coulter had left, didn't, left the expedition on its return trip with the Captain's permission to return to the mountains. He became, in a sense, he became in essence, the first mountain man. He wandered around searching for furs and Indians to trade with and stumbled onto this great plateau where he described that there was smoke coming out of the ground and bubbling cauldrons of mud and steam shooting up, and everyone laughed when he told these tales. They called it "Coulter's Hell." It's Yellowstone National Park today. A couple of the men went into the fur trading business, killed by the Blackfeet, the same tribe that Lewis had had a fight with. Some of the men stayed in the army. Alot of them took land in Missouri and became farmers. Some of them finally made it all the way across the continent. Alexander Willard, who had been born in Charlestown, New Hampshire, gone west with Lewis and Clark, came back with them. When he was in his sixties in 1852, he took a covered wagon and went all the way to California, died on the West Coast. Charbonneau went back to living with the Hidatsa, Hidatsas and the Mandans. Sacagawea, there's a controversies over what happened to her. The best accounts, which I would take Clark as the best account, said that she died in 1812. Clark had promised her that he would help raise her son, Baptiste, who had, he had held on his lap. You know, he was an infant who went west with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Clark saw that he was schooled in St. Louis, he met a German prince, went to Europe, saw Europe, came back, became a mountain man, guided people west, lived in California for a while. And as a person who had spent his life journeying, when he heard that there was gold in Oregon and Montana, set out for it and died on the trail.
What happened to William Clark?
Clark is a, Clark is a solid guy. He was a, he was the son of a famous frontier family. His brother, older brother who he adored, had been offered the job of going on an expedition by Thomas Jefferson that never transpired. Duty was big for William Clark. And after the expedition, he saw his duty. He worked as the Indian agent for the Missouri territory. The Indians called him, "The Redhead," because he had this red hair. And they called St. Louis "Redhead's Town," because that's where he lived. You don't want to paint him, you know, too much as someone who was out of time, but he was a friend of Indians. He saw what their needs were. He was an agent of American empire but he could be a good friend of Indians, and he wrote several letters to Jefferson, in fact, complaining about, you know, the treatment that Indians were getting. He lost a race for governor of Missouri because he was too soft Indians. He lived to be an old man, a prosperous business man, and he, he died a peaceful death at the home of his son, Meriwether Lewis Clark.
What was Jefferson's reaction to their return?
Jefferson was overjoyed to hear that they were back. Overjoyed to get all this store of information that they had. You have to imagine that he got the maps out with Lewis and they spread them out on the floor. And you know, you'd like to imagine Lewis saying, "And here's where we saw ten thousand buffalo and over here where the grizzly bears chased us off a river bank and, you know, here's where we saw this. And then he would'a had to get to this point where he said, "And you remember that little half-day portage that we were all expecting to find? Well, sir, Mr. President, it's, you know, a couple a hundred miles of impenetrable mountains. There isn't an easy water route across our continent." That had to be a shock and a disappointment to Jefferson. But at the same time, as a scientist and as a man of the Enlightenment, on the other hand, he's got all this other information and I think that had to compensate for it.
Take me back to the story--he'd actually heard from them at least once before, right?
They sent this incredible package of goods as a present, in essence, to the President from Fort Mandan. It had boxes of stuff. There were skeletons of antelopes, there were skins of foxes and wolves and stuffed animals. Buffalo hides that the Indians had painted on. Some corn seeds that he planted at Monticello to grow to see how well they would grow in Virginia. And he sent them, they sent him a magpie, a Western magpie, alive. A prairie grouse, alive, and a prairie dog, alive. Many of the animals died on the way to the east coast but the prairie dog lived and he sent it up to Philadelphia and they displayed it there in Independence Hall, where he had written the Declaration of Independence. You know, what a symbol. In the place where the American nation had been born, was in a cage was this little prairie dog that Lewis and Clark had spent an afternoon out in the west, trying to drown out of its hole to send back to the scientist president.
What happened to Meriwether Lewis after the expedition?
Lewis disintegrated. He fell apart. He just went apart at the seams. You know it happened to some astronauts that we know of, too, coming back and readjusting. And that may be making too much of it but he became the governor of the Louisiana territory. He's very ill-suited for that. He started drinking. His health was bad. He took opium and became probably addicted to it. He ran up huge debts. He couldn't find a wife. His friend Clark was living in the same town with a wife, raising a family, and he had been unable to court a woman and get married. He literally did not write a single word on the journals that his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, was impatiently waiting for was the report of their journey. And he never got around to even writing word one of compiling what his journals had. He just literally disintegrated in his post years. He had his friend Clark nearby and he wrote out his will before he decided to go back to Washington D.C. to try to straighten up some discrepancies in the books and he said good-bye to Clark. He tried to commit suicide on a boat going down the Mississippi. They restrained him and kept him under watch for a while. And then he headed across the Natchez Trace to try to get back to Washington. His last night he spent asking a friend to put down a buffalo robe on the floor of Grinder's Stand. He slept that night, tried to sleep that night. He told people that Clark would be coming and he shot himself.
What happened to the land and the people that they had met?
Cameahwait, the Shoshoni chief who gave them the horses, he was killed by a raiding party of Hidatsas. An Arikara chief that they brought with them back to Washington D.C. died there and turned the tribe against the Americans for a generation. The Mandans and Hidatsas who had welcomed Lewis and Clark and became powerful traders with the United States got smallpox as part of the bargain. Nine out of ten of them died in 1837, and the disease spread to the Blackfeet and nearly wiped them out. The Clatsops who had sheltered them and helped them on the West coast got into a misunderstanding with fur traders who leveled their village. The Lakotas, the Sioux, with whom they'd had this tense confrontation, kept fighting the United States. They were the two expansionist powers in the West, and they finally had a showdown seventy years later. The Sioux won that one, but then they got conquered by the United States. And the Nez Perce who had promised them that they would remain friends and had given them food when they needed it, kept their word. They kept as the friends of the United States until, pushed to the limit by White Americans pushing on to their lands, could take it no more and ended up having their... a brief war with the United States that lead them on this incredible odyssey. Where they finally surrendered, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to the United States, and among the people, according to the Nez Perce, who surrendered with him was a red-headed Nez Perce who they said was the son of William Clark. He was sent with the others down to Indian territory where he died. They were the people who Lewis and Clark relied on, and as the nation moved west, it was, they were the ones who paid the price.
Did the Lewis and Clark expedition succeed?
The most important thing that they'd been sent to find, they hadn't found. It was a failure of finding the Northwest Passage. We know now that it was a failure because the Northwest Passage didn't exist. But it failed that prime mission. But it succeeded in so many other things that that's sort of immaterial almost. The, it matters less what they went to find as what it is that they did find. They found 178 or so new species of plants and 122 new species of animals. They encountered Indian tribes, an amazing diversity of Indian peoples. They saw a land that was mind boggling to Easterners. They discovered, more importantly I think, they discovered the American future. They went, literally, from east to the west coast, and that is what America did in their footsteps. It was, it was a physical journey of the nation to go to the Pacific Ocean to discover its own future, to become a continental nation, to become a great international power, it required the United States to move across the West.
They also discovered the future in the sense that in doing that, they saw something that the nation would change as it went across. All the people that they wrote those notes about, that they marked down what it was that those people were like or what the animals were like or what the land was like is a benchmark for what the price was paid for the United States to become a continental nation. Those prices that were paid were paid by the Indian peoples who helped Lewis and Clark. They were paid by the wildlife that astounded them. The land and the rivers that they described and struggled with were in essence tamed by the United States. So there are so many, many aspects of it that they pointed toward. The vote on the Pacific coast. That was the future. It's been, the United States, it took them a hundred years to cross the continent and it took them essentially a hundred years to even approach that moment at the mouth of the Columbia where a black man and a woman and an Indian and everyone could come together and decide what to do next. They were, you know, one of the intriguing things about the Lewis and Clark expedition is that when they work together as a team, they were better than the sum of their parts. Lewis and Clark were much better as Lewis and Clark than they were as Lewis or Clark. The Corps of Discovery was better with all of its members joining together, than it was as an individual. They were, they were "E Pluribus Unum." The E Pluribus was a motley collection of people, and the Unum was the Corps of Discovery that did amazing things that they could only do if they worked together.
Is that why we're drawn to this story?
I think, I think everybody has within them this desire to stretch your horizons. To see what's around the next bend or over that next hill. Americans in particular, you know, for them that direction is west. What's over there? That's the way we've always pointed. Jefferson turned the nation and faced it west and that's where the future has always been. That's where hope and possibility have been. And I think that's what draws us to Lewis and Clark. It's about possibilities. It's about what could be. Sometimes what is. And sometimes what isn't. But it's about possibility, potential, the future, and hope. And that draws, I think, everyone to it. It's a human story of people venturing into possibilities and potential.
What else do you want to talk about.?
I want to talk about medicine. Are we still rolling? The state of medicine in 1803 was this, was personified by Dr. Benjamin Rush. The state of medicine in 1803 was personified by Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. The most renowned physician of his time. And here's what he believed. If you had something wrong with you, let's draw some blood out of you. That that was the cure-all for everything. Or if that didn't work, I've got these little pills that are the most powerful laxatives you could ever imagine and I'll give you one of those and that'll take care of it. So, Lewis studied his medicine from Dr. Benjamin Rush. So when his men were sick, if they're dehydrated, let's take some blood out of them. Or if they're bloated or if they're sick, let's give them a couple of Rush's Thunderbolts and see what happens. He bought 50 dozen Rush's Thunderbolts before he left Philadelphia for five bucks and my guess is he used every single one of 'em on that poor expedition on the way up. They're probably lucky that Rush wasn't along himself 'cause he probably would have bled 'em even more. They woulda had more than one man dying if they'd had a, a, an 18th century physician along for the ride.
That's interesting that only one man died on the expedition.
We think... It's an amazing story of all the places that they were in, all of the chances that they took, all of the dangers that they faced, mostly from Mother Nature, very, a few of it from other peoples, but only one man died. That was Sgt. Floyd, and he died of a burst appendix. If he'd of been in an office of a physician in Philadelphia when his appendix burst, instead of on the Missouri River, he still would have died. They, the, Lewis and Clark were so good at planning, at working together, at trying to figure things out, and dealing, adjusting, adapting to what it was that they took more than forty people from St. Louis across the West and back in two and a half long, often dangerous years, and lost only one person by a disease, we think, that no one could of prevented. I mean that, they were not only first, they were the best. They were very good at what they did because of the way that they did it.
Do you want to talk about Sacagawea?
Yeah, I want to say two things about her. Some people call it Sacagawea or Sackajawea or Sakacawea--it really doesn't matter what we call her. She was an important person on the expedition. Her role's been romanticized and exaggerated. She was not a guide for the expedition. Much of what she traversed was as new to her as it was for these guys from Virginia. But she helped find some food. At some critical moments, she said yes, I recognize that landscape. Her very presence, Clark said, assures other Indian peoples that we are not a war party, that we come in peace. And at one moment, she did actually guide them on the return trip. She guided Clark to what's now Bozeman Pass. She was helpful in that respect. She added an element, I think, to the Lewis and Clark expedition that is unquantifiable. She's there with a little infant. It's hard to imagine these rough guys sittin' around a campfire at night and she's there nursing little Baptiste. That had to be something, have an effect on it. In later years, we're not sure exactly what happened to her. Some people say that she went on, lived a long life among the Shoshonis in Wyoming and died, you know, aft, the age of nineties. The best evidence is she probably died young. There are more statues of Sacagawea than there are of any other woman in American history. It's because she taps into something, just like the whole expedition does. People can see in her what it is that they want to see. A heroine, a victim, whatever it is that you want to see, you can see in her just as you can see in the Lewis and Clark expedition.
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