Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Troubled Passages: The Uncertain Journeys of Lewis and Clark

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Troubled Passages: The Uncertain Journeys of Lewis and Clark

Article excerpt

IT HAD NOT BEEN A GOOD DAY for William Clark. Cold, sick, and unable to eat even "the flesh of the Elk," the best he could do was barter a few fishhooks for roots to make some soup. But later in the day, gathering his strength, he managed to walk toward a nearby stand of pine trees. Taking out his knife, Clark carved this on one of the trees: "William Clark December 3rd 1805. By land from the U. States in 1804 & 1805." (1) He did that at the mouth of the Columbia, with the river behind him and the ocean stretching out before him to the very horizon.

Now, two hundred years after Clark struggled through that windswept day, what he and the expedition had done seems so logical, so nearly inevitable. Of course they would make it to the Pacific. Of course there would be wagon trains and railroad trains on the way into the West. And of course all this came from the fertile imagination of Thomas Jefferson.

The American march across the continent looks so much like a straight line, the predetermined path, the will of God, the majestic design of Nature. But it was none of those things. Manifest Destiny was neither plainly manifest nor obviously a destiny. And while the prophets of empire talked bravely about one nation from sea to sea, it was not their words and schemes that made it happen. It was one hundred and one twists and turns, accidents and misadventures, what the Book of Common Prayer calls "the changes and chances" of life. What we have lost in our study of the expedition is what Lewis and Clark had--a sense of uncertainty, the sure knowledge of the power of surprise. We have smoothed out the rough places and rounded off the sharp corners. Doing that, we deny the past what we accept most about the present. Every life has its jagged edges, gaping holes, and incomprehensible moments. So as the Lewis and Clark bicentennial comes to a close, it is time to think again about what William Clark once called his "road across the Continent." (2) Thomas Jefferson thought it was going to be the plain path to the Pacific; but by the time Clark carved his name on that tree at the Columbia's mouth, he knew all about twisty roads and troubled passages. Down those roads and through those passages there were bound to be accident and chance, confusion and misunderstanding. As Meriwether Lewis once wrote, "accedents will happen in the best of families." (3) We can trace the path of those "accedents" by paying attention to rivers, places, and people.

We should begin with rivers. Our past has been defined, shaped by ribbons of water that lace the land. They flow through our history like blood in the body. The Hudson, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Platte, the Rio Grande, and the Columbia--a catalogue of rivers is the framework of the continent. Thomas Jefferson lived on a mountain but was fascinated by rivers. The only book he ever wrote--Notes on the State of Virginia--has a long chapter devoted to rivers and the course of American empire. He imagined them as rivers of promise. And the promises were many--wealth, power, and security. Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the West to trace out the rivers that would be the fabled Northwest Passage. But rivers that looked so neat and sure on Jefferson's maps proved to be anything but that. Two days on two rivers can remind us of what Lewis and Clark soon learned.

THOMAS JEFFERSON NEVER SAW the Missouri, but he confidently called it "the principal river," the highway into the West. (4) Experienced rivermen like Francois LaBiche and Pierre Cruzatte might have told a different story. They could have offered a long list of river dangers: snags and sawyers, sandbars and caving banks, and countless twisted channels. Looming every day was the threat of sudden thunderstorms with wind and rain that made the Missouri's promise a long stretch of rough water. John Thomas Evans, an explorer who went up the Missouri to the Mandan villages in 1796, caught the character of a river passage when he described his journey as "a long and fatiguing voyage. …

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