The Solitary Hero Part 1

William Clark's explanation of Meriwether Lewis's decision to leave Dismal Nitch deserves expanded scrutiny. Doing so sheds considerable light upon the actual working relationship between the two men, in contrast to the bromides frequently offered about their harmonious co-captaincy. Consider first that Lewis's "object" in this undertaking, according to Clark, was to "examine if any white men were below within our reach." This explanation strains credulity. John Colter had just returned from the bay around "Point Distress" and said that no traders or explorers were to be found. Colter would hardly have missed sighting ships around Point Distress if there had been any. Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse says Lewis ventured off to visit the Indian village Colter saw at the mouth of the river—abandoned at the time—an even less credible scenario.1

There is a more plausible explanation for Lewis's evacuation from Dismal Nitch. The broad pattern of Lewis's behavior over the course of the journey suggests his motivation was narrow and purely personal. Colter's report upon his return to Dismal Nitch that Alexander Willard and George Shannon were proceeding west along that "sandy beech" makes plain the risk that someone other than Lewis might be credited with the ultimate moment of discovery—reaching the Pacific and that first dramatic and completely open view of the ocean. Lewis had nearly all the other epochal moments of discovery to himself. He'd been the first to see the Great Falls of the Missouri, and he had taken that legendary first glimpse into the Columbia country from the crest of the Continental Divide. Would he allow an enlisted man to beat him to the western edge of the continent? Lewis developed a case of what mountaineers call "summit fever."

Several clues substantiate this thesis. First, there is the curious phrasing Clark used to describe Lewis leading an advance party out of Dismal Nitch. Contrary to the usual practice of characterizing all major decisions through the use of the semantically inclusive "we," Clark states forthrightly that "Capt Lewis concluded" on this course of action.

The first notable instance of Lewis's questing for glory west of Fort Mandan occurred during the approach to the Yellowstone River's confluence with the Missouri—what Lewis termed a "long wished for spot"—on the present border between North Dakota and Montana.

Then there is the note Lewis posted at Fort Clatsop just prior to its abandonment in March of 1806, hoping that some "civilized person" might stumble upon the fort with his note still attached to its walls. Thereby the "informed world" would learn of the expedition, "sent out by the government of the U' States," that had penetrated the continent by way of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers "to the discharge of the latter into the Pacific Ocean, where they arrived on the 14th November, 1805" (emphasis added). This date was purposively misleading on two counts. The great preponderance of the party on 14 November was still marooned east of Point Distress. William Clark and the bulk of the detachment would not successfully depart Dismal Nitch for another day. Secondly, the Colter party, as previously described, rounded Point Distress, the last impediment to westward travel, on the 13th.2

For most explorers this egotism would not have presented much of a problem. Lewis, however, had a co-commander. As noted in the earlier discussion about the expedition's Rocky Mountain "geography lesson," the lore of Lewis & Clark holds that the captains always saw eye to eye. There were, in truth, no overt disturbances in what Gary Moulton terms "their remarkably harmonious relationship," and from this he concluded "Lewis apparently treated Clark as . . . a partner whose abilities were complementary to his own." But appearances can be deceiving. A deconstruction of the journals proves that Clark was occasionally disappointed by Lewis's behavior and possibly annoyed to the point of resentment.4

From the beginning of the venture Clark was disadvantaged by his relationship to Lewis. Clark shared in the command of the expedition, Clay Jenkinson writes, "by virtue of Meriwether Lewis's magnanimity rather than in actual rank." Lewis had failed to deliver on Clark's promised promotion from lieutenant to captain. This gaffe resulted in both men having to pretend Clark was equal to Lewis in actual rank. Consequently, it should not surprise us that Clark, co-commander only because of an invitation from the (younger) man holding the original commission from the president, had been, as James Holmberg states, "very conscious of titles, rank, and his pride." Clark later reminded Nicholas Biddle that in rank and command he was "equal in every point of view" (emphasis in the original). When considered in conjunction with the larger body of Clark's crafty edits, demurrals, and disavowals in his own record plus those he later edited into Lewis's journals, his post-expeditionary comment to Biddle was tantamount to a protest. Clark was insistent that posterity not see his work in the field as that of a second in command or a junior officer even if in reality his rank was lower than Lewis's, as those in power in the nation's capital would have known too well.5

As we saw in an earlier chapter and shall again later in this one, Clark was able to partially correct or otherwise recalibrate the record so as to more accurately reflect his contributions to the expedition. Clark never had access to certain documents (e.g., manuscripts other than the journals), and when Lewis went un-braked there is no doubt about whose expedition it was. Lewis's letter to his friend James Findley, sent downstream when the expedition was halfway up the Missouri in 1804, refers to "my party . . . of twenty six healthy, robust, active young men, accustomed to fatiegue and danger." Presumably William Clark, not mentioned as being on the voyage let alone being co-commander, was to be considered among that number. Then, in a private letter to his mother written shortly before the expedition left Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805, Lewis described having "arrived at this place . . . with the party under my command" (emphasis added). Excluding Clark may have been understandable if not excusable while writing to a friend or a close family member. However, Lewis later published a prospectus for the forthcoming account of travels and took credit not only for the prospective narrative but also the master map, which work had always been Clark's specialty. This map was to be compiled "from the collective information of the best informed travellers through the various portions of that region, and corrected by a series of several hundred celestial observations, made by Captain Lewis during his late tour" (emphasis added). This was double diminution of Clark's role: Lewis deigned to correct Clark while at the same time minimizing his primary contribution. It was precisely this hauteur that David McKeehan skewered in defense of his right to publish Sgt. Patrick Gass's journal in the face of Lewis's opposition to unauthorized accounts of the expedition.7

Though the expedition's journals have the surface appearance of being an empirical chronology of events, they are, often as not, autobiography. In her explication of the exploratory genre, Barbara Belyea distinguishes between the narrative form of "the 'I' who writes and the 'me' who is written about." Inevitably, Belyea states, the explorer as writer becomes "the main textual subject." Though this literary phenomenon was the norm for explorers, Lewis took it to extremes. Consider, for example, Lewis's famous description of the scene when the expedition left Fort Mandan. First, Lewis explicitly refers to Columbus and Cook (and inadvertently or otherwise to Mackenzie as well via his expropriation of the term "darling project," as described at length in the chapter after next). He then introduces the excitement associated with entering "a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden." Next, Lewis wrote, "I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life" (emphasis added). Framing this sentence Lewis consciously struck over the word "our" before "departure," so the solitary construction was no accident. As Clay Jenkinson says, here "Lewis's self-absorption is nearly complete." Lewis reduced a moment of common endeavor to what Thomas Slaughter calls a "singular and possessive accomplishment" that had the effect of reducing poor Clark "to the status of crew." Slaughter maintains that the ethos of exploration required of Lewis that he pose as the "singular hero." Indeed, departing from Fort Mandan, Lewis effectively edited Clark out of the narrative. This is the inversion of an episode occurring a year earlier when the expedition left the Wood River wintering-over campsite of 1803–1804 on the Mississippi. On that occasion Lewis wrote himself into a story when in fact he wasn't with the party on the first leg up the Missouri, joining it by going overland from St. Louis.8

As Clay Jenkinson avers, "at the critical moments of the Expedition, Lewis pushes the rest of the company out of his consciousness." Lewis's jumping ahead of Clark and leaving him at Dismal Nitch was a calculated stratagem in keeping with a tendency visible from the very beginning of the "collaboration" with Clark, aimed at putting himself in the historical spotlight should circumstances lend themselves to that eventuality. Consider, then, Clark's plight. During the course of the expedition, he had to regularly bear the indignity of reading how Lewis constructed this posed narrative when making a copy of Lewis's reflective journal entries.9

The first notable instance of Lewis's questing for glory west of Fort Mandan occurred during the approach to the Yellowstone River's confluence with the Missouri–what Lewis termed a "long wished for spot"–on the present border between North Dakota and Montana. Unfavorable winds had been retarding the progress of the watercraft for several days in late April 1805. Knowing from the reports of the hunters out ahead that the Yellowstone was not far away, Lewis determined to avoid any further "detention." He proceeded ahead by land with a few men "to the entrance of that river" to make the astronomical observations that would fix its position, "which I hoped to effect by the time that Capt. Clark could arrive with the party." When Clark finally caught up they quibbled a bit over the best location for the emplacement of a future trading post.10

Several weeks later, past the Milk River confluence in present-day eastern Montana, Lewis began to fret about reaching the source of the Missouri. He was "extreemly anxious to get in view of the rocky mountains." Clark's journal for this segment of the journey is largely a verbatim reiteration of Lewis's reflective notes, which makes differentiating Clark's activities and thoughts from those of his co-commander unusually difficult. Clark's rare deviations from Lewis's text, and a few clues left by Lewis, help to discern the sequence of events leading up to the first sighting of the Rockies and who was to claim credit for doing so.11

Clark's copy does not reiterate Lewis's anxiety about seeing the mountains, for reasons that will become clear in our explication of the journals' narrative of the ensuing fortnight. As chance would have it, a little more than a week later, on 19 May 1805, Clark ventured off on a solo ramble to the top of "the highest hill I could See." From that vantage he viewed a "high mountain" to the west. After Clark's return to the main party, Lewis reported this sighting in his journal, but the object therein was now more elaborately described as a "range of Mountains" with added detail gleaned from Clark about their extent and direction. Clark had seen the so-called Little Rocky Mountains of north central Montana. Five days later, Clark was again walking "on the high countrey" off the north bank of the Missouri. From that elevated vantage Clark saw what he termed the "North Mountns" and another chain to the south, the Judith Range, or in Clark's terminology, the "South Mountains." Lewis absorbed this intelligence and offered some speculations about the western mountains in his journal, but he did not venture to the heights himself.12


1. JLCE [The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition], 6:46; 11:393.

2. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, p. 308; JLCE, 6:47, 429.

3. Beckham, Rockies to the Pacific, p. 64; Jenkinson, Lewis, pp. 9, 50.

4. JLCE, 2:6; Jenkinson, Lewis, p. 52.

5. Jenkinson, Lewis, p. 53; Holmberg, Letters of William Clark, p. 72; Jackson, Letters, 2:571.

6. Holmberg, Letters of William Clark, p. 218.

7. Holmberg, "Fairly Launched," p. 22; Jackson, Letters, 1:222; 2:396. See Ibid., pp. 399-407 for McKeehan's critique of Lewis. Allen, Lewis and Clark, p. 373 n. 39. The monument at Lewis's gravesite in Tennessee—erected in 1848—cites Lewis as "commander of the Expedition" to Oregon. Coues, History, 1:lx. Notes (Pages: 177–189) 325.

8. Belyea, Columbia Journals, p. xvii; JLCE, 4:9-10; Jenkinson, Lewis, p. 55; Slaughter, Exploring Lewis and Clark, pp. 36, 53.

9. Jenkinson, Lewis, p. 99.

10. JLCE, 4:66, 70, 77.

11. JLCE, 4:132. Moulton suggests that Clark composed this copy of Lewis's journal at Fort Clatsop or on the return trip in 1806. Ibid., 4:200 n. 10.

12. JLCE, 4:134, 167-168, 169 n. 2, 189, 191, 192 nn. 4, 6.

© 2010 by the Dakota Institute Press