Captain Lewis's Magic Stick
Robert R. Hunt
Reprinted by permission from We Proceeded On
Vol. 16, No. 1 (February 1990), 12-17
Photo by Michael Carrick
When Lewis and Clark crossed the Mississippi in 1804, they were acting out the manifest destiny of a "westering people." There were moments on this journey, however, when destiny was not quite so "manifest." Particularly on a few close calls when the life of Meriwether Lewis was left swaying in the balance and thereby also the fate of the Expedition. Several of these anxious moments were associated with an implement which Lewis referred to in his journal as an "espontoon," i.e., a half pike commonly carried by an eighteenth century infantry officer.1
"Espontoon" is also the term used to describe the policeman's night stick in Baltimore, Maryland.2 Just how the Baltimore night stick came to be identified with a halfpike, such as used by Lewis, remains a mystery. Suffice to say that the city authorities of Baltimore regard their version of the espontoon just as Meriwether Lewis regarded the infantry version—as an essential piece of equipment on the officer's "beat," carried to protect and save life.
On Lewis's "beat" to the Pacific and back, the espontoon may have been as omnipresent as the night stick is today with the Baltimore police. It seems to have served Lewis as a comforting "rod and staff" while he walked along some of the darker pathways of his journey. So much so that the espontoon may be considered his "trademark" or symbol, just as the surveyor's transit is a trademark for Clark, the mapmaker. This identification has been "monumentalized" in Bob Scriver's heroic-size statue, unveiled July 4, 1989, at Great Falls, Montana. Lewis is presented there as the party leader, grasping his espontoon, looking out across the Missouri above the Falls where his espontoon had served him so well on June 14, 1805.
In Scriver's setting, the implement may come as a surprise to the modern-day viewer who may not be familiar with the lore of the Expedition. What is Captain Lewis of the First Infantry, USA, doing up there carrying an ancient spear? Is this really the progressive-minded American officer of the early nineteenth century, the Infantry captain so intent on providing himself and his party with the best field equipment of the time, standing there, seemingly dependent upon a primitive weapon of another age? Why indeed did Lewis take the espontoon on his journey? A partial answer is that he was probably conditioned to rely on it during his first tour of duty as a young ensign. Both Lewis and Clark had served under General Anthony Wayne earlier in their careers, in the Ohio Valley campaigns of the 1790's. Wayne was a strict disciplinarian who required intensive training of his junior officers; he was also a champion of the espontoon. One of the most vivid images of him in the Revolution is at the capture of Stoney Point, July 15, 1779. He is reported to have charged "with espontoon in hand up the rocky slopes of the Point."3
I myself continued to direct [the battle] even after I had rec'd my wound— & that at the point of my Spear—I at least helpt to direct the greater part of the Column over the Abatis and into the Works.4
But the espontoon had a much wider use than as a mere signaling device; it was both an offensive and defensive weapon. General Wayne took care to requisition enough of these weapons for each of his junior officers prior to starting his offensive.
1. The Oxford English Dictionary (1961).
2. Random House Dictionary of the English Language (New York, 1967). See also Helmut Nickel, Warriors and Worthies: Arms and Armor Through the Ages (New York: Atheneum, 1969), 119: "SPONTOON: a polearm developed from the partizan (a polearm with a wide double-edged blade and short parrying hooks); worn by eighteenth century officers as a badge of rank."
3. Paul David Nelson, Anthony Wayne, Soldier of the Early Republic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 98.
4. Glenn Tucker, Mad Anthony Wayne and the New Nation (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1973), 158.