The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 20

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

TWENTY. Endings

The captains began their reportage with three letters whose differing contents and tones indicate careful thinking about how and to whom they wanted to spread the word of their discoveries. (Actually four such letters have survived. The first, however, dated September 21, 1806, and written in a wobbly hand that suggests it was composed on a moving boat, is very pedestrian and breaks off abruptly, as if the author, probably Meriwether Lewis, decided its style would not meet requirements.) The first of the other calculated letters was, not surprisingly, a preliminary report to President Jefferson. [1]

Dated St. Louis, September 23, 1806, it announced the party's safe arrival and stated that Lewis had held up the regular mail in order to dispatch the missive without delay. Its handwriting is shaky, too, as if Lewis had started composing it on the pirogue before the expedition reached St. Louis. Clark's journal fleshes out the skeleton somewhat. It says that after learning the mail for the East had already left, Lewis rushed a note across the river to Cahokia with a request that the postmaster there, John Hay, hold the rider for twenty-four hours. With the need for hurry somewhat relieved, the captains found storage space for their baggage and rooms for themselves. They then called on the Chouteaus and sat up late, talking and talking. "however we rose early [on the 24th, says Clark] and commenced wrighting our letters. Capt Lewis wrote one to the presidend . . ." after which the ever-dependable George Drouillard delivered the correspondence, posthaste, to Hay in Cahokia.

The first really informative letter about the new land—it couldn't cover everything. So what would Jefferson like to learn first?

We can imagine Lewis mentally reviewing the formal list of instructions Jefferson had handed him on June 20, 1803, more than three years before. We can imagine his memory latching onto this: "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purpose of commerce."

And so the second sentence of Lewis's letter reads, "In obedience to your orders we have penitrated the continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean, and sufficiently explored the interior of the country to affirm with confidence that we have discovered the most practicable rout which does exist across the continent by means of the navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers." He described the route as modified by his return over Lewis and Clark Pass. Travelers should go by boat 2,575 miles up the Missouri past caving banks and difficult snags to the foot of the rapids below the Great Falls. There they would leave the river for 340 miles of land travel. Two hundred of those miles were not particularly difficult. But then came 140 miles across "tremendious mountains which for 60 miles are covered with eternal snow"—though not so eternal they couldn't be surmounted during the summer months. Fortunately the horses needed for the land section of the journey could be obtained from the Indians at trifling cost. The last leg of the journey consisted of 640 boat miles down the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia rivers to the ocean, a stretch broken only by the three roaring cascades of the Columbia.

Lewis could imagine Jefferson's expression on reading all that. The president had presupposed an easy passage across a low continental divide to a short run down the Columbia, with no intervening falls, to the sea. The explorers had sent him nothing from Fort Mandan in April 1805 to prepare him for reality. And so Lewis tried to soften the blow. Although he granted that merchants handling bulky or brittle Oriental goods consigned to either the East Coast of the United States or Europe would continue using the sea lanes around the Cape of Good Hope, still "we view this passage across the Continent as affording immence advantages to the fur trade."

How valuable was that trade? Lewis dashed off what became the most frequently quoted sentence he ever wrote: "The Missouri and all it's branches from the Chyenne upwards abound in more beaver and Common Otter, than any other streams on earth, particularly that proportion of them lying within the Rocky Mountains." He also flattered Jefferson's perspicacity. The president had suggested in his secret message to Congress on January 18, 1803, the possibility of diverting Canadian furs to America's Eastern ports by way of the Missouri and Ohio rivers. His instructions to Lewis had, in effect, asked the explorer to study the feasibility of the idea. In the part of the letter that reported on the study, Lewis suggested reversing the pattern. A run of fewer than a thousand miles down the Columbia and its tributaries was preferable to one of four thousand or more miles down the Missouri and on across the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic. After all, one of the best markets for furs, as Yankee ship traders had learned many years before, was China and the East Indies. "If the government," he concluded, "will only aid, even in a very limited manner, the enterprize of her Citizens I am fully convinced that we shal shortly derive the benefits of a most lucrative trade from this source, and that in the course of ten or twelve years a tour across the Continent by the rout mentioned will be undertaken by individuals with as little concern as a voyage across the Atlantic is at present."

Lewis did not mention that Alexander Mackenzie was also proposing that the British government support a similar export route by way of the Columbia. [2] (He did not have to. Both Jefferson and he had read Mackenzie's book.) However, Lewis did warn the president about the expanded activities of Canada's North West Company on the upper Missouri. "The strides of this company ... cannot be too vigorously watched nor too firmly and speedily opposed by our government." The more truculent Indians along the way, he added, also needed attention, a matter he would go into more fully when he saw Jefferson.

So there it was: the route, its potential value, and something of its problems. That letter on its way, he turned his attention to composing, with Clark, another letter aimed at different readers. The best way to disseminate information in those days was through local newspapers. Jefferson might not see fit to show the press Lewis's letter to him, peppered as it was with anti-British sentiments. (Lewis already knew from what he had learned on the Missouri that relations between the countries were strained again.) But other recipients could be counted on to pass along a more circumspect letter to frontier editors they knew would be friendly. Accordingly Lewis drafted and Clark copied, also under date of September 23, 1806, a letter to "Dear Brother," an addressee who may have been either George Rogers Clark or Jonathan Clark, both of whom lived near Louisville, Kentucky. This letter repeated most of what Lewis had told Jefferson about the route but went into more detail about what they had experienced along the way. It mentioned the help given the expedition by some of the Indians, briefly described Fort Clatsop, and brushed off the return journey with a statement that familiarity with the land and people had greatly lessened the kind of hunger and fatigue they had experienced on the outward journey. There was no mention of either British competition or of Indian hostilities. Such a letter, landing in a Kentucky newspaper, would spread to other frontier papers and put pressure on the government as a whole to pay more attention to the feat than might otherwise be the case. More attention would mean more credit and perhaps greater rewards to all the Corps's personnel, captains and enlisted men both.

The third letter, written by Lewis under the date September 29, 1806, is much longer than the others and something of a mystery. The addressee is unknown, the original document has been lost, and only a garbled replica survives. Even so, it may reveal more about Lewis's fatal character flaws than its predecessors do.

The purpose of this letter almost surely was like that of the others—to bring the accomplishments of the expedition to the attention of a particular class of readers. The chief difference between it and the others is a long account of Lewis's experiences with Blackfoot Indians along the Marias River. In accounting for that bloody northern detour, Lewis does not refer even indirectly to the hope, dwelt on in his journals, of bringing about peace between the Blackfeet and the Western Indians. Instead he says he went there, "at every hazard," to find out whether the Marias River extended as far north as latitude 49°37'N.

Latitude 49°37' seems a curious figure to pop up here. It arose originally because of the geographic ignorance of the diplomats who, in 1783, hammered out the Treaty of Paris, which officially closed the American Revolution. After much haggling, the negotiators specified that the boundary between the United States and Britain's North American possessions should follow a complex of canoe waterways from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods; "then through the said lake to the northwestern point thereof [later determined to be latitude 49°37' and still later as 49°24'], and from thence on a due west course [emphasis added] to the river Mississippi." The south-flowing Mississippi would then serve as the boundary between the United States and Spanish Louisiana.

The trouble with this was that the headwaters of the Mississippi lay south, not west, of Lake of the Woods. Some day some kind of rectification would have to be made. Until that happened, the handful of Indian traders who ranged through the area would have to conduct their business as best they could, meanwhile suggesting lines of demarcation that would suit their own interests.

The North West Company wanted the boundary line drawn south from the northwest corner of the lake to the headwaters of the Mississippi—or at least as far south as the forty-ninth parallel of latitude. In 1797 the partners in that firm sent their great geographer and explorer, David Thompson, into the area to find the forty-ninth parallel and learn where the company's southernmost trading posts stood in respect to that line. For it seems the Canadian company had (or Thompson thought it had) an understanding with Spain that the forty-ninth parallel should serve as an arbitrary boundary separating the northern watershed of Upper Louisiana from the southern watershed of the Saskatchewan. [3]

Lewis and Clark must have learned many of these things during their frequent conversations with North West Company traders during the winter of 1804–5 while they were in the Mandan towns collecting information about the upper Missouri for Clark's map. Surely Lewis felt that as an official explorer of Upper Louisiana, he should follow through by discovering where the bounds of the territory were.

He had made a start of sorts when scouting the Marias in the summer of 1805 to determine whether it was the Missouri. On his return in 1806 he had crowded his luck to go there with only three companions on a double errand: to urge peace on the Blackfeet and to determine whether the Marias reached as high as 49°37'. If he found that some of the river's tributaries did reach that far north, he would peg the place on Clark's map. It would be a figure for negotiators to work with when deciding on the boundary between British and American holdings. If his finding was accepted as the line, it would bring the United States a little more territory than a line drawn along the forty-ninth parallel. Best of all, it would push his country close to the tributaries of the South Saskatchewan, which he had come to regard as a magic gateway to the prime fur country of northwestern Canada. Foreign pelts pouring through his native land for transshipment down the Columbia to the Orient and the rest of the world-that, too, would be part of the trade picture he eventually presented to Thomas Jefferson.

The Marias, however, did not reach that high. He candidly admitted as much in his letter to the unknown correspondent. Perhaps to assuage his disappointment, he let the addressee know his quest for truth had not been without peril. His small party, he wrote, ran into Blackfeet who "treacherously seized on & made themselves masters of all our Guns—in which Situation we engaged them with our Knives & our Pistol recovered our guns & killed two of them & put the others to flight, pursued them retook our Horses. . . . Fearing pursuit from 2 large Bands whom the Indians had informed us on the evening before were in our neighborhood, we hastened to the Rivers Maria & Missesourii."

The River Maria. The Missesourii. Lewis never used either form. He would never have made other mistakes in proper nouns, mileage figures, and so on that appear in the letter that has survived. In other words, the original had been copied by someone—probably by several people—before one of the duplicates landed in the hands of David Thompson, from whose papers in the public library of Vancouver, British Columbia, it was abstracted by researchers. Thompson and other Nor'Westers, incidentally, did habitually use the spelling Missisourie or slight variations thereof. Almost surely Canadians were among those who copied the original.

To whom was the original addressed? Donald Dean Jackson, close student of the expedition, has suggested, among others, John Hay, postmaster of Cahokia. [4] I agree. Hay, a former Canadian trader, was also a supplier of goods to fur traders working along the Mississippi and Missouri, many of whom had taken out American citizenship papers in order to obtain licenses. He had provided Lewis and Clark with translations, goods, and geographic information while they were preparing to embark from Camp Wood in 1804. Jackson, however, does not feel Lewis, aware of the anti-British sentiments of the time, would have given Hay a letter that might be passed on to Canadians. I wonder. Lewis had left a U.S. medal hanging around the neck of one of the Blackfeet his party had slain so the Indians—and, inevitably, their white traders along the Saskatchewan—"might be informed who we were." Clark and he had carved their names on several trees on both sides of the Columbia's estuary so that whoever came along later would be informed of the American presence. I think he would have liked Britons to know he had been investigating potential boundary lines as a part of his assignment. American traders should know it, too, for they would expect that sort of information as they spread out through the fur paradise he was reporting. The third letter he wrote in St. Louis, then, may well have been intended for the trading fraternity, a group unlikely to be reached by his other initial correspondence concerning the expedition's accomplishments.

Letters, of course, contained only a small part of what the captains hoped to put before the public. They planned to draw from their journals one volume of narrative about their travels, another about the Indians of the West, and a third about their scientific investigations of the terrain, the climates they encountered, botany, zoology, and so on. Plus a large map drawn by Clark, showing details never before recorded about the American West and some of its contiguous lands. All this was in their minds when they left St. Louis for the East late in October. A big cavalcade accompanied them: various important Missouri figures; Sheheke's family (in Washington the chief and his wife would be called the King and Queen of the Mandans); Jessaume's family; a delegation of Osage Indians shepherded by Pierre Chouteau; and Ordway and Labiche in charge of a packtrain loaded with the party's baggage and whatever plants, seeds, bird skins, animal skeletons, and furs had not been ruined in water-soaked caches.

Clark and York halted in Louisville for a reunion with Clark's family; afterwards Clark continued to Fincastle, Virginia, north of Roanoke, to see how Julia Hancock, who had delighted him when she was a child of twelve, had developed. He had named the Judith River in Montana for her, which prompts an interesting speculation. How well had he known her when he was thirty-three and she had first made an impression on him? Had he heard her nickname Julie as Judy?

Lewis pressed on to his home at Ivy Creek, Albemarle County, Virginia, near Monticello. After spending Christmas with his mother, he continued to Washington, where Chouteau had already arrived with his Usages. Clark, his mind dazzled with thoughts of Julia, rejoined him in the capital city sometime after the middle of January. They had a great deal of business to do and debriefings to attend, though the sessions weren't called that then. There were fetes, banquets, balls, and less formal dances at which Lewis may well have consumed more liquor than was good for him. [5] Then came the climactic rewards. Like the enlisted men of the expedition, each captain (they would soon resign their commissions) received double pay while on service with the Corps—it came to $1,228 apiece. They also received warrants to 1,600 acres each as compared to the 320 acres awarded the soldiers. If they chose not to select their allotments from the public domain, they could sell the warrants for whatever land speculators would pay, sometimes as much as $2 an acre. [6]

Much more important was Clark's double appointment as brigadier general of militia and superintendent of Indian affairs for the Territory of Upper Louisiana. Lewis was named governor of the same territory. [*] The territorial secretary and, in effect, Lewis's lieutenant governor was Frederick Bates, whose brother, Tarleton Bates, had been a close friend of Lewis's during pre-expedition days. The appointments came through early in March 1807. On March 10, Clark and Bates left Washington for St. Louis by way of Fincastle and Julia Hancock's home. Clearly the brigadier general of militia was smitten by the young woman, by then sixteen or close to it.

Not so Meriwether Lewis. He caught a raging fever in Washington while helping nurse Jefferson's son-in-law, Thomas Randolph. On recovering he traveled to Philadelphia to find a publisher for his and Clark's joint venture into literary production. For a time the business went swimmingly. He obtained the services of a reputable publisher, C. and A. Conrad & Co., lined up the famed doctor and philosopher, Benjamin Barton, to act as editor of the scientific volume, and hired a battery of famous artists and naturalists to illustrate the animals, plants, birds, and natural wonders that would he discussed in the tome.

While he was engaged in those affairs and also sitting for at least three portraits, two other accounts of the expedition were announced. One was by Private Robert Frazer and the other by David McKeehan, who had purchased Sergeant Gass's journal and proposed to bring it out in refined, heavily edited prose. Lewis promptly defended his and Clark's interests by running paid newspaper stories depreciating all such efforts as being written by unqualified men. Nothing more was heard of Frazer's proposal, perhaps because of financial difficulties. McKeehan, however, responded with stinging sarcasm. "Did your Excellency never attend to the advice given those who have glass houses? Were you afraid that some persons affected by your publication might inform the public that you were not a man of science, that you were not a man of letters, and that you were not qualified for scientific research?" [7] And he went right ahead with Gass's book, pretty well drowning in long sequences of bland sentences whatever individuality the sergeant's rough-hewn account might have had.

McKeehan's long and scurrilous letter was printed in the Pittsburgh Gazette on April 14, 1807. Lewis may never have seen it. If he did, he took no public notice of either it or Gass's volume. And so probably it was not shock over this unexpected threat to his and Clark's plans that caused him to suddenly quit working on their joint project. For the sad truth is that Meriwether Lewis, having allowed a stirring prospectus to be issued about the forthcoming work, never provided the publishers with a single line of the promised manuscript. [8]

At first he may have been frozen by plain old writer's block, rising from a deep, inner fear of the inadequacies that McKeehan chanced to hit on without Lewis's being aware (probably) of the hack writer's charges. The same feelings of inadequacy may have kept him loafing around Philadelphia when he should have been following Clark to St. Louis, where his duties as governor awaited. Later, drink may have added its chains to his paralysis of will, for it is known that by 1809 he was indulging heavily. As far as that goes, he never had been a teetotaler. [9]

He was floundering during that unhappy summer, and he desperately sought a wife in the hope that matrimony might fill the restless, unquiet, indescribable void in his heart, as he put his despair to his friend Mahlon Dickerson. Nothing worked out. His cousin, Maria Wood, for whom he had named Maria's River, had married during his absence. One unnamed charmer put his head to spinning, but he found out she was already engaged. Something, we do not know what, ended his pursuit of a Miss E-B-y, "whose memory still remains provokingly important in spite of all my philosophy." [10]

Sometime late in July he drifted from Philadelphia to Washington and then on to Albemarle. Along the way he took deep offense at something Jefferson did or said—certainly Jefferson had reasons for scolding him about his book, about his delay in going to St. Louis, and perhaps about his drinking—and thereafter, during the rest of his life, he wrote only three or four curt business letters to the man who had done so much for him. [11] Toward the end of November he and his brother Reuben appeared in Fincastle, the home of Clark's fiancée. There Lewis was smitten by Letitia Breckinridge, whom Reuben declared was "one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, both as to form and feature." Meriwether immediately laid siege, but he had scarcely begun to fight when off she went, leaving him with only one more memory to cling to. When William Preston, Julia Hancock's brother-in-law, later suggested he pay court to Letitia's sister Emily, Lewis rejected the plan: "Such was my passion for her sister that my soul revolts at the idea of attempting to make her [Emily] my wife." [12] Which sounds more than a little like overblown rhetoric from a man who, in his despondency, had decided not to risk being spurned again.

William Clark married Julia in Fincastle on January 5, 1808. Presumably Lewis hung around waiting for the ceremony, in which one supposes he played a major role. (Clark later named his eldest son for him.) What he did after the wedding is unknown. He did not reach St. Louis until March 8, 1808, a full year after his appointment as governor. For that matter, Clark did not return there until July. Territorial officials, it would seem, did not take their responsibilities very seriously.

Lewis should have. He had landed in a turbulent milieu. St. Louis was awash with opportunists of every sort. Politics was violently partisan. Indian unrest sent continual ripples of alarm down the rivers. Land speculation was rife; land titles were in a mess because of old Spanish grants. Dueling was common, violent crime all but unchecked. Lewis could maintain discipline in a company of soldiers when he had the weight of the army behind him. He could not do it in a disorderly community while being constantly undercut and sniped at by a jealous territorial secretary, Frederick Bates, who had grown used to being top dog during the year of Lewis's absence. Turning to the bottle, as Meriwether apparently did, simply compounded his problems.

His collapse was precipitated by the Mandan chief, Sheheke, whose trip to Washington was supposed to salvage something from the wreckage of Lewis and Clark's Indian diplomacy on the Missouri. Having been taken from their homes, Sheheke's and Jessaume's families had to be returned so the chief could spread word of the wonders he had seen. By the time Clark reached St. Louis, a military escort of fifteen men was on the point of setting forth. In charge was one of the Corps of Discovery's former sergeants, Nathaniel Pryor, promoted to ensign for this purpose. Among his fourteen soldiers were George Shannon and George Gibson, formerly of the Corps. Accompanying the soldiers were twenty-three traders bound for the Mandan towns. As soon as the new superintendent of Indian affairs appeared on the scene, the mission became his responsibility. [13]

Traveling ahead of Pryor's group was a larger party of traders led by Manuel Lisa, hurrying upstream to exploit, ahead of everyone else, the beaver streams revealed by Lewis and Clark. Lisa's passage alerted the Arikara Indians that a second party was following. The Arikaras were resentful still of the death of their chief in the United States and had abused Joseph Gravelines for bringing them the bad news. Now here came a live Mandan—a Mandan!—under the protection of the nation who had let the Arikara die. After some confused posturing and maneuvering by both sides, they and several Sioux allies attacked. They killed three whites and wounded seven, one of whom later died. George Shannon, who had been the youngest member of the Corps of Discovery, had to have a leg amputated because of his wound. (He later married and became a successful lawyer and a Missouri state senator.) Thoroughly shaken by the experience, Pryor reported that four hundred armed men would be needed to get Sheheke past the Arikaras. His letter about the incident caught Clark while he was on his way to Fincastle for his wedding. If Lewis was there, as he almost surely was, they undoubtedly talked the problem over.

Responsibility for the return now fell to Lewis.

Manuel Lisa arrived back in St. Louis from his own upriver excursion late in the summer of 1808, afire to raise enough capital for expanding his activities. As a means to this end he formed, during the winter of 1808–9, the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company, more popularly the Missouri Fur Company. He took in as partners a representative of every important commercial interest in St. Louis, plus William Clark and Reuben Lewis, brother of the governor. In order to obtain collateral for necessary loans he signed with Meriwether Lewis, acting on behalf of the United States government, a seven-thousand-dollar contract for escorting Sheheke, Jessaume, and their wives and children to their homes. Clearly a conflict of interests was involved that would not be tolerated today and was looked at askance even then.

The contract required the company to go upriver with no fewer than 120 men. Forty of them were to be a militia unit of expert American riflemen (not French voyageurs). Hunters, boatmen, and so on lifted the total to more than three hundred. They would travel, at intervals, in thirteen barges and on an unknown number of horses. To help the ponderous force get underway, Lewis signed a number of vouchers, some of them without proper bureaucratic authorization. Insofar as Sheheke was concerned, the effort was successful. The show of force cowed the Arikaras and Sioux, and the chief was delivered safely to his tribesmen, who did not seem to care very much, anyway. [14] Lewis, however, did not live to learn these things.

The new administration in Washington refused to honor some of his vouchers. Learning this and fearing he might face bankruptcy if all the vouchers were rejected, land speculators to whom he was indebted for about five thousand acres of supposedly get-rich-quick property closed in on him. Lewis panicked, whether rightly or wrongly cannot be said. Late in the summer he gathered together the papers he hoped would save his economic life and added to them his journals, bound by then in red morocco leather, as if he could belatedly use them for justifying his worth to his countrymen. Thus laden, he departed early in September 1809 for the East to plead his case before the new secretary of war, William Eustis.

Would such a man, who had helped lead a small expedition farther west than any other American had yet gone, commit suicide?

Yes, under a certain conjunction of circumstances: If he suffered chronically from melancholia, as Lewis did. If he could find no one to help fill the void he felt in his life. If the clarity of his mind and feelings were blurred by alcohol. And if, now that his great adventure was over, he dreaded the blackness of life more than the blackness of death. Psychiatrists tell us, furthermore, that such persons often reveal their proclivities, long before the event, by the reckless way with which they embrace danger. [15] Thus Meriwether Lewis. If Jefferson had not intervened, he would have taken a most risky winter trip to Santa Fe to compensate for his delays in reaching St. Louis in 1803. The Corps's expedition had barely gotten underway when he unnecessarily climbed a dangerous cliff beside a place called the Tavern and very nearly fell to destruction. He went alone past the Great Falls of the Missouri into country he knew was filled with grizzlies and came close to paying for his recklessness. With only two companions he forged ahead of the expedition's boats to find Shoshoni Indians and buy horses, although he had no idea how the tribe would receive the first white man they had ever seen. With only three companions he ventured into the country of the Blackfeet, although he had been forcefully warned not to. But so far death, if he really wanted death, however subconsciously, had eluded him.

On September 4, 1809, attended by his free mulatto servant, John Pernier, he caught a riverboat for New Orleans, intending to finish his journey East by sea. For some reason the trip south past the mouth of the Ohio was slow. Lewis had too much time in which to brood, drink—and twice attempt to take his life. It seems likely he was urged off the boat at Fort Pickering, Chickasaw Bluffs (now Memphis)—or so implied Major Gilbert Russell, the commander at that fort, into whose charge Lewis was delivered. Lewis himself says he landed because of an "indisposition." [16] Conceivably, another subconscious wish was involved. In 1797, as a young ensign, Lewis had supervised the building of, and had been briefly in command at, Fort Pickering. Did he welcome being put ashore in a blurred hope of again gaining command, this time of himself?

He needed help. He was incoherent and well soaked. Major Russell put him in whatever served the fort as sick bay and deprived him of all spirits except occasional sips of claret or white wine. Under solicitous treatment his remarkable constitution reasserted itself, and within a week he was chafing to continue his journey, this time by land, promising the while "never to drink any more spirits or use snuff again." [17] When James Neelly, Indian agent for the Chickasaw tribe, showed up, hound for the interior, and agreed to lend Lewis riding horses and pack animals and keep an eye on him, Russell reluctantly let the governor go. There was little else, actually, that he could have done.

Somewhere in the Chickasaw nation Lewis apparently got hold of more liquor and became incoherent again. They rested for two days and on either October 8 or 9 crossed the Tennessee River and intersected the once-notorious Natchez Trace. They turned northeast along it. At their first camp beyond the river, they lost two horses. Ever-restless Lewis: while Neelly hunted for the horses, the governor, his servant, and Neelly's servant (charged with watching the ailing man?) went ahead, after "promising to wait for me at the first house he came to that was inhabited by white people; he reached the house (and tavern] of a Mr. Grinder about sun set, the man of the house being from home, and no person there but a woman who discovering the governor to be deranged, gave him up the house & slept herself in one near it." [18]

Because no one saw what actually happened thereafter, circumstantial reports of the killing vary in detail. Suffice it here to say that sometime during the night Lewis loaded his pistols and shot himself twice, first in the forehead and, after that ball had glanced off his skull without killing him, a little below the breast. All accounts agree he died slowly. In his agony he called for water but received none until dawn, when Mrs. Grinder, who had heard the shots and was in abject terror of him, summoned his and Neelly's servants from the barn where they had been sleeping.

Lewis died shortly after sunrise. During the day, Neelly reached the house, heard the stories of Mrs. Grinder and the servants, and buried the body as best he could beside the road. (There it stayed. Today the site is marked by a monument, erected in 1846.) Taking charge of Lewis's personal possessions, Neelly sent them with a letter, by Lewis's man, to Jefferson. There was no doubt in Jefferson's mind—or in Clark's, who heard the news in Louisville while on another trip East with Julia and their eldest son, the infant Meriwether Lewis Clark—that the death was suicide and not murder, a theory that keeps insistently cropping up to explain, in more palatable form, the death of a national hero. [19]

After learning of his friend's death, Clark continued to Fincastle. There he left his wife and son while he visited Jefferson and some of Lewis's family. Gathering up the journals, he went to Philadelphia to arrange with Nicholas Biddle to rewrite them in two volumes as a coherent, smooth-flowing narrative. After being given a final polishing by Paul Allen, they were issued in 1814, with Clark's map as a supplement. Although that chronic procrastinator, Benjamin Barton, renewed his promise to edit the scientific volume, he died before getting around to it. With no one in charge of the specimens the captains had either sent back down the Missouri on the keelboat from Fort Mandan or had brought with them, the materials became scattered and many were lost.

Not long after Lewis's death, Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Pomp, the child well weaned by then, came down the river to visit Clark. They stayed about a year. The parents then returned to the Hidatsa villages beside the Knife River, leaving little Jean Baptiste with Clark to be educated, as the captain had promised. His benefactions continued. Late in 1811, Reuben Lewis of the Missouri Fur Company built a post, named for Manuel Lisa, beside the Missouri River. Clark was well aware of this, of course, and it was perhaps through his influence that Charbonneau got a job at the new establishment as interpreter. He moved there with Sacagawea, who was pregnant, in early 1812. A daughter, Lizette, was born to them in August. Four months later, on December 20, Sacagawea died of what the post trader called putrid fever. She was about twenty-three. [20]

As soon as circumstances allowed, Clark assumed guardianship of the girl and, later, of Charbonneau's son Toussaint by a second Shoshoni wife. As for Jean Baptiste, he went back among the Indians in 1816 or so. In 1824, when he was twenty, he caught the attention of Prince Maximilian of Wied, who was touring the Missouri River country on an elaborate sightseeing junket. The prince took Pomp to Germany, where he stayed for five years before returning to the American West to make a commendable name for himself as a mountain man and army guide.

When Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 (his predecessor as president and sometime enemy, John Adams, died on that same day), America's fabled fur trade had been firmly and profitably established throughout the area Lewis and Clark had known as Upper Louisiana. Curiously, the man who had presided over the purchase of that territory had little to say about either the land or its burgeoning commerce, at least in public. In his introduction to Biddle and Allen's History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark , he outlined his own early interest in trans-Mississippi explorations, repeated the instructions he had given Lewis before Clark had been decided on as the party's co-commander, mentioned the excitement caused by the Corps's return, and closed by mourning Lewis's untimely suicide. That death, the president finished, had kept his fellow Americans from receiving from Lewis's own hands their first knowledge of "that vast and fertile country, which their sons are destined to fill with arts, with science, with freedom and happiness."

As to the United States' share of that vast and fertile land he was quite definite and quite conservative. His nation, he believed, should not make any effort to extend itself politically across the Continental Divide, the country's western boundary as arbitrarily established by the purchase itself. The communications of the time were too slow to allow the quick responses between voters and their government needed by a democracy, and Jefferson despised the thought of his country becoming masters of a distant colonial empire. The Oregon country should become, in his opinion, a neighboring nation "of independent Americans, unconnected with us but by the ties of blood and interest, and employing like us the right of self-government." [21] No more territory (except West Florida), he said in effect, not sensing the energy Lewis and Clark had helped impart to the westward dynamics of the young nation. If the British and Spanish—both of them empires—could be forestalled, that was enough.

Clark's concluding years were the antithesis of Lewis's. In 1813 he was named territorial governor and held that office until the state of Missouri was created in 1820. Though defeated in the first election for state governor, he continued as superintendent of Indian affairs. Whether dealing with whites or Indians or both together, he sought to settle controversies by conciliation. He was imposingly proportioned, dignified, trustworthy, and respected. Most Indians liked him, called him Red Head Chief and, whenever circumstances brought them to St. Louis, eagerly visited him and the Indian Hall he had erected on his estate.

Maintaining his contacts with traders and trappers, he utilized the information they brought him to regularly update his master map of the West. The white spaces shrank, the Indians retreated, the vast herds of game became mere ghosts of what they had been. When William Clark died peacefully in 1838, the face of the nation was changing at a rate that neither Lewis nor he could have imagined when they returned to St. Louis in 1806, bursting with news. Luck! That, too, was part of Meriwether Lewis's heritage, in spite of the manner of his death. The West was bound to be crossed sooner or later by—who knows, acting with what motives? But through good fortune Lewis, Clark, twenty-seven white soldiers, a black slave, an Indian woman, an infant, and a man of mixed races were the first. Acting for the government and hence for the people, and following plans laid down by the president of the United States, they saw the grandeur and space and felt the freshness, and returned successful. The imprint stayed. This was the people's West, the public domain, in ways not quite matched anywhere else. That domain has been sadly abused—and gloriously used—over the years, but the ideal, the sense of newness and promise with which the names Lewis and Clark have always been identified, has not yet been lost.


1. The four letters: Jackson, Letters, 317–43. Jackson's notes describe their appearance, provenance, and so forth. He is not to blame for my interpretations, however. (back)
2. Lewis's suggestions raise the question of the effect the Corps of Discovery had on John Jacob Astor's plans for a vast fur-trade base, Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia. It is true Astor was aware of Lewis and Clark's crossing and wrote Jefferson about his intentions. For some years, however, the trader's orientation had been toward Canada. He knew of Alexander Mackenzie's drive to use the Columbia as the key point in a fur and fisheries plan embracing the entire Northwest. Before embarking on his own venture, therefore, Astor entered into arrangements with the Canadians that he hoped would preclude their competition—only to have the War of 1812 ruin his Pacific Fur Company. So, except perhaps for Wilson Price Hunt's harrowing overland trip, Lewis and Clark's example probably was no more than confirmation of plans already underway. (Lavender, Fist, 118–45, passim.) (back)
3. Thompson, 131. Thompson, writing from memory, errs in saying that in 1792 the forty-ninth parallel formed the boundary between the British dominions and the United States as far west as the Rockies. The United States had no claims that far west until 1803. (back)
4. Jackson, Letters, 343. (back)
5. Jefferson to Major Gilbert Russell, April 18, 1810: "He [Lewis] was much afflicted & habitually so with hypochondria. This was probably increased by the habit into which he had fallen"—i.e., intemperance. Jefferson could have noticed the intemperance only during 1807, for he did not see Lewis after that. Apparently he did get occasional reports of it later on, but chronic alcoholism probably would have taken a while to develop. (back)
6. Reimbursement affairs: Jackson, Letters, II, 377–84. (back)
7. Ibid., 385–85, 394–97, 399–408. The McKeehan quotation: ibid., 406. (back)
8. Jackson, Letters. See last sentence of C. and A. Conrad to Jefferson, 468–69. Also 459 and last sentence of Jefferson to Lewis, July 17, 1808, ibid., 445. (back)
9. Ibid., 575n. Cutright, "Rest, Rest," passim. (back)
10. Jackson, Letters, II, 720. See also Clark to Lewis, undated, 388. (back)
11. Ibid., 444–45 and especially Jackson's note 1. (back)
12. Ibid., 721. (back)
13. Appleman, 237. Clark reached St. Louis either at the end of June or early in July 1807. Writing Dearborn, under date St. Louis, May [sic] 18, 1807, he says the party "will set out this evening." I cannot explain the contradiction in dates. For a summary of the affair: Oglesby, 50–54. (back)
14. Oglesby, 69–76. (back)
15. Kushner, 470–80. (back)
16. Russell, "Statement," and Lewis to Stoddard, Jackson, Letters, II, 573–75, 466. It is said Lewis switched to land travel because he feared, given the international tensions of the time, that his ship from New Orleans might be seized by a British man-of-war. (Neelly to Jefferson, ibid., 467–68.) (back)
17. Ibid., 748. (back)
18. Ibid., 467. (back)
19. Among those arguing, sometimes with great intensity, that Lewis was murdered are Elliott Coues, ed., History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark (New York, 1893); Bakeless, Lewis and Clark ; Vardis Fisher, Suicide or Murder? The Strange Death of Meriwether Lewis (Denver, 1962); and Dillon. The case for suicide is put forth by Phelps; Kushner; Cutright, "Rest, Rest"; and Donald Jackson, who in his Letters moves from tentative to firm support of the suicide theory. (1962 ed., 486n; 1978 ed., 474n.) (back)
20. I refer those who persist in believing, against all evidence, that Sacagawea lived to a ripe old age and is buried on an Indian reservation near Lander, Wyoming, to Irving Anderson, "Probing the Riddle of the Bird Woman," Montana, the Magazine of Western History, XXIII (Autumn 1973), 2–17. (back)
21. Merk, 4–5, 116–17. The quotation is from a letter, Jefferson to John Jacob Astor, May 24, 1812, 117. (back)
*. Missouri Territory would be carved out of Louisiana in 1812. (back)