Book Excerpt

Christmas 1804

Excerpt from
The Character of Meriwether Lewis:
Explorer in the Wilderness

by Clay S. Jenkinson

From chapter three:
"Birthdays, Holidays, Anniversaries"

Christmas 1804

The best Christmas of the expedition occurred at Fort Mandan, where Lewis and Clark spent a total of 146 nights. The Mandan leader Sheheke-shote had made good on his November 1, 1804, promise, "[I]f we eat you Shall eat, if we Starve you must Starve also." In their Estimate of the Eastern Indians, Lewis and Clark singled out the Mandan for special praise: "These are the most friendly, well disposed Indians inhabiting the Missouri. They are brave, humane and hospitable."

Construction of the fort had begun on November 3, 1804. The two ranges of living quarters were ready to be roofed by November 11. The captains moved into their quarters on November 13. Sensing the severity of the winter that was about to envelop the northern Great Plains, the men worked until 1 A.M. on November 15-16 in an attempt to finish the living quarters, and on November 16, "all the men move into the huts which is not finsihd," Clark reported. The huts were not completely roofed until November 27. Work on the security pickets had begun on or slightly before December 20, and was completed on Christmas Eve. Somehow the Corps of Discovery always managed to complete its winter forts just in time for Christmas.

For all the secularity of the expedition, and its status as a military endeavor, Christmas at Fort Mandan had something of the feel of a scene out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. Patrick Gass reported that on Christmas Eve, "Flour, dried apples, pepper and other articles were distributed in the different messes to enable them to celebrate Christmas in a proper and social manner." These precious items had traveled in the larder of the expedition for 1,610 river miles under conditions that must have compromised their integrity again and again. The flour, pepper, and apples were at least seven months old. It would be interesting to know when the men of the expedition had last tasted flour or apples. It was an act of extraordinary leadership and generosity of spirit for the captains to do what they could to make Christmas special at the far northwestern outpost of American civilization just as the men completed Fort Mandan. At some point between May and late December 1804, probably later rather than sooner, the captains must have discussed Christmas and determined how to celebrate the traditional holiday, if at all. It's hard to think of Lewis leading that discussion. Once they decided to observe Christmas, the captains must have gone through a mental checklist of just what they had left to distribute that was not already part of their regular mess routine. They settled on flour, pepper, dried apples, and what might be called the special reserve supply of spirits. These luxury items were more than just Christmas treats. They were precious tokens of civilization offered to exhausted and homesick men, deep in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from any possibility of resupply. Native Americans had known how to grind corn meal for centuries, of course, but no wheat had ever been grown in America before the Columbian exchange. Crab apples were ubiquitous in the temperate zones of North America, but large domesticated apples of the kind we take for granted would have existed only as far west as St. Louis and the villages that clustered near the mouth of the Missouri River. Several hundred years before the journey of Lewis and Clark, pepper—now so common as to be wholly unremarkable—had been one of the catalysts for the discovery of North America. The humble Christmas meal at Fort Mandan was not quite, as Lewis later put it, "the repast that the hand of civilization" might have prepared, but it was in its own way more impressive. It was a repast that the hand of civilization could carry more than 1,500 miles up the Missouri River under very unstable traveling conditions in a leaky vessel manned by almost fifty voraciously hungry young men. Even though Lewis and Clark were on the far edge of the known world on Christmas 1804, they had brought a few items from the known world with them. It could not have failed to hearten everyone who was present that day. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a military mission, but it was also more than that. It was already a traveling community, and it would become—at certain times and in some limited respects—what even Lewis came to call "the best [of] families."

At this point in the journey, there was still an abundance of alcohol. Gass wrote, "Captain Clarke . . . presented to each man a glass of brandy, and we hoisted the American flag in the garrison, and its first waving in fort Mandan was celebrated with another glass.—" The fort was now complete, everyone was healthy, the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians were friendly, food was abundant, and the Corps of Discovery was wintering in a dry—if appallingly cold—climate. "The men then cleared out one of the rooms and commenced dancing," Gass wrote. It was a mild winter day on the northern Great Plains. The captains recorded that it was 15 degrees above zero Fahrenheit at sunrise, snow falling, but a balmy 20 degrees above at 4 P.M., no longer snowing but cloudy. Assuming that the wind was not fierce, this was a great winter day, not quite warm enough to hold the dance outside, but balmy enough to enable the men to wander about the Fort Mandan compound quite comfortably during the course of the day. Clark, for example, noted that some of the men "went out to hunt." Two weeks earlier the temperature had been so cold that Clark did "not think it prudent to turn out to hunt in Such Cold weather, or at least untill our Consts. are prepared to under go this Climate." Consts. = physical constitutions.

"At 10 o'clock," Gass reported, "we had another glass of brandy, and at 1 a gun was fired as a signal for dinner. At half past 2, another gun was fired, as a notice to assemble at the dance, which was continued in a jovial manner till 8 at night."

Gass noted that the joviality of the dance was diminished by the absence of ladies. It was Gass who paused, at the end of the Fort Mandan winter, to tantalize his readers with an invocation of the conventions of epic romance. "[S]ome readers will perhaps expect," he wrote on April 5, 1805, that, "we ought to be prepared now, when we are about to renew our voyage, to give some account of the fair sex of the Missouri; and entertain them with narratives of feats of love as well as of arms." Gass, or his editor David McKeehan, may have been thinking of the opening books of Vergils Aeneid, in which the hero Aeneas almost forgets his mission and his destiny when he encounters the Carthaginian queen Dido, who is everything he desires, but not what he needs, in a woman. Gass made it clear that he could provide his readers such titillation if he wished to, but then retreated behind the high seriousness of the Enlightenment. "Though we could furnish a sufficient number of entertaining stories and pleasant anecdotes, we do not think it prudent to swell our Journal with them; as our views are directed to more useful information." On Christmas, however, Gass lamented that the men were "without the presence of any females, except three squaws, wives to our interpreter, who took no other part than the amusement of looking on." Whitehouse reported that the Indian women "took no part with us only to look on." The three women were almost certainly Rene Jusseaume's Mandan wife, who later made the long journey to Washington, DC, to meet President Jefferson; and Toussaint Charbonneau's two wives, both Shoshone, one named Otter Woman and the other, of course, the famous Sacagawea. It is amusing, as Lewis might put it, to imagine this Christmas scene. One of the 12x14 foot rooms of Fort Mandan cleared out so that the men could dance. Somewhere in the corner of the room at least one of the fiddlers, probably Pierre Cruzatte. Whitehouse said that both fiddlers played, and though he did not mention them, he surely meant Cruzatte and George Gibson. He may have been exaggerating when he said the expedition had "Two Violins & plenty of Musicians." When Bernard DeVoto later imagined this scene, he envisioned "the voyageur Cruzatte, a mighty waterman, who played this irrecoverable Christmas music on a fiddle, while the fires blazed and the north wind howled round the fort. Boating songs, probably, and minuets and carols that had crossed the Atlantic to New France and traveled the rivers for two centuries, to be song never more incongruously than at the Mandan villages."

It is hard to imagine that more than a fraction of the men could have crowded into the dance room at any one time. The three Indian women must have been tucked away along one of the walls. Sacagawea was seven and a half months pregnant. Just what they thought of this holiday and alcohol-heightened conviviality, the white folks' big medicine day, is not recorded, but this simple tableau is one of those little known but priceless glimpses into the inner workings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. "None of the natives came to the garrison this day; the commanding officers having requested they should not, which was strictly attended to," Gass wrote. John Ordway explained their request by way of one of the few religious references in the expedition's journals. "[T]he Savages did not Trouble us," he wrote, "as we had requested them not to come as it was a Great medician day with us." Ordway's account ends with a sentence worthy of Charles Dickens: "[W]e enjoyed a merry cristmas dureing the day & evening untill nine oClock—all in peace & quietness." Ordway emerges in the journals as a thoughtful and decent man, with an understated but clear sense of respect and filial piety.

Dickens, by the way, had not been born in 1805—he made his appearance in 1812, when John Ordway was trying to pick up the shattered pieces of his life in the wake of the gargantuan New Madrid earthquake. The author of A Christmas Carol (1843) and the marvelous Christmas episode in the Pickwick Papers (1836-37) would develop a long and fascinating relationship with America. Dickens visited America twice, once from January 22 to June 7, 1842, and again from November 19, 1867 to April 22, 1868. On the second trip, Dickens ventured as far west as St. Louis. By then William Clark had been dead for twenty-nine years. Britain's greatest novelist did not like America or its brash and restless citizens. "I do not know the American gentleman," Dickens once famously quipped. "God forgive me for putting two such words together."

Joseph Whitehouse insisted that the special issue of alcohol was brandy not whiskey. He reported that the day began at 7 A.M. with a volley of small arms and the "discharge of our Swivels." At 1 P.M., "our Cannon was fir'd off, as a signal for dinner," and at 2:30 P.M. "we fired off our Cannon, and repaired to the Room to dance." Lots of ordinance on the white folks' big medicine day. One wonders what the Mandan people concluded.

Such was Christmas 1804 at Fort Mandan. The journals of that day—written by Clark, John Ordway, Patrick Gass, and Joseph Whitehouse—are remarkable for what they mention, but even more remarkable for what they never mention. There is not a single reference in any journal to Meriwether Lewis. Clark said, "I was awakened before Day by a discharge of 3 platoons from the Party and the french. . . ." Not we, but I. "[T]he men merrily Disposed," Clark wrote, "I give them all a little Tafia." No mention of the expedition's commander. Ordway reported that "our officers Gave the party a drink of Taffee," but he made no specific mention of Lewis. Gass was more precise: "Captain Clarke then presented to each man a glass of brandy." Whitehouse concurred. In fact, Whitehouse implied that Clark emerged from the captains' quarters, but not his partner in discovery. "Captain Clark came out of his quarters, and presented a Glass of Brandy to each Man of our party." Later, "he presented them again with another Glass of brandy."

Where was Lewis? Did he spend the day alone in his hut? Did he appear in the morning with Clark, but hold back while Clark administered the gift of spirits? Did Lewis attend the dance? Did he take part in the Christmas feast? Did he greet the men at any point in the day? Even if Lewis was present at some or all of these activities, it is significant that the lesser journal keepers mentioned only Clark, not the actual leader of the expedition. We would give a great deal for Lewis's account of Christmas Day 1804. We would give even more to anyone who could provide a full account of Christmas 1804 with particular attention to the social dynamics of the day, a description of the religious rituals that took place, if any, an account of the conversations that transpired between the three Indian women as they watched all of this unfold, a report of the whereabouts and disposition of Charbonneau, and a summary of the actions and words of Meriwether Lewis, if he emerged from his quarters at all. We have a pretty full account of Christmas Day 1804 at Fort Mandan, but the journals that we have increase, rather than quench, our hunger for an authentic understanding of what really unfolded within the walls of Fort Mandan—on that and on many other occasions.