In August, 1774, Meriwether Lewis was born. Four years earlier in August, William Clark was born. (Both in Virginia.) In August, 1803, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was moving its way up the Missouri River. A year after that, the men prepared to meet with the Shoshone people of Sacagawea , their guide.
I am reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. (New York: 1996) Ambrose is a fine storyteller, arguably the most important attribute for an Historian (Social Sciences strictures notwithstanding).
Now, I’m also reading Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon (Boston: 1982) and David M. Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: 1999). The three have in common a talent for narrative — the way these writers tell the story is as compelling as what they are telling.
Anyway, Lewis and Clark took their Corps across the continent and back, over a three-year journey that mapped waterways, noted terrain and encountered original Americans. The expedition hunted a lot — I mean both often and in volume. The 30 or so people on the trek seemed to bring down several deer in several hunting parties. Either they ate a lot or wasted a lot, I can’t be sure.
The expedition spent 4-month winters in camp, but moved as soon as possible and kept on till the last possible day. The Corps kept volumes of journals , accumulated a grand amount of scientific specimens, and sent the lot of it back East regularly. When they ended up in Oregon, watching the Columbia River meet the Pacific, they were as awestruck in that moment as you hope they’d be.
I remember learning of Lewis and Clark in elementary school. They are surely names in the American canon, and everyone knows they explored the country way back when, before the U.S. got further than Pennsylvania.
What we find out, though, with a little historical investigation — I just went to the library for a half hour — is that the Lewis and Clark expedition was a really big deal. They found out everything that people in 1805 wanted to know, in order to start rushing west and cutting down forests. The expedition took years, and they walked the whole way.
And they consumed venison like nobody’s business.