Historian Gary Moulton

Gary Moulton

We invited Dr. Gary E. Moulton of the University of Nebraska to participate in our television program, "Echoes of a Bitter Crossing: Lewis & Clark in Idaho." Moulton has been engaged in the massive undertaking of editing the complete record of the Lewis & Clark expedition.

While there are many editions of the journals, The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (University of Nebraska Press) by Moulton is considered the best. When completed, it will comprise thirteen volumes.

This interview was conducted in the summer of 1997 at Lost Trail Pass, on the Idaho-Montana border.

How would you characterize Lewis and Clark?

Meriwether Lewis William Clark

Lewis and Clark are usually stereotyped. Lewis is seen as this moody intellectual type who liked to get off the boat and go on some scientific excursion, try and discover a new plant species or whatever. Clark is seen as sort of a man of the people. He'd stay on the boat, liked to be with the men and worked with them more closely. He's sort of seen as a little bit rawer, more a frontiersmen type.

That probably isn't exactly true. The whole characterization may be off some. I think it's a way to characterize and have them complement each other on the expedition. They were both Virginia gentlemen. They were both slaveholders. They were both educated about as well as anyone could be during their generation. They both considered themselves a part of the nation's elite and they served in that capacity.

What about the other members of the expedition?

Well, for the most part they were enlisted men. They had to join the army to become a member of the expedition. They made a few exceptions. For instance, Drouillard who was the expert hunter, they wanted him and didn't insist that he enlist. The men were volunteers; in other words, they weren't ordered to come on the expedition. They volunteered for it out of a sense of adventure, maybe some rewards at the end, or whatever. The numbers are a bit vague because they brought along a bunch of French boatmen with them who'd help them pull and pole the boats up the river. The numbers are sort of loose on these hired men. They had around forty-five or so going at that point. They picked up a few and they lost a few along the way.

After they left Fort Mandan in North Dakota, their first winter encampment, they had thirty-three exactly in the party. That was the permanent party. By that time they'd picked up Charbonneau, the husband of Sacagawea, one of the most famous members of the party. She was carrying her baby with her and so that's counted. The one we don't count among that thirty-three is Lewis's dog, Seaman, who was also along. One other member of the party who's a little bit out of sync with everyone else is Clark's black slave, York, who was brought along. Of course, he wasn't a volunteer and he wasn't an enlisted man.

How did the captains form such a cohesive unit?

They called themselves the corps of Discovery. Clark for instance was supposed to get a captain's rank and he didn't. There was a snafu in the war department and he only got a lieutenant commission. So he assigned himself a captain of a corps of Discovery. So they thought of themselves as a corps, as a unit. I think there was a great deal of camaraderie and commonness of purpose among them. They all felt a sense of high adventure and a sense of being on an expedition for discovery to find new things. They were in the service of their country and I think they had a high esteem and a high opinion about what they were doing. They felt a commonness of purpose and they felt a oneness, a unity.

Now there's a break down in ranks, there are problems, especially at the first of the expedition. Men are getting drunk; problems here and there that common young soldiers have the world over and throughout time. This was taken care of pretty quickly. A hundred lashes on the bare back, fifty lashes on the bare back so Lewis and Clark didn't put up with that stuff. Moreover, one of the men deserted, a Frenchman, who in one sense didn't desert because he wasn't an enlisted man. Another man who was going to desert was caught and brought back. They put him on hard labor and then didn't allow him to go along with the rest of the expedition.

What part did Jefferson play in this journey?

President Jefferson had dreamed of an exploration to the Western part of America for many years. For twenty years he'd been talking about it, writing letters and trying to enlist people to do it. What happened with Lewis and Clark is that it came at the right time with the right people. The nation had just gone through purchasing its Louisiana territory so Jefferson had a good reason to send people out. He could get money from Congress to do it. He sent them on a scientific and exploratory venture. Not only for the Louisiana purchase but then to sort of plant the flag in the Northwest and get there first and let people know we had claims to the Columbia River region to present day Washington and Oregon.

What exactly did they think was out West?

Their conception of the West was very different from what we have today. It sounds a little strange to our modern ears, but Lewis and Clark and Jefferson and most of the educated people of the East thought of the Rocky Mountains as a single, low-lying ridge of hills. They had a view that on this point somewhere along this low ridge, they would find a point at which all the great rivers of the West converge. The idea was that Lewis and Clark would take canoes up to the headwaters of the Missouri River, and then they would carry their canoe a few hundred yards and find the headwaters of the Columbia, Platt or Red River, and then they could go any direction they wanted. Of course, Lewis and Clark came back to report this was not true. The Rocky Mountains were a series of high, difficult ridges and mountains to cross over.

What were the major challenges they faced?

Gary Moulton

They really had three great physical challenges on the trail. Coming up the Missouri River was arduous work, hard work. It was very laborious day in and day out. But it wasn't a physical challenge in a dangerous sense. They met a real, first physical challenge when they came to the Great Falls in Missouri and simply couldn't get the boats over it. They had to go into even greater labors to get all the boats and equipment around the Great Falls in Missouri.

When they reached the Rocky Mountains they met their second greatest, physical challenge. This may have been first in the efforts that they had to put into it. That is to get over the Rocky Mountains, to get over the Bitterroots, and to get along these ridges here, and then to get down the arduous Lolo trail. Then find some friendly groups to meet with and get some canoes built and get on to the coast.

The third physical challenge was the water-borne transport over rapids and rocky shoals on the Columbia River. Here again, they used a different tactic. Instead of going around they just plunged straight through.

How close were they to failure in the Bitterroot Mountains?

They experienced tremendous difficulties. The physical labor of just getting through these mountains was incredible. These were young men, for the most part, who were used to hard labor. So, that point of it wasn't so bad. It was just the terrain itself was so difficult. Up and down these rocky cliffs, through these deep forests, along these steep grades, just incredibly hard. What made it even more difficult was the fact that most of the game had disappeared. Even the best hunters like George Drouillard couldn't find the necessary food that they needed every day. The elk were gone, the deer were gone, and they needed at least two elk or four deer every day to feed a party of thirty-three people. So they were relying on a few grouse that they could find to shoot and eat. Then they went to this thing called "portable soup". Lewis had made up a concoction of dried materials back in Philadelphia. They'd pour water on it and stir it up; the men hated it, but at least it got them by.

Group standing in the snow

They were down to starving rations by the time they were coming out of the mountains. They had absolutely nothing to eat. They resorted to eating the horseflesh they had with them. At different times they'd purchase horses from the Shoshone Indians and from the Flathead Indians where at one point they had almost forty horses and three colts. They ate the three colts. Another horse wandered into camp one night, and they killed it and ate it also. They fed on a lot of horsemeat, and some men really liked the horsemeat very much. It wasn't so much that they turned to it as a last recourse; it's just they needed the horses, but I guess there were some cultural things about eating horse.

And the dog Seaman never was looked on as a possible meal?

No. No one ever looked at Lewis's dog to eat him. Although later they would resort to dog meat. Now you talked about failure, and I think that's something we ought to address. They were in a very difficult straight, very difficult circumstance. I don't think failure was a part of their thinking at all. It was just push on through and get through. They knew there was a place they could get to. They had heard stories about the Indians being at certain places, and they had an Indian guide with them. It was just "how long can we put up with this difficult situation?" Their spirits were flagging but I think failure was not a part of it.

So the idea of just turning around and heading back to St. Louis never occurred to them?

No. Moreover, to turn around and go back would have been just as hard, and they knew they could get some help in short order. It might be a few days, and it might be in difficult circumstances, but they'd get there and they'd get out.

Discuss their relationships with the Indian tribes they encountered.

Lewis and Clark met a variety of Indian tribes, three great cultural groups: the Plains Indians of the great plains of North America, the Rocky Mountain Indians, and the Indians of the Northwest Coast. They were all different in their languages, in their cultural elements, in their attitudes towards white people, toward Lewis and Clark, and they had to deal with them differently.

For the most part, almost entirely their relations with the Indians were very friendly. They got help from the Indians time and again. When they came over the Bitterroot Mountains and down the Lolo trail, they might have done it on their own, but without the Indian help they would have been in difficult circumstances. Indian help was vital to Lewis and Clark. They drew the map, they provided food, and they gave them assistance of all sorts. Lewis and Clark knew this would be the case, and Jefferson knew this would be the case also.

Jefferson's instructions to Lewis are most detailed in point of his relationship with the Indians. He wanted it to be friendly and that's the way they carried it out. They had two encounters with Indians that were difficult. One was a tense encounter with Teton Sioux on the Missouri River. The Teton Sioux were sort of extracting tolls for people who came up the Missouri, and Lewis and Clark resisted paying the higher prices they kept demanding. So, bows were drawn and guns were readied, but everybody sort of calmed down and nothing happened.

Later, on the upper Missouri when they were at the Marias River, and Lewis was with a small party searching out some different terrain, he located a group of Blackfeet Indians and locked in with them. They spent the night together. Some of the Indians tried to steal horses and guns. They got into a fracas, and Lewis and his group killed two of the Indians. That's the only occurrence of any killing of Indians.

For the most part they didn't have to walk along looking over their shoulder, wondering if Indians were going to attack. That just wasn't the case. Part of the reason they didn't have bad relations with the Indians was because the Indians saw that they were a party that had women and children along. They had Sacagawea and her child. She was a great assistance in that she alerted the groups that they were not a war party.

Describe the difference between the Shoshone Indians and the Nez Perce.

When they came into the Rocky Mountains the first group of Indians they met were the Shoshones. When they met the Shoshones, they found them in very poor circumstances. They were in starving conditions. Now this has to do with two or three things. The Shoshones had gained horses, but they hadn't gained guns. The Blackfeet Indians had gained guns and were really beating up on the Shoshones and other Rocky Mountain Indians to the point that the Shoshones could not come down into the plains and hunt the buffalo like they usually did. So they lost a great source of food, and they were suffering because of it. So they were all in fear of being attacked by the Blackfeet. As a matter of fact, when Lewis and Clark came up to meet the Shoshone, they came racing down thinking that perhaps they were Blackfeet Indians who were out on some war party.

The Nez Perce were entirely different. They, too, crossed the Rocky Mountains and hunted on the plains, but they had better resources in their own neighborhood. They were a salmon culture, and they relied on the camas root and salmon for most of their sustenance. So they were quite a bit better off than the Shoshones because they hadn't been hit upon so much by the Blackfeet enemy.

How much of the time were they on an actual trail and how much of the time were they just bush whacking?

A lot of the trail was water borne -the Missouri River and the Columbia River- so that was a trail. When they were in the Bitterroot mountains, when they were in the Rocky mountains or when they were off the boats and going cross-land, then they did, many times, follow Indian trails, or they had Indian assistants guiding them along acknowledged Indian trails. We shouldn't think of that as a single line of march, a trail or road like a modern highway. It was an "avenue of opportunity". Where ever you could find the least resistance to forward movement. That was it. So there would be all sorts of roads or trails.

How did they keep the journals from getting destroyed? What precautions did they use?

One precaution particularly at this point is very important, across the Bitterroot mountains, across the Lolo trail. They had about eighteen notebooks. They were like stenographer's notebooks that open end to end and are about one hundred fifty pages unlined sheets in which they simply wrote the events of the day. When the weather was good and everything was fine they must have stuck them in their vest pocket or back pocket and moved along. But when things got a little bit treacherous they had tin cases, tin waterproof cases, that they kept them in. So they would pull them out maybe two or three days later. That's why there's some disagreement in the journals perhaps about what day a particular incident happened. Because you're bringing your journal up to date, you think "did it happen Monday or did it happen Tuesday?"

When they started on the Lolo trail, the very day they started on the Lolo trail, Clark packed his notebook away and made a little temporary field notebook we call the elk skin bound journal. He took loose sheets of paper and some elk skin and then some sinew and sewed it together and made himself a little field book, and he kept his notes in there. Then later, we don't know exactly when, he must have transferred those rough notes into a more finished diary.

Some people believe that this was their method throughout the expedition, that they had field books and finished books. I'm of the opinion that this was a special circumstance that was only done this one time. That says something again about the difficulties of the Lolo trail. They took extra precautions under those circumstances.

Why should we care about the journey of Lewis and Clark?

I think it's important because it's sort of our Western epic. It's our epic of exploration. It's the thing that most people look to as saying, how did we gain this vast continent that the United States has today? People would date it from Lewis and Clark. We were an Eastern or seaboard nation at that point, and the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark's exploration and claims to the Northwest helped fulfill the destiny of the nation. So I think people take pride in that.

Group standing in the snow
"The Hog Heaven Muzzleloaders
dress up in period costume."

They also take pride in the fact that Lewis and Clark could accomplish this without a great deal of rancor, or without a great deal of problems on the expedition. It was a success in almost every way. As I mentioned two Indians were killed. Only one member of the party died on the whole trip. He died of a ruptured appendix near the start of the expedition. Had he been in Philadelphia or New York or Boston he would have as surely died there,, and he would have had about the same treatment as Lewis and Clark gave him.

So the success of the expedition, the camaraderie, the commonness of purpose, the epic dimensions of the expedition all come together to make it such a popular story for the American people.


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