Books I'm Reading

Lewis and Clarks Journey and Journals

Just finished watching Lewis and Clark’s scientific/exploratory
expedition to the northwest by master historical documentarian Ken
Burns. Thorough, fascinating, important…Great stuff.

I remember when I lived in the St. Louis area, I had a book by John Bunyan restored called Pilgrims Progress.

I had the book work don by one of the best restoration craftsmen in the country.

Richard C. Baker offers a full range of conservation services for books and printed works on paper and parchment

While I was picking up my book Richard showed be what he was also working on at the time .

He took me in the “the vault” as he called it and behind a glass case was one of the original Lewis and Clark journals,

the “Elk skin” journal was right before me.

What a memorable moment to see that kind of history placed just inches in front of me.

Just recently I was give the Ken Burns documentary of Lewis and Clark’s journey on DVD.

I can’t remember exactly how much time was actually covered in history class about the journey of Lewis and Clark to explore the land purchased from Napoleon and France by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. I know it was discussed, but essentially it was glossed over in text and given a paragraph or two. The magnitude of what they did, especially in those times, was never presented.

Thankfully, the Ken Burns documentary production of Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery rectifies this. Burns makes the case that the journey of Lewis & Clark as at least as important as the journey to the moon – if not more important. When they set out, the United States was a collection of former British Colonies on the Atlantic Ocean. By the time they returned, the nation stretched from sea to shining sea. In addition to exploring the land purchased, they also explored the disputed Oregon Territory, came back with details of many of new species of plant and wildlife, forged relationships with Native Americans along the way, and provided confirmation that the mythical Northwest Passage, searched for by so many for so long, didn’t exist.

The history behind the two men who led the expedition is in itself somewhat astonishing. Merriweather Lewis was Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary. Only twenty eight years old, he was an unlikely selection. He had been an army officer and considered to be skilled on the frontier. It had been noted he was prone to depression and sometimes he drank too much. The depression seems evident at times when there are no entries in his journal. Burns focuses on these bouts of depression quite a bit, as they resulted in the suicide of Lewis a few years after the expedition returned.

William Clark was a frontiersman, having spent time on what was then the western frontier – Kentucky and Ohio. He didn’t have the same education as Lewis, but had the knowledge and temperament. In the end, he would be the one to tell the stories and details of the expedition as Lewis died without ever forming a manuscript from the journals they kept along the way. Luckily, the journals themselves did survive.

The trip itself was treacherous. The budget was just $2,500. In addition to the fact that they spent most of it going upstream against the currents of the muddy Missouri River, there were the usual dangers of frontier life and exploration: wild animals, disease, lack of food, weather. In addition, the men had no idea of where they were going or what they would encounter along the way. While the astronauts could look up and see the moon (and remain in contact with their base back here in Houston) Lewis & Clark were on their own, venturing to places they could never have imagined. There were no photographs or descriptions of the Great Plains or Rocky Mountains. In addition, they could never be certain of how the Native American population would react to them along the way.

I am really enjoying the study of this amazing time in American history.

Steve and Brenda at the launch point for the Lewis and Clark expedition along the Missouri River.


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