The Press Response to the Corps of Discovery: The Making of Heroes in an Egalitarian Age

by Betty Houchin Winfield

(This article first appeard in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 80.4 [2003]: 866–83.)

This study examines how the nation's print media played a role in the making of heroes out of early American explorers. The method includes examining the magazine and newspaper text for hero labels and those important hero referents that scholars have long described: distinctive physical skills, an exemplary response to a challenge, and admirable moral characteristics, as well as a reputation that transcends a lifetime.

Americans celebrated the news that the Lewis and Clark expedition had unexpectedly reappeared near St. Louis on 23 September 1806. Convinced that the men had all perished, [1] the country, along with Thomas Jefferson, expressed "unspeakable joy"; Jefferson wrote Captain Meriwether Lewis, "The length of time without hearing of you had begun to be felt awfully." [2] The 1806–1807 return of the Corps of Discovery [3] is the focus of this article.

The aim here is to add to the theoretical conceptualization of heroism in an era known for espousing egalitarianism and when contemporary news stories about heroes were rare. Repeated patterns of coverage, such as recurrent phrases, can symbolically structure the social world in a meaningful way. [4] Thus, this study examines news coverage as a way of understanding an aspect of the social world of 1806–1807. During this early national period, [5] when the press was vigorously partisan and primarily carried spot news reports, news attributes consistently used in stories about the Corps will suggest not only the social significance of the explorers' feats, but also the specific types of heroes the men were upon their return.

In 1800, the press was small and elite. The nation's twenty-four daily and 234 weekly newspapers had low circulations, in part because access was limited by prohibitive subscription costs (up to $10 yearly, while the annual salary was less then $60). [6] Aimed at voting citizens, the news reports were mainly of political happenings, mostly from the nation's capital. Whether supported by the Federalist or Democratic-Republican political parties, newspapers rarely ran what today would be called feature stories. [7] Rather, it was the magazines that emphasized people, usually earlier notables—without labeling them heroes—such as patriots from the Revolutionary War and leaders and political men of the Enlightenment. Magazines such as The Monthly Anthology were "to celebrate useful talents, to record patriotick [sic] labours, and to exhibit characteristic traits of virtue." [8]

Today, a "hero" label can be overused and overlaps with a "celebrity" status, writes historian Daniel Boorstin. [9] In 1806 the term "hero" rarely appeared in print text to describe contemporary individuals in a society that ideally valued "every man," every citizen equally. Yet, texts alone do not determine social meaning; rather meanings emerge in interaction with audience perceptions, values, and memory at the time, write Pan and Kosicki. [10] During the early nineteenth century, writers who referred to heroes generally wrote of a much earlier time. The oral tradition of the Old World told, through songs and poetry, about brave and noble deeds. Certainly, many Americans knew from their European roots about such heroes, dating to Homer's epic poetry. [11] Yet, when the neonate U.S. magazines wrote about American patriots, gentlemen, and scholars, the emphasis was on their "duty and obligation." [12] It would take another generation for the press to call the founding fathers heroes. [13] Communication researchers note that for media recognition, the hero must exhibit a greatness of soul in the connection with a particular pursuit, most often remembered only after the person's death. [14]

Many scholars point out that heroes long were god-like creatures, mostly male, [15] with superhuman abilities or strength. In fact, no matter the era or continent, heroes exhibit similar attributes: distinctive physical skills, an exemplary response to a set of challenges or a particular challenge, and admirable moral characteristics. Moreover, the person's reputation must transcend a lifetime. [16] Thus, this study examines the print media coverage for descriptions of the Corps members and in particular seeks the references to these generally agreed-upon heroic attributes. [17]

The Expedition

The Corps of Discovery was led by Meriwether Lewis, a 31–year–old Virginia gentleman, and William Clark, a 34–year–old professional Expedition soldier. The expedition included thirty-one others: enlisted men, military regulars, backwoodsmen, guides, and Clark's slave, York. At Fort Mandan (now in North Dakota), the expedition picked up fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife Sacagawea, and their baby boy, Jean Baptiste (nicknamed Pomp).

Traveling 7,000 miles, the expedition left Woods River, which is across the Mississippi River from St. Louis; it went up the Missouri River to its headwaters in what is now in Montana, across the Rocky Mountains; and then followed the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, and back. Although Congress initially appropriated $2,500 for this controversial and partisan exploration," [18] the expedition eventually cost almost twenty times that amount. [19]

Readers of the earliest news reports knew that the Corps was preparing their departure from the St. Louis area in 1804 and that they left 14 May. While the newspapers focused on Captain Lewis, one account, later copied by other newspapers, referred to other members, albeit unnamed. For example, a June National Intelligencer reported that Captain Lewis had "engaged three hunters whose knowledge of the different tribes of Indians extended a considerable distance." According to the Intelligencer, hunters said that during their excursions they saw "an Indian woman who had been taken prisoner from a nation who lives on the shores of the Pacific Ocean." [20] This might be a reference to Sacagawea, although this mention is as vague as her identification.

Months later, newspapers and magazines printed the explorers' letters from Fort Mandan, although the emphasis remained on the two captains. In July 1805, The Evening Fireside summarized the correspondence from Lewis and Clark, including Lewis's report to the President. This printed account used value-laden language for the Corps: these were "enterprising young men" who applied their physical skills in the midst of potential danger. "Our travelers experienced a severe winter.... The party was in good health...only one man died on the journey." [21] Here, the account identified a Corps member other than the captains. The Boston Centinel reported that the captains had named a river, Floyd's River, to honor Charles Floyd, "who died much regretted on the 20th of August."

The Centinel also emphasized the captains' admirable moral characteristics: "the men speak in the highest terms of the humanity, and the uncommon pains and attention of both captains, Lewis and Clark,toward the whole of them...." [22]

The End of the Journey

But the beginning of designating the captains as heroes meant celebrating the return of the journey that happened with festivities in St. Louis and elsewhere. The original group who left Fort Mandan in 1805 reappeared in St. Louis intact as a unit on 23 September 1806, with the exception of Floyd and John Colter, who had returned to the Rockies as a fur trader, and Charbonneau and his family, who remained in Fort Mandan.

Because no newspapers were published in St. Louis, the nearest publications, in Frankfort, Kentucky, broke the story of the explorers' reappearance and the joyful reception with anonymous letters sent east. After the Frankfort Palladium and the Frankfort Gazette published the letters, other newspapers reprinted the same accounts, often verbatim. For example, one unnamed St. Charles letter writer emphasized the Corps' feat: "They were the first white people that ever visited that country." [23] The Philadelphia Register introduced one article as "A letter taken from a Kentucky paper." The anonymous account pointed out the explorers' particular challenges: "They had to pack one hundred and sixty miles from the head of the Missouri to the Columbia river." [24]

The Frederickstown (Maryland) Herald's introduction to this letter indicated the excitement over the men's reappearance, referring by name only to the Captains: "We stop the press to announce with the sincere pleasure, the following Highly interesting intelligence, Captains Lewis and Clark are just arrived, all in very good health." The editor emphasized the surprising return, given that no news had been heard for over a year. The Herald account, also taken from the Frankfort Palladium, relied on Lewis's letter to the President and repeated Lewis's stance that Clark's leader-ship, despite the unsettled question of his rank, deserved equal recognition: "Captain Lewis speaks of his colleague, captain Clarke [sic] in the most affectionate terms, and declares his equal title to whatever merit may be ascribed in the success of this enterprize [sic]." [25]

The United States Gazette, a Federalist newspaper published in Philadelphia, [26] described the response in St. Louis to the Corps' dangerous task: "The great concourse of people that lined the bank of the river... must be considered as strong evidence of the respect entertained for those gentlemen for the danger and difficulties they must have encountered...." [27] The National Intelligence, so closely aligned with the Jefferson administration [28] as an anti–Federalist, Democrat–Republican newspaper, described the return as a "desirable and unexpected event." [29]

No matter how partisan, the Federalist newspapers could not ignore this news event. The Baltimore Federal Gazette reported the public's cheers, and the shots were fired on behalf of the Corps, who "really have the appearance of Robinson Crusoe—dressed entirely in buckskins." The Gazette noted that the men were all "in good health with only the loss of one man who died." It described their challenge: "They would have been here about the 1st of August, but for the detention they met with from snow and frost in crossing mountains on which are eternal snows." [30]

The National Intelligencer summarized Meriwether Lewis's letter to Jefferson of 23 September 1806. Newspapers then copied Lewis's account verbatim. [31] The Intelligencer article referred to Lewis' report to clarify why the captain had not sent men back from the Missouri headwaters, as Jefferson requested. The newspaper explained that the challenge was too great and dangers such that Lewis needed all the men and "says it was fortunate he sent no men back, since they owed their lives more than once to their numbers." [32]

Eastern newspapers published personal letters sent to family and friends to describe events. With this correspondence, the newspapers told of a festive St. Louis dinner and ball, held 25 September and attended by leading St. Louis residents. [33] Emphasizing the Corps' feat and sacrifice, both the Gazette and the Intelligencer recounted the explorers' patriotic labors and the ensuing public esteem "for those characters who are willing to encounter, fatigue and hunger for the benefit of their fellow citizens." The news accounts repeated banquet toasts, which came the closest to the language of heroes. One compared the Corps, in particular Lewis and Clark, to Christopher Columbus, whose talents, skills, challenges, and honors transcended a lifetime. "The memory of Christopher Columbus—may those who imitate his hardship, perseverance and merit, never have, like him, to encounter publick ingratitude." [34] And, after the captains retired, the toasts became effusive, according to the Western World: "To Captains Lewis and Clark—their perilous services endear them to every American heart." [35]

Just as had Lewis's letters, the writers describing these festivities placed the two captains together as joint leaders of a joint effort, as well as authors of what became a joint account. [36] In fact, the captains collaborated on a letter that become the first public version of what happened and that thereby framed their story for the press, emphasizing their successful transcontinental crossing, the challenges, the dangers, and their physical and mental skills. As they neared St. Louis, Lewis, the better writer, drafted a letter addressed to Clark's brother George in Kentucky, the site of the closest newspapers. Clark then copied and mailed this letter as soon as they arrived in St. Louis on 23 September. [37] This version of the expedition was immediately published in the Frankfort Palladium on 6 October 1806 and became the most repeated and longest story in every newspaper examined here. [38]

Much like a modern day press release, the captains' joint letter became the news article. Newspapers repeated not just the letter, but the same laudatory congratulations of the Frankfort Palladium "on the happy termination of an expedition, which will doubtless be productive of incalculable commercial advantages in the western country...." [39] In other words, the Corps efforts would be financially beneficial to nation-building.

These repeated news accounts also republished the Palladium's introduction, emphasizing Corps attributes: "we are persuaded all think and feel alike, on the courage, perseverance and prudent deportment displayed by this adventurous party." [40] Together these writings gave important heroic referents. The Literary Magazine and American Register, which copied the Palladium, will be used below to show Clark's account, whose descriptions included various enduring aspects of a hero in ways consistent with scholarly literature. [41]

Scholars point out that heroes generally enact an exemplary response to a particular challenge. The news reports apparently accepted the captains' claim that they had responded to such a challenge, quoting their language: "we were completely successful" and "we have discovered the best route which does exist across the continent of North America," an erroneous claim. Almost four decades later westward settlers avoided the expedition's difficult passage and traveled through the South Pass, an easier way over the Continental Divide. But it was true that the original Corps successfully returned to the St. Louis area intact, having lost only one man.

Scholars point to another aspect of being a hero: showing distinctive physical skills. The news accounts of the captains' letter emphasized physical strength and endurance. The article quoted Captain Clark saying, "we undertook a laborious portage of the falls of the Missouri (the Great Falls)," and "we penetrated the Rocky Mountains at the distance of 71 miles above the upper part of the portage." The reprinted Lewis/Clark letter mostly told of the Corps' challenges from their viewpoint, with such specificities as that they "passed mountains almost inaccessible"; "we suffered every thing which hunger, cold and fatigue could impose"; and "we grew sick upon eating the food to which they (Indians) were accustomed." The news story also repeated claims about environmental challenges: "the river being low at this season, we experienced much difficulty in descending," and "we found it [the river] obstructed by a great number of difficult and dangerous rapids, in passing of which our pirogues several times filled and the men escaped narrowly with their lives." [42]

Likewise, the heroic trait of possessing admirable moral characteristics, such as in leadership, appeared in the early news accounts. The Corps' admiration of the captains had been highlighted, because of the care they took of their men. This letter recounted the captains' self-satisfaction with respect to their leadership abilities: "We have not lost a man since we left the Mandans, a circumstance which I assure you is a pleasing consideration." [43]

Initially, the newspapers, regardless of partisan leanings, expressed happiness regarding the Corps' return and quoted President Jefferson's statement about his "unspeakable joy" at their return. Jefferson had written Lewis in October, "I salute you with sincere affection." [44] Yet when Jefferson gave his annual message to Congress in December, he said little about the Corps' return and grouped Lewis's report together along with the other explorations of the Louisiana Territory. [45] As quoted in the National Intelligencer, Jefferson said the expedition "had all the success which could have been expected.... It is but justice to say, that Messrs. Lewis and Clarke [sic], and their brave companions, have, by this arduous service, deserved well of their country. [46] The President lauded such exemplary citizenship.

Newspapers across the country helped record the captains' travel east, made separately from St. Louis to the capital. Going first, Lewis's journey to Washington, D.C., went slowly, primarily because residents in every town and village insisted on honoring him. [47] Newspapers reported his stops, and their reports were repeated: "Captain Lewis arrived at this place on Thursday last, and on Saturday morning proceeded on his journey to the city of Washington...." [48] Newspapers, even territorial newspapers, became important sources of information for the new nation.

After three months, the 31 December National Intelligencer announced Lewis's arrival in Washington. "Few expeditions have been conducted with more patience, perseverance, or success, and we have no doubt that the curiosity of the reader will be fully satisfied by the statements," which were to come that day from Lewis. Championing Lewis, it added, "it will be seen that he has rendered very important services to his country. [49]

Just as St. Louis residents had done, the citizens of Washington wanted to honor the expedition's return. For two weeks, they waited for Clark to arrive before going ahead with a celebratory dinner. The Intelligencer carried an account of the banquet, given by official Washington.50 [50] Apparently, the toasts primarily saluted Lewis, highlighting his patriotism, bravery, valor, and honor. For example, one toast was to "Captain Meriwether Lewis–Patriotic, enlightened, and brave who had the spirit to undertake and the valour to execute an expedition, which reflects honor on his country." Another published toast saluted the still-traveling Clark and other Corps members, "Capt. Clarke [sic] and the other brave companions of Capt. Lewis—Their patriotic and manly perseverance entitles them to the approbation of their countrymen." [51] By quoting the toasts, the newspaper emphasized the Corps' fortitude, patience, and perseverance. Without using the word "hero," it described the classical qualities of a hero, valor, bravery, honor, and perseverance, while adding the new attributes of American enlightenment and patriotism.

European heroes were often honored with special odes. So, too, in the new United States, Joel Barlow, the poet of the day, penned a special verse for Lewis's dinner. The Intelligencer printed his "elegant and glowing stanzas" about the expedition. Barlow played Lewis the supreme compliment by urging that the last major waterway the Corps had descended, the Columbia River, be renamed Lewis River:

Then here the loud voice of the nation proclaim,
And all ages resound the decree:
Let our Occident stream bear the young hero's name,
Who taught him his path to the sea.
Barlow's poetry, then, offered the first printed reference to a Corps member as a hero: "Let our Occident stream bear the young hero's name...." Barlow honored Lewis, age 33, by suggesting that his name be attached to a major river and thus transcend his lifetime, another trait characteristic of heroes.

Such hyperbole was too much for the Federalists who reacted publicly. Two months later the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review satirized Barlow's puffery in more poetry, "On the Discoveries of Captain Lewis." The writer may have sarcastically emphasized what the Corps did not do, yet this writer accepted hero references, "Heroick, sure, the toil must be travel through the woods, sir... " and "Come—let us all subscribe, and ask The Hero to a dinner ...." As to changing the name of the Columbia River,

And if we cannot alter things,
By G—, we'll change their names, sir!" [53]

The writer of this poem, now believed to be well-known Federalist John Quincy Adams, [54] may have been critical, but even he had to recognize the Corps' feats. In fact, while Adams noted the "bombast in Politicks as well as Poetry," he commented, "our intention is not to depreciate the merits of Captain Lewis's publick services. We think highly of the spirit and judgment, with which he has executed the duty undertaken by him, and we rejoice at the rewards bestowed by congress upon him and his companions," [55] referring to the accrued pay and the land grants. Although Lewis was now caught between the Federalist and Democrat–Republican parties, both Barlow and Adams admired Lewis as a hero. Again, the word "hero" appeared in print only in the published toasts and poetry about Lewis. The early news accounts of the exploration described heroic attributes, but without using the term.

The welcomes and dinners and celebrations expressed laudatory responses to the expedition. Indeed, the public demanded more—a full account of the trip. The news stories of the risks, challenges, and narrow escapes only prickled readers' interest for an immediate publication of the journals. Americans waited and waited for the captains' journals, but the long time lag meant that the Corps' findings would not stay alive as news. Unauthorized accounts and other journal publications, [56] such as those by expedition member Patrick Gass, [57] began to saturate the market.

Lewis procrastinated and the captains had difficulty finding sponsorship after the end of Jefferson's Presidency; printing costs were prohibitive even for abbreviated versions. Meanwhile, the country's attention had moved on to other prominent events and other brave men who took risks for the country, such as Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. By the time the excerpts were finally printed in 1814, [58] the public appeal was lost. Moreover, the captains saw so much that they restricted their initial letter account and did not highlight their unusual scientific and anthropological discoveries; the excerpts included none of these detailed observations and few discussions of Native Americans. In fact, for the next ninety years and through twenty-two editions, nineteenth-century Americans had only these abbreviated Lewis and Clark journals. [59]

Without the depth of the discoveries, the expedition's efforts appeared to be no more than a great national adventure, [60] adding little beyond what was already known. To coincide with the Lewis and Clark centennial in 1904, Reuben Thwaites edited, annotated, and published the original journals." Only then did the public learn of the Corps' vast naturalist and scientific discoveries. The later discussion of the geographic exploration pointed out how the captains had named rivers and peaks for national leaders and even for Corps members. As Jefferson had requested, the Corps had scientifically recorded their observations.


In the nation's history, the expedition nevertheless transcended the country's early national era. The captains' names lasted beyond their lifetimes, as seen in LewisClark College and Lewis & Clark College. Towns were designated as Lewiston and Clarkson. In the twentieth century, parks, roadside markers, paintings, books, plays, and films about the Corps of Discovery became part of the public's awareness. By the time of the expedition's centennial, Sacagawea became another prominent Corps figure to be honored by statues, books, and plays. During the latter part of the twentieth century, several accounts paid more attention to Clark's slave, York." [62]

Like the ancient Odyssey, the Corps also survived a perilous journey, but unlike figures of the ancient oral myth, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark wrote of their own amazing deeds. Although, in accordance with conventions of the time, they never used the word hero, their joint letter, as the initial news account of the expedition, described a successful heroic feat. As the more educated of the two leaders, Lewis would have been aware of the European epic poetry, biblical stories, and ancient heroic tales and myths." [63] Such a cultural background might have offered an acceptable way to tell a journey story of risks, dangers, challenges, and then a successful return. Whether or not because of this knowledge, Lewis and Clark's joint public letter about the Corps' journey did frame the larger story of the expedition by using heroic language. They described an exemplary response to the risks and challenges of following the Missouri River to its source and continuing to the Pacific Ocean; a demonstration of distinctive physical skills in the face of difficult weather, treacherous terrain, and threatening Indians, as well as admirable moral leadership during various crises.

As the most mentioned member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Meriwether Lewis appeared to relish such attention. Following the initial reprint of Clark's letter in 1806, it was Lewis who received the greater public notice, especially at the capital's major celebratory dinner. The toasts and poetry may have indirectly celebrated the entire Corps, but Captain Lewis was the most designated representative and the only one directly called a hero. Appointed by the President to lead the expedition, he had faced challenges, shown superhuman mental and physical strength, even encountered the "exotic other," numerous Native American tribes, and demonstrated admirable moral leadership. Lewis fit a hero status in 1806–1807, even in a nation espousing egalitarian ideals. As a recognized leader and educated gentleman, Lewis represented the era's notable public figure. By being connected to a founding father, initially as secretary to President Thomas Jefferson, he was a political elite. Lewis' status may have fit the lingering eighteenth–century enlightenment hero, by having the publicly known virtue of curiosity in the pursuit of new practical knowledge for the good of mankind. [64]

Knowledge unrecorded publicly can be knowledge lost, as the full Lewis and Clark journals demonstrated. It took almost a century and a centennial celebration for the expedition's findings to be known. Lewis' procrastination was only one deterrent. In fact, Lewis began falling from public admiration in 1807 as he became more and more mired in political controversies. When the other Corps members began publishing their accounts, Lewis belittled their journals publicly or tried to stop their efforts, conflicts the partisan press noted.

Lewis's subsequent difficulties manifested in his leadership problems as governor of the Territory of Louisiana. As a co-captain of what was essentially a triumphant military expedition, Lewis had been necessarily autocratic, successfully so. Apparently having peaked in his early thirties as a military leader, Lewis was unable to adjust to the intrigues and demands of democratic territorial leadership. The frontier was full of political machinations and demanded the democratic tenets of continuous negotiation, compromise, and checks by superiors. By 1809 Jefferson could no longer protect him from numerous accusations of corruption. Lewis' moral stature finally came into question in 1809, when he appeared to have committed suicide, [65] an irreligious act. By the time the journals were published in 1814, an enlightenment hero such as Lewis was an outmoded concept. In the growing nation, where national interest focused on the frontier, public admiration turned toward the enterprising frontiersman.

Clark, on the other hand, a western soldier, was more of the self–reliant frontier leader. In 1806 he had been modest and reticent about his personal role in the expedition's success. With his rank secret and his co-captainship unofficial, Clark's concerted attempt to remain in the back-ground after his initial letter to his brother may have been because of Lewis's attempt to obtain congressional approval for Clark's captain's commission. [66] In any case, Clark declined credit for the Corps' successful return. He told the citizens of Fincastle, Indiana, "Gentlemen, we ought to assign the general safety of the party to a singular interposition of providence, and not to the wisdom of those who commanded the expedition." [67] Clark also appeared to avoid public accolades and did not arrive in time for the Washington banquet and ball celebrations, although the city had waited for him. Clark's post–expedition career surpassed his co–leadership of the Corps of Discovery. Subsequently, as governor of the Missouri Territory and longtime Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Clark became a beloved figure in St. Louis, "eminently endeared to all who came within the sphere of his acquaintance," recounted the Republican (Missouri) upon his death three decades later. [68]

But if in 1806–1807 Clark could not fit the tenets of an enlightenment hero because he was not an educated Virginia gentleman associated with the nation's power elite, those years were too early for the frontier hero or the backwoods natural man. Only later did Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and Daniel Boone become designated heroes.69 [69] The biography of "Pioneer and Scout" used the word "hero" concerning Daniel Boone, "Backwoods–man of Kentucky," with his daring frontier skills and hair–breadth escapes from animals and Indians. [70]

Identification is the first step in acknowledging a hero. Other Corps members became publicly known by their newsworthy characteristics: Charles Floyd as the expedition's only death; Patrick Gass as the controversial author of the first published journals. John Colter later became known not as a Corps member, but as a Yellowstone explorer and fur trader who escaped the Blackfeet Indian captures. [71] A decade or more after the Corps' return, British and American authors described Colter's mountain man escapades, which heralded his frontiersman hero characteristics: perseverance, ingenuity, strength, and skill.

For almost a century other members of the expedition remained invisible. Only later would they attain hero status. As noted, as the explorers were leaving Woods River in 1804 one newspaper had mentioned an unidentified, knowledgeable Indian woman. Newspapers had long carried accounts of captives and battles with Indians. But for the most part, individual Native Americans, such as Sacagawea, were invisible, no matter how often she was mentioned in the journals, and how much Jefferson stressed the importance of Indian contacts. [72] One reason may have been the difficult pronunciation and the spelling of her name. All of the journals had trouble referring to her other than "the Indian woman," or "the fur-trader's wife" and when her name was given, it was spelled phonetically with dashes. Moreover, before the Corps's public reappearance in St. Louis, she and her family left the expedition.

By the time of the expedition's centennial, however, Sacagawea was the new focus of books, plays, and stories as well as imaginative paintings and statues in St. Louis, Portland, and along the Missouri River. The timing was ripe for public inclusion of this woman: she fulfilled a public need, given the romantic response to the decline of the Indian by the end of the century. [73] Too, the supporters of the Women's Suffrage movement saw in Sacagawea a national hero. At the Portland Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905, Susan B. Anthony called Sacagawea "one of the greatest of American heroines." [74] Later, scholars found that suffragists and others magnified her expedition role and virtues beyond credibility. [75] Yet, Sacagawea's hero status continues; by 2000, she became only the second woman honored with a U.S. coin.

York, Clark's slave, remained relatively unknown throughout the nineteenth century. Through twenty-two editions of the journals during the nineteenth century, the press disregarded York, although the journals had highlighted his strength and his hunting skills. Newspapers had published stories about slaves, runaway slaves, and freed slaves, and earlier, the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley. Later, the press published lectures by such notables as Frederick Douglass. Still, no public mention was made of York, the first African-American explorer. Then, on 5 January 1879, much beyond his possible lifetime, [76] the New York Times published an obituary referring to York. Calling him "Tom," without a last name, the Times falsely noted York's death: "THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION. Death of "Old Tom" Supposed to be the Last Survivor." Taken from the Charlottesville (Va.) Chronicle, 3 January, this four–paragraph account not only erroneously attributed York's former slave ownership to Meriwether Lewis, but also misidentified his death. Except for headline and the final paragraph, the article discusses the expedition and Lewis' death. York's contribution to the Corps' success was de-emphasized and this misidentification indicates his invisibility. [77] Only during the latter decades of the twentieth century during the Civil Rights movement did writers focus on York. [78]

Perhaps, more inclusive eras would recognize not just York but other Corps members and give them hero designations. As Wecter wrote, "in a democracy the hero must be the people's choice." [79] During the twentieth century, American society became more publicly inclusive for women, Native Americans, and African Americans. Yet, someone has to signal publicly that inclusion and hero designation. Press coverage is but one means.


In 1806, the partisan press was at the center of the communication infrastructure that promoted nation building. Even outlying newspapers such as the Frankfort Palladium became important sources of information. The Palladium's publication of Lewis and Clark's joint letter was the usual convention for disseminating distant news, prior to the telegraph and newspaper correspondents. Unique among the published letter writers about the Corps' homecoming, Clark as an expedition captain was identified as the correspondent for this report. The political prominence of a presidential expedition guaranteed recognition and publication.

The captains' co-authored letter additionally highlighted themselves and indirectly other Corps members with heroic referents. Their phrases and words became the repeated news descriptions of the challenges, the dangers, the risks, the feats, and the Corps' success for the newspapers and magazines. No other sources were used. Newspaper readers, along with the elected officials, learned what occurred on the expedition through the captains' own written words.

Whether Lewis and Clark were aware of it or not, by describing the expedition, their joint letter gave the classic heroic characteristics of great physical skills, of exemplary responses to a set of challenges, and of admirable moral characteristics, not just for Lewis and the reticent Clark, but also indirectly for the other Corps explorers. Newspapers repeated these referents. In 1806 and early 1807, the classic epic hero remained the model, yet only fleetingly. The heroes of the old world were of noble birth and were "subjects" of a ruler, serving with honor. The new nation's hero was an independent citizen who served the country with ingenuity, perseverance, enterprise, bravery, and valor. Jefferson's response and the newspapers' introductions to Clark's letter consistently repeated those latter attributes. Through the celebratory toasts and poetry, newspapers published the "hero" label, and added a public attribute that fit an emerging nation: an exemplary citizen. In 1807, only Meriwether Lewis enjoyed that status.

John Quincy Adams' response to the adulation of the Corps pointed to the tension between the hero of old and the new American hero. Despite being a well–known Federalist and vocal critic of the Jefferson administration, Adams recognized the exploratory achievements of the expedition and Captain Lewis. Yet, Adams' acknowledgement of the Corps' worth had an accolade limit. In 1807, the renaming of the Columbia River after Lewis would be an excessive reaction for Adams.

The news coverage added some specifically American attributes to the classic hero. An American hero had to be selfless, in an expanding nation full of exemplary citizens. The new American notable was a republican hero, marked not by the exceptional intellectual ability or elite birth of the founding fathers, but rather as a publicly spirited, sacrificing citizen, regardless of origin. The representative Corps of Discovery member served as American hybrid for the hero concept, a bridge between the old kind of enlightenment elites of the revolutionary patriots to the new kind of democratic notable, a pragmatic and enterprising new citizen, so identified with the Jacksonian era by the 1830s. The early news response to the expedition's return points to an American new national identity.

Other expedition explorers would become known as America's national heroes during new societal needs in the midst of the centennial celebrations and the complete publication of the journals. The news stories about the long–lost explorers would laud their challenges and the feats as mostly "common men" with a more democratic recognition to the American "every person," usually acknowledged a century or so later.


A special thanks to the JMCQ reviewers and editors for their suggestions and to former University of Missouri students in history classes who explored the hero concept and who helped collect archival and microfilm materials: Asia Zmuda, Ruben Valedez, and Evan Geiss, and Ph.D. candidate Barbara Friedman.

1. Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, Meriwether Lewis and the Opening of the American West (New York: Touchstone Book, 1996), 409, 417. (back)
2. Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, 26 October 1806, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, as found in Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents , 1783–1854 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 350–51. (back)
3. The popularization of the phrase, now so well known, "Corps of Discovery," was more than likely due to the efforts of David McKeehan, who published: Patrick Gass, One of the Persons Employed in the Expedition, A Journal of the Voyage & Travels of a Corps of Discovery, Under the Command of Captain Lewis & Captain Clarke [sic] from the Mouth of the Missouri, Through the Interior Parts of North America, to the Pacific Ocean, During the Years 1804, 1805, 1806 (Pittsburg: David McKeehan, 1807), the first of the expedition's journal publications. McKeehan sought subscriptions and publicized Gass's journal in his Federalist newspaper, the Pittsburgh Gazette, during the spring and summer of 1807. The public response was great; Gass's journal went through six editions. See Donald Jackson, "The Race to Publish Lewis and Clark," in Voyages of Discovery, Essays on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. James Ronda (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1998), 222. (back)
4. Stephen D. Reese, Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., and August E. Grant, Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001), 11, 14, 19. See also Zhongdan Pan and Gerald M. Kosicki, "Framing Analysis: An Approach to News Discourse," Political Communication 10 (January–March 1993): 55–75. (back)
5. For studies referring to this early national era, see Henry Adams, The Formative Years: A History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (London: Collins, 1948 reprint); Robert M. Johnson, Jr., Jefferson and the Presidency: Leadership in the Early Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and John S. Bowman, eds., The Almanac of American History (New York: Putnam, 1983); Francis A. Walker, The Making of the Nation, 1783–1817 (New York: C.S. Scribner's Sons, 1895). (back)
6. William David Sloan and James D. Startt, The Media in America: A History, 4th ed. (Northport, AL: Vision Press, 1999), 70. (back)
7. See, for example, Betty Houchin Winfield and Janice Hume, "The American Hero and the Evolution of the Human Interest Story," American Journalism 15 (spring 1998): 79–99. (back)
8. Theodore P. Greene refers to the Monthly Anthology 1(1803): 526 in American Heroes, the Changing Models of Success in American Magazines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 38. (back)
9. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Antheneum, 1972), 61, plus chapter 2, "From Hero to Celebrity, the Human Pseudo Event." (back)
10. See Pan and Kosicki, "Framing Analysis: An Approach to News Discourse," 55–75. (back)
11. See Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus: On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1933 reprint of 1840). For American hero worship, see Dixon Wecter, The Hero in America (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941). (back)
12. See, too, Neal L. Edgar, A History and Bibliography of American Magazines, 1810-1820 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1975). (back)
13. Winfield and Hume, "The American Hero and the Evolution of the Human Interest Story," 79–99, cite Green's American Heroes, the Changes Models of Success in American Magazines, 38; see, too, Marshall Fishwick, American Heroes: Myth and Reality (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1954), 4; Janice Hume, "Defining the Historical American Heroine: Changing Characteristics of Heroic Women in the Nineteenth Century Media," Journal of Popular Culture 31 (summer 1997): 1–23; Everette E. Dennis, "The Popular Culture Perspective, Images and Heroes in Popular Culture," in The Media Society: Evidence About Mass Communication in America (Dubuque, Iowa: W.C. Brown Co., 1978). (back)
14. See, for example, Susan J. Drucker and Robert S. Cathcart, eds., American Heroes in a Media Age (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc., 1994). (back)
15. Joan Fayer, "Are Heroes Always Men?" American Heroes in a Media Age (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc., 1994), 24; and flume, "Defining the Historical American Heroine: Changing Characteristics of Heroic Women in the Nineteenth Century Media." (back)
16. See, for example, Orrin E. Klapp, Symbolic Leaders, Public Dramas and Public Men (Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co., 1964) and "Hero Worship in America," American Sociological Review XIV (February 1949): 53–62; Gerald Johnson, American Heroes and Hero Worship (New York: Harper & Bros., 1943); Sidney Hook, The Hero in History: A Study in Limitation and Possibility (New York: John Davy Co., 1943); Fishwick, American Heroes: Myth and Reality; Greene, American Heroes. (back)
17. Drucker and Cathcart, eds., American Heroes in a Media Age; Fayer, "Are Heroes Always Men?" 24; Klapp, Symbolic Leaders and "Hero Worship in America," 53–62; Johnson, American Heroes and Hero Worship; Hook, The Hero in History; Fishwick, American Heroes; Greene, American Heroes. (back)
18. For example, Gunther Barth points to the New England Federalists' opposition to expansion in general and the acquisition of Louisiana in particular. To them, the purchase was extraordinary. See "Introduction: Jefferson's Design and Western Realities," in The Lewis and Clark Expedition, Selections Arranged by Topics, ed. Gunther Barth (Boston and New York: Bedford of St. Martin's Press, 1998), 5. Also, Allan Nevins, ed., The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794-1845 (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1970), 25–26. (back)
19. Ultimately, by 1807 the total costs of the expedition totaled about $40,000, which included accrued Army pay and land grants rewarded from Congress. President Jefferson also had given the explorers a letter for a line of credit in case they met ships at the mouth of the Columbia River, and to purchase supplies and a passage home or the shipment of their journals and collections. Barth, The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 3. (back)
20. "Lexington, June 14," National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, henceforth NI, 29 June 1804. (back)
21. "Summary of Intelligence," The Evening Fireside 15, 20 July 1805, 256. (back)
22. "A Newspaper Account, Louisiana," Lexington, 18 June 1805, from the Boston Centinel, 13 July 1805, as found in the Original Lewis and Clark Journals, 324–26. See, too, the NI, 26 September 1806, which announced the new western territory along with Lewis's 14 April 1805 report to the President and the specimens sent from Fort Mandan. Grouped with the explorations of the Red and Washita Rivers, the only adjectives were in the stacked headlines: "Discoveries" and "Statistical View" concerning Indian nations. (back)
23. "A letter from a Gentleman at St. Charles to a Gentleman of this Town," dated 23 September 1806, printed in the Frankfort Palladium, 9 October 1806, and then reprinted in the NI, 2 November 1806. There were no letters to the editor found on editorial pages in the era's newspapers, primarily because party newspapers did not separate sections; news accounts generally had an opinion or ideology. Letters sent were published as news accounts, although they might be labeled as a "letter." (back)
24. John Mullanphy to the Philadelphia Register, 28 October 1806, "A letter taken from a Kentucky paper," without naming the newspaper. The original probably came from the Frankfort Palladium. The Register's version was copied by the Philadelphia Aurora, henceforth the Aurora, 29 October 1806, and the American Daily Advertiser, 19 October 1806. Found in the Original Journals, 347. (back)
25. "Lexington" and "Washington," Frederickstown Herald, 8 November 1806. The Secretary of War had turned down Clark's upgrade to Captain just before the expedition left in 1804. For the next seven years only a few people knew that Clark was a Lieutenant: Lewis and Clark, Jefferson, the Secretary of War, and a couple of clerks in the War Department. See Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 135. (back)
26. Jeffrey Pasley, The Tyranny of Printers, Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001), 241. (back)
27. "Arrival of Captains Lewis and Clark at St. Louis," United States Gazette, henceforth U.S. Gazette, 6 November 1806. (back)
28. William E. Ames, The History of the National Intelligencer (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1972), see in particular 15, 19–41, 64–65. (back)
29. "Arrival of Captains Lewis and Clark at St. Louis," NI, 14 November 1806. (back)
30. "To Editors of the Baltimore Federal Gazette," n.d., but copied in the Philadelphia Gazette and Daily Advertiser, 27 October 1806; American Daily Advertiser, 28 October 1806; and abridged in the Boston Centenial, October 29, 1806, as found in the Lewis & Clark Journals 7, ed. Thomas Nicholas Biddle (Philadelphia: Bradford & Inskeep, 1814), 347. (back)
31. See, for example, "Washington, October 27," American Commercialand Daily Advertiser, 29 October 1806; "Philadelphia, October 29," U.S. Gazette, 29 October 1806. (back)
32. NI, 27 October 1806, version was copied by American Daily Advertiser, 30 October 1806; the Connecticut Witness, 4 November 1806; the Philadelphia Gazette and Daily Advertiser, 29 October 1806; and the Aurora, 30 October 1806. See, too, the London Times, which combined the early accounts, almost verbatim from the NI under "American Papers" with "It is with the sincerest pleasure that we announce to our fellow-citizens the arrival of Capt. Lewis with his exploring party, at St. Louis." The December 1 account appears taken from the "Arrival of Captains Lewis and Clark at St. Louis," NI, 14 November 1806. (back)
33. The press did not mention who organized the dinner in St. Louis or later in Washington, DC. (back)
34. "Arrival," U.S. Gazette, 6 November 1806, and "Arrival of Captains Lewis and Clark at St. Louis," NI, 14 November 1806. (back)
35. The Western World, 11 October 1806, cited by Ronda, "St. Louis Welcomes Lewis and Clark," in Voyages of Discovery, 203. (back)
36. Clark's captain status was not official, even though Lewis called him Captain and gave Clark equal leadership status. See previous explanation in endnote 25 and also Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 135. (back)
37. Jackson, "The Race to Publish Lewis and Clark," 209. (back)
38. See, for example, "Frankfort, October 9," U.S. Gazette, 1 November 1806; "From the Frankfort (Ken.) Palladium, dated 9 October 1806," Pittsburgh Gazette, 18 October 1806; Aurora, 3 November 1806; "From the Frankfort Kentucky Palladium," Virginia Argus, 5 November 1806; "St. Louis," NI, 3 November 1806; American Daily Advertiser, 7 November 1806; "More Wonders, Rocky Mountain Sheep Beats the Horned Frog all Hallow," Vermont Centinel, 20 November 1806; and the Connecticut Courant, 19 November 1806. (back)
39. Frankfort Palladium, 6 October 1806. (back)
40. "Frankfort (Ken.) Oct. 9", reprinted 5 November 1806 in the American Daily Advertiser. (back)
41. "For the Literary Magazine, Captain Lewis's Expedition," The Literary Magazine of American Register 6 (November 1806): 442–45. (back)
42. "Captain Lewis's Expedition," 442–45. (back)
43. "Captain Lewis's Expedition," The Literary Magazine, 442–45. The Literary Magazine may have entitled its article "Captain Lewis's Expedition," but acknowledged and repeated Clark's letter to his brother.

In contrast, the London Times printed two letters discounting the Corps' stay at the mouth of the Columbia River, "but in the vicinity of Fort Des Plaries, near the source of the Missouri, not their way from, but to the Pacific," "To the Editor of the Times," 4 December 1806.

44. Jefferson to Lewis, 20 October 1906, Bureau of Rolls, Jefferson Series, Series 2, Vol. 51, Doc. 117 and found in The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 7, the Appendix, 345. (back)
45. "American State Papers," Monthly Anthology 3 (December 1806): 39-41. (back)
46. NI, 4 December 1806. Jefferson underplayed the Corps' findings, unknown at the time, except that there was not a Northwest river passage to the Pacific. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 406–421. (back)
47. Ambrose points out the slowness of Lewis's travels with the many dinners and balls, but does not say anything more specific as to the hosts other than the "residents." Undaunted Courage, 418. (back)
48. "Frankfort (Kentucky), Nov. 20," reprinted in the Aurora, 22 December 1806, 2. (back)
49. "Washington City, " NI, 31 December 1806. (back)
50. There is no press record of the hosts, nor is Jefferson mentioned in the newspaper coverage as having attended the dinner. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 422, quotes Jefferson's biographer Dumas Malone, Jefferson, the President: Second Term (1974), 203, explaining that the President "abominated such occasions, and he may have believed his presence would distract attention from the returned hero." (back)
51. "Washington City," NI, 16 January 1807. (back)
52. "Washington City, NI, 16 January, 1807. The poem, "Of the Discoveries of Captain Lewis," is also reprinted in Mark Anthony De Wolfe Howe, "The Capture of Some Fugitive Verses," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 43 (January 1910): 238–39. (back)
53. "Original Poetry, An Anonymous Contribution," Monthly Anthology and Boston Review 4 (March 1807): 143. (back)
54. Albert Futwangler, "Captain Lewis in a Crossfire of Wit: John Quincy Adams v. Joel Barlow," in Voyages of Discovery, ed. Ronda, 237. (back)
55. "Original Poetry, An Anonymous Contribution," Monthly Anthology and Boston Review. (back)
56. The Travels of Capts. Lewis & Clark, by order of the Government of the United States, performed in the years 1804, 1805 & 1806,... from the Official Communication of Meriwether Lewis (Philadelphia: Hubbard Lester, 1809). (back)
57. Gass, A Journal of the Voyages & Travels Of a Corps of Discovery. (back)
58. History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark: To the Sources of the Missouri River ..., ed. Nicholas Biddle (Philadelphia: Bradford & Inskeep, 1814). (back)
59. Barth, "Preface," The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1. (back)
60. Ronda, "'The Writingest Explorers': The Lewis and Clark Expedition in American Historical Literature" in Voyages of Discovery, 304. (back)
61. Just in time for the centennial celebrations, Reuben Gold Thwaites, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–1806, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1904). (back)
62. Richard B. Betts, In Search of York (Boulder: Colorado Assoc. University Press, 1985). (back)
63. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 25–29, said Lewis knew Latin and was "somewhat familiar with the classics...." (back)
64. Ambrose refers to Lewis "as a man of the Enlightenment," Undaunted Courage, 127, also 288; referring to Lewis and Clark, Ambrose wrote, "They were men of the Enlightenment...putting new knowledge to work for the good of mankind," 203. See, too, James Ronda, "A Knowledge of These Distance Parts: The Shaping of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," Montana: The Magazine of Western History 41 (autumn 1999): 9. (back)
65. See "Register of Deaths," American Register VI (1809), 303. "In the western country, Meriwether Lewis... put an end to his own life, in a fit of derangement brought on, it is supposed, by the rejection of an account at the war department, which he considered himself disgraced...." (back)
66. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 411. Lewis promised Clark a captain's commission as an enticement to join the expedition. (back)
67. Clark returned home to Indiana after arriving in St. Louis. See Clark to the Citizens of Fincastle, 8 January 1807, Letters of the Lewis & Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783–1806, ed. Donald Jackson (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 359–60. (back)
68. "Governor William Clark," The Republican (Missouri), 3 September 1838; "Obituary," Missouri Argus (St. Louis), 6 September 1838. (back)
69. It would take another seven years before the western hero would be valued for folklore and myth. See Daniel Bryan's epic poem, The Mountain Muse (1813) and later James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers (1823) and The Prairie (1827) and the popular published song, "Hunters of Kentucky," after the frontiersmen victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans. The song became Andrew Jackson's campaign song in 1824 and 1828. See, too, John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone, the Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (New York: Henry Holt, 1992), 320–21, 330–31, 335. (back)
70. W.A.C. (unidentified), "Daniel Boone, 1734–1820, Pioneer and Scout," The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, Vol. II (New York: Monson Bancroft; Philadelphia: Henry Perkins, 1835), 201–214. An introductory poem by Lord Byron says Boone "left behind a name ... Not only famous, but of that good fame..."; the word "hero" is not used in the poem. (back)
71. See John Bradbury, Travels in the Interior of America (Liverpool, England: Smith & Galway, 1817), 18–21; Washington Irving, The Rocky Mountains (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837). (back)
72. See, for example, John Allen's account of Jefferson's confidential message to Congress on 18 January 1803 on the need for a government policy on Indian tribes in portions of the U.S. land adjacent to the Mississippi River. The Indians were growing more and more uneasy about their loss of territory and becoming more dangerous to settlers. Passage through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American West, 70–71. (back)
73. Ruth Miller Elson, Guardians of Tradition, American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 81. (back)
74. Portland (Ore.) Journal, 7 July 1905, as quoted by E.G. Chuinard, "The Actual Role of the Bird Woman," Montana, The Magazine of Western History XXVI: 3 (summer 1976), 21. (back)
75. Irving W. Anderson, "Probing the Riddle of the Bird Woman," Montana, The Magazine of Western History XXII, Fall 1973, 16-17; Ronald W. Taber, "Sacajawea and the Suffragettes," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 58 (January 1967): 8. (back)
76. Betts, In Search of York , 84, points out that York was younger than Clark, who was born 1 August 1770. York was probably born in 1771, according to Betts. By 1879, York would have been more than 108 years old. (back)
77. "The Lewis and Clark Expedition. Death of 'Old Tom,' Supposed to be the Last Survivor," New York Times, 5 January 1879, 8. (back)
78. Betts, In Search of York ; K.D. Curtis, "York, the Slave Explorer," Negro Digest 11 (May 1962): 10–16. (back)
79. 79. Wecter, The Hero in America, 11. (back)

Betty Houchin Winfield is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.

Used with permission of AEJMC, copyrighted material.