Portents

By the time they left Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, they had filled in many of the blanks in the map that Albert Gallatin had hired Nicholas King to assemble especially for them, from the latest information about the Northwest. Or they believed they had. But there were steadily darkening portents of uncertainty, confusion and disappointment on the horizon. First was the elusive "River that Scolds All Others," then the mystery at the Marias, the one-become-five falls of the Missouri, and the long anxiety over when, or even whether, they would find Sacagawea's people. The slow, silent crumbling of the theory that the "Shining Mountains" would prove to be narrow and low, climaxed by that shocking and surely unforgettable moment when Lewis first peered over the ridge dividing the Missouri from the Columbia. And then the Indians' "best" road across the Bitterroots, "those tremendious Mountanes," would be the expedition's worst road of all.

Finally, there was that long, day-by-day disintegration of the centuries-old vision of a riverine Passage Through the Garden: There wasn't any. By mid-July of 1806 the transmountain portage would prove to be 340 tortuous miles long . . . by the shortest way. Never mind the hairbreadth escapes from death or disaster; the cold, hunger and illness; or any of the countless other tests of human endurance. Or the embarrassment of "the experiment"—Lewis's portable iron-framed boat. Or the intimidations and hostilities of some powerful and numerous Indians on the Missouri and the Columbia. The very land they had come to explore and claim seemed to be against them.

From the outset Lewis had the best interests of his friend, mentor and commander-in-chief at heart. At Cincinnati, on his way down the Ohio in the fall of 1803—still expecting to spend the coming winter somewhere up the lower Missouri—he had written to Jefferson of his concerns, and his own plan of action.

As this session of Congress has commenced earlyer than usual, and as from a variety of incidental circumstances my progress has been unexpectedly delayed, and feeling as I do in the most anxious manner a wish to keep them in a good humour on the subject of the expedicion in which I am engaged, I have concluded to make a tour this winter on horseback of some hundred miles through the most interesting portion of the country adjoining my winter establishment.

He was thinking of looking around in the direction of Santa Fe, the trade center in New Spain that beckoned more men, perhaps, than the beaver lodges of the Northwest. He would even send his co-captain off in another direction, confident that the two of them would gain valuable information "which, if it dose not produce a conviction of the utility of this project, will at least procure the further toleration of the expedition."1

The President had fired back a decisively negative but confidently reassuring reply: "you must not undertake the winter excursion which you propose." It would be more dangerous that the assigned route, "& would, by an accident to you, hazard our main object, which, since the acquisition of Louisiana, interests everybody in the highest degree." Furthermore, he considered the expedition double-manned, and thus more assured of success, "for which reason neither of you should be exposed to risques by going off of your line." Besides, he had added, it seemed certain that Congress would approve his plan to send expeditions up other rivers of the Missouri and Mississippi, to establish points "in the contour of our new limits." He restated his original directive: "The object of your mission is single, the direct water communication from sea to sea formed by the bed of the Missouri & perhaps the Oregon."2

But by September 20, 1805, when they arrived at Weippe Prairie on the west slope of the Bitterroot Mountains, Lewis and Clark had consummated their most significant discovery of all, that the president's overriding premise had been wrong, and so his rationale for the entire expedition was inherently flawed. There was no Northwest Passage by water; and the portage they found took much longer than a day. The political repercussions from that alone could be immensely embarrassing to Jefferson.

Something had to be done.

Reviewed by Prof. Albert Furtwangler


1. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783–1854 (2nd ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:131.

2. Ibid., 137.