Harry FritzHarry Fritz is the chairman of the Department of History at the University of Montana in Missoula. This interview was conducted in 2003.
What are some key decisions that Lewis and Clark made?
A decision of equal importance involves another Indian person, Old Toby, a Shoshone Indian. They put the whole fate of the expedition into the hands of one old Indian man who showed them the route that everybody else said he didn’t know what he was talking about. They are willing to roll the dice, and Toby showed them the Lolo pass and route over the Bitterroot Mountains.
is the importance of the Rocky Mountains to the Lewis & Clark story?
They had no idea the Rockies are not a single chain of mountains, more than a hundred named mountain ranges in Montana and northern Idaho alone. Two hundred fifty to 300 miles wide. The key is getting through the Rockies.
They are literally lost in the Rocky Mountains. Lewis and Clark crossed the Bitterroot Mountains three different times. Their journey was not a straightforward expedition.
Present-day Montana presented the Expedition with some interesting problems, also. I start their travail at the Marius River, while they are still on the plains. The Marius was one river the Native Americans had given them no advance information about. They hit it at spring run-off. They took eight days to make a decision regarding which river to take.
They made the right decision. They are trying to get to the Pacific coast by the first of September, and they are spending eight days in June in one spot.
The Great Falls was five separate falls. It ran 18 ½ miles over rugged terrain. It was probably the most arduous physical labor, portaging the heavy dug out canoes across this terrain.
Incredibly, Meriwether Lewis had brought the framework for a 30 ft canoe all the way from Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to Great Falls, Montana. Some people calculate that this skeleton must have weighed 200 lbs. He was covering this framework with buffalo skins but he couldn’t sew the skins together in a waterproof fashion, so it filled up and sank, so there is another ten days.
They spent one solid month in Great Falls, Montana, from the middle of June to the middle of July. Then once you leave Great Falls, on the Marius River you are not traveling west; you are traveling south. You are getting further away from the Pacific Coast as you go. Three Forks, Montana, in late July, the Beaverhead river… they are getting further and further out of their way to find the Columbia.
Most people thought the expedition had been lost in the West. Lewis told Jefferson that when he got to the Great Falls, he was going to send back four men in a boat. When he got there he figured he needed every man, so he did not send men back in a boat. Jefferson was expecting a messenger, but none came.
How important was this Expedition?
Their immediate impact was not as great as we might think, because their journals were not published for about eight years after they got back; and that was only about 20 to 25% of what they had written down. It comes off as purely a geographic expedition.
Omitted was the scientific information. Those weren’t even published until the twentieth century. Ironically, the reputation of Lewis and Clark is higher today than it has ever been. Lewis and Clark have a reputation as natural scientists and ethnologists that they never enjoyed in the nineteenth century.
It’s a sense among Americans that part of our past is gone beyond redemption. We have lost our natural leaders and early American heroes. Meriwether Lewis stands tall as a man who organized and equipped the most successful exploratory mission in all of American history, not excluding the moon shots in the 20th century.
That excitement is still present. It draws Americans back in time to what they believe was a better era, when giants still strode the land and determined the course of American history.
Lewis and Clark have been described as the “writingest” explorers in American history. When Americans get beyond the videos and movies and biographies and encounter their writings, they can’t help but fall in love with William Clark, who was a terrible speller and who spelled the word ‘Sioux’ twenty seven different ways, twenty seven incorrect ways. But you can make out what he says.
Andrew Jackson once said he didn’t have much respect for a man who could think of only one way to spell a word. He loved William Clark.
How do Native Americans view the Expedition?
They can’t overlook the expedition. It’s safe to say they are not celebrating the expedition. They are not even commemorating it. They are observing it – because it is part of their history. Lewis and Clark visited them in 1804 and 1806.
I think the brightest and most positive aspect of Lewis and Clark scholarship in the Bi-centennial era and over the next generations will be the contributions of Native American scholars and Native American storytellers to what we know about Lewis and Clark.