Espontoon on the Trail

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The weapon was thus an integral part of a legacy from the British and Colonial Armies of the Revolution, passed on through Wayne and his peers to the Lewis and Clark generation—then regarded throughout the military as the "distinguishing arm of an officer" and a "symbol of authority." As such, the weapon must have been much in evidence in 1804 at Camp Dubois when the Corps of Discovery was being assembled and trained, and also on the voyage up river to Fort Mandan. These were the days of the Expedition when military protocol was prominently featured; records during the period mention parade ceremonies, courts-martial, disciplinary training, drill, etc.—occasions when officer-authority would be solemnized. Each of the captains carried an espontoon and would have displayed it according to custom whenever the Corps was in formation under arms, as well as in other ways noted later in the journals.

Curiously, there is no mention of the espontoon in expedition records until they reach winter quarters at the Mandans in present central North Dakota. There the implement is first noted as a reference in describing the Indian battle axe. On February 5, 1805, Lewis records the dimensions and shape of such an axe and makes a drawing, noting that the blade of the weapon "is somewhat in the form of the blade of an Espontoon."13

All later mentions of the espontoon occur in the crucial six-week period from early May to mid-June 1805; these references with one notable exception are all associated with "beastly" encounters: porcupines, bears, a rattlesnake, wolves, a "tyger cat," buffaloes—a series of potentially fatal incidents, "curious adventures," as Lewis described them.

That the espontoon figures in each of these "curious adventures" makes it a kind of fateful medicine stick, reminding us of climactic times in Lewis's life. Generally these events occurred when Lewis walked by himself in the wilderness. The espontoon gave him confidence alone in the field heading into the dangers and hazards ahead. Lewis reveals this in his journal entry of May 12, 1805:

I walked on shore this morning for the benifit of excersize which I much wanted, and also to examine the country and it's productions, in these excurtions I most generally went alone armed with my rifle and espontoon; thus equipped i feel myself more than an equal match for a brown bear provided I get him in open woods or near the water, but I feel myself a little deffident with respect to an attack in the open plains.14

This entry sounds like a reverberation of Washington's orders of December 22, 1777: "officers themselves derive great confidence from being armed [with the espontoon] in time of action."

Varieties of espontoon blades.

different shaped iron spear points

Concerning actual encounters where the espontoon is brought into play, each journal entry provides its own drama, great or small:

Lewis: May 5, 1805—near 2000-Mile Creek in present northeastern Montana: I walked out a little distance and met with 2 porcupines which were feeding on the young willow which grow in great abundance on all the sandbars this anamal is exceedingly clumsy and not very watchfull I approached so near one of them before it percieved me that I touched it with my espontoon.

Lewis: May 26, 1805—on one of his solitary walks after dark in present central Montana: On my return to camp I trod within five inches of a rattle snake but being in motion I passed before he could probably put himself in a striking attitude and fortunately escaped his bite, I struck about with my espontoon being directed in some measure by his nois untill I killed him.

On May 29, 1805, near Slaughter River (present Arrow Creek), also in present central Montana, we get our first record of Captain Clark's use of his espontoon. Lewis writes: "we saw a great many wolves in the neighbourhood of these mangled [buffalo] carcases they were fat and extreemly gentle, Capt. C. who was on shore killed one of them with his espontoon."

On June 14, 1805, at the falls of the Missouri, Lewis sets out alone at ten o'clock in the morning with his gun and espontoon to scout a series of rapids and the "Crooked Falls." Realizing after a long walk that he may not have time to get back to camp, he ponders the need for food and shelter alone in the wilderness at night. Then follows one of the most vivid scenes in the records of the Expedition when Lewis did indeed do a "great sign" with his spear:

a large white, or reather brown bear, had perceived and crept on me within 20 steps before I discovered him; in the first moment I drew up my gun to shoot, but at the same instant recolected that she was not loaded and that he was too near for me to hope to perform this opperation before he reached me, as he was then briskly advancing on me; it was an open level plain, not a bush within miles nor a tree within less than three hundred yards of me; the river bank was sloping and not more than three feet above the level of the water; in short there was no place by means of which I could conceal myself from this monster untill I could charge my rifle; in this situation I thought of retreating in a brisk walk as fast as he was advancing untill I could reach a tree about 300 yards below me, but I had no sooner terned myself about but he pitched at me, open mouthed and full speed, I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water the idea struck me to get into the water to such debth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon; accordingly i ran haistily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon, at this instant he arrived at the edge of the water within about 20 feet of me; the moment I put myself in this attitude of defence he sudonly wheeled about as if frightened, declined the combat on such unequal grounds, and retreated with quite as great precipitation as he had just before pursued me . . . I now began to reflect on this novil occurrence and indeavoured to account for this sudden retreat of the bear. I at first thought that perhaps he had not smelt me before he arrived att he waters edge so near me, but I then reflected that he had pursued me for about 80 or 90 yards before I took the water and on examination saw the grownd toarn with his tallons immediately on the impression of my steps; and the cause of his allarm still remains with me misterious and unaccountable.

Proceeding this far through the Journals with Lewis and his walking stick, the reader is tempted to scoff at Lewis's finding the sudden withdrawal of the bear as "misterious and unaccountable." The reason is apparent and "to the point": The bear simply could not confront such powerful medicine—Lewis as saved by the magic of his rod.

During the same day this wondrous implement again performs, and again it confronts a beast:

I now determined to return, having by my estimate about 12 miles to walk . . . about 200 yards distant from the Missouri, my direction led me directly to an anamal that I at first supposed was a wolf; but on nearer approach or about sixty paces distant I discovered that it was not, it's colour was a brownish yellow; it was standing near it's burrow, and when I approached it thus nearly, it couched itself down like a cat looking immediately at me as if it designed to spring on me. I took aim at it and fired, it instantly disappeared in it's burrow; i loaded my gun and examined the place which was dusty and saw the track from which I am still further convinced that it was of the tiger kind. whether i struck it or not I could not determine, but I am almost confident that I did; my gun is true and I had a steady rest by means of my espontoon, which i have found very serviceable to me in this way in the open plains.

"Serviceable" indeed! It had been an ever-present source of strength in this series of brushes with death, when "all the beasts of the neighborhood" were conspiring his destruction. But not just the beasts. The very earth itself, the river and its banks, seemed at times to be in league against Lewis, as we find in his June 7, 1805, journal entry. The incident took place on an abrupt cliff near the Marias River after an incessant rain. Here again we find the espontoon saving the Captain:

not withstanding the rain that has now fallen[,] the earth of these bluffs is not wet to a greater debth than 2 inches; in it's present state it is precisely like walking over frozan grownd which is thawed to small debth and slips equally as bad. In passing along the face of one of these bluffs today I sliped at a narrow pass of about 30 yards in length and but for a quick and fortunate recovery by means of my espontoon I should been precipitated into the river down a craggy pricipice of about ninety feet. I had scarcely reached a place on which I could stand with tolerable safety even with the assistance of my espontoon.

Lewis goes on to explain that immediately after his misfortune he had to come to the rescue Private Windsor who was a hairbreadth from slipping to his death off the same cliff. Windsor, therefore, became a symbolic proxy for the entire Expedition. For if Lewis had fallen to his death from those heights not only would his and Windsor's lives been lost, but the mission of the Corps of Discovery would no doubt have been aborted. In that event, American claims to the Oregon country would have been greatly diminished, and Jefferson's grand strategy for the West would have had a terrible setback.

Aware of all that was riding on that halfpike as Lewis jammed it into the slippery bank, the reader ponders what could have happened if it had failed to hold. One's mind turns to the fable in Poor Richard's Almanac:

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
Fort he want of a battle the kingdom was lost—
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

There is no further reference to the espontoon in the journals after June 1805. Was this because Lewis did notably less writing for the record after these events? Perhaps the espontoons were buried in the caches at the Great Falls of the Missouri or before crossing the Divide. Lewis could possibly have had it with him on that famous walk approaching the Shoshone brave near Lemhi Pass. He may have used it to signal Drewyer and Shields who were on his flanks as they walked toward the wary Indian.

In any case, the captains tell us nothing more of this symbol of their authority. There is, nevertheless, one final, melancholy note about it. The records of Lewis's estate include a "Memorandum of Articles Contained in two Trunks the property of Governor Lewis of Upper Louisiana." This "memorandum" was prepared following Lewis's tragic death, November 23, 1809, and included a "Pike blade & part of the Handle." At last report (May 8, 1810), the trunks were in Charlottesville, having been delivered there by William Douglas Meriwether, a man active in settling Lewis's post-death affairs.15

Was this the espontoon with which Lewis confronted the hostile league, the implement which he carried and leaned upon in so many solitary walks through the wilderness? If so (and it seems that it must have been) what has happened to it? Where is it? Wherever it may be, this pike with broken handle is a singularly important relic of the Expedition, a lifesaver. It is the special talisman of Meriwether Lewis, a reminder of his traumatic encounters, both physical and emotional, as he turned the key which opened the door to the American West.

13. Moulton, Journals, 3:287.

14. Ibid., 4:294.

15. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, 2 vols., 2nd ed., (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 2:472.