"Sublimely grand object"
On Thursday, June 13, 1805, Meriwether Lewis, walking alone in advance of his small detachment—interpreter George Drouillard and privates Joseph Field, George Gibson, and Silas Goodrich—arrived at the Great Falls of the Missouri. Thrilled by the sight, Lewis spent four hours contemplating the sight, and writing a detailed 900-word account of what he saw and how he felt about it. "After wrighting this imperfect discription," he declared,
I again viewed the falls and was so much disgusted with the imperfect idea which it conveyed of the scene that I determined to draw my pen across it and begin agin, but then reflected that I could not perhaps succeed better than pening the first impressions of the mind.
I wished for the pencil of Salvator Rosa, or the pen of Thompson, that I might be enabled to give to the enlightened world some just idea of this truly magnifficent and sublimely grand object, which has from the commencement of time been concealed from the view of civilized man. But this was fruitless and vain.
Vain indeed, but not entirely fruitless. While Lewis wished for the talent to paint with the technique of the one, or to write with the eloquence of the other, their names alone sufficed to suggest the essence of his experience. Lewis may have borrowed those two metaphors from pages 64-65 of Benjamin Smith Barton's Elements of Botany (1803), a copy of which Barton loaned to Lewis to take along on the expedition. Barton was referring to the beauty of fall colors in Pennsylvania when he wrote: "Nothing can be more picturesque than an American forest, at this season. The beauties of the scenery will be described by some future Thompson, or exhibited on canvass by the pencil of an American Salvator Rosa." Barton's readers would have known—as would Lewis's—that the "pencil" of a painter such as Rosa would not have been a lead pencil but a paintbrush made of fine hair that tapered to a point, which was used for delicate detail work.2
Without a doubt "the enlightened world" would have gotten his drift. Unfortunately, Nicholas Biddle, the editor of the first (1814) edition of the journals, either did not get it, or else chose to ignore it perhaps as hyperbole, for he omitted Lewis's clues from his narrative. Elliott Coues rescued the lines and placed them in a footnote to his 1893 edition of Biddle's Journals of the Expedition . . . to the sources of the Missouri, but by that time the significances of both artists had completely faded from popular awareness.3
Perhaps part of Lewis's enthusiasm had arisen from his sense of satisfaction, even triumph, at having made the right decision back at Maria's River, although he gave no hint of that in his journal entry. In any case, this was to prove the artistic climax of the entire expedition. Never again was Lewis moved to invoke those symbolic names.
His third wish might have come true had his pre-expedition planning and purchasing extended that far. "I most sincerely regreted that I had not brought a crimee obscura with me" he wrote, "by the assistance of which even I could have hoped to have done better, but alas this was also out of my reach."
Nevertheless, he refused to drop the matter.
Regretably, no sketches by Lewis have ever been found. In January of 1810, while searching among the effects of the recently deceased Lewis, Clark noted that he came upon some "imperfect drawings" of the falls of the Missouri, but their fate thereafter is a mystery.4 They may have been the drawings of the falls of the Missouri and Columbia that Lewis commissioned from the Irish-born John James Barralet in 1807, of which the "Principal Cascade of the Missouri" appeared in the Dublin printing (1817) of Biddle's edition of the journals. It was decidedly imperfect, and could have done but little to inspire general admiration.
No known painting or drawing was made of the Falls until the early 1850s when Gustavus Sohon (1825-1903), a gifted young German immigrant who enlisted in the army in 1852, became an interpreter, guide, and topographic artist on the government-sponsored northern railroad survey led by Isaac Stevens in 1853-54. Lithographs made of a dozen of Sohon's many drawings were published in the expedition's report. One of them was that of the Great Falls of the Missouri, shown above. The earliest existing photograph of the Great Falls was taken by F. Jay Haynes in 1880.
1. Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Made under the direction of the Secretary of War, in 1853-5, According to Acts of Congress of March 3, 1853, May 31, 1854, and August 5, 1854. (Washington: Thomas H. Ford, Printer, 1860), Vol. XII, facing page 183.
2. Lewis used the word pencil at Fort Clatsop on February 21, 1806, in describing the Oregon bobcat: "the ears are black on the outer side covered with fine short hair except at the upper point which [is] furnished with a pensil of fine, streight black hair, ¾ of an inch in length." For further discussion of the pencil brush and the lead-pencil, see "The pencil of Salvatore Rosa", including footnote 4.
3. Elliott Coues, ed., The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (3 vols., New York: Francis P. Harper, 1893; reprint, Dover Publications, 1965), II:366.
4. Stephen Dow Beckham, et al, The Literature of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: A Bibliography and Essays (Portland: Lewis & Clark College, 2003), p. 156.