… was the year that the Russian, Ivan Moskvitin, crossed the entire Asian landmass and reached the Pacific Ocean, at the Sea of Okhotsk, a much colder version of the Pacific than the one Lewis and Clark reached, almost 170 years later.
The above factoid, which I only recently learned by reading the book “Black Dragon River” which concerns the areas along the Amur River, between Russia and China, served as the impetus to revisit the most famous journey of discovery, as the corps was literally called, in American history. Ken Burns produced this documentary in 1997 for PBS. I had previously read Stephen Ambrose’s account of this journey, “Undaunted Courage.” And that is a problem with Burns’ documentary, because Ambrose is one of the major commentators.
No question, what Lewis and Clark and his band of men did was an outstanding achievement, for themselves and for our nation. Many aspects of this journey would be difficult to replicate by modern (soft?) man (and a wonderful woman) today. There were no GPS, cell phones, maps, light Kevlar canoes, freeze-dried food, no real medical kits, et al. There were dollops of just winging it, with your wits. Just paddling the entire Missouri River upstream, against a current that was almost impossible to paddle against, mid-stream. Want to winter outside, in North Dakota today? Or winter again, in the perpetual rain of the Pacific Northwest, with no yogurt, blueberries and coffee for breakfast? Just water and elk meat, morning, noon and night.
Merriweather Lewis was Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary. That is how he got his role. He invited his friend, and elder, William Clark to be his partner. They recruited enough men and commenced up the Missouri on April 04, 1804, returning in 1806. Remarkably, only one man died, probably from appendicitis, from which he would have died in civilized Philadelphia. Indian tribes were perpetually in conflict with each other. The expedition managed to slide between the cracks, with only a close call or two. Two women saved the expedition. There was the Shoshone slave/wife, Sacagawea, who famously accompanied them. And when the Nez Perce decided to kill them all, one female elder, who had been well-treated by the Whites, said no, and that tribe vowed never to make war on them, a commitment that was not reciprocated, but that is another story.
The fabled “northwest passage,” that is, a feasible water route from the Mississippi to the Columbia River, and hence to the “riches of the Orient” was a key objective. Maybe a short portage between the Missouri and the Columbia would be required. “Wasn’t to be,” was a key finding of the expedition. The Bitterroot Mountains blocked easy access to the Columbia.
Perhaps it was in the book and I forgot it, but of the various factoids, one of the most impressive is that from the time the expedition broke camp at the Mandan villages in the spring of 1805 until August 11, near the Bitterroots, they did not see another human being. Also, the Mandan villages themselves, near present day Bismarck, ND, with a population of 4500, was larger than either St. Louis or Washington, DC, at the time. The journals were an invaluable record for all of us to pore over; 122 species of animals and 178 species of plants never seen before were recorded.
I loved the perspective of another commentator, William Least-Heat Moon, still with us at 81, author of a favorite that needs to be re-read, “Blue Highways.”
But Stephen Ambrose hung heavy, with his unbridled enthusiasm for “hope and discovery,” and his ability to know what was in Lewis’s mind. I gave his book a 2-star rating, after discovering his history of plagiarism, and just making a lot of stuff up. With all the sordidness in America’s history, its better moments, such as this journey, SHOULD be celebrated. Ambrose’s hagiography did not.
And then there is the matter of Lewis’s death. Was it suicide or murder? The documentary says that Lewis committed suicide by shooting himself in the head and in the heart. I don’t recommend trying that to see if it is possible. It is only in the “trivia” section that one obtains an explanation on why it very well may have been murder.
Swirling currents, like the Missouri and the Columbia themselves, from which to pick out a star rating, with only five choices. I do strongly recommend viewing this, but with the caveats above, I can only give it 3-stars.