James Ronda

James Ronda is a respected Lewis and Clark scholar and author of the book "Lewis and Clark Among the Indians." This interview was conducted in 2003.

james rondaHow should we think of Lewis & Clark?
Think about them as young army officers. That means that they lived in a world of command and control and discipline and military tradition. In 1802 and 1803, when Jefferson was imagining this journey and imagining the expedition, he had an important choice. How was this expedition going to be organized? He could have simply hired a number of fur traders out of St. Louis and said, ‘go and do this.’ But instead, based on his wide reading, Jefferson looked to a particular exploration tradition, he looked to what the British were doing, to what the Spanish were doing… So Jefferson picked up on this British tradition, he used military officers who understand questions about organization, command, discipline and tradition. When we want to think about Lewis and Clark, think about them as men from an Army world. A world of order, organization, tradition and authority.

Also, I think it’s important to remember that these are young men. William Clark was born in 1770, Meriwether Lewis in 1774. They are children of the American Revolution, and they came of age in a time immediately after the American Revolution, a time of growth and of expansion, but also an uncertain time. The American republic was no sure thing… there was no guarantee that American independence was going to work. So they grew up in a world filled with excitement and exuberance, but also an uncertain world.

What we are seeing with Lewis and Clark is the beginning of what you could call the war for the west. A war that will consume much of the rest of the 19th century. A war that will have many victims, many casualties and eventually a winner, but a winner that is a surprise to many.

What was Jefferson’s perception of the West?
Jefferson saw the west as a land of renewal. Jefferson once said that if God had a chosen people, they would be the farmers; and in the west there would be enough land to keep Americans forever young and free and independent. That’s what the Northwest Passage is all about, to get those agricultural goods into global markets.

Jefferson really believed that in the west you could outrun your past. You could start again; you could have a clean slate. This is his great dream, but it is also his great delusion.

lewis and clark travelingThe west was going to be the garden of the world. And it was an image that would remain strong for much of the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century. We never thought that the west was the great American desert. Most American settlers always thought of the west as the garden of the world. The 18th century Enlightenment geographers all argued that the earth was about balance. So what Jefferson saw in the east, he certainly believed he would find in the west. Western mountains would be like eastern mountains. Those mountains would be narrow, thin ridges, easily pierced. That a series of rivers would go up to the very foothills of the stony mountains, there would be an easy passage and then on the other side there would be rivers that would take you to the great river of the west. This was the great dream, the most powerful geographic illusion of the age. That had come out of the world of Columbus and was still very much alive in the age of Jefferson, the notion of a Northwest Passage. Nothing would endure more strongly in Jefferson’s mind than the image of the garden, and then of the passage through the garden. It was a dream that would not die.

How do you see the interaction between the Expedition and the Native Americans?
We need to think about Lewis and Clark, not as an adventure story, because that always leads us wrong. We need to think about them as part of the American encounter. Think about Lewis and Clark as part of the great American conversation, in which Lewis and Clark explored native people and native people explored Lewis and Clark. This is mutual encounter, mutual discovery. This is the coming together of people across a cultural divide, struggling to understand each other.

We need to think about the expedition as a diverse human community, it is one of the most important things that can help us understand this journey, because this is an emblematic American journey. It’s important because it’s our first great road story.

portageWhat were Meriwether Lewis’ strengths?
Meriwether Lewis is in some ways elusive, mercurial, remote, troubled…we are drawn to him but at the same time, somehow, he seems so distant from us. A man of few friends and even fewer acquaintances. A man who eventually had many enemies and a man who would take his own life in a moment of terrible despair. He certainly knew no Indian languages. He had not traveled widely on the American Frontier. Jefferson admitted as much.

What were his strengths? He was at heart a skilled naturalist with a wonderful eye for the natural world. Jefferson said in his instructions to Lewis and later to Clark, to pay attention to the face of the country. What a wonderful phrase: the face of the country; as if there was a human face there with all its contour and shadows and changes.

Meriweither Lewis was to draw in words the face of the country. Lewis was a skilled naturalist with a wonderful ability to describe plants and animals, the face of the country. His great strength was looking at the natural world and beginning to describe it, the face of the country. And so in many ways, Meriwether Lewis reminds us about the scientific nature of this journey.

What about William Clark’s strengths?
If Meriwether Lewis was supposed to write in words about plants and animals, and about human cultures and societies, then William Clark’s great skill was his gift as a cartographer. Cartography lives at the intersection between art and science. Good cartographers are both artists and scientists. William Clark had considerable previous experience in surveying and measuring, in knowing the leaps and bounds of land. He grew up in a world that said land is the most important thing, and the Clark family was always concerned about its land holdings.

William Clark was an intuitive cartographer; he had this remarkable natural ability that came from somewhere to look at the three dimensions of terrain and then reduce those three dimensions to the flat world of ink and paper.

So what we have with William Clark is this extraordinary set of maps that utterly transforms our understanding of the geography of the American West.

How important were Native American maps to the Expedition?
I think perhaps the most important contribution that Cameahwait’s people made, in addition to horses and carrying the baggage, is really the matter of geographic information. Imagine now that the expedition has reached a critical point. Their knowledge, their expectations, their conjectures about the nature of the country on the other side of the divide, those expectations haven’t proven up. What they expected was one thing; what they found was something else. And what Lewis and Clark really needed now was reliable information. Because what they thought they were going to find wasn’t there. So in many ways what Cameahwait provided was reliable information.

nez perce dancerIf you think about what Cameahwait knew, he knew about a sweep of land, hundreds and hundreds of miles in dimension. That is extraordinary. We talk about Jefferson as a geographer; we should talk about Cameahwait as a geographer. We talk about William Clark as a cartographer. We should talk about Cameahwait as a cartographer. The real struggle for Lewis and Clark, especially for Clark, was to integrate Indian information into his own cartographic and geographic universe. How do you blend together Native American information with Euro American maps. That’s very difficult to do.

This is one of the most important stories about the exploration of the American West. Over and over again, American explorers relied on Indian maps and on Indian guides. Without those maps, without those guides, the American exploration of the west would have been a very different enterprise. And certainly not a successful enterprise in the way that we know it now.

Without Native American geographic information, Lewis and Clark simply would not have been able to make this journey and to understand what the country was all about.

What was the gamble that the Lemhi Shoshone leader Cameahwait made?
The Lemhi’s had a long set of experiences of being raided by their enemies; they had recently been raided by their enemies. They had lost their teepees, they had lost horses, they had people killed and wounded and now more outsiders are coming? And certainly you would expect, given past experiences, that Cameahwait and others in his band would be deeply suspicious of outsiders. And yet, there is a welcome. A welcome first to Meriwether Lewis and then to the much larger party.

Cameahwait took the great chance here, he made the great gamble, he took the chance that here was the opportunity to gain the one thing he needed, and he would say so over and over again. He needed guns. In a world that was heavily armed, the Lemhi Shoshone’s only had two or three guns. His enemies, the Blackfeet, the Atsinas, the Hidatsas all had guns; he didn’t. And in a powerful moment, when he talked with Lewis and Clark, he said to them, we want guns, and then we will not have to live like bears, knawing on berries deep in the mountains.

Cameahwait took a chance, a chance that here was an opportunity to get the guns. And in return he would offer the strangers horses and food, and geographic information. This would be a balanced, reciprocal relationship: give me the guns, and I will give you what you need. Cameahwait took the great chance.

And this is a real gamble. Even the Nez Perce chiefs like Twisted Hair and Broken Arm, they had at least heard about these strangers.

We forget how heavily armed the west was. By 1804, 1805, this is a west that is just in an arms race. The Blackfeet had so many guns. They had so much powder and shot that they hardly knew what to do with it. So, Cameahwait is a man on the outside; he needs to get on the inside very quickly. It’s a real gamble. He took a tremendous chance and it’s a chance that in the end is not going to pay out for him. They don’t come back, they don’t give him the guns, he doesn’t get what he wants. He rolls the dice and in many ways, he loses. He loses.

Certainly the Lolo Trail must have been a bitter trial for the Expedition.
Think of the crossing of the Lolo Trail as a bitter odyssey in the snow. September, early snow, a tangle of underbrush, freezing cold and little to eat and being easily lost, snow blind almost. What they had hoped they were going to find was the easy passage through the garden; and now what they really found was terrible suffering and struggle. And anguish.

So many of the dreams that they had cherished now faced harsh reality. This is really the story of hope versus reality. And so on one hand, it’s the physical struggle of getting up every day and not having enough to eat and cold and snow and tangled underbrush and sliding down steep hillsides and losing equipment and wrapping your socks around your hands and gnawing on candles and eating portable soup and killing a colt. It’s all of those physical challenges, challenges they had really not had since the days of portaging around the Great Falls.

Added to that is the mental anguish; this is not what we expected; this is not what we hoped for; this is not what we dreamed. I don’t think that either Lewis or Clark would have readily surrendered. Although on the other hand, when they attempted the return, they got trapped in those snows and were forced to make what Meriwether Lewis politely called a retrograde march. Another word simply for retreat. They had to then be saved by the Nez Perce people. This was a dicey moment. They could have died in those snows. There could have been tragic accidents. Once again the stars danced for Lewis and Clark, and they would be saved by the generosity and the hospitality of Nez Perce people. But this was a close moment, a tense moment and I want to emphasize again that there are these double challenges – the challenge of the physical crossing, but also the mental challenges. This is not what we expected. This is not the passage through the garden.

I think the first challenge is simply to find the trail. I think it was difficult often to find the trail. And second, these are very confusing mountains. They were then, they are now. They are visually confusing, and for men whose only mountain experiences were eastern mountains, with fairly even, regular, symmetrical ridges -- to see mountains that were a tangle, a twisted tangle of ridges and peaks – it was visually confusing. And then add to that the cold, the snow, and then those empty hungry bellies. And then the overlay of that was the growing apprehension: what we thought we were going to find, we have not found. So it’s not just one problem, but a multiplicity of problems that nip at the heels of this travelling infantry company.

It seems that the Nez Perce could easily have ended the Expedition.
Most of the time Lewis and Clark and their men shaved because they were soldiers and they were expected to shave, but now surely in those terrible days on the trail they did not shave and so they were bearded perhaps. Who are these frightening strangers?

Boys and girls and old men and women must have looked at them as beings from another planet. Clark’s effort was to reassure them by showing them gifts and by showing them as much friendship as possible that these strangers were not enemies, but potential friends. That is as important an encounter as the encounter with the Lemhi Shoshone’s. Yet again, Lewis and Clark benefit by the hospitality of strangers.

There was, among the Nez Perce a woman who had been kidnapped as a younger woman by perhaps the Blackfeet or the Atsinas. She ended up in the hands of Canadian traders. She was well treated. And eventually she was able to make her way home. She saw the strangers now, she saw Clark and then Lewis and others and she was reminded about the decent treatment she was given by Canadian traders; and she is reported to have said, ‘do them no harm. Do them no harm.’

Once again it is a woman who provides for this journey a way to make this journey possible. That story needs to be given full faith and credit. But there are lots of other reasons why Lewis and Clark are treated well by the Nez Perce. And those reasons have everything to do with guns. Once again, we are back in the world of guns and power and of influence. And of the arms race.

What is the legacy of Lewis and Clark?
This is our first great road story. Lewis and Clark place us on the road, they put us in the middle of a human community, a community as diverse and complex as any in America today. And then they put that community in motion because we are a people in motion.

We find ourselves in that story, whether we place ourselves in that community or we stand alongside and watch that community as it goes by. This is a very large story. It’s not just the story of Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea, a dog and Thomas Jefferson. This is a story that has hundreds and hundreds of actors in it. It’s a story of continental sweep and eventually of global significance. We know who we are by the stories we tell. This is one of the emblematic American stories.

Someone once said that the Civil War was our American Iliad. This is our American Odyssey.

Lewis and Clark offer us an extraordinary gift; they give us that sense of awe and wonder and then they let us encounter strangeness. We do not learn by only encountering people like us. We do not learn by shaking hands with ourselves, we only learn by encountering and conversing with others who are not like us. Whether you are Cameahwait or Coboway or Black Moccasin, you would only learn by meeting with strangers. Whether you are Lewis or Clark or John Ordway or Patrick Gass or George Druillard, you would learn only by meeting and conversing with strangers.

If you were Sacagawea, you would learn and grow and expand only by meeting with others. This is the great gift that Lewis and Clark offer to us and we cherish that.

Our past is confused, contradictory and ambiguous. We need to understand that. We need to know that Lewis and Clark are not a simple story of good guys and bad guys, of ten foot tall heroes. Once we do that, we will begin to grow up as a culture, as individuals in our private lives and in our communal lives.


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