Interpret, Amplify, Criticize

Page 3 of 7

Prologue, Personnel, Peculiarities, Personality

The Trail of Lewis and Clark 1804-1904 began with a chapter on the Louisiana Purchase, including its attendant implications and uncertainties. Wheeler also alluded to its opponents' dire predictions, and responded with a triumphant comparison of statistics from the census of 1900 with those of 1800. "Could anything," he concluded, "more forcibly show the cl earness of Berkeley's vision or the fulfillment of his time-honored prophecy, 'Westward the course of Empire takes its way'?"

His second chapter, titled "Blazing the Way," traced Thomas Jefferson's attempts to set in motion a search for a waterway to the Pacific, and the exploration of the valleys of the Missouri and Columbia rivers. It included a summary of the expedition's itinerary, with Wheeler's conclusion:

It will be seen that the Lewis and Clark trails are pretty closely related to the travelling public. It is to be hoped that, in the renaissance of Lewis and Clark and the Louisiana Purchase now possessing the country, this exploration and its trails, may be taken closer to the hearts of the people and become more and more a real part of our life.

The Willards

Alexander and Eleanor Willard were married in 1807. Here they are shown in their early 60s. Alexander died in 1865 near Sacramento, California, at nearly 88 years of age; Eleanor preceded him in death by several years.

The third chapter, devoted to the organization and personnel of the expedition, consisted of biographical sketches of some of the enlisted men, such as sergeants Floyd, Ordway, Pryor, and Gass, as well as Privates Colter, Bratton, Shields, Shannon, and Willard, along with interpreter George Drouillard ("Drewyer"), Sacagawea, and Toussaint Charbonneau. Each was enhanced by personal communications with descendants, or documentary details from the journals of men such as fur trader Warren Ferris. The Charbonneaus' son was never mentioned by his given name, Jean Baptiste, in any of the journals; all Wheeler could find was a reference in the journals of fur trader Warren Ferris to his last name only. Wheeler indexed him as "Charbonneau, Toussaint, Jr."

Biographies of Lewis and Clark opened the chapter, with extensive review of records and communications relating the Lewis's death. Wheeler, loyal to the contemporary doctrine of his time that suicide was the selfish act of a coward, rather than a very personal tragedy, came down on the side of the murder-conspiracy argument.

I cannot . . . but believe that time and the name of Jefferson have given a fictitious weight to the theory of suicide, and that now, considering the uncertain nature of the evidence, the time has come to give Governor Lewis the full and unreserved benefit of the doubt and relieve his name and fame of the imputation heretofore resting upon it.1

Biddle had described the moment on 7 November 1805 when the captains and their men realized they were approaching their destination: "We had not gone far...when the fog cleared off, and we enjoyed the delightful prospect of the ocean; that ocean, the object of all our labours, the reward of all our anxieties. This cheering view exhilarated the spirits of the party, who were still more delighted on hearing the distant roar of the breakers." It was basically consistent with the original, but it lacked something to seize the heart. Wheeler consulted the original codex, and found the phrase that struck him then, as so many others have been since, with the triumphant resonance and ring of discovery: "Ocian in view! O! the joy."

Wheeler was skeptical. The explorers were probably more than twenty miles up the Columbia, while to a person sitting in a dugout canoe the horizon appears no more than three miles distant. "It is hardly possible that the party then really saw the ocean," he wrote, continuing:

During one of my trips on the river, with this very point in mind, I was particular to study the situation from the pilot-house of a steamer. Being extremely uncertain about it, I laid the case before the Captain, an intelligent and experienced river man, and he replied that the "octian" could not be seen from there, but that during a storm the breakers could be heard. No storm, however, is noted by Lewis and Clark at this point.

That famous exclamation--a figure of speech, perhaps--was of course a characteristic Clarkian misfire (he was a much better marksman with a rifle than with a pen), but he took aim again in his courses and distances for the day, and hit the mark squarely between the dark low contours of the coastal ranges that bend down to Columbia's estuary on both sides: "We are in view of the opening of the Ocian, which Creates great joy." Those plain facts notwithstanding, some 21st-century readers are still fond of debating the question, "Could they really see the ocean?"

View Toward the Columbia's Mouth


Astoria, Oregon, founded in 1811, is in the foreground. The three white-roofed structures on the quay at left were canneries. On the horizon at left of center, about 14 miles away, is Cape Disappointment, the northern limit of the Columbia's mouth. On the middle distance, some 6 miles across the estuary, is Chinook Point, where the men camped on 15 November 1806. The high land toward the right side of the photo may be part of the "opening of the Ocean" they saw from another 15 or 20 miles up the river.

Early on in his own studies of the original journals, copies of which Thwaites had shared with him, Wheeler began to get an inkling that Clark's diaries, "with their lack of punctuation and their orthographic peculiarities, one is tempted to believe at times that the Captain had in mind when writing, a vague idea of a system of short-longhand, to be elaborated later on." Indeed, they were often as Wheeler suspected, merely memos for a work in progress.2 One suspects that Wheeler would have strongly disapproved of many 21st-century readers' preference for reading the journals in their original form.

In contrast, he observed that Lewis's handwriting showed a distinct type of personality. His journals, he noticed, "are in a fine, regular, symmetric handwriting, almost as clear and legible as engraving, and evince the conscientiousness of the man in his work."3

1. Wheeler cited three letters written in 1810 and 1811 by Gilbert Russell, who was the commanding officer of the fort at Chickasaw Bluffs, Tennessee, where Lewis changed his travel plans and set out overland toward Washington City. One of those letters, in which Russell detailed the circumstances of Lewis's self-inflicted death as he understood them, is reprinted in Donald Jackson's Letters, 2:573-575. Further, Jackson cited the study of Lewis's death by Dawson A. Phelps, "The tragic death of Meriwether Lewis," William and Mary Quarterly, ser. 3, 13 (July 1956), 305-18, as the most convincing argument supporting the verdict of suicide.

2. Wheeler quoted Clark's description of a tragic prairie fire that swept past their camp on the evening of 29 October 1804. In addition to his usual phonetic spelling of a regional pronunciation of "tremenjus," it produced a rippling little tongue-twister of a noun: The fire "went with great rapitidity [emphasis added] and looked Tremendious." It seems Wheeler didn't even crack a smile.

3. Graphology, or handwriting analysis, was a relatively new science in Wheeler's day.

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