Okay, folks, I have a confession to make: I’m a history geek. I love the stuff.
Especially American history. I can’t remember when I wasn’t an aficionado of our great nation’s past. Even as far back as the third grade, I was reading every American history book I could lay my hands on. I actually used to bring my history textbooks home from school…to read for fun!!!
Recently, early 19th century American history (1800-1815) has held special fascination for me. This is the period when the Louisiana Purchase more than doubled the geographic size of the United States, and the War of 1812 settled once and for all America’s independent standing among the nations of the world.
One particular historical event during that period is especially intriguing: the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. Why the fascination? After reading Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose’s magnificent biography of Meriwether Lewis, I became convinced that the Lewis and Clark expedition stands as one of the greatest voyages of discovery ever – equal in significance to the travels of Marco Polo; the sea voyages of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and James Cook; and the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
The Lewis and Clark expedition is also one of the best documented trips ever; between them, these two explorers penned seven volumes’ worth of information about their journey. Certainly a daunting reading assignment for anyone! I wanted to read the explorers’ own account of their “Voyage of Discovery,” but I didn’t want to get bogged down in a multi-volume reading project.
Not long ago, I found a one-volume abridgment of The Journals of Lewis and Clark that is outstanding in every way. Edited by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bernard DeVoto (1897-1955), it allowed me to satisfy my historical curiosity and gain a fuller understanding of this great historical and scientific achievement.
Lewis and Clark’s expedition began in 1804, taking the 33-person Corps of Discovery from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific Ocean and back again (a distance of approximately 8,000 miles). Captain Meriwether Lewis, the commander of the Corps of Discovery, had been instructed by President Thomas Jefferson to keep a journal. In it, he was to keep a record of events, scientific observations, measurements of latitude and longitude, and information about the native tribes the expedition encountered along the way. Both Lewis and his co-commander, Lieutenant William Clark, followed Jefferson’s instructions, for the most part with great diligence.
Lewis and Clark returned from their 30-month long expedition as national heroes. Jefferson expected Lewis to oversee the quick publication of the Journals, but Lewis, for a variety of reasons, disappointed the President. He was busy as governor of the Louisiana territory and engaged in a variety of private enterprises. He suffered from depression and alcoholism. In 1809, he died at age 35, presumably by his own hand. At his death, Lewis had not submitted so much as one page of the Journals in manuscript form to an editor. After Lewis’ presumed suicide, Clark teamed with editor Nicholas Biddle and completed a short, one-volume account of the expedition based on the Journals. Published in 1814, it contained none of the scientific data compiled during the expedition. Not until 1904 were The Journals of Lewis and Clark published in their entirety, with all of the explorers’ scientific observations included.
This abridgment of The Journals of Lewis and Clark begins with Bernard DeVoto’s well crafted and scholarly 60-page introduction that explains the historical background to the Lewis and Clark expedition. DeVoto then gets out of the way and allows Lewis, Clark, and, on occasion, other members of the Corps of Discovery, to convey in their own words the drama, excitement and high adventure of this magnificent undertaking. Many of their journal entries are memorable indeed. Who can forget Lewis’ joyful enthusiasm at seeing the Great Falls of the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains for the first time? Or the stirring way he tells the story of the only hostile action to occur between the Corps of Discovery and native Americans?
A vast amount of the more routine scientific data has been edited out of this edition, leaving behind Lewis and Clark’s outstanding narrative of the expedition’s key events. DeVoto does, however, keep in a few of the more famous scientific observations and descriptions of the physical terrain the band of explorers traversed. Lewis’ descriptions of the wildlife, plants, physical geography, and people he encountered along the route of the exploration show him to be a supremely gifted naturalist, perhaps one of the finest in history.
One note of caution: in this edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark, the explorers’ grammar and spelling are left almost completely intact. Both men had an excellent ability to narrate a story, but neither was particularly skilled at spelling and grammar. For me, this made for slow reading; however, it detracted very little from my overall enjoyment of the book.
This edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark is highly entertaining indeed. It’s an essential volume for those wish to read the explorers’ own words while avoiding the complete multi-volume version of this work. Read and enjoy!