Digressions and Conclusions

Page 7 of 7

Digressions

Brief digressions from the successive events on the expedition served Wheeler's intention of describing the changes that had occurred during the century just past. He discussed some of the forts built by fur traders between 1808 and 1850, including Forts Benton, Berthold, Buford, Cass, Clark, Manuel, Pierre, Sarpy, and Union.

Clark explained the importance of blue beads to the Nez Perce people (13 May 1806): They "may be justly compared to gold and Silver among civilized nations." Lewis and Clark knew the value of gold and silver, but precious metals were not high on their basic list of minerals to watch for. However, when Wheeler was on the Jefferson River, and happened to be in the neighborhood, he brought up the gold discoveries of 1862 on Willard's Creek. In the same vein, talk of gold strikes evoked legends of road agents, corrupt sheriffs, and righteous vigilantes—the blacker Romance of the mountain West.

Similarly, at the turn of the century Butte and Anaconda, then at the peak of their worldwide fame arising from their productivity in gold, silver, and especially copper, summoned several pages of historical commentary and some amazing statistics from Wheeler, even though they were many miles from the nearest part of the Lewis and Clark trail. That brought up the subject of Great Falls, and the dams on the Missouri River there, generating electricity that was transmitted to Butte and Anaconda to operate machinery and light the mills and mines 24 hours a day.

In his summary of Clark's exploration of the Yellowstone River, however, Wheeler digressed into a "what-if" argument that gave him the chance to make a point for conservation, a popular movement that had begun before 1850 and reached it first triumph in 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park:1

It is a matter for congratulation . . . that Clark did not learn of that wonderful land, and that he did not discover Yellowstone Park. Had either of these things happened we would probably have no park, as such, to-day. A hundred, or even fifty years ago, we would not have appreciated the possibilities and advantages of making such a spot into a National Park, and had its weird possessions then been made known, the region would have been despoiled . . . of its pristine wonders and grandeur

Visualizing Clark at Pompeys Pillar on July 25, 1806, led Wheeler to reflect on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which took place "[j]ust seventy years and one month" afterward, and to think of the army forts that were scattered through eastern Montana to meet "the flickerings of a declining and futile opposition to an evolution that was rolling on with the certain and remorseless advance of a Juggernaut."

Such digressions as these, and many more, added up to a tourist's guide to the Lewis and Clark trail gauged to the interests and expectations of travelers on a high-speed, comfortable, and affordable mode of travel, and to heighten the fascination and historical appeal of the Romance of the New Northwest.

Nonetheless, Wheeler was proud to point out that the Northern Pacific Railway had built a branch line from Bozeman to the north entrance to the park in the mid-1880s.

His attitudes toward Indians was similarly ambivalent. On the one hand, he presented verbal and visual evidence that some tribes were becoming acculturated. On the other, he referred to the rest as savages, a word that had by then dropped to the level of a pejorative. Still, he emphatically deplored the treatment Indian people had received since the time of the expedition. Lewis and Clark's:

almost uniformly kind reception by, and treatment of, the Indians, and their absoloute and utter dependence upon them, time after time, for food with which to save themselves from starvation, and for animals and canoes with which to continue their journey, furnishes the most caustic criticism upon the Government's subsequent treatment of the red man.

Indeed, Wheeler had already described Clark's success as superintendent of Indian affairs for Louisiana Territory:

Had the Government, in its subsequent dealings with the Indians, taken several leaves from Clark's experience and copied them, the vast amount of treasure expended, the lives sacrificed, and trouble of all sorts endured in the recurring Indian wars, might have been saved.

Reading Wheeler Today

Wheeler had called the United States' westward expansion inevitable, and he credited its northern-tier component to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Its "relation . . . to the location of the Northwestern boundary line is a very intimate one," he wrote. "It is altogether likely," he continued, "that Washington and the Puget Sound country might have been lost to the United States, had their contentions been based upon the discoveries of Gray alone."

To Wheeler, the railroads that followed most of their trail also had transformed the West, opening the way for trade relations with Asia that have continued to expand in scope and volume, just as Wheeler predicted would happen:

The Lewis and Clark expedition was the precursor of the railway which, in the last half-century, has revolutionized and transformed the West and Northwest, and the present active expansion of our Oriental commerce, rendered possible by the railway, emphasizes the importance of the achievements of the explorers . . . and what, under a wise fostering, the future has in store, no man may prophesy.

Wheeler's Trail of Lewis and Clark is in many ways difficult to appreciate today. He was prone to blatant racism, thinly veiled sexism, and unabashed chauvinism. He was wholeheartedly committed to the interlocking values of Progress and Manifest Destiny, and a Panglossian view of his nation and its place in world of the early 1900s. On the other hand, his book holds at least three features that make it exceptionally valuable to the serious student of the expedition and its history. First, his numerous photographs that provide us with candid glimpses of "the face of the land" a century after Lewis and Clark saw it. Second, his inclusion of quotations representing the perspectives of subsequent explorers and other travelers, which lend broader and longer dimensions to the original story. Finally, his energetic and disciplined inquiry into the details of people and places make it a benchmark for historical understanding.


1. The generation of Lewis and Clark had lived by the conviction that wild nature was meant to be "improved," that is, civilized and used. in 1851, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) responded that "In wildness is the preservation of the world." His Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) remains the basic scripture for the conservation and environmentalism movements.

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