FEW ASPECTS OF THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION elicit as much debate and discussion as the circumstances surrounding the death of Meriwether Lewis in October 1809, a little more than three years after the conclusion of his voyage to the Pacific. While the discussion has raged with some passion over whether Lewis was murdered or committed suicide, most scholars have concluded that the troubled explorer killed himself. Both Thomas Jefferson and William Clark, who knew Lewis better than anyone did, never said or did anything that would lead to a conclusion that their friend and colleague had met with foul play. Both men would have been in a position to track down a murderer or commission an investigation into a crime. Neither did. Still, it is unlikely that there will ever be conclusive proof on the matter unless Lewis's remains are exhumed--something the National Park Service, which oversees Lewis's grave on the Natchez Trace, has refused to do. Inevitably, the subject will be shaped by speculation and informed interpretation. (1)
Presuming that Lewis did commit suicide, then, the question turns to a quest for intimations of Lewis's mortality. A recent study by humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson is a formidable example of this new search for an understanding of Lewis's character, particularly in how the expedition to the Pacific may have played a role in his decision to shoot himself in a cabin at Grinder's Stand when he was only thirty-five years old. The reasons for Lewis's death also form one of the principal subtexts of Stephen Ambrose's wildly popular Undaunted Courage. In Ambrose's estimation, Lewis was "a good man in a crisis," an able frontiersman, intellectually curious about the natural world, and a capable commander of men. At the same time, however, Lewis had a "short temper" and could be impetuous. He also developed a "swelled head as a result of the adulation he had received," took drugs, and drank a lot of alcohol. (2)
The success of Undaunted Courage has made Lewis's death a somewhat fashionable topic in our own time, but speculations about his psychological condition go back to the fall of 1809. One of the earliest press reports on the explorer's demise noted that Lewis was rumored to have incurred expenses for which no appropriations had been made. The U.S. government had rejected a voucher he had proffered for reimbursement, a loss that, when added to similar objections to expenses Lewis had obligated, threatened to bankrupt him. Still, the anonymous correspondent wrote, "We can hardly suppose" that Lewis's financial travail "alone, could have produced such deplorable consequences" that he would kill himself. Today, postmodernist studies of Lewis and Clark, which deconstruct the various literary texts associated with the expedition, have begun to create an interpretive theory substantiating "the notion of exploration as an interior voyage"--that is, exploration as a discovery of self as much as a discovery of nature. (3) In this essay, I am suggesting that the first cracks in Lewis's psyche occurred in the Pacific Northwest.
From his first few days west of the Continental Divide in the summer of 1805 until he re-crossed the Bitterroot Mountains in June 1806, Meriwether Lewis was confounded by the country drained by the Great River of the West. On August 12, 1805, Lewis and a handful of men descended Lemhi Pass "to a handsome bold running Creek of cold Clear water. [H]ere I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river." His exhilaration was short lived. The next day, he learned "unwelcome information" from Shoshone Chief Cameahwait about the difficulty of following the Columbian headwaters "to the great lake where the white men lived." Lewis inscribed in his journal for August 14 that the Shoshonean account of lands and rivers to the west "fell far short of my expectation or wishes." This sentiment could well serve as the epigraph for the western third of the trail traversed by President Jefferson's Expedition for Northwestern Discovery. (4)
The physical challenges and privations experienced by Lewis and Clark as they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains, coursed through the numerous rapids of the Snake and Columbia rivers, and were pummeled by oceanic storms and near-constant rain have been well chronicled. The psychological toll exacted by the harsh geographic extremes of the Columbia's country, however, has rarely been analyzed. William L. Lang, in a recent pathfinding essay, addresses the effects of the Columbian environment on William Clark during the trip down the river in the fall of 1805. In a key passage, Lang asserts that, for Clark, "the experience on the Columbia could well have begun to take its toll on him" and uses as an example an incident that occurred below Wallula Gap when the captain recorded that he had been in a position where he could have tomahawked every Indian in a lodge he was visiting. I am suggesting here that coping with a stressful geography had a considerably more forceful effect on Meriwether Lewis on the return trip up the Columbia in the spring of 1806 than it did on Clark at any time during the voyage. (5)
Lewis's most reflective moments typically occurred when the expedition paused for logistical reasons, such as during winter encampments and when the group was staging portages, recuperating from particularly difficult traverses, and suffering bad weather conditions. Because we have little in the documentary record from Lewis's pen west of the Divide in 1805, insights into his thinking about the geography of the Columbia country must emerge from journal entries made during the expedition's extended stopovers during the winter and spring of 1806. Fort Clatsop, Rock Fort at The Dalles, and Camp Choppunish among the Nez Perces constitute a serial set of observation points--west, central, and east--from which Lewis rendered his reflections. Though the climate and topography of each place was markedly different from the others, Lewis's outlook on the entirety of the Columbian world was decidedly unfavorable.
THE EXPEDITION'S FRAME OF REFERENCE for the Columbia was the Missouri River, which drained a vast open country that was a hunters' paradise. After only nine days of managing the Lemhi Pass portage and the reconnaissance of the Salmon River, Clark recorded that the men were already concerned about "Starveing in a Countrey where no game of any kind except a flew fish can be found." The salmon were "pleasent eateing" but did not have the caloric value of the large game of the Missouri plains. To Lewis, the Missouri watershed was a cornucopia of riches. His favored metaphor for the Columbia country was a prison. (6)
Lewis was quite explicit on this point at the Rock Fort on their way up the river on April 17, 1806. Gazing out on the wide-open vista, Lewis wrote of the "plains of the Columbia" being "covered with a rich virdure of grass and herbs." The air was "dryer and more pure." Lewis mused that this landscape stood in contrast to "having been so long imprisoned in mountains and those almost impenetrably thick forrrests of the seacoast" [emphasis added]. The heavily timbered Cascade Mountains were west of this desert and, though plentiful with game, not fit for agrarian pursuits. In disucssing Lewis's perceptions, historical geographer John Logan Allen concluded that, for Lewis, the northern West as garden "stopped at the Rockies; beyond the mountains, themselves not much good for anything, were the treeless and barren plains of the Columbia." In Allen's estimation, Lewis saw the Columbia lowlands and coastal districts as "dank and choked with timber and underbrush." The cumulative effect of the litany of complaints about straitened diets and oppressive weather in the Columbia country, according to Allen, led to it being presented "least favorably of all western regions in the official reports of the expedition." (7)
During the return trip, at the eastern end of the Columbia Plateau, a definite sense of confinement informed Lewis's outlook. In May 1806, the Bitterroot Mountains presented themselves, the captain wrote, as an "icy barier which seperates me from my friends and Country, from all which makes life esteemable." This lament evokes the same sentiment and psychological significance Lewis had felt at Fort Clatsop a few months before. On New Year's Day, Lewis had imagined being "in the bosom of our friends ... when with the zest given by the recollection of the present, we shall completely, both mentally and corporally, enjoy the repast which the hand of civilization has prepared for us" [emphasis added]. (8)
The Bitterroots had become Lewis's last hurdle for escape from his western cell, and a sense of dread infused his outlook. On May 21, 1806, anticipating the trek through the mountains that had endangered the expedition with an early snowstorm and scarce game the previous September, he wrote of the need to lay in provisions "for that dreary wilderness" ahead. The delay at Camp Choppunish on the Clearwater River because of unexpectedly deep snows on the Lolo Trail gave ample time for Lewis to churn over the "wretched portion of our journy, the Rocky Mountain. ..." Once the Bitterroot traverse finally commenced on June 15, Lewis, fearful of becoming "bewildered in these mountains," turned back because snow hindered progress and made way-finding difficult. On the second attempt, starting June 24, now guided by several helpful Nez Perce youths, the expedition made it over Lolo Pass and Lewis was free of his Columbian captivity. Lewis reflected on June 27 that "we were entirely surrounded by those mountains from which to one unacquainted with them it would have seemed impossible ever to have escaped" [emphasis added]. (9)
With relief, …