Sunday, October 11, 2009

White bear, drunk Indians

Died 200 years ago today, did Meriwether Lewis, in strange circumstances. He was only in his mid-30s, but he had already led the US government’s first overland exploration to the Louisiana Purchase - a huge swathe of land bought from the French in 1803 - and from there to the Pacific Coast. Both Lewis and his co-leader William Clark kept trail diaries, amounting to almost five thousand pages, which are widely celebrated today, and freely available on the internet.

Lewis was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, and moved with his family to Georgia in 1784. At 13 he was sent back to Virginia to be educated privately. He served in the army for about five years, achieving the rank of captain. In 1801, he was appointed as private secretary to President Thomas Jefferson, who had been a childhood neighbour, and became involved in the planning of an overland expedition to the Pacific coast and back, in part exploring a huge territory - the Louisiana Purchase - that, by the time of the expedition, had been bought from the French.

Lewis was chosen to lead the expedition, afterwards known as the Corps of Discovery, and he selected William Clark as his second in command. Setting off in the summer of 1803, about 40 men followed the Missouri River westward, through what is now Kansas City, Missouri and Omaha, Nebraska. They crossed the Rocky Mountains and descended through what is now Portland, Oregon, to the Pacific Ocean in December 1805. The journey home began in March 1806 and was completed in September. Lewis, Clark and other members of the expedition kept diaries on the journey - amounting to almost 5,000 pages.

On his return, Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory and settled in St Louis, Missouri. However, Lewis died tragically, aged only 35, on 11 October 1809 - two centuries ago today - killed by gunshots while staying at an inn on the way to Washington DC. It is generally thought he committed suicide, though some believe he was murdered.

There is lots of information on Wikipedia about Lewis and Clark, and their expedition; and there are some diary-related links on The Diary Junction pages. The best and most interesting information, though, can be found at The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Online, a website hosted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The website says it uses the text published in the ‘celebrated Nebraska edition of the Lewis and Clark journals’, edited by Gary E Moulton in 13 volumes. This edition, it adds, is not only ‘the most accurate and inclusive edition ever published’, but is ‘one of the major scholarly achievements of the late twentieth century’. Apart from the journals themselves, there is also an excellent and scholarly 20,000 word introduction.

Here is a small snippet from that introduction: ‘Clark’s last entry is a reminder that ‘wrighting &c.’ was one of the principal tasks of the captains, and one that they thoroughly fulfilled. As Donald Jackson has observed, Lewis and Clark were ‘the writingest explorers of their time. They wrote constantly and abundantly, afloat and ashore, legibly and illegibly, and always with an urgent sense of purpose.’ They left us a remarkably full record of their enterprise . . .’

(A much earlier version of the journals, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites, was published in 1904 by Dodd, Mead & Company. Only 200 sets were printed, on Van Gelder handmade paper. Today these fetch several thousand pounds - see Abebooks)

Here are a couple of extracts from Lewis’s journal (the paragraph breaks are mine, but the grammar and spelling are all Lewis’s).

13 April 1805
‘. . . This lake and it’s discharge we call goos Egg from the circumstance of Capt Clark shooting a goose while on her nest in the top of a lofty cotton wood tree, from which we afterwards took one egg. the wild gees frequently build their nests in this manner, at least we have already found several in trees, nor have we as yet seen any on the ground, or sand bars where I had supposed from previous information that they most commonly deposited their eggs.-

saw some Buffaloe and Elk at a distance today but killed none of them. we found a number of carcases of the Buffaloe lying along shore, which had been drowned by falling through the ice in winter and lodged on shore by the high water when the river broke up about the first of this month.

we saw also many tracks of the white bear of enormous size, along the river shore and about the carcases of the Buffaloe, on which I presume they feed. we have not as yet seen one of these anamals, tho’ their tracks are so abundant and recent. the men as well as ourselves are anxious to meet with some of these bear. the Indians give a very formidable account of the strengh and ferocity of this anamal, which they never dare to attack but in parties of six eight or ten persons; and are even then frequently defeated with the loss of one or more of their party. the savages attack this anamal with their bows and arrows and the indifferent guns with which the traders furnish them, with these they shoot with such uncertainty and at so short a distance, [NB: unless shot thro’ head or heart wound not mortal] that they frequently mis their aim & fall a sacrefice to the bear. two Minetaries were killed during the last winter in an attack on a white bear. this anamall is said more frequently to attack a man on meeting with him, than to flee from him. When the Indians are about to go in quest of the white bear, previous to their departure, they paint themselves and perform all those supersticious rights commonly observed when they are about to make war uppon a neighbouring nation.

Oserved more bald eagles on this part of the Missouri than we have previously seen. saw the small hawk, frequently called the sparrow hawk, which is common to most parts of the U States. great quantities of gees are seen feeding in the praries. saw a large flock of white brant or gees with black wings pass up the river; there were a number of gray brant with them; from their flight I presume they proceed much further still to the N. W.- we have never been enabled yet to shoot one of these birds, and cannot therefore determine whether the gray brant found with the white are their brude of the last year or whether they are the same with the grey brant common to the Mississippi and lower part of the Missouri.-

we killed 2 Antelopes today which we found swiming from the S. to the N. side of the river; they were very poor.-

We encamped this evening on the Stard. shore in a beautifull plain. elivated about 30 feet above the river.’

14 April 1805
‘. . . Capt. Clark walked on shore this morning, and on his return informed me that he had passed through the timbered bottoms on the N. side of the river, and had extended his walk several miles back on the hills; in the bottom lands he had met with several uninhabited Indian lodges built with the boughs of the Elm, and in the plains he met with the remains of two large encampments of a recent date, which from the appearance of some hoops of small kegs, seen near them we concluded that they must have been the camps of the Assinniboins, as no other nation who visit this part of the missouri ever indulge themselves with spirituous liquor.

of this article the Assinniboins are pationately fond, and we are informed that it forms their principal inducement to furnish the British establishments on the Assinniboin river with the dryed and pounded meat and grease which they do. they also supply those establishments with a small quantity of fur, consisting principally of the large and small wolves and the small fox skins. these they barter for small kegs of rum which they generally transport to their camps at a distance from the establishments, where they revel with their friends and relations as long as they possess the means of intoxication, their women and children are equally indulged on those occations and are all seen drunk together. so far is a state of intoxication from being a cause of reproach among them, that with the men, it is a matter of exultation that their skill and industry as hunters has enabled them to get drunk frequently. . .’

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