The Solitary Hero Part 4

These circumstances put the aforementioned corrections Clark made in Lewis's continental "geography lesson" into very sharp relief (see chapter 2). Fate, in the form of an ulcerous sore, may have denied Clark the opportunity to be the first over the Continental Divide. But he was determined that Biddle should know that the true comprehension of the complex Rocky Mountain district was his work, not Lewis's, demolishing the pretentious edifice Lewis had constructed in his journal. At the moment Lewis left Clark on the headwaters of the Missouri, Clark's rendezvous with destiny dissipated. Everyone in the party saw the consequences. As John Ordway put it, Captain Lewis had gone on ahead "to make discoveries."29

Throughout this joint venture with Lewis, William Clark's modesty shone through, a virtue not easily credited to his partner.

Three weeks later, when the expedition was about to leave the company of the Lemhi Shoshone, Lewis let slip his characteristic conceit when he referred, once again, to resuming what he called "my voyage." Such egotism has been an easy target from as early as 1807 in the form of David McKeehan's broadside defending the desire of his client, Patrick Gass, to publish an unofficial account of the voyage. Nevertheless, Lewis was not completely oblivious to his obligations to his friend and co-commander. Lewis later named the Clark Fork of the Columbia after him, in partial reciprocation for Clark having named the Lewis (Snake) River. But whereas Lewis had, in fact, been the first to the Columbia's waters, Clark's honor was a mere gratuity. As Elliott Coues observed, Clark had not been the proverbial "first white man" on the waters named for him, or at least, no more so than any other man in the expedition since the entire party crossed into the Bitterroot/Clark Fork watershed en masse.30

Throughout his joint venture with Lewis, William Clark's modesty shone through, a virtue not easily credited to his partner. As we have seen, though, Clark was not averse to correcting the worst of Lewis's self-indulgences by emphasizing his own contributions. In another telling instance, this one from the June 1806 return trip over the Lolo Trail, Clark's "verbatim" copy of Lewis's journal, in which Lewis had recounted the expedition's first contact with the Nez Perce at Weippe Prairie, Clark corrected Lewis's "we" (by which Lewis had included himself in Clark's vanguard contact with the Nez Perce, though Lewis was in fact trailing well behind) to "I," thus reinstating himself as the first to reach Weippe Prairie. (We can safely surmise that if the roles had been reversed and Lewis had been the first to Weippe, a singular "I" would have appeared in his original transcript.) However, Clark's presence as a companion in exploration was merely the most obvious narrative problem for Lewis as the solitary discoverer. Also on the same return crossing of the Lolo Trail, Lewis wrote with his unlimited sense of self-importance, "I met with a plant the root of which the shoshones eat." Clark the copyist balanced the record by noting that it was Sacagawea who "Collected a parcel of roots of which the Shoshones Eat," in reference to the western spring beauty, a white flower.31

Years after the expedition Clark privately criticized Lewis for the predicament his co-captain had put him in, referencing the "trouble and expence" of getting the journals into print. Lewis, like a cowbird, truly had laid his eggs in Clark's nest. But Clark, in the end, was up to this task, and possessing the advantage of having been the more diligent journal-keeper, he exercised the option of editing the expedition's documentary record in several key instances to create a more accurate account of events. In this respect, Clark was both the expedition's first historian and later the historian's friend, for the benefit of posterity. We are left, then, to wonder: had Lewis lived to write the official account of the expedition, how would Clark have fared in that narrative? Evidence left in the proto-manuscript as reflected in Lewis's notebook for the spring and summer of 1805 suggests he would have extolled Clark's virtues and assistance, but he, Lewis, would have been the sole hero of the story.32


29. JLCE, 9:199.

30. JLCE, 5:173; Coues, History, 2:584, 585 n.

31. JLCE, 8:7, 11, 50-51, 52 n. 1.

32. Holmberg, Letters of William Clark, p. 236.

© 2010 by the Dakota Institute Press