A Lost Expedition

Part 15: A Lost Expedition

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If ever there was a lost expedition in American history, this is it, and it's one of the . . . I think one of the remarkable things about the Freeman and Custis Expedition that it's almost totally forgotten. I sort of think that, with the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, it's going to enjoy a little bit of resurgence, because it kind of bounds along behind Lewis and Clark like a tail attached to a kite, in a way. People who are intrigued by Lewis and Clark can't help but be intrigued by the fact that there is another Lewis and Clark type expedition whose fate offers a kind of alternative view of what possibly could have happened to Lewis and Clark had things unfolded slightly differently.

So, it reflects on Lewis and Clark in a way that makes that expedition even more dramatic and exiting than it would be otherwise. There's another one sent out two years later: it's blocked by a foreign power.

This expedition became invisible almost immediately. And without going into all the reasons why it did, I think perhaps the most important one was the fact that it didn't really play into the mythic theme of American expansion across the West. Whereas Lewis and Clark can more or less be seen as an expedition that paves the way for the resulting fur trade, for eventual Oregon Trail immigrations, settlement in the West, and so forth.

This expedition, blocked by the Spanish army in 1806, simply doesn't play into the idea of American expansion across the Southwest. Now, it may be, in our own time, as the history of the West becomes more multicultural, that Hispanic-Americans in the Southwest will look upon the outcome of this expedition as sort of one of their victories in blocking American imperialist expansion into the West. But, I think in terms of American national history, this is one of those events that can't be fitted comfortably into the story of a successful kind of migration of the American people across the continent.

Another thing that makes it an invisible expedition to a certain extent is that the scientific results were relatively meagre, and they were undermined really by how the expedition was reported by the Jefferson administration. The map that resulted from the expedition was a remarkable map, but it didn't really explore very far into territory that the French hadn't already explored. So it didn't provide much in the way of new geographical discoveries.

Peter Custis's work, on the other hand, I think, had things played out a little differently, might have made the expedition very well known and famous, but the way, in fact, Custis's work did pan out, it made the expedition even more ill-starred. What happened was that Custis wrote descriptions of more than two hundred and sixty-seven plants and animals that he described on this four-and-a-half-month expedition. It's a remarkable ecological kind of time machine into what the Red River was like in 1806.1

But unfortunately the Jefferson administration, in getting Custis's work and the account of the Expedition into print, hired a man named Nicholas King to redact—rewrite—the journals of the two explorers. And King evidently was entirely unfamiliar with scientific Latin and Latin nomenclature, and he horribly mangled Peter Custis's careful natural history work in the resulting publication. It appeared in 1806, An Account of the Red River in Louisiana by Masters Freeman and Custis. It's a nice account of the expedition, but the natural history part was absolutely awful. And the result was that the American scientific community basically ignored the Expedition. This was just a kind of an embarrassing scientific production by the American government.