Academic journal article
By Mizelle, Brett
Transactions of the American Philosophical Society , Vol. 94, No. 5
IN HIS JUNE 1803 instructions to Meriwether Lewis, President Thomas Jefferson provided specific orders about the route, suggestions on how to deal with both the Europeans and the Native Americans they would meet along the way, and indications about what information and specimens they should collect. Jefferson's instructions to Lewis, like his confidential message to Congress from January 1803, reveal his major interests in western exploration, including both the "purposes of commerce" and "extending & strengthening the authority of reason & justice among the people around" the new nation. Only briefly in his letter to Lewis does Jefferson turn to "other object[s] worthy of notice," including the climate, mineral productions, soil and agriculture, and "the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S."1
Jefferson's determination to explore and control the West, partly by using knowledge to advance national power, lay behind the mandate he bequeathed to Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery, who explored the trans-Mississippi West between 1803 and 1806. But as many scholars have pointed out, Lewis and Clark's expedition was largely seen as a failure in its own time. Many of their countrymen presumed them dead; others kept extending American commerce westward as if the expedition didn't exist. Upon their return, the expedition was seen, as James Ronda has recently noted, as "at best a disappointment and at worst an embarrassing failure."2
This sense of irrelevance and failure extended to the scientific work of the expedition. In his important study of Lewis and Clark as "pioneering naturalists," Paul Russell Cutright concluded that "it took time for the world to comprehend the magnitude of Lewis and Clark's achievements-if, indeed, it has to this day."3 Writing in the late 1960s, Cutright hoped to make a case for the scientific significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition by detailing the ethnological, botanical, and zoological specimens "discovered" and described by the Corps of Discovery. But Cutright's vigorous effort to rebut the accusation that Jefferson had made a mistake by not choosing a "trained naturalist" to accompany the expedition ironically reveals some of the limitations and failures of the expedition, as he frequently resorts to describing the expedition in terms of its lost potential: If only Lewis had lived to write an account of the expedition, including its natural history. If only more of the living animals and preserved specimens and skins had survived the long journey back East. If only the federal government would have endowed and supported Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum so that its "precious deposits" could be preserved for posterity.
Cutright's description of the journey of the Corps of Discovery as "the transcendent achievement of its kind in this hemisphere, if not in the entire world," was, of course, itself part of the larger rediscovery and reappraisal of the Lewis and Clark expedition. As Thomas Slaughter has recently reminded us, "The expedition's triumph had to be found. It got lost in words never read and stories not told for a century after the explorers' return." This process of recovery, one in which "the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition became a fiction treated as a fact transformed into a history that created a myth," has been so successful that we often lack critical perspectives on the journey, especially those that situate it in its nineteenth-century contexts.4
It is ironic, of course, that we largely have the various editions of the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to blame for this predicament. Because they compellingly focus our attention on the day-to-day dynamics of the expedition and because they are, as Andrew Cayton has recently observed, "remarkably open to interpretation," the words of the explorers invite our vicarious participation in their trek. …