The Journals of Lewis and Clark: Almost Home

by Gary E. Moulton

(This essay first appeared in Montana: The Magazine of Western History , Volume 48, Summer 1998, pgs. 72–79.)

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have been called "the writingest explorers of their time." President Thomas Jefferson instructed them to keep meticulous records on the geography, ethnology, and natural history of the trans-Mississippi West they explored from 1804 to 1806. In leather-bound notebook journals they filled hundreds of pages with such observations, and the result is a national treasure: a complete look at the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest, reported by men who were intelligent and well prepared, at a time when East Coast Americans knew almost nothing about those regions.

A narrative based on the journals was published in 1814. Most of the journals were then deposited in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, but they lay largely unused and almost forgotten for nearly a century until an edition of all known materials was published in 1905. That work, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites, was a superb tool for studying the expedition, but over the years it suffered the kinds of erosion that besets all such editions: new manuscripts were discovered; new information became available with which to annotate the journals; and editorial procedures underwent profound changes. These deficiencies led to a project to publish an entirely new comprehensive edition of the journals.

A new and complete edition of the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition had been a hope of scholars and enthusiasts for many years before the project I am just completing began. Donald Jackson, an expedition scholar, may have been the first to call for a new edition in a presentation in 1967. Jackson noted what had been apparent for some time: that using the multiple published editions of the journals was difficult and that some kind of unified work was needed. At the time there were at least five different versions of expedition materials, some out of print and in varying degrees of completeness. But Jackson's call for action went unheeded for nearly a decade.

In 1977 an article recommending reissuing Lewis and Clark's epic work caught the attention of Steve Cox, then of the University of Nebraska Press. Cox turned to the university's Center for Great Plains Studies to discover the level of interest. Established just the preceding year, the center grew out of a desire of university professors to take a broad approach to studying the Great Plains. The center's board of directors embraced the idea of sponsoring a new edition of the journals immediately. They knew that Lewis and Clark were the first Americans to cross and describe the Great Plains and that much of the territory that the captains were assigned to examine lies within the region.

The center then moved to discover the feasibility of such an endeavor. Don Jackson, serving as a consultant, sought the cooperation of manuscript-holding institutions and ascertained the availability of financial support. His work was a success throughout. Not only did all the institutions with Lewis and Clark journals agree to share their materials with the anticipated project, but the principal holding institution, the American Philosophical Society, came on as cosponsor.

The next step was to hire an editor. The university showed its commitment to the plan by providing an appointment slot in the appropriate department to the successful candidate. I was the fortunate person selected as editor and came to Lincoln with a position in the history department.

My entry into the world of Lewis and Clark was quite indirect. My wife Faye saw an ad for the editorial position in a professional journal in 1978 and encouraged me to apply. That I was to be unemployed the next year was a compelling incentive. My professional interests in the American West, Native Americans, and historical editing gave me an edge. In fact, I was just completing editing the papers of Chief John Ross of the Cherokees, supported for four years by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) of the National Archives.

I must admit that I had no special knowledge of Lewis and Clark. Indeed, I probably knew less about the expedition than many of you reading this essay. My greatest assets were my abilities as a historical editor— who had proven that he could get an editorial project launched, funded, and finished in reasonable time. I was a little embarrassed when I first met Don Jackson and he spoke on the finer points of the expedition while I cautiously nodded my head in feigned acknowledgment. He also told me of an organized group of expedition enthusiasts, the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, whose members would query me closely on minute details of expedition history. He said that I better get the story straight and know the precise location of places like the Lolo Trail. Again, I nodded knowingly, although I hadn't the faintest idea where or what the Lolo Trail was. I hit the books right way.

So by mid-1979 the project to publish a completely reedited version of the journals was under way at the University of Nebraska with me as editor. The edition was co-sponsored by the Center for Great Plains Studies and by the American Philosophical Society, with the cooperation of all the manuscript-holding repositories. The University of Nebraska Press had agreed to be the publisher. The NHPRC had endorsed the project and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a principal funding agency for editorial projects, had our first grant application. We were ready to go.

Lest you think that it was all too easy, let me say that our first application to NEH was turned down. It did not help my self-esteem when reviewers, panelists, and Endowment administrators liked the project but were not so sure about me. They could see I knew very little about Lewis and Clark. I could not do much about that right away, but I did rewrite the proposal, cutting the monetary request and trying to correct some deficiencies. The new downsized proposal, with appended letters extolling my editing skills and with extra financial support from the university, was accepted in 1980. NEH has funded the project generously ever since. That fact, along with reviewers' accolades and editorial prizes since then, have more than made up for the initial rebuke.

In later allocations NEH stipulated that the project had to find private matching money to go along with the endowment's outright award. On the second grant I had to secure more than $42,000 in outside money over three years to tap a like amount from NEH and meet our budgetary needs. That sum was an incredible amount of money to me. The American Philosophical Society and the University of Nebraska Foundation came up with about half of it, but even then I needed more than $20,000, still a lot of money. Fortunately, I had already begun to make friends with Lewis and Clark buffs and one, Robert Levis of Alton, Illinois, told me to drop him a line if I ever needed any help. Now I sent Bob a well thought out and carefully worded letter and was astonished when he replied that he would be happy to cover the entire amount. But that wasn't necessary because I soon met Robert Betts of New York City at a Lewis and Clark conference in Philadelphia. At a candlelight reception in Independence Hall he told me he wanted to give the project $5,000 but then handed me a check for $7,500, saying he'd sweetened the pot a little. These individuals and ten other private supporters, plus the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, have aided the project financially over the years. Their gifts lifted my spirits as much as they filled the project's coffers. Ready money makes editing easier.

When completed [1] the new edition will number twelve regular volumes and a comprehensive index, including an atlas of maps, the journals of Lewis, Clark, John Ordway, Charles Floyd, Patrick Gass, and Joseph Whitehouse—all the extant journals of the expedition—a volume of the expedition's botanical specimens, and an index. When Don Jackson initially proposed the venture, he projected an edition of nine volumes to be completed in nine years. That was unrealistic and may have been a ploy to entice funding agencies that were beginning to worry about editing projects that seemed to have no end. By the time I was knowledgeable enough about the endeavor to make some projections, I was counting eleven volumes to be completed in seventeen years. We altered that somewhat when the press suggested separating the journals of Patrick Gass and Joseph Whitehouse into two volumes and printing the comprehensive index as an individual book. Those changes and the vicissitudes of editing added two more years.

The first volume of the new edition, Atlas of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was published in 1983. The maps were published first so they could be used as a resource and reference tool for succeeding volumes. Not all of the 129 historic maps in the atlas came directly from the hand of Clark, the principal mapmaker, but all were closely associated with the expedition and most of them were Clark's handiwork. Being my first foray into expedition materials, I was amazed at the beauty, elegance, and precision of Clark's cartography. With no apparent training, working with crude and often unreliable instruments, and using dead reckoning for distances, one stands in awe of his draftsmanship. Clark's maps are a model of cartographic excellence, and his example was admired and emulated by generations of explorers and mapmakers.

We had some difficult decisions to make concerning the publishing of the maps. I knew we did not want to have them folded up and slipcased in the way Thwaites had presented them. His atlas volume, numbering 53 maps, was the book probably most in need of revision. Working with Richard Eckersley and others at the press, we finally decided to go with a large-sized book, nearly fourteen by twenty inches. Even with this big book all sorts of design problems bedeviled us—Clark's erratic orientation of the maps, the difficulties of following from one route map to another, composite maps that interrupted the route maps, gaps in maps, missing maps, multiple maps, and questionable maps—all called for decisions in areas that were entirely new to me.

I was lucky that W. Raymond Wood, a professor from the University of Missouri, was in Lincoln for a year during this time. Ray, an expert on the exploration and cartography of the Missouri River, was a great help to me, as was John Allen, a geographer at the University of Connecticut and the leading authority on expedition geography. Also, Richard Eckersley was remarkable at finding ways to solve the most vexing of design dilemmas. He also came up with the idea to put a wavy blue line across the Atlas cover and then a trailing wavy line across the spine of the journal volumes. The Atlas is now out of print [2], very expensive on the rare book market, and nearly impossible to find. The press may reprint the Atlas in the next few years; the journal volumes have been reprinted as necessary and are readily available.

The journal volumes presented their own set of challenges. I decided to keep Lewis and Clark's materials together and to publish the diaries of the enlisted men in separate volumes. This follows the plan adapted by Thwaites and for many reasons seemed the most sensible approach. I also kept Thwaites's chapter divisions except for some small modifications. His chapters followed those of the 1814 edition and were now quite familiar to readers. I thought readers might want to compare text from each of the three major editions and this would facilitate such a study. Journal volumes 2 through 8 cover the diaries of Lewis and Clark and were published between 1986 and 1993. Volumes 9, 10, and 11 comprise the enlisted men's journals—they were published in 1996 and 1997—and volume 12, the botany book, is now in press. We look to complete the project this year, but the comprehensive index will not be available until next year, making the entire undertaking a 20-year endeavor from beginning to absolute end.

The principal goal of the new edition is to present users with a reliable, definitive text. Earlier editors, pressed for time and working virtually alone, were not able to make multiple and careful readings of their transcriptions against the original text. Perhaps that explains why one editor had Clark struggling to the top of a hill near the Pacific Coast and saying, "I cue my hare [hair]," when the captain actually wrote that he had cut his hand. Every effort was made now to prepare an accurate transcription that is nearly identical to the original text. The new edition will also give readers a thorough explication of the journals. Scholars have been hampered by the paucity of notes in earlier editions and users complained about inaccuracies and obsolescence. We aimed to be thorough, accurate, and complete in our annotation, but we understood that we were preparing source material to be borrowed from and enlarged on and we were not supposed to be writing essays in the notes. The notes in the new edition are full, but we hope not rambling. Our general rule on annotation was to treat matter in the notes in relation to its prominence in the text.

After the exhilaration of publishing the atlas volume, I knew that I now faced the hard task and daily grind of editing the journals. Seeing the atlas in print was probably the high point for me in this long process. I now felt somewhat confident that I could do the work, and with a book in print I could be fairly certain of continued financial support. As I delved into the journals more deeply, however, I began to think the NEH people were onto something when they questioned my abilities. All that botany, all that zoology, those astronomical readings, the geology, archaeology, ethnology, linguistics, meteorology, and medicine to be annotated and understood. What was a mere historian doing among all this science? I knew about as much about binomials as do Beavis and Butthead. Was I out of my depth? Was I out of my mind?

I had quite a few fitful nights before it came to me—consultants. Hadn't the great captains welcomed native guides in order to accomplish their explorations, I reasoned? Of course, I had already had the help of Ray Wood and John Allen on the Atlas, and I also had the center's list of Great Plains scholars. These people provided wonderful assistance in numberless disciplines. My problem at first was that I did not know the questions to ask or the language to use. I was addressing specialists in areas that were completely foreign to me. They displayed the patience of Job, especially when I had to call for multiple rewrites of submitted material. I thought that if I could understand the explanations of the captain's scientific endeavors, then other readers could also. Later I got into the wide world of Lewis and Clark and discovered experts in every conceivable area. I know I could not have completed this project without the assistance of these specialists and dedicated lay people. Our guides were friendly, wise, and generous. Over the years the project has utilized the talents of more than one hundred people as consultants and friendly advisors.

The most difficult areas to annotate were in geology and botany, largely because I was least knowledgeable about the subjects and was slow to find the right people to help me. Once I secured the services of Robert N. Bergantino of Butte, Montana, for aid in geology questions, and the advise of A. T. Harrison, formerly of Lincoln but now in Sandy, Utah, in botany, I could move the process along. I would print out journal entries that pertained to geology or botany, highlight the appropriate passages, provide the date and place, and ask Bob or Ty for some explanation. In time, back came carefully worded notes for each item. Often I would do a rewrite to make the phrasing conform to our other notes or to remove some scientific jargon or awkward language. Some notes called for a long series of correspondence, phone calls, and lengthy discussions in order to get the wording scientifically correct but universally understandable. As you can guess, this process was repeated many times and across all the disciplines with which I was unfamiliar.

Linguistics, another field of study for the captains, proved the most demanding and time-consuming for me. Following Jefferson's instructions, Lewis filled numerous loose sheets with vocabulary notes as he passed through an incredible array of native languages. These notes are now lost, and what is left are incidental and irregular jottings in the journals of native terms. I initially resisted assuming the task of annotation and had the support of some linguists who thought the small amount of linguistic material in the journals did not call for the efforts that we would have to expend to explain them. Truth is, I was looking for a way to extricate myself from the morass of science, not seeking to add another branch.

A conference of specialists convinced me otherwise. Moreover, I obtained a promise of assistance from Raymond J. DeMallie of Indiana University, one of the nation's leading linguists. As the expedition passed from one language family to another and took notes on native terms, I followed the procedure I had developed for geology and botany. Ray served as the clearinghouse for linguistic matters. He determined the language family, forwarded the material to language experts (who provided transliterations and translations of the native words), and then he rewrote the material and sent it on to me. Again, I did a bit of rewriting, and a sizable amount of correspondence ensued, with the added chore of going through an intermediary. I knew just how the captains felt when they had to go through five languages to speak to the Salish people in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, but they did not have to deal with linguistic symbols and diacritical marks.

One of the more interesting results of the linguistic work was when we uncovered a phantom tribe of Indians. When Lewis and Clark met native peoples they always asked for their tribal name and the names of nearby tribes. In notes we brought these names up-to-date, using the latest terminology. In this work we did not have to turn to experts but could find the information in available literature. Often, Lewis's western tribal names were the starting point for synonymies that traced the names up to the present designation. When the party met Chinookan speakers along the Columbia River in October 1805, one informant identified a neighboring downriver group as the Chil-luckit-te-quaws and we found them identified as such in American Indian literature with a reference to an expedition passage but no modern name. Linguistic work unraveled the mystery. The term translates from Chinookan to the phrase, "he is pointing at him." Lewis or Clark must have pointed downriver and asked the name of neighboring people and got a reply to the action rather than to the question. A nation of native people vanished in the light of linguistic analysis.

The project also had the assistance of persons right on the job. Tom Dunlay, a doctoral graduate of the University of Nebraska, did a great deal of the editing chores over the years—writing notes, proofing text, checking journal transcriptions, and indexing volumes. Tom did most of the general annotation—determining the party's location and identifying native peoples—while I took care of the science and explained textual problems and journal-keeping procedures. Working full-time for many years, Tom came in on an irregular basis for a while and now has retired from the project altogether. Several persons over the years have attended to secretarial, clerical, and word processing duties. The staff at the center keeps track of the financial aspects and serves the project in countless ways. We have also had undergraduate and graduate students working with the project over the years, and we have occasionally brought in people to assist with other editing tasks, such as indexing the volumes. As the project nears its end, two individuals are now helping with the work on the comprehensive index, which will comprise the final volume in the edition [1].

Indexing. Had I realized the enormity of the indexing task when I began this work, I might have been as much concerned with it as I was about science. Here again some ignorance and naïveté; helped me through the early days. Also I had a short reprieve since I could publish the Atlas without an index. By the time the first journal volume was completed, the first book to require an index, we were into word processors. It was a dedicated word processor, a real relic by today's standards, but still it had functions that would make the indexing easier. I had already indexed two works the old way and was committed to doing something different than assembling hundreds of three-by-five-inch notecards, the way I'm sure historians have been doing it since the days of Thucydides.

I already knew the basics—index all proper names and geographic terms. Easy enough, I thought. But some of these indexing basics about which I felt so confident were frustrated by the ambiguities of the journals. Thankfully, we did miss some glaring blunders. For instance, we did not index the party's barking squirrels under "Squirrel, barking," but put it in its proper place under "Prairie dog." But I wish I could explain how we ever came up with an entry like "Bird, black" for "Blackbirds" or "Snake, rattle" for "Rattlesnakes." At least we never had an entry, "Fish, cat."

But what about indexing subjects, themes, ideas, and concepts? I made lists of what I considered the most important of these and then combed the indexes of expedition literature for more. The final list included terms like arms and ammunition, astronomical observations, clothes, discipline, equipment, journal-keeping methods, medical problems, provisions, and weather conditions. Then we added cross-references. For instance, in addition to a general entry on boats, we also pointed readers to specific types of boats mentioned in the text, such as bateaux, bull boats, canoes, keelboats, pirogues, and the iron-frame boat. When entries became too long, we added subcategories. Under canoes, for instance, we had accidents, construction, loaded, navigational problems, obtained, portaged, problems with, repaired, and unloaded.

I eventually established twenty general policies for our indexing guidelines, then added fifteen pages of examples and addenda over the years. Even these elaborate rules did not save us from errors other than those I have already mentioned. When indexing Lewis and Clark you have to be prepared for the unexpected. Realizing that Clark spelled the Indian tribe "Sioux" twenty-seven different ways, we knew we faced some real oddities. Idiosyncrasies abounded. For instance, in the journals carrots are not vegetables and cows are not bovines. Carrot was the contemporary term for twists of tobacco, and cows (spelled as such in the journals) is actually the plant cous (pronounced "cows"), an important foodstuff of Columbia River Indians.

I wish I could say that the current great interest in Lewis and Clark has come as a result of my work, but that would not be true. Many of the important published works on the expedition that have come out in recent years were either underway or were in print before I started getting books out. John Allen had already completed his study of the expedition's geographic endeavors, James P. Ronda was well into the book that became Lewis and Clark among the Indians, and even Stephen Ambrose's biography of Lewis was in planning, although he was not able to devote time to the writing until a few years ago. What the new edition provides for recent writers (Ambrose among them) is easy access to the complete corpus of expedition journals and annotation that touches on the full range of the diaries' discussions. It also expedited the production of Ken Burns' and Dayton Duncan's recent film on the expedition.

What is left to be done on the Lewis and Clark expedition? For me there is an immediate project on the horizon. Once the edition is completed I plan to develop a one-volume abridgment of the journal volumes [3]. I believe that I can add important scientific and cultural matters to a condensed version that are missing in existing treatments, but I will not ignore the dramatic story the diaries tell. Despite the extensive literature on Lewis and Clark and the rush of publishing in the last two decades, one large area remains overlooked. There is no comprehensive study of the enlisted men on the expedition. We have a book of brief biographies, now outdated, but no one has told us what it was like to soldier and serve with Lewis and Clark. Certainly we need a modern biography of Clark and a book-length study of the Charbonneaus. Without such works, real deficiencies in the literature still exist.

It has been my privilege and great honor to serve the Corps of Discovery for this generation. My Lewis and Clark colleagues and I stand as the fourth generation of expedition scholars. I hope that I can pass on the love and joy of working with these materials as I received the same from Nicholas Biddle, Elliott Coues, Reuben Gold Thwaites, Ernest Staples Osgood, and their contemporaries. May my work and theirs inspire future students of the expedition to new areas of study and help to keep the story alive for another two hundred years.


1. The final volume of the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the comprehensive index, was published in 2001. (back)
2. The Atlas is again available from the University of Nebraska Press, having been reprinted in 1999. (back)
3. The one-volume abridgment, The Lewis and Clark Journals: An American Epic of Discovery, was published in 2003. (back)