I’ve been thinking about Lewis and Clark, dispatched into the wilderness by President Jefferson, who lived his long and productive life at a very high level of comfort. It’s impossible to imagine Jefferson roughing it. The closest he ever came, probably, was his first years in the White House, when it was still unfinished—not even proper entrance stairs—and Washington, DC was an tenuous outpost in the Potomac wilderness. Or perhaps once or twice during his trip through southern France in 1787, because he was traveling incognito, not wishing his status as American ambassador to damage the experience with formal receptions, keys to the city, and the other pointless and unproductive rituals of power. Still, as he approached villages along the way, he sent his French servant ahead to make arrangements, so I doubt he was ever given a rollaway in the annex. It’s impossible to imagine Jefferson camping, unless you conjure up a picture of one of those Henry V royal jousting tournament tents, with a wine steward and a chef, and a wall of books, and perhaps a string quartet. Lewis and Clark’s half blind musician Pierre Cruzatte never got to play the violin for Mr. Jefferson at Monticello, but I don’t really see Jefferson tapping his feet or skipping the light fandango to someone who might best be called a fiddler.
Meanwhile, Meriwether Lewis, who had lived for two years in the White House before the immense journey, was out in the middle of nowhere trying to propel a party of 32 men and one woman ten to twenty miles per day in the direction of the Pacific Ocean. The only really civilized individual he could talk with during those 28 months was William Clark, who was exceedingly able, practical, and intelligent, but not an intellectual. He was a frontiersman of Kentucky, the best man in the world to take on practical tasks one after the next, to accomplish them without fanfare, and to write them up with some of the worst spelling in exploration history.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition represented a provisioning challenge, at times a provisioning nightmare along the lines of the film Apollo 13. You can never take everything you are going to need, so you know from the start that you are going to run out of key supplies and you are going to have to make do using your wits and whatever you can gather in the woods. Think of Clark as MacGyver. Take boots, for example. If I were going on a 7,689 mile hike, I would lay in a supply of the best footwear I could afford. The men of the expedition undoubtedly started out with good boots, but by the time they got to the Pacific Coast in November 1805, those boots were all either gone or on life support, and no duct tape in the tool box. One of their men, Joseph Whitehouse, knew something about tailoring—or let us say skin dressing—and he supervised at Fort Clatsop the frontier manufacture of 338 pairs of mockersins. That’s 676 moccasins, hand stitched with sinew and awls. I have an image of a little Fort Clatsop crafting seminar with Whitehouse explaining to the men how to measure their feet, cut rawhide, and stick a sharp awl through two layers of leather, without jabbing your hands, which, by the way, you invariably do. I can see Toussaint Charbonneau heckling and mouthing off, gruffly asserting that he ain’t doing no woman’s work, and so on, while his wife Sacagawea quietly turns out a perfect pair of beaded moccasins in fifteen minutes. Since there were 33 in the permanent traveling party, that’s ten pair per person to get home to St. Louis, where—you can bet—one of the first things everyone did was find a shoe story. One observer in St. Louis said they returned liked characters out of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Boots are just a metaphor for all that was missing by January 1, 1806. They had run out of whiskey on the Fourth of July 1805 at the Great Falls. They were nearly out of tobacco, which apparently was the fuel that got men to drag 60,000 pounds of gear towards the sunset. Whatever cloth clothing they had once had was long since gone. Lewis had to trade his fancy officer’s coat for a canoe at one point and he threw a little hissy fit—said (you can hear the wounded pomposity): “I think the U’ States are indebted to me another Uniform coat, for that of which I have disposed on this occasion was but little woarn.”
To summarize. Lewis and Clark left St. Louis on May 14, 1804, in full military regalia, with the maximum moveable payload of things they would need to complete their epic journey. As they ascended what Lewis called the “heretofore deemed endless Missouri” River, they used, used up, lost, gave away, and broke most of what they started out with, until, by the time they reached the source of the Missouri River on August 12, 1805, they had shed layer after layer of the thin integument of “civilization,” and they were now reduced to what King Lear called “unaccommodated man,” what Lear, in his madness, called a “poor bare forked animal.” Lewis himself observed that he had been transformed by the journey from a highly civilized man, friend of the president, member of the American Philosophical Society, Freemason, United States Army Officer, into what he called “a perfect Indian.” He said he was “completely metamorphosed” in the American West. This was not said with glee.
By the time the expedition moved into Fort Clatsop just before Christmas 1805, Lewis’s spiritual energy was largely spent. His mind was now fixated on just a couple of propositions. First, would they encounter some sort of trading vessel in the bays near the mouth of the Columbia River, from which he could resupply the expedition (gifts for Indians, footwear, cloth clothing, twists of tobacco, whiskey, salt, a couple of thermometers, a compass, ink). He had in his possession a universal letter of credit with the seal of the United States supplied by the ingenious President of the United States. Second, what was the minimum amount of time they would have to stay in the vicinity of the Pacific Ocean to maximum their chances of encountering that trade vessel—it did not matter what country’s flag it was flying--but also the minimum amount of time the Bitterroot Mountains would require to melt enough of the winter snowpack for them to punch through on their home journey. This last puzzle turned out to be one of the most frustrating challenges of the whole journey. And third, how could the men (and one women) of the Corps of Discovery occupy themselves through a lean winter in a rain drenched place in a way that kept up their physical strength if possible, prevented them from the kind of cabin fever that could lead to quarreling or worse, and not lose their team spirit for what was apparently going to be a very, very, very long return journey, this time without even minimally adequate gear. They were really counting on that trade ship, and they were not going to meet one.
All that must serve as background to Meriwether Lewis’s New Year’s Day journal entry at Fort Clatsop.
This morning I was awoke at an early hour by the discharge of a volley of small arms, which were fired by our party in front of our quarters to usher in the new year; this was the only mark of rispect which we had it in our power to pay this celebrated day. our repast of this day tho' better than that of Christmass, consisted principally in the anticipation of the 1st day of January 1807, when in the bosom of our friends we hope to participate in the mirth and hilarity of the day, and when the zest given by the recollection of the present, we shall completely, both mentally and corporally, enjoy the repast which the hand of civilization has prepared for us. at present we were content with eating our boiled Elk and wappetoe, and solacing our thirst with our only beverage pure water.
Poor homesick Meriwether Lewis. He wrote this journal entry as far from Philadelphia, Charlottesville, Monticello, and the White House as it was possible to be and still be in North America. He’s writing in hand-crafted mockersins, at a desk hewn for him by the expedition’s crude carpenters, in a miserable hut without glass windows, with a smoky fire in the crude fireplace, because the wood is wet of course, and if he needs to use the bathroom, well there is an army-regulation pit about 50 yards from the fort.
His dinner is lean, half-rancid boiled elk (yum), and an insipid freshwater swamp potato known as the wappato root, dug up by Indian women with their feet as they stand in the swamps. You have to decide the tone of his last phrase, “solacing our thirst with our only beverage, pure water.” Is he in near-suicidal despair? Is he merely feeling sorry for himself? Is he providing some cheerful and bemused commentary on their destitute state? Or is he quietly reveling in the severe deprivations of the true hero, the authentic explorer who has recently marched 2,000 miles over a “country on which the foot of civilized man has never trod.”
We don’t quite know. What we do know is that Lewis is thinking about Thomas Jefferson’s annual New Year’s Day reception at the White House. Lewis has participated in at least one of those splendid gatherings, perhaps two. And he is determined to be at the January 1, 1807, White House party: champagne, four or five or even seven different types of wine, a fabulous array of desserts, pies, sweetmeats, cold cuts, and maybe even Jefferson’s celebrated baked Alaska, a hot puff pastry which, when you cut into it, reveals a creamy ball of frozen ice cream. Oh my, bring it, and I think perhaps I’ll pass on the wappato casserole, Mr. President.
Who would not want to share in Thomas Jefferson’s hospitality, now or then, his exquisite sense of taste, his fussy insistence on the finest European wines that could be procured in the United States in 1807, his graciousness, plus music by the Marine Corps Band (which Jefferson has made his own), and perhaps even a bit of whatever was left of the World’s Largest Cheese. Women in beautiful dresses with early 19th century cleavage. Conversations with Senators, scientists, philosophers, and even America’s Da Vinci himself, the Third President of the United States, the honorable Thomas Jefferson.
Who wouldn’t be homesick. Have another glass of pure water, Captain Lewis. Time is now on your side.