Why Lewis Was Silent

One of the great mysteries of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is why Meriwether Lewis did not keep a steady journal. The expedition was on the road for 28 months, much of it through terra incognita—lands never before mapped, named, or written about by European-derived people. Lewis was silent for 441 days, more than half the time. Fortunately, we have Clark’s journal, and those of John Ordway, Patrick Gass, Joseph Whitehouse and, for a time, Charles Floyd. So we do have some written record of every single day of the expedition between 1804 and 1806. Still, nobody wishes Meriwether Lewis had written less. Everyone who has ever studied the expedition wishes that Lewis had somehow managed to write a journal entry for every single day.

I have argued in my book The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness, that Lewis’s silences, before, during, and especially after the expedition were what killed him. If he had kept in touch with his patron and mentor Thomas Jefferson, things would have gone better for him. If he had kept in touch with the War Department in James Madison’s administration he probably would not have been rebuked by Secretary of War William Eustis in August 1809. That rebuke was so severe that it effectively disintegrated Lewis’s sense of himself, as well as effectively bankrupted him, and it precipitated his fatal journey from today’s Memphis, Tennessee, along the Natchez Trace in October 1809. Almost everyone agrees that Lewis committed suicide at a squalid hut on the Natchez Trace on October 11, 1809. If Lewis had written his book, he would have been able to face Jefferson, who had been pressuring him to get it into print, and he would have been able to offer it as proof to his critics in the Madison administration that he had been doing something worthier than corresponding with War Department accountants during 1808 and 1809.

It was the silence that killed him.

So if we had Lewis before us today, and he had no reason to withhold information or distort the truth as he knew it, how would he explain his silences in the expedition’s journals and his failures of communication as the governor of Upper Louisiana in St. Louis?

I’ve spent a significant part of my life portraying Meriwether Lewis, so I have had the challenging opportunity of trying to see the world through his eyes. I don’t just come at this from the outside in, but also, to a certain degree, from the inside out.

I think he would say this first:

You try doing what I did and see if you keep a daily diary. First, I lead a dangerous reconnaissance mission into the heart of darkness not knowing from day to day what lies around the next bend in the river, how high and wide the Rocky Mountains are going to be, how I am going to feed thirty-some twenty-somethings who eat five or six or eight pounds of animal flesh per day, in a seething wilderness without a shop or convenience store between St. Louis and the Pacific Ocean, and as it turns out none there either.

You try holding all of this together.

You meet more than fifty Indian tribes, none of whose languages you speak and none of them knowing English, never quite knowing whether they are going to feed you, kill you in one fell swoop, or send out snipers to cut you down one by one on the river. You fend off gazillions of mosquitoes, gnats, and flies, walk three thousand miles over sharp rocks and prickly pear cactus in inadequate footwear, spend day after day up to your armpits in rivers swollen with spring runoff that was still mountain snow two weeks ago.

You try spending hundreds of hours trying to determine latitude and longitude by looking at the moons of Jupiter through a small telescope no better than a pair of binoculars, two, three, four times in the middle of the night, wind whipping the plains, or at 43 below at Fort Mandan. You take the temperature twice a day—dawn and mid-afternoon—for the hyper-disciplined and fastidious Jefferson. You try to take down vocabularies of all the Indian tribes you meet when the translation chain sometimes involves three or four individuals, none of them professional linguists and some of them not much more than buffoons, filling in Mr. Jefferson’s printed grid of 250 words such as birth, death, sun, moon, stars, but also mammoth.

You go out every day and dig up prairie plants all the way down to their deepest roots, press them in blotter paper, describe every detail with scientific precision, affix labels in an age before post its, and open those blotters constantly to make sure the plants are pressing properly and not molding from the rains and the dunkings.

You fend off buffalo stampeding through your camp at night and grizzly bears that would just as soon rip open your bowels as give you right of way. You try butchering your elk or bison in the field and then eating it within an hour of the slaughter, when the muscle tissue is still quivering, and the butchers are covered with blood head to foot without soap or moist towelettes. You give thirty horny young men a temperance lecture so that they don’t all get STDs that would debilitate them from the sheer hard work that will be required to get your men, map, and notes back to civilization intact. You handle all that accumulating testosterone in the middle of nowhere without any of the social and familial support and restraining mechanisms that you could count on in the merest frontier village—the belching, swearing, bickering, chattering, snoring, and farting men, some of them screw-ups, one of them always getting lost, several men with the kind of dark spirits you only meet on a very long adventure.

And you try to get the entire crew back to St. Louis from the shores of the Pacific Ocean when you are bankrupt, with all of your remaining trade goods—some rusty fishhooks, needles, and broken beads--contained in two faded handkerchiefs, whereas you had 16 large bales of trade goods on the outbound journey.

And you are asking me why I didn’t find time every day to keep a dear diary?

I think that is what he would say, and he would have a similar tale to tell about the post-expedition silences. Jefferson asking his FORMER aide-de-camp, now a national hero, to go to Richmond to observe the Aaron Burr treason trial, while Lewis should be writing his book, or making Lewis run a bunch of errands—like getting a pocket watch fixed—in Philadelphia. And then appointing Lewis to a political post as far from the Enlightenment world of Philadelphia as it was possible to be, one to which Lewis was not really well qualified, in a miasma of overlapping sovereignties, ethnicities, land claims systems, languages, social hierarchies, intrigues, and of course—on the far western frontier—a petri dish of rogues and scoundrels, including a lieutenant with a lethal case of subordinate envy and betrayal. And then ask Lewis to find a way—pay any price, bear any burden—to get the Mandan leader Sheheke home after his visit to the Great Father—you try it against Arikara hostility and the penny-pinching of Madison’s War Department.

But meanwhile finish your three volume Enlightenment report on the geography, geology, celestial astronomy, botany, mineralogy, mammalogy, soil science, and anthropology of the expedition—all that in St. Louis, a raw frontier town of 3,000 people of at least five ethnic and linguistic stocks, 886 miles from the intellectual and printing capital of the United States in Philadelphia, and 4,205 miles from the English speaking world’s printing capital in London.

You try it.

Did Lewis fail? Yes and no, but no more than yes. He made sure there was a journal entry for every day of the voyage. He got his men out to the Pacific coast and back again safely, with only one death among his party, and that from natural causes early on. He avoided bloodshed with all but one of the Indian tribes he met, sometimes in spite of significant provocation. He brought back what we would call an artifact and database so rich in material that we are still analyzing the materials more than 200 years later. It was Jefferson who lost almost all of the 29 Indian vocabularies that Lewis painstakingly assembled--you try taking down a vocabulary of a people who speak languages not in the Indo-European language tradition. And it was Jefferson who refused to authorize a national museum without first having paid off the national debt and amended the constitution for such exigencies, so that most, virtually ALL, of the incredible artifacts that Lewis sent or brought back to civilization were subsequently lost, burned, or dispersed.

These failures are on Jefferson not Lewis.

And, as Stephen Ambrose and every thoughtful Lewis scholar concludes, if Jefferson had just sat Lewis down in the East Room or in a flat in Philadelphia, with an amanuensis, some scientific consultants, and a book production budget, rather than posting him into the sordid cauldron of far western frontier politics, Lewis would almost certainly have written his book. Or he might have.

I can scarcely keep up a diary in my climate-controlled house on the upper Missouri, with adequate footwear and the best moleskin journal, while I know where my next meals are going to come from and I have never had a visceral encounter with a grizzly bear.

We need to cut poor Meriwether Lewis some slack.