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Go west, young biography! The adventures of Lewis and Clark

Montana

Montana, looking much like I imagine it did during the Lewis and Clark expedition. Image courtesy of froggidonna, Morguefile.

Like other students, I dutifully learned the story of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in school. But I only knew the bare bones of the story — President Thomas Jefferson had Lewis and Clark go on an expedition through little-known territory to the Pacific, they and their men faced many hardships, and Native American Sacajawea provided considerable assistance to the group.

I’ve been reading Richard Dillon’s book Meriwether Lewis: A Biography over the past couple of weeks, and it’s been fascinating. The book’s provided several interesting insights into Meriwether Lewis. He was Jefferson’s private secretary and like a son to him, which is one of the reasons Jefferson chose him to lead the expedition. Lewis was also smart, strong in character, nobody’s fool and a good leader of men. Considering the many hardships they faced traveling west, it’s amazing that all but one of the expedition got back in one piece (one man, Sgt. Floyd, died of illness).

The Lewis and Clark expedition wasn’t just about exploration, though. Lewis gathered scientific samples to show back in DC and did his best to be a diplomat with the various Native American tribes he met. Some were hospitable and friendly; others were not.

Ocian in view! Oh, the joy!William Clark in his journal, November 7, 1805

Other interesting insights included:

1) Meriwether Lewis would often walk ahead of the expedition, who used boats and horses. He could cover up to 28 miles (45 kilometers) in a day! (Relay for Life would love this guy.)

2) Sacajawea was the Supermom of her time, in my opinion. She was the young wife of Quebec trapper Toussant Charbonneau, acted as one of the interpreters on the trip, and went through the same privations as everybody else while pregnant. (Girl Power!) Her baby, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, was delivered on the trail and she cared for him during the trip while still doing her day job. (No pediatricians within call, no Pampers….oh, my.)

I suspect she had some anxious moments about her baby. Her presence helped to reassure other Native Americans of the expedition’s peaceful intent, but there were many physical threats to the group’s safety, including bears, rough terrain and snakes.

Sacajawea was a resourceful and amazing woman, overall. She had some adversity in her life (read more about her background here) but she didn’t cave in.

3) After the expedition, Meriwether Lewis was appointed governor of Upper Louisiana. He was on a trip to DC and stopped one night at an inn called Grinder’s Stand (in Tennessee) on the way there. What happened after that is unclear. Lewis died of gunshot wounds, but it’s not clear if it was suicide or murder. The witnesses at the time said suicide and many others believed it, but there are conflicting stories about what happened and the book’s author is convinced Lewis’s death was not suicide. (Drat! Where’s CSI when you need them?)

Maybe they’ll figure it out one day. It’s a pity that such a heroic man had his life end in such a way. He was only 35, poor man.

In any case, I wonder what it was like for them to finally see the Pacific and walk on the beach, knowing that they’d made it all the way there? I’m sure that there was some serious celebrating going on, including backslapping, laughter and cheering. It was an amazing achievement.

[Side note: For the spelling devotees, I've left "ocean" as "ocian", the way Clark wrote it in his journal. My editor's heart yelped, but I felt historical accuracy was better. ;-) ]

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