Wheeler's Five Points

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A New Setting for the Lewis and Clark Story

By the turn of the 20th century, Nicholas Biddle's 1814 paraphrase of Lewis and Clark's journals had gone through some 40 reprints and editions, culminating in the intensive commentary by the historical editor and ornithologist Elliott Coues (1842-1899), which was published in 1893. Nine years later, Reuben Gold Thwaites (1853-1913) began transcribing the manuscripts of all known journals from the Lewis and Clark expedition, a monumental undertaking which he completed in less than three years; it was published in 1905. Clearly, both works were aimed toward a readership of serious students of the expedition.1


Historic photo of a railroad bridge, the Omaha Bridge

Photographer unknown. From Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark (1904), 1:159.

The first bridge across the Missouri River was completed in 1869 by the Missouri Pacific Railroad, at Kansas City. The Union Pacific completed this bridge between Omaha, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, nine years later. The Northern Pacific Railway bridged the Missouri River at Mandan-Bismarck, North Dakota, 855 miles upriver from here, in 1882.

As these and other railroads threaded their separate ways through the American Northwest, they frequently extended short lines north and south to facilitate passenger and freight traffic into every valley and plain that offered the possibility of profit. "Here the railway must be the pioneer, the settler the follower," Wheeler explained. Thus the real opening of the West to the American people at large began almost exactly fifty years after the expedition when, in 1856, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad bridged the Mississippi River.

Pe-tów-ya's Memories

Women Indian Elder in front of her teepee

Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark (1904)

After Wheeler's feature article on Lewis and Clark appeared in Wonderland 1900, a series of personal connections beginning with Eva Emery Dye, author of the fictionalized biography of William Clark, his brother George Rogers Clark, and "Sacajawea," titled The Conquest, led him to an interview with this Cayuse Indian woman named Pe-tów-ya. She remembered as a child meeting the two captains as well as York. Pe-tów-ya died in 1902 at the age of 111 years.

As the hundredth anniversary of the expedition approached, however, the first books about the expedition began to appear. Nellie F. Kingsley's The Story of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark (1900), was intended for young readers, as was First Across the Continent (1901), by Noah Brooks. Brooks's story was illustrated with 23 full-page drawings, including 8 by George Catlin and 4 by Ernest Seton, plus one photograph. Eva Emery Dye's The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark (1902) was a historical novel with Sacagawea as its heroine, with one illustration–the full-color frontispiece, a painting of "The Cession of St. Louis," in which Lewis waits in the foreground holding the American flag.

The closest thing to a book suitable for the new audience that the centennial might stimulate was yet another printing of Biddle's version of the journals in 1902, this time with an introduction–and the first-ever index!–by James K. Hosmer (1834-1927), a prominent author and historian. Hosmer's introduction began with a short history of the Louisiana Purchase, with emphasis on the character of French exploration and occupation (his book, The Story of the Louisiana Purchase, also was published in 1902). He also brushed in a few more strokes in the evolving portrayal of Sacagawea as a heroine and guide who "when the trail was lost seemed to have the instinct of a wild migrating bird, and could orient herself better than it could be done with the compass." The truth about her, which is even more astonishing than the old fantasy, awaited another few decades of study. Concluding his remarks on the post-expedition exploration, Hosmer emphasized the importance of new mechanical technology: "The great New West which the world beholds as having come to pass in the expanse traversed by Lewis and Clark may rightly be called the child of the locomotive."

Meanwhile, Olin Wheeler's interest in the expedition had expanded in depth and scope, inspired largely by the fact that the Northern Pacific Railway was intimately linked with the Lewis and Clark epic by the coincidence of their parallel paths in certain sections of the trail, and by the fact that he had already traveled much of it in 1899, in preparation for the article on Lewis and Clark that he published in Wonderland 1900.

The story Wheeler wished to tell quickly grew into a project of unmanageable length, but he soon pared it down to two volumes totaling 765 pages, simply titled The Trail of Lewis and Clark.2 Its subtitle defined the general parameters: "A story of the great exploration across the Continent in 1804-06; with a description of the old trail, based upon actual travel over it, and of the changes found a century later." The phrase "based upon actual travel over it" underscored the most important factor of all—first-hand experience. He traced the trail again in 1902, and those travels further stimulated his own sense of wonder. His personal exploration was facilitated by courtesy passes provided by other railroads whose tracks approximated certain segments of it. He returned, one reviewer observed, with "an almost boyish enthusiasm to tell all about it."3 In the preface he listed the five objectives that measured out his plan for studying and writing:


"to recount the great epic story of Lewis and Clark"

For this purpose he relied chiefly on Nicholas Biddle's 1814 paraphrase of the captains' diaries for continuity, quoting from it extensively to lend texture and depth to the factual framework of his narrative. He also drew upon the critical edition of Biddle's work published in 1893 by Elliott Couse (pronounced cowz), whose extensive annotations were directed largely toward the geography, ethnology, and natural history inherent in the story.

He also made frequent references to the journals of Patrick Gass, which were published in 1807, and even from Floyd's brief journal, which had been found by Reuben Thwaites in 1893.4

Wheeler's major contribution to the enhancement of Lewis and Clark studies was his inclusion of numerous illustrations. The Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1804-1904 contained photographic reproductions of 8 portraits; 8 photos of important artifacts, such as Pvt. Shannon's "housewife," or pocket sewing kit; 15 maps; 24 manuscript documents, including copies of several pages from the original journal pages provided him by Reuben Thwaites; 24 copies of paintings by prominent American and Euro-American artists, including three by Charles M. Russell, eight by Edgar S. Paxson, two by Ralph DeCamp, and the first publication of St. Memin's portraits of Lewis and Clark;5 and 117 photographs of key scenic attractions along the trail—a total of 193 images.


"to supplement this with such material, drawn from later explorers, as bears upon and emphasizes, or accentuates, the achievements of the original pathfinders"

In pursuit of this objective, the author drew upon a long list of journals, reports, and memoirs of explorers and other travelers who touched upon portions of the expedition's routes. He read accounts by men who preceded Lewis and Clark into the West, some who were their contemporaries, as well as many men and women who personally advised, informed, and even accompanied Wheeler on his own retracings of the trail. The list included the Verendrye brothers and Alexander Henry the Younger, to Henry Brackenridge, John Bradbury, Warren Ferris, Stephen Long, Washington Irving, and many others. He sought out descendants of some of the principals in the expedition's history, both Indian and white, and summarized the information they supplied.


"to interpret, amplify, and criticise such parts of the original narrative as the studies and explorations of the writer, one hundred years later, seemed to render advisable, thus connecting the exploration with the present time"

Possibly following Hosmer's lead, Wheeler began with a detailed discussion of the Louisiana Purchase, setting it in the broader context provided by the intervening century of political and geographical adjustments. Throughout the rest of the book, Wheeler often drew attention to aspects of the Lewis and Clark story that had never before been discussed, such as the exact location of the rugged route across the Bitterroot Mountains. He consistently maintained the explorer's perspective–the "inventory eye"–and tendered his own conclusions and conjectures.


"to show, without undue prominence, the agency of the locomotive and the steamboat in developing the vast region that Lewis and Clark made known to us"

By the end of the 19th century, more than a dozen railroads had threaded their way into the west paralleling various segments of the Lewis and Clark trail, or at least crossing it. However, it was the Northern Pacific Railway and its affiliates that not only dominated travel and commerce throughout the Northwest, but also followed some of the most interesting segments of the historic trail.


"to make plain that the army of tourists and travellers in the Northwest unknowingly see and visit many points and localities explored by Lewis and Clark a century ago."

Among other features, the author had in mind the Great Falls of the Missouri, the Dearborn River, Pompey's Pillar, Bozeman Pass, the Three Forks of the Missouri, Beaverhead Rock, Travelers' Rest Creek, the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, The Dalles, Cascades, Beacon Rock, Multnomah Fall, Coffin Rock, and Cape Disappointment. These were but a few among the many attractions to be seen in "Wonderland."

1. For an account of Thwaites's tribulations in publishing the first complete edition of the journals, see Paul Russell Cutright, A History of the Lewis and Clark Journals (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 104-127. Coues's work is discussed in ibid., 73-103.

2. The original edition (1904) of Wheeler's volumes was published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in New York, as was the second edition (1926, with an introduction by Frederick Dellenbaugh). Both have been out of print for many years. It was reprinted in 1976 by AMS Press, and in 2002 by DIS Digital Reproductions. The originals of all of Wheeler's illustrations apparently have been lost, except for a few photos at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

3. Owen R. Lovejoy, "The Trail of Lewis and Clark," Current Literature, 37:3 (September 1904), 246.

4. Ordway's journal was rediscovered in 1913 and published with Lewis and Clark's Eastern Journal in 1916, both edited by Milo Quaife of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Reuben Thwaites acquired Whitehouse's journal in 1903, too late to be of use to Wheeler.

5. Wheeler also reproduced one painting by Karl Bodmer, now housed at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, which does not permit its holdings to be displayed on the Web.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program