Lewis & Clark among the Indians Introduction to the Bicentennial Edition

James P. Ronda© 1984University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

Henry David Thoreau once asked, "how many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?" Thoreau's question was his way of acknowleding the power of print to transform and redirect lives. Thomas Jefferson would have agreed. The idea for the Lewis and Clark expedition was born in the summer of 1802 when he read Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages from Montreal and realized that John Bull might claim the West before Uncle Sam made it over the mountains. For me the book that changed everything was John L. Allen's Passage through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest, first published by the University of Illinois Press in 1975. Reading it set me to studying western exploration in general and the Lewis and Clark expedition in particular. It was Passage through the Garden that prompted me to ask if anyone had written about Lewis and Clark and native people. The topic seemed an obvious one to me, and I was sure that many books must explore so rich and compelling a subject. When I learned there were none, I impetuously decided to try my hand at the topic. Lewis and Clark among the Indians would not have come into existence without Passage through the Garden. Books make a difference; reading changes lives.

Lewis and Clark among the Indians was sparked by reading what John Allen wrote about geographic exploration, but the book also developed at a unique time in the writing of American history. Beginning in the 1960s many historians and other scholars were deeply involved in a comprehensive reevaluation of race in the American experience. While some scholars centered their attention on African Americans and Asian Americans, others probed the complexities of Native American cultures and communities. Until that time much Native American history centered on federal Indian policy and formal tribal histories. The story was most often told from Washington, D.C., and the principal actors were bureaucrats, soldiers, missionaries, and white settlers. But a different approach—something called ethnohistory—offered a new way to tell old stories. Inspired by the shared perspectives of history and anthropology, ethnohistorians expanded the field of inquiry, asked fresh questions, paid attention to often-neglected native sources, and listened carefully to Indian voices. Throughout the 1970s the ethnohistory I wrote described native people, Christian missionaries, and the changes sweeping throughout the colonial Northeast. In retrospect that work—so far from the Native American West of Lewis and Clark—prepared me to ask new questions about the larger western exploration story. As I wrote in the preface to this book, what captured my imagination was the possibility of writing "exploration ethnohistory."

At the very time Native American history experienced both transformation and renewal, the field of western American history underwent profound changes. While Lewis and Clark among the Indians was never identified with what became known as the "New Western History," the book was undoubtedly influenced by reading and listening to Patricia Nelson Limerick, Bill Cronon, Richard White, and Donald Worster. Their struggles to redefine western history and escape the intellectual straitjacket of the Turner Thesis impressed me and encouraged me. At the same time I did not want to abandon the narrative power and broad appeal I admired in the writing of Francis Parkman and Bernard DeVoto. Like them, I also wanted to engage a wider audience that included readers beyond the academic ranks. Quite simply, I hoped to write narrative history informed by a reinvigorated Indian history and a renewed western history. Exploration history—with its journey structure and memorable cast of characters—seemed to offer that possibility.

Because I was not trained as a western historian, I knew I needed a mentor, someone to guide me up the trails and over the mountains. In January 1980 I wrote to Donald Jackson—the dean of Lewis and Clark scholars—asking his help with my project. Don's answer was quick and gracious. As the senior editor at the University of Illinois Press and later as founding editor of the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, he never had students. Now Don became a professor. I was his sole student and our often-weekly letters were a seminar in the writing of western exploration history. Those letters continued until his death in December 1987. Rereading them now I can see Don cajoling and correcting me, keeping me on the trail, and reminding me not to lose track of the narrative line. If the dedication page had not been promised to someone else, it surely would have gone to Don.

When Thomas Jefferson prepared exploration instructions for Meriwether Lewis in June 1803 he repeated one phrase—"the object of your journey"—again and again. The president used the word "object" to mean "objective." Lewis and Clark among the Indians also has its objects. Perhaps the most important of those objects is to tell a familiar western journey story in a new way. I wanted to give readers a different angle of vision, another way to appreciate a story that had grown too familiar and perhaps a bit stale. Simply put, Lewis and Clark among the Indians asks readers to get off the expedition's boats and get on the bank. What had always been seen through the eyes of Lewis and Clark needed to be experienced through the eyes of native people. By shifting points of view and introducing new speakers I hoped to tell a richer and more compelling story, one that would reflect the diversity of the West itself.

That was my intention. I soon found that the telling involved a research task of considerable size and complexity. The task was more than thinking out a new research design. It involved enlarging the Lewis and Clark story in particular and the western exploration story in general. Writing history is always an act of the imagination. What I needed to do was reimagine the expedition and the western worlds through which it moved. In the popular mind Jefferson's Corps of Discovery had only three members—Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea. Donald Jackson's magisterial Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition changed all that for those who were paying attention. Jackson put it with characteristic bluntness: "It is no longer useful to think of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as the personal story of two men. Their journey . . . was an enterprise of many aims and a product of many minds." Jackson's cast of characters ranged from the attorney general of the United States to obscure craftspeople in Philadelphia and St. Louis. Challenged by Jackson's words and our correspondence, I went in search of an even larger cast, one that acted on a stage that stretched up the Missouri, across the mountains, down the Columbia, and on to the shores of the Pacific. If this journey story was to have any cultural meanings within the larger American experience, it needed a telling that paid attention to native aims and minds.

Enlarging the expedition story called for more actors on a wider stage; it also meant broadening the range of sources and methodologies from those typically used in writing history. Lewis and Clark among the Indians drew heavily on the available anthropological and archaeological literature, especially the site reports from digs along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. Here I had the good fortune to meet W. Raymond Wood, one of the foremost northern Great Plains archaeologists. He introduced me to unpublished materials, including specialized studies done for the National Park Service. From there the research spread out to formal, academic tribal histories and the invaluable oral traditions preserved in many different ways. But in all of this I repeatedly came back to the expedition's journals. Don Jackson once called the expedition's journal keepers "the writingest explorers" in American history. What I found in a close and critical reading of Lewis, Clark, John Ordway, Patrick Gass, Joseph Whitehouse, and Charles Floyd was a wealth of material about expedition-Indian relations. The biases and prejudices are surely there; but so are the native voices. The journals name the names and mark out the places. And it is more than simply names and places. At a certain level writing history is an act of rescue. Historians rescue and restore lost voices. The Lewis and Clark journals make that kind of rescue and restoration possible. Again and again Corps of Discovery journal keepers recorded what native people told them about everything from plants and animals to geography and relations with tribal neighbors. Despite what were surely inadequate translations we can still hear the voices of Mandan chief Black Cat, Clatsop headman Coboway, and Nez Perce chief Twisted Hair. It is those voices that give depth and richness to the Lewis and Clark story.

In the nearly twenty years since the publication of Lewis and Clark among the Indians interest has only grown in the expedition and its place in the history of the American West. That fascination has been fueled by a tidal wave of books, television documentaries, guided tours, and museum exhibitions. The shared bicentennials of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Louisiana Purchase add that much more to a widespread enthusiasm for the Corps of Discovery and its journey. While many in the general public still cling to the notion of Jefferson's explorers as "captains courageous," historians have come to appreciate the expedition story as an emblematic moment in the larger history of the continent. The central argument in Lewis and Clark among the Indians has gained considerable acceptance. Most who write about the expedition now acknowledge that native people were at the heart of the enterprise. Without those Indian voices and views the story is at best only half told.

Some two decades later I would have said some things more forcefully. One of those would be the importance of Indians as explorers. Just as Lewis and Clark explored the lives and cultures of native people, so too did Indians explore Jefferson's travelers and the things they carried with them. What happened from the Missouri to the Columbia was mutual discovery, shared moments of exploration encounter. Much of that discovery was done through the fog of confusion, misunderstanding, and ambiguity. But when Black Cat went to Fort Mandan inquiring about the expedition's "fashions," he was part of a Corps of Discovery far larger than Thomas Jefferson ever imagined.

Perhaps nothing has contributed more to Lewis and Clark scholarship over the past twenty years than the appearance of Gary E. Moulton's magnificent Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, published by the University of Nebraska Press. When I wrote Lewis and Clark among the Indians in the early 1980s, only the atlas volume of the Moulton edition was available. My research was in the Reuben Gold Thwaites edition, with its reasonably reliable text but woefully inadequate annotations. Had I started a bit later, my book would have benefited substantially from the comprehensive ethnographic and linguistic scholarship that informs the entire Moulton edition. Examples abound. I would have spelled and translated names like Untongarabar (Black Buffalo Bull) or War-cha-pa (The Stabber) differently. I would have more precisely located important Nez Perce and Columbia River villages and fishing camps. I would have had much more to say about the native use of medicinal plants and medical practices. Perhaps most important, I could have made use of the superb linguistic scholarship present in every Moulton volume.

On May 13, 1804—the day the Corps of Discovery left its camp at Wood RiverWilliam Clark wrote that the expedition's "road across the continent" would take it through a "multitude of Indians." Almost a year later, as the company prepared to head out from Fort Mandan on its way to the Pacific, Meriwether Lewis declared that he and his fellow travelers were "about to penetrate a country . . . on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden." In that contest of images—a West filled with native people and an empty, savage land—Clark had it right. He recognized something fundamental about his own journey and the larger American journey. The expedition was a diverse human community moving through the lands and lives of other communities. This was no "tour of discovery" through an empty West. Lewis and Clark among the Indians is an attempt to tell that story. What has so often been recounted in terms of high adventure, national triumph, and male courage needs to be told again as a complex human story. Lewis and Clark among the Indians aims at overturning the old narrative and replacing it with one more subtle, more nuanced, and, I hope, more compelling. I remain persuaded that this story and its many voices has much to offer as we struggle to understand our troubled past and often-uncertain present. This larger Corps of Discovery is a reminder that we are all pilgrims on the way, making our way by the kindness of strangers.