The Solitary Hero Part 2

Rocky Mountains

map of the rockies

Courtesy Dover Publications, Inc.

From Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest by John Logan Allen.

Contrary to geographical lore, the Rocky Mountains were many ranges deep in central and western Montana.

The Grand Fall

Barralet's painting of the Falls

Courtesy of Watzek Library, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon

The strained sublimity of Meriwether Lewis's description of the Great Falls of the Missouri inspired this engraving in a second generation edition of the expedition's journals. The falls today are compromised by a dam and power plant.

Six days later, May 25th, during his "walk of this day," Clark again viewed the mountains to the north and south but added, "I also think I saw a range of high mounts. at a great distance to the SSW. but am not certain as the horozon was not clear enough to view it with Certainty." These were the Highwood Mountains near Great Falls, Montana. Lewis's journal makes no mention of this sighting, which conveniently preserves the prospect of his discovering them, as we shall see. The next morning, 26 May 1805, Clark again "ascended the high countrey to view the mountains which I thought I Saw yesterday." From his new perch "much higher than where I first viewed the above mountains [yesterday] . . . I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time with Certainty." This line in Clark's journal for that day marks the commencement of what is more generally his copy of Lewis's remarks, deleting what would have been odd references back to himself in the third person, but of particular note here adding the phrase "with Certainty." The point or value of this edit in Clark's version is discernible when we see Lewis's original record for the same day, a document that was recorded before Clark's.13

Lewis's journal for May 26th first reports that "Capt. Clark walked on shore this morning" and in a rather pedestrian fashion recounts that his co-commander "had seen mountains," a perspective vested with no particular significance for a reason soon made clear. Then, in "the after part of the day," Lewis "also walked out and ascended the river hills," following Clark's lead and assuredly in response to his colleague's findings. Once at the heights Lewis considered himself "well repaid" for his labors "as from this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time." Again, Clark's copy of this entry from Lewis's transcript reads: "from this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time with Certainty" (emphasis added). What Clark had done here is to take Lewis's narrative baseline and massage it to reinforce his own prior sighting on the day before. Lewis's version proceeds to references of the "range of broken mountains seen this morning by Capt. C." However this gesture is quickly followed by Lewis's reversion to the form of the singular hero. Lewis recorded, "while I viewed these mountains I felt a secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri; but when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowey barrier would most probably throw my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterballanced the joy I had felt in the first moments in which I gazed on them" (emphasis added). Clark dutifully copied all this Rocky Mountain Romance, but by subtly adding the words "with Certainty" at the outset of Lewis's textual soliloquy, he quietly asserts his proper place in the story of the authoritative first sighting of the Rocky Mountains.14

Next, consider Lewis's most famous discovery, the Great Falls of the Missouri. The Hidatsa told the captains that reaching this feature was the sure sign that they were on the correct route to the Columbia. This point was so axiomatic in the expedition's understanding of western geography that it served as the solution to the quandary faced by the party at the surprising appearance of the Marias River. Then and there Pierre Cruzatte and the other men in the detachment forced the captains' hands on the question of which branch of the river was the route to the headwaters of the river. Lewis complained that, contrary to his and Clark's opinion, Cruzatte, "an old Missouri navigator . . . had acquired the confidence of every individual of the party . . . that the N. fork [the Marias] was the true genuine Missouri." Indeed, the men were "so determined in this beleif, and wishing that if we were in error to be able to detect it and rectify it as soon as possible it was agreed between Capt. C. and myself that one of us should set out with a small party by land up the South fork [the Missouri] and continue our rout up it untill we found the falls."15

Tensions now emerged within the joint command because of what Thomas Slaughter calls the conventions of exploration as a "solitary event." As Lewis phrased it in his approximately 1,400-word account about the decision at the Marias, "this expedition [in search of the falls and thus the true Missouri] I prefered undertaking as Capt. C [is the] best waterman & c." William Clark's corresponding report numbers less than 200 words. Of Lewis's decision to jump ahead, he writes tersely about effecting a cache of one pirogue, tools, powder and lead, and as soon as "accomplished to assend the South fork." The absence of any nouns or pronouns in this last phrasing may be telling. His only mention of Lewis by name is to report that his co-commander was "a little unwell to day" and that he had to take "Salts & c." This would be the start of another pattern—Lewis becoming ill on those occasions when the fate of the expedition seemed to hang in the balance, an equivalence in Lewis's mind to his prospective reputation as a solitary and heroic explorer. Lewis described his illness as "disentary."16

In Thomas Slaughter's view, "companions create narrative problems for the explorer," as we saw earlier with John Ordway's and Joseph Whitehouse's candid expressions upon reaching the forks of the Columbia. In this case, when Lewis "jumped ship" on his quest for the Great Falls and exploratory glory, George Drouillard, Joseph Field, George Gibson, and Silas Goodrich accompanied him. However, a few days later, when Lewis encounters the "sublimely grand specticle" these men virtually disappear from the narrative. The experience with nature's wonder is Lewis's alone.17

Then later that summer, once the expedition reached the Three Forks of the Missouri, another great moment of discovery loomed–"seeing the head of the missouri yet unknown to the civilized world," as Lewis phrased it, and the Continental Divide from which it sprang. During this segment of the trip Clark had been proceeding ahead of the flotilla on land with the hunters, and he relished being in the vanguard. We know this from Lewis himself who noted that "Capt C. was much fatiegued[,] his feet yet blistered and soar," yet he "insisted on pursuing his rout in the morning nor weould he consent willingly to my releiving him at that time by taking a tour of the same kind" (emphasis added). This remarkably insightful entry becomes even more interesting when posed with Lewis's next comment: "finding [Clark] anxious I readily consented to remain with the canoes." Something more than Clark just toughing it out is clearly at play here. Even Nicholas Biddle sensed the tension and attempted to sanitize the account by substituting the more neutral "deturmined" for the vexatious "insisted" found in Lewis's original text.18

Clark's intention was "to proceed on in pursute of the Snake Indians," the gatekeepers to the Rocky Mountain passage. An encounter with the Shoshone would have ensured Clark a central moment in the master narrative of the expedition's glories. Lewis, two days behind Clark, knew that his co-commander had "pursued the Indian road," had found an abandoned horse, and "saw much indian sign." Meanwhile, Lewis and the balance of the expedition labored in poling and hauling the canoes over the riffles in the riverbed.19

On July 25th Clark and his advance guard reached the Three Forks and then headed up what he termed the "main North fork" (later to be called the Jefferson River). This fork, Clark wrote expectantly, "affords a great Deel of water and appears to head in the Snow mountains." Here was Clark's main chance. Lewis himself observed that on the basis of a note left for him at the Three Forks, Clark was on a course "in the direction we were anxious to pursue." Unfortunately for Clark, his continued exertions in defiance of blistered and bruised feet (the result of repeated exposure to prickly pear cactus) and a somewhat straitened diet (not so much from supply but opportunity to eat), combined with oppressive midsummer heat, made him sick. Suffering from a high fever and chills, constipated, and losing his appetite altogether because of the fatigue brought on by his vigorous march ahead of Lewis and the canoes, Clark turned back to the Three Forks, exhausted. There he met with Lewis and the flotilla heading up the Missouri.20

For two days, 28–29 July 1805, Lewis doctored Clark at the Three Forks. Lewis had "a small bower or booth erected" for Clark's comfort because the "leather lodge when exposed to the sun is excessively hot." Clark's fever dissipated slowly, and though the recovery had begun he complained "of a general soarness in all his limbs." Lewis, however, was anxious to get going. On the 30th the detachment broke camp, but now it was Lewis on foot in that pivotal vanguard of hunters while Clark and the voyagers brought up the rear. After only one day with this arrangement, Lewis admitted having "waited at my camp very impatiently for the arrival of Capt. Clark and party." Becoming by his own admission "uneasy" with this pattern, Lewis determined on the next day "to go in quest of the Snake Indians." Packing away a sheaf of papers with which to record notes that might be adapted into a narrative worthy of posterity's reading, Lewis took Drouillard, Charbonneau, and Sgt. Patrick Gass on this mission. Once again the excitement of becoming the exploratory hero brought on "a slight desentary," as had happened to Lewis when he jumped ahead of Clark in pursuit of the Great Falls.21

The day Lewis leapt ahead, August 1st, happened to be Clark's birthday. Clark reported tersely and with a tinge of hurt, "Capt. Lewis left me at 8 oClock." Left behind to slog up the gravelly bed of the Jefferson River with the canoes, Clark's physical problems mounted when his ankle swelled. One day ahead of the main party, Lewis reached the forks of the Jefferson and determined that the affluent known today as the Beaverhead River, with its warmer water and gentler flow, was the more navigable route. Lewis deduced that the Beaverhead "had it's source at a greater distance in the mountains and passed through an opener country than the other." Lewis left a note for Clark on a pole at the Jefferson forks instructing him on the recommended route for the canoes in case he did not return to this spot before the main party got there.22


13. JLCE, 4:198, 200 n. 11, 203-204.

14. JLCE, 4:200, 201, 204.

15. JLCE, 4:271.

16. Slaughter, Exploring Lewis and Clark, p. 29; JLCE, 4:271, 274, 275.

17. Slaughter, Exploring Lewis and Clark, p. 29; JLCE, 4:283.

18. JLCE, 4:416-417.

19. JLCE, 4:418, 423-424.

20. JLCE, 4:427-428, 433 n. 9, 436.

21. JLCE, 4:436; 5:8-9, 11, 17, 18, 25, 29 n. 1.

22. JLCE, 5:29, 40.

© 2010 by the Dakota Institute Press