Counting Cats in Zanzibar, Or, Lewis and Clark Reconsidered

by James P. Ronda

(This article first appeared in Western Historical Quarterly 33.1 [2002]: 5–18.)

The Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition offers an opportunity to reconsider the journey of the Corps of Discovery as an emblematic moment in the history of the North American West. This essay examines the current popular fascination with Lewis and Clark, comments on key hooks in the revival of exploration studies, and suggests ways to expand the traditional story to include Native American voices.

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Let me begin with the obvious—we are now deep into the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.* It is only 2001, but many Americans are already enjoying a glorious Lewis and Clark wallow. One way or another, and for all sorts of reasons, whole battalions of otherwise sensible folks are head–over–heels in love with the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery. The story of Jefferson's intrepid captains pushing their way up the Missouri, struggling over the mountains, and then rushing down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean seems endlessly fascinating. So, be warned. We are going to hear tales of captains courageous and explorers triumphant for a long time to come.

The Lewis and Clark obsession knows no boundaries. Corps of Discovery trekkies are of both genders, all ages, and nearly every occupation. Maybe the Lewis and Clark frenzy has something to do with adventure fantasies. Perhaps it is an expression of genuine interest in what Henry James called "the visitable past. [1] Some of the popular versions are not much more than patriotic self–congratulation, reassuring us that out West all things have a happy ending. Searching for explanations, we should not ignore the glitzy commercial promotions that continue to feed the fires of enthusiasm. Hal Rothman would want to remind us that many Lewis and Clark promotions are prime examples of heritage tourism with a vengeance. Market research tells the tale—Lewis and Clark sell, no matter what the product. All the signs are here: a best–selling book, three television documentaries, and a list of publications so vast in size and varied in quality as to defy comprehensive cataloging. There are Lewis and Clark trail guidebooks, coloring books, and cookbooks. At least three books depict the Corps of Discovery through the eyes of the expedition's dog Seaman. The United States Mint has gotten into the act by stamping out the most collectible coin in recent memory. While Americans rejected Susan B. Anthony, the Sacagawea gold dollar is so much in demand that few can be found in circulation. Never mind that the talking head in the television commercial was George Washington's instead of hers. She said not a word, and, strangely enough, no one even mentioned her name! Festivals, seminars, museum exhibitions, and reenactments all crowd the bicentennial calendar. The Lewis and Clark trail now joins the list of America's sacred places, a list that includes Plymouth, Valley Forge, the Alamo, Gettysburg, and the Little Big Horn. Lewis and Clark have become cultural shorthand for all western explorers. They have captured the public imagination, to say nothing of memory's marketplace.

I have no illusions about derailing the Lewis and Clark express, although I would like to switch it to another set of tracks. The expedition is now an industry, grinding out everything from commemorative plates and reproduction Peace and Friendship medals to expedition maps printed on restaurant menus and Corps of Discovery cross–stitch patterns. We live in an age of relentless hyperbole. There is no reason to think that this particular story can escape our drive to make the past a product. But before we drown in Lewis and Clark memorabilia, I want to take some time to reconsider the expedition's journey and how I got caught up in it. What follows is both scholarly reconsideration and personal explanation, an apologia (not an apology) for the past two decades of writing about one moment in western time.

Nothing in my past, either personal or professional, offers the slightest hint that I would spend twenty years living with, and living in the shadow of the life and times of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Third–generation Dutch boys from Chicago don't generally grow up to be western historians. On the suburban Chicago crabgrass frontier of the 1950s, our house was more bungalow than bunk house. There is no Patty Limerick's Banning, California, in my past; and no Dick Etulain sheep ranch to contend with. The very idea that I might write about exploring distant places would have made little sense in my family. Our yearly adventure was a one–week pilgrimage to northern Minnesota—the same cabin, the same resort, the same lake, and probably the same fish. Hope College, with its ideological feet planted firmly on western Michigan Calvinist soil, did little to turn my eyes westward or any other direction, except heavenward. Most of my New York and New Jersey roommates believed the cultural stereotype depicted in that famous New Yorker cover—no culture west of the Hudson and no life until you reach L. A.

Once I got to graduate school, it was the events and peoples east of the Mississippi that captured my attention. The West was not a part of the graduate curriculum at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in the late 1960s. Better I should be a student of imperial Anglo–America than stud what my dissertation advisor dismissed as the merely local and the inexcusably provincial. Once out of graduate school, I mostly wrote about the tangled relationships between Christian missionaries and Native peoples in New France and southern New England. But the truth is that less than ten years after graduate school I was running our of ideas. To be blunt, I had little left to say, and other historians seemed a whole lot smarter and a whole lot more creative. There was something else too. My grandmother worked as a teacher and missionary among the Navajo and Zuni peoples from 1905 to 1911. The more sharp–edged my critique of the missionary enterprise became, the closer to home it all was. So, I was bored, apprehensive, and not a little disappointed in myself.

Henry David Thoreau once asked, "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a hook?" [2] That is exactly what happened to me. It was one hook that changed the direction of my career and transformed my life in ways I could never have guessed. That book was John Logan Allen's Passage through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest published by the University of Illinois Press in 1975. Passage is one of those remarkable books that joins history's narrative power to geography's sense of place and terrain. Perhaps it didn't hurt that the author knew the West growing up in Wheatland, Wyoming, and had an uncanny ability to read maps as historical documents. But when the book appeared in the mid–1970s, I was still lost on Jesuit Relations, and the publication of Passage wholly escaped me.

Perhaps it was providence or just plain dumb luck, but sometime in 1976, the hook review editor at the journal Ohio History sent me a copy of Passage and asked for a review. Now, you should know that in the mid–1970s, I barely knew who Lewis and Clark were. I had little idea where they went or why, much less the consequences of their journey. My American history survey course moved quickly from the election of 1800 to the War of 1812 with only the merest mention of the Louisiana Purchase. So far as my students knew, Lewis and Clark might as well have been Lois Lane and Clark Kent. But for reasons that still puzzle me I agreed to write the review. I implore you not to read it. At least I was smart enough to say that Passage was an important scholarly accomplishment, although I had no sure idea why. I put the book back on the shelf, was (I am ashamed to say) tempted several times to give it away, and retrained strangely haunted by the story it told. Something about the voyage—the people and the places—just would not let go.

As my interest in Indians and missionaries grew cold, I reached for John Allen's book. Having read his treatment of Lewis and Clark as geographic explorers, I wondered if anyone had written about Lewis and Clark and Indians. It seemed such an obvious topic, and as I headed to the library I fully expected to find half a dozen books about the expedition's passage through the Native West. I was surprised that those hooks were just not on the shelves at Youngstown State University or any other place. In a moment of profound naivete, I decided to write about Lewis and Clark and the peoples they met on the way West. Much by accident, I found a local rare book dealer who loved western history and Lewis and Clark. In August 1978, I began to pay regular visits to the late, great Mike Faklis's Alpha–Omega Books in Youngstown, Ohio, and soon I owned dozens of those volumes that had been just authors and titles a few months earlier. But let me say again—I made this decision knowing nearly nothing about the nature of exploration, nothing about the course of the Lewis and Clark journey, and most important, nothing about the Native peoples of the West and Pacific Northwest. Perhaps the smartest thing 1 did was begin a correspondence with Donald Jackson—an exchange of letters that continued almost every week until his death in December 1987. Looking hack on the decision to write about Lewis and Clark, I can only believe that if ever there were a case of "foolrushery," this was it.

Now, some twenty years later, there needs to be some reckoning, both for myself and for what we can learn from the Lewis and Clark stories. As I soon discovered, there were many stories to he told and many voices to he heard. The truth is that I continue to find the Lewis and Clark stories as compelling, as important, and as revealing as when I first encountered them. These stories—and the voices that tell them—have held my attention and sparked my imagination. They did then; they do now. Listening to Lewis and Clark themselves, I have been angered by their towering arrogance, hurt by their casual brutality, and troubled by their unrelenting nationalism. But the stories, the people, and the voices have never let me go. I willingly admit that there have been times when I have tried to escape them. I confess that the captains and I have had a complex relationship. What I have had with Lewis and Clark is a lover's quarrel, something like what William Sloan Coffin meant when he said that real scholarship is a lover's quarrel with the world for what it is not, but still could be. So, I keep returning to the events and people of those two–and–one–half years, finding in them whole worlds of meaning.

Like writing about jazz, writing the history of exploration is always politically and culturally charged. It brings us face–to–face with competing and often mutually exclusive stories about the courses and meanings of American history. Explorers themselves remain subjects of argument and contention because what they did and what they represent matters so much. We argue about the Alamo and the blood at the Greasy Grass because they matter; we argue about the Civil War and Reconstruction because they matter; we argue about the 1960s, civil rights, and the Vietnam War because they matter. The Lewis and Clark stories are not inconsequential moments entombed in textbook pages: those stories are too unruly fort hat. Attending to Lewis and Clark, we are forced to pay attention to everything from federal Indian policy and environmental change to matters of race, gender, and sexuality. Lewis and Clark will not politely fold their tents, break camp, and slip away into the gathering darkness. The voices and the stories will not let us escape so easily. Their angular, bony words do not sir well in a time that demands history as a celebration of our One Big Union in the sky. Americans have embraced the popular Lewis and Clark story, perhaps not fully appreciating its complexities and ambiguities. Once we have taken hold of these stories, they will take hold of us, and what we learn about ourselves in wrestling with them may not please us. I know that Lewis and Clark have often unsettled me, made me squirm in my comfortable academic chair. By reconsidering Lewis and Clark, we reconsider ourselves, not as an act of self–indulgence but as an act of self–discovery.

Books make a difference; Thoreau was right about their power to fire the imagination and change lives. For me there are four books that give energy and direction to any reconsideration of the life and times of the Lewis and Clark expedition. I offer them to you as a reminder of their enduring value and their collective ability to bring the past into the present.

Long before the current Lewis and Clark enthusiasm, Bernard DeVoto recognized that the expedition was something more than the great American adventure story. Lewis and Clark were not the Rover Boys out West. In the 1930s, DeVoto began to consider where Jefferson's Corps of Discovery fit into the larger history of North America. But other projects and enthusiasms kept getting in the way. It was not until late 1946 that he set to work on what became The Course of Empire. Published in 1952, The Course of Empire is all about geographic myths and illusions (especially the elusive Northwest Passage), the role of Thomas Jefferson as the first American geo-politician, and the continental expansion of the United States. For me, the book's most compelling lines come in the preface. Here is what DeVoto has to say: "A dismaying amount of our history has been written without regard to the Indians, and of what has been written with regard to them much treats their diverse and always changing societies as uniform and static." [3] DeVoto's own narrative line followed white men across the continent, but he did begin to recognize that Native peoples were an essential part of the story. This seems commonplace today, but in 1952 it was nothing less than revolutionary.

Indians are at the very heart of the Lewis and Clark story. Exploration history is not a meaningful narrative without them. The Course of Empire won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for American history, but few scholars took DeVoto, the historian, seriously. He was volcanic Benny, erupting on schedule from his "Easy Chair" at Harper's Magazine. Once on library shelves, The Course of Empire—a hook that might deserve a nod but not a thoughtful reading—was largely forgotten.

"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." [4] No sentences in the Lewis and Clark historical literature are more important than these. They come in the preface to Donald Jackson's Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, first published by the University of Illinois Press in 1962, with a revised and expanded two–volume edition in 1978. Writing history is an act of the imagination. When American historians at mid–century thought about Lewis and Clark, they imagined a simple story told with one voice—a voice belonging to some generic character named "Lewisandclark." If there was one voice, then perhaps there were only four actors—Jefferson, Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea. By patiently locating, transcribing, and annotating more than 450 documents—everything from invoices for clothing and hardware to correspondence between politicians, diplomats, army officers, and private citizens—Jackson reimagined the story, breathing life into what was a dead subject. He understood what so many continue to forget—that the physical journey across the continent was only one aspect of the expedition experience. The Lewis and Clark story is often bracketed by the years 1803–1806; Jackson's documents range from the 1780s to the 1850s. They reveal a sprawling, intricate set of interconnected, overlapping stories told in many voices, languages, and accents. To borrow some theater imagery, Jackson presented the Lewis and Clark drama as a complex play with many actors and several scripts, all appearing on a stage both broad and deep. Thanks to Jackson, the cast of characters now included public figures like Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, and Attorney–General Levi Lincoln; naturalists and men of science like Benjamin Rush, Charles Willson Peale, Benjamin Smith Barton, and Bernard Lacepede; writers and printers like Nicholas Biddle, John Conrad, and David McKeehan; and the dozens of merchants and artisans who supplied the expedition, including seamstress Matilda Chapman, fishing tackle dealer George Lawton, and blacksmith Nicodemus Lloyd—all members of the Philadelphia business community. Don Jackson's Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition widened the story and deepened it. Modern expedition scholarship began with Donald Jackson; it is still inspired by his powerful imagination.

DeVoto's The Course of Empire suggested that the Lewis and Clark expedition was something more than an infantry company on a presidential errand into the wilderness. The West was nor empty after all, and the people who called it home made a difference. Jackson's Letters filled the expedition stage with a large and varied cast of characters. But it was William H. Goetzmann's Exploration and Empire, published in 1966, that took the expedition story and put it where it belonged—firmly within the larger contexts of North American and global history. No lines from that book are more memorable and influential than these: "The exploration of the American West was never an isolated event. It belongs to world rather than national history, and never more so than in the opening decades of the nineteenth century." [5] DeVoto hinted at this in a largely unnoticed essay in 1955, but Goetzmann made the point with grace and force. Like Francis Parkman and DeVoto, he envisioned the history of North America as a struggle between powerful European and American rivals. The rush for empire shaped American life, whether the conflict was played out on the shores of the Great Lakes or beyond the wide Missouri. Goetzmann located the expedition story within a large and powerful historical narrative. That narrative was all about defining political and cultural boundaries in the North American West. The first six pages of Exploration and Empire liberated Lewis and Clark from endless antiquarian arguments about campsite locations and who saw what mountain first. As Goetzmann put it, the Lewis and Clark expedition "injected the United States into the struggle for national empire." [6]

Considering DeVoto, Jackson, and Goetzmann, I always come back to John Allen's Passage through the Garden. Without that hook I would not have encountered the others. Passage does so many things so well: it places Jefferson and Lewis and Clark within the context of late–eighteenth–century geographical thought; it offers a systematic structure for understanding how explorers made route decisions in the field; and it makes clear how Lewis and Clark moved from Jefferson's image of the West as a vast garden to an appreciation for regionally diverse environments. What remains most compelling for me, however, is Allen's emphasis on the strength of imagination and the lure of illusion. John Kirtland Wright, one of the founders of American historical geography, put it this way: "The imagination not only projects itself into tarrae incognitae and suggests routes for us to follow, but also plays upon those things that we discover and out of them makes imaginative conceptions which we seek to share with others." [7] Dreams at home shape what is seen on the road, and once back home imagination continues to shape how travelers share their adventures with others. Paying close attention to both the written and the cartographic record, Allen portrayed the tenacious power of illusion—in this case the dream of the Northwest Passage and the conjectural geography behind it—in planning and carrying out the Lewis and Clark journey. Thomas Jefferson liked to think about exploration as a careful, reasoned process of filling in blank spaces on the map. In a memorable letter to William Dunbar, he predicted that "[w]e shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this great country: those who come after us will extend the ramifications as they become acquainted with them, and fill up the canvas we begin. Allen showed us the passion and imagination that inspired and directed enlightenment exploration. Passage is a reminder that the most important journeys are the ones made before leaving home. They are ventures into the country of the mind.

Taken together, DeVoto, Jackson, Goetzmann, and Allen are a map to what I think is a fuller, more nuanced understanding of western exploration in general and the Lewis and Clark expedition in particular. That map is even more interesting with the completion of Gary Moulton's masterful twelve–volume edition of the Lewis and Clark journals. The bicentennial is an appropriate time for some fresh thinking and writing about the West at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Prophecy, however, is dangerous. After publication of the first scholarly edition of the Lewis and Clark journals, editor Reuben Gold Thwaites confidently predicted that his work would provide "a new view of Lewis and Clark." [9] Those "new views" were a long time coming. Not wanting to be either Jeremiah or Moses, let me suggest some roads to take in reconsidering the expedition and its larger meanings.

The Lewis and Clark story—or rather its many stories—leads us back to fundamentals. One of those fundamentals is identity. For virtually all the peoples of North America, identity has been fashioned out of journey. Native American literature is filled with emergence and migration stories. European Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans all find identity in being on the road from somewhere to elsewhere. Our national mythology abounds with journey images: overlanders on the way to California and Oregon; black southerners leaving places like Clarksdale, Mississippi, for the Promised Land of Sweet Home Chicago; and Dust Bowl refugees searching for the next harvest out past Bakersfield. The expedition's journey is not the most important passage in American history, but it is an emblematic one, and it can serve to remind us that American stories are road stories. With Lewis and Clark we see one human community moving through the lands and lives of other communities. This story evokes both the lure of the road and the promise of home. To travel with the Lewis and Clark community is to he on the road in a fundamentally American venture.

Reading the Lewis and Clark journals is a constant reminder that Native peoples are at the heart of this story. William Clark knew as much when, just before leaving St. Louis, he said that the expedition's "road across the continent" would take the adventurers through "a multitude of Indians." [10] Clark understood that Indians were important both as objects of scientific study and as sources of geographic information. Only gradually would he come to appreciate their roles as active participants in the exploration of North America. In the life of the expedition, Native peoples were not passive spectators, quietly watching the action from the wings while the real actors did the talking. As Lewis and Clark came to explore, so Native peoples sought to explore the American explorers. It was as if a new country called Lewis–and–Clark needed to be probed, charted, and put into the world of the known. Telling the Lewis and Clark story, we need to get off the boat and get on the hank. By placing Native peoples at the center of the story, we enjoy a new angle of vision. The Indians we meet in the Lewis and Clark record are not generic, nameless bystanders. Black Cat, Cameahwait, Coboway, and dozens of other Native peoples step out of the written record as intriguing characters with their own histories, geographies, and distinctive views of the world. Taking account of these characters, we confront the complexities and ambiguities of race and ethnicity in America. American historians continue to consider race in polar terms: black Americans in tension and conversation with white Americans. The Lewis and Clark experience is a reminder that things have always been more complex and surely more diverse than that. In the winter of 1804–5 the Mandan chief Black Cat shared time and space with African American York, Shawnee–French George Drouillard, Omaha–French Pierre Cruzatte, New Hampshire Yankee John Ordway, and the Shoshone–French child Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Might this suggest to us the subtle and shifting boundaries of that semi–permeable membrane we call race?

Thomas Jefferson told Lewis and Clark to evaluate and record "the face of the country." [11] We are easily seduced by the paintings of George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, and Paul Kane into thinking that the West Lewis and Clark saw was a Garden of Eden, some natural paradise beyond the reach of change. Lewis and Clark saw and wrote about a West before hydroelectric dams, power lines, explosive urbanization, and the monocultures of modern farming and ranching. But what they experienced was not a country untouched by human hands. Lewis and Clark traveled through a landscape already altered by fire, hunting, horticulture, and centuries of settlement. In a brilliant essay entitled "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492," historical geographer William M. Denevan made a compelling case for the many ways Native peoples fashioned "a humanized landscape," one that fit the needs of complex and expanding societies. [12] Jefferson's explorers saw western landscapes through eastern eyes and with sensibilities conditioned by eastern contours and colors. Little wonder that Sergeant John Ordway took one look at what is now Fergus County in central Montana and described it as "the Deserts of North America. [13] With caution we can use the natural history gathered by the Corps of Discovery as a yardstick for measuring change, while acknowledging that environmental change was present long before the bearded Americans showed up. Lewis and Clark came as representatives of a republic with empire on its mind. Just how much on its mind became clear when Lewis and a small party met a group of Piegan Blackfeet warriors on the Two Medicine River in late July 1806. When the Piegans attempted to take the expedition's guns and horses, a nasty fight erupted leaving two Indians dead. In a moment of imperial bravado, Lewis hung a peace medal around the neck of one Piegan, saying he did that so others might know "who we were." [14] The empire that Lewis proclaimed at the Two Medicine meant not only territorial sovereignty but economic dominion. The Corps of Discovery went up the Missouri representing a new commercial order. The phrase in Jefferson's instructions to Lewis about finding a passage from Atlantic to Pacific waters "for the purposes of commerce" has often been overlooked or misconstrued. Commerce did mean the fur trade, and Jefferson expected that Indians would abandon Canadian connections and do business with St. Louis interests. But Lewis and Clark were also in the West to begin the process of planting an agricultural economy. Jefferson's great hope–and surely his great illusion–was that the West would be the place where sturdy republican farmers could prosper, safe from the vices and seductions of the East. Lewis and Clark carried with them all the goods and values of an emerging capitalist society. Bill Robbins is right; we need to pay more attention to capitalism and the transformations it promoted in the West. [15] Chicago became nature's metropolis, but it was Lewis and Clark who advanced the vision of nature as a natural resource into the American West. With Jefferson's utilitarian notions of nature and knowledge in mind, Lewis and Clark counted heaver as pelts, judged waterways for their navigability, and evaluated land for its fertility. Lewis and Clark were at the head of an advancing army of entrepreneurs that came to include John Jacob Astor, William H. Ashley, James J. Hill, and Marcus Daly. Paying attention to Lewis and Clark, we are brought into what Umberto Eco calls "the Theatre of illusions." [16] Jefferson sent his expedition into the West on the strength of several compelling illusions about the nature of continental geography. Myth, illusion, and superheated imagination were up every river and down every trail on the Lewis and Clark journey. When Lewis was at the confluence of the Missouri and the Marias, he described the scene as "one of the most beautifully picturesque countries that [he] ever beheld" with "its borders garnished with one continued garden of roses." [17] A little less than a month later, with the expedition near present day Great Falls, Montana, Lewis heard distinct cannon–like booms from the distant mountains. French boatmen explained that those sounds were "the bursting of the rich mines of silver which these mountains contain." [18] Pondering rose gardens and silver mountains, Lewis had crossed what D. H. Lawrence once called "the coasts of illusion" and was deep into imagination's West. [19] Our scholarship lives in the Age of the Cool, a time when adjectives are suspect and engagement is dismissed as mere enthusiasm. "Dispassionate" is the most favored word among hook reviewers. The Lewis and Clark story reminds us that passion and imagination were powers in the past that the present needs to recognize and appreciate. I readily confess that thinking about the explorers' imaginations has enlivened my own.

Like all good stories, this one has gifts for those who listen patiently. It offers us a place (or perhaps many places) to put our narrative feet on the ground and take account of earth, weather, and the physical presence of the natural world. This is a story that took place in places, and places made a difference. There is no generic "West" here. The shape of the ground, both real and imagined, formed this journey. The Lewis and Clark narrative brings us face to face with the country between Forts Mandan and Clatsop. There are rivers, passes, and trails here—all with names, characteristics, and parts to play in the story. It is nor any river, but the Missouri, making its way through those strange rock formations in north–central Montana that Lewis termed "sees [sic] of visionary enchantment [sic]." [20] It is not any pass, but Lemhi Pass in the late summer of 1805 with its views westward toward the snow–covered Bitterroot Mountains. Consider for a moment William Clark and the Pacific Ocean. For this landlocked, woodlands man, "ocean" was a word that lacked the substance of experience. But that changed in early December 1805, when what had been abstract became all too real. After taking a party to see the ocean, Clark wrote that he had "not Seen one pacific day Since my arrival in its vicinity, and its waters are forming [foaming] and petially [perpetually] breake [sic] with emenc [sic] waves on the Sands and rocky coasts, tempestuous and heritable [sic]." [21] The Lewis and Clark expedition took shape in government offices and country houses hut played itself out in worlds of mud and water, cold rain, and blistering sun. Exploration history is, inevitably, environmental history.

The best historical narratives enliven our imagination and move us from innocence to experience. They clear a space in the clutter so that we can recollect the past and reconsider its meanings. What is the size of the space that Lewis and Clark clear for us? How big is this story? A look at the Lewis and Clark route marked out on any popular trail guide suggests a confined space, one defined by the banks of the Missouri and the Columbia. In this version of the Lewis and Clark journey, the expedition marched a narrow tunnel from St. Louis to the Pacific and back. And within that tunnel there is only room for a few travelers, a few voices, a few perspectives. But in fact this is a larger story and it opens for us a much larger space. This is a narrative country large enough for Sacagawea and Matilda Chapman, Attorney-General Levi Lincoln and Clatsop headman Coboway, French–Canadian boatman and sometime expedition fiddle player Pierre Cruzatte and St. Louis cartographer Antoine Foulard. As geographic explorers, Lewis and Clark lived in the age of James Cook and George Vancouver. On the eve of leaving Fort Mandan for points west, Lewis compared his expedition to those of Columbus and Cook. [22] There was presumption bordering on arrogance in his claim, but in essence the American adventurer was right. The journey that Jefferson had planned was based on models of exploration established by Sir Joseph Banks and Great Britain's Royal Society. With Cook, Vancouver, and Banks we are in a very large—even a global space—precisely where Bill Goetzmann said Lewis and Clark belong.

Don Jackson once described Lewis and Clark as the "writingest" of all American explorers. [23] Their journey produced more first–hand accounts than any other in the history of the exploration of the American West. There are surviving journals from Lewis, Clark, Sergeants John Ordway, Patrick Gases, Charles Floyd, and Private Joseph Whitehorse, and there are hundreds of letters, official papers, and cartographic records. A close look at Lewis and Clark offers an opportunity to escape our modern illusion that the past is just another, simpler version of the present; that late eighteenth–century folks are like us except for deodorant, antibiotics, and cell phones. The social and material life of the eighteenth century is profoundly "Other." Saying that Lewis and Clark lived in a foreign country is just the beginning of wisdom. The paradox here—the one we confront every day in the classroom and in what we write—is that this "past as foreign country" is always with us. Lewis and Clark are not our contemporaries, but reading their written traces means confronting questions of invasion, conquest, cultural arrogance, and racial violence. It means owning up to a past as deeply troubled and as morally ambiguous as our present. Historical narrative brings us face–to–face with strangeness and then enables us to experience intellectual and emotional enlargement. No story from the past is a sovereign remedy for our obsessive focus on the Now and the Immediate. But with Lewis and Clark we have a many–voiced account that invites us, our readers, and our students to move beyond self–absorption to attempt conversation with others.

Good stories impose obligations. Having encountered these stories, we do not escape easily. Heeding what Robert Coles describes as "the call of stories," we cannot slip away and then slip hack into old ways of telling. It does make a difference how we tell the Lewis and Clark story. So much of the distinctively American West begins with Jefferson and Lewis and Clark. What we say about beginnings inevitably shapes middles and ends, interpretations and conclusions. Blessed with a rich documentary record—one that names the names and preserves many voices—we are obliged to tell this story with all its absurdities, confusions, accomplishments, and loose ends. In recent times, some have sought to make Lewis and Clark the American master narrative. In this telling, the expedition is us—the U. S.—one family with men of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, a woman, and a child all heading west into an uncertain (but probably) promising future. Such a narrative is so appealing that it could easily become the plot line for a television documentary. But this version asks too much; no single story can bear the entire moral weight of North America's complex and controverted histories. But as a journey story, as one more part of the American odyssey, Lewis and Clark can help us understand a West that John McPhee aptly calls "suspect terrain."

Now about those cats in Zanzibar. Henry David Thoreau once boasted that he had "traveled a good deal in Concord." [24] Urging his readers to be expert in what he called "home–cosmography," Thoreau rook as his motto the phrase "explore thyself." Having recently read Charles Wilkes's report of the United States exploring expedition, Thoreau lampooned the entire exploration enterprise, insisting that "it is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar." [25] Perhaps the Sage of Walden Pond was thinking about writing an essay called "The Insignificance of Exploration in American History." But all of this was a pose, a polite fiction to fit the needs of Walden's insistence on local knowledge and personal independence. No citizen of Concord was more widely traveled than Thoreau. I Lis traveling and exploring were done by means of the printed page and the Harvard College library. Thoreau read exploration and travel narratives with astonishing passion. Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Montgomery Pike, Charles Wilkes, and John Charles Fremont, the polar explorers Sir John Franklin, Sir William Edward Parry, and Elisha Kent Kane, and the African adventurers Mungo Park, David Livingstone, and Richard F. Burton—he read them all.

That reading led Thoreau to a strikingly modern understanding of exploration. He recognized that exploration journeys were all about imagination's encounter with the physical world. This was no idle meeting; the exploration encounter produced new knowledge. When William Clark talked with Black Cat he learned something new; so did Black Cat. As Thoreau explained it in an early journal entry, "to travel and 'descry new lands' is to think new thoughts and have new imaginings.'''' In another entry he was even more pointed: "The excursions of the imagination are so bound-less."" Thoreau had read enough to know that imagination's children could and did wreak havoc while in search of Cibola, the Vermilion Sea, or the Passage to India. Like Thoreau, we need have no illusions about explorers and their own daemons. Exploration is imagination and passion in search of knowing and possessing. Thoreau knew the passions that drove explorers were many--curiosity, competitiveness, greed, salvation, and dominion. Passions leave scars, and exploration history is a deeply scarred record. Lewis and Clark expanded imaginations in their own time; their story can do the same for us in our time.

In the coming years, the bicentennial fires will burn hot for a while, consume themselves, and then grow cold. Heritage tourism will rise and fall on the price of gasoline and a short public attention span. What remains is a story replete with attractions, confusions, ambiguities, and potential illuminations. We seek to understand an American West that was and is diverse, intricate, in motion, and ever shape-changing. What better place to meet that kind of history than in exploration encounters of the kind that Lewis and Clark had nearly every day? If the histories of North America spring from journeys real and imagined, then with Lewis and Clark we can come to appreciate something fundamental about this American life.

JAMES P. RONDA served as the thirty–ninth president of the Western History Association. He presented a version of this essay as his presidential address at the forty-first annual conference in San Diego, California. Ronda holds the H. G. Barnard Chair in Western American History at the University of Tulsa. The author thanks David Holtby, Elliott West, Martha A. Sandweiss, Andrew Burstein, Christine Ruane, and Jeanne Ronda for thoughtful readings of this essay.

* Editor's note: The National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial is coordinating events nationally from 2003–2006 to commemorate the explorers' journey of 1803–1806.

Henry James, preface to The Aspern Papers, vol. 12, The New York Edition of the Writings of Henry James (New York, 1908), x.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden [1854], in J. Lyndon Shanley, ed. (Princeton. 1971), 107.
Bernard DeVoto, The Course of Empire (Boston, 1952), xv.
Donald Dean Jackson, ed., vol. 1, 2nd ed., The Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783—1854 (Urbana, 1978), v.
William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York, 1966), 3.
Ibid., 7.
John K. Wright, Human Nature in Geography: Fourteen Papers, 1925–1965 (Cambridge, MA, 1966), 73.
Jefferson to Dunbar, 25 May 1805, Jackson, ed., Letters, vol. 1, 245.
Reuben G. Thwaites, ed. The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–1806, vol. 1, (New York. 1904–5), lvi.
Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, vol. 2 (Lincoln, 1981 2001), 215. Hereafter cited as JLCE.
Jefferson to Lewis, 20 June 1803, in Jackson, ed., Letters, vol. 1, 63.
William M. Denevan, "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 82 (September 1992): 379.
JLCE, 9: 155.
JLCE, 8: 135.
William O. Robbins, Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation, of the American West (Lawrence. 1994) and Robbins, "In Pursuit of Historical Explanation: Capitalism as a Conceptual Tool for Knowing the American West," Western Historical Quarterly, 30 (Autumn 1999): 277–93.
Umberto Eco, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy(New York, 1999), 3.
JLCE, 4: 266.
JLCE, 4: 374.
D.H. Lawrence, unpublished hook review of H. M. Tomlinson, Gifts of Fortune, in Edward McDonald, ed., Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence (New York, 1936), 343.
JLCE, 4: 226.
JLCE, 6: 104.
JLCE, 4: 9.
Jackson, Letters, 1: vii.
Thoreau, Walden, 4. My reading of Thoreau has been inspired by John A. Christie, Thoreau as World Traveler (New York, 1965) and Martin Bickman, Walden: Volatile Truths (New York, 1992).
25 Thoreau, 322.
Thoreau, journal entry for 13 August 1840, in John C. Broderick, ed., The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: Journals (Princeton, 1981-2000), vol. I, 171.
Thoreau, journal entry for 20 September 1851, ibid., 5: 85.