Next year will mark the 220th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, and the subsequent journey of exploration of America’s newest lands by the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1997, Ken Burns released the magnificent documentary Lewis & Clark – The Journey of The Corps of Discovery on PBS, that was based on the journals by U.S. Army Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The video presentation reacquaints Americans to their adventurous heritage of the yet unexplored North American continent in the early nineteenth century. This was a tremendous feat at the time, and one that contemporary Americans take for granted.
Exploring a New World All Over Again
After acquiring the Louisiana territory from Spain, the French in turn offered that land to American envoys in April of 1803. This expanse stretching from New Orleans on the Mississippi northwest to Montana effectively doubled America’s territory. Congress authorized the purchase in October, and France ceded the region in December. Shortly afterwards, president Thomas Jefferson summoned Captain Lewis – whose family he knew – from his quartermaster position in Pittsburgh and charged him with the grand mission to explore this vast expanse.
Recognizing that such an audacious enterprise would require skills beyond his own, Lewis wrote to Clark under whom he had served, asking him to join the expedition. Clark readily accented. Lewis began gathering materiél for the mission: surveyor instruments, camping supplies, cornmeal, salt pork, clothing, whiskey, medicine, as well as a cannon, rifles, powder, shot, paper and ink. The guns and ammunition would be needed to defend themselves, both from hostile natives as well as large predators. For trade goods for barter with tribal leaders, Lewis procured beads, tobacco, face paint, knives, combs, mirrors, ribbons and peace medals. He contracted the construction of a 55-foot keelboat to carry the supplies.
The officers and some of the enlisted soldiers would be tasked with writing entries to describe their venture: topography along the river banks, the hazards they faced, weather conditions endured, flora and fauna encountered and native populations along the way. Those Journals formed the basis for Ken Burns’ video. Commencing in May 1804 from Saint Charles, Missouri, the captains with more than three dozen young men pushed their keelboat up the Missouri river. Thus began the journey of a lifetime into eight-thousand miles of terra incognita.
As they proceed northwestward into the Great Plains, the landscape transitioned from dense forest to dry grassland. They collect botanical samples and draw illustrations of various birds animals- even observing a colony of prairie dogs which they struggled to catch one. After trudging against the current for four months through Iowa and South Dakota, the Corps confronts the fierce Teton Sioux and tensions rose. By October, the men reach the Mandan villages in North Dakota, where they build a fort for shelter against the coming bitter cold. There the captains negotiated for the services of a French-Canadian fur-trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, who brings along his pregnant wife Sacagawea as a Shoshone interpreter. In February 1805 that winter, she gives birth to a baby boy the couple names Jean Baptiste.
The following spring, the Corps divides. Sixteen men return the keelboat towards the Mississippi with their samples and maps accompanied by a lengthy report by Lewis. Meanwhile the remainder of the expedition set out in April 1805 rowing four small boats upstream along the Missouri through Montana and Idaho. But instead of a Northwest Passage as they expect, the captains face the daunting Rockies. These western peaks are far more rugged and extensive than the Appalachians these American soldiers had known. The climate turns more arid with sparse vegetation and game scarce.
In August as they negotiated the streams and portages around waterfalls, where the expedition meets the Shoshone tribe that has retreated to less hospitable areas to avoid stronger and aggressive nations. The Corps was the Shoshone’s first encounter with non-natives and their initial reception was greeted with suspicion. However, realizing that the strangers didn’t resemble a raiding party, the two wary groups receive each other. Sacagawea tearfully reunites with her brother, now clan chief, and the Shoshone agree to barter trade goods for horses to carry the expedition’s supplies over the mountains.
After a harrowing three weeks in September, the Corps stumbles out from the Rockies and find the Nez Perce on their western side. After tribal leaders grudgingly decide to befriend these intruders, the men recover and fashion canoes from tree trunks to ride the current downstream along the Columbia towards the Pacific. Upon reaching the western ocean shores, they all vote on where to establish winter quarters.They decide to stay on the southern bank in western Oregon near the Clatsop tribe. No ship appears in the vicinity of the coast to return them to an Atlantic port.
So in the spring of 1806, the Corps sets out upstream along the Columbia. After crossing the Rockies – interrupted by unpleasant encounters with the Blackfeet, the Corps rejoins the Mandans and bides farewell to Charbonneau, Sacagawea and their young son. The captains and enlisted men proceed downstream along the Missouri. Upon their September arrival in Saint Louis the members are welcomed and mark the occasion. Upon returning to Washington, Lewis debriefs the president in January 1807.
An Excellent Telling of Our More Audacious Past
The Lewis & Clark documentary is a study of American history of the exploration of an Undiscovered Country. Accompanied by the melancholic yet poignant scores of Heart of the Heartland and When Summer Ends, Lewis & Clark introduces American audiences to an adventure, through scenes and paintings, that recall an earlier mystic epoch in our history, where life was hard and often unforgiving – and especially for marginalized tribal members and of course chattel slaves.
But the expedition also served as a political precedent of what a nation can accomplish with competent personnel and inspirational leadership. The participants suffered hardships and discomfort, but in the process they revealed a continent. The planning and execution of this mission exhibit what dedicated and talented individuals can achieve when assigned a mission while others stay out of their way.
Moreover, the objective was not merely to sightsee, but to record observations and construct maps to guide future travels. The events can be encapsulated within a definitive timeframe bracketed by a beginning and an end, all the while offering a plethora of moral lessons regarding courage, determination and kindness. Few documentaries provide an uplifting presentation of those or any other events. Lewis & Clark is clearly one of them. If you have never seen this Ken Burns work, consider adding it to your summer to do list.
Photo Credit- kenburns.com