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Archive for the ‘Lewis & Clark Journals’ Category

Imagine being lost in an unfamiliar wilderness for sixteen days, without food, shelter, ammunition, or any way to let your companions know where you were. Such was the fate of Private George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Only 18 years old when he joined Lewis & Clark’s party in October 1803, Shannon literally grew up along the trail. In the course of the 2 ½ year journey, he suffered one of the most harrowing ordeals of all the men of the Corps of Discovery– facing the wilderness totally alone.

George Shannon

Artist’s rendering of George Shannon

George Shannon was born in 1785 in Washington County, Pennsylvania, an intelligent young man from a good family. He met Meriwether Lewis in Pittsburgh in 1803, while Lewis was awaiting the completion of the expedition’s keelboat.  Shannon was one of three men Lewis took along from Pittsburgh on a trial basis. He officially signed on at Maysville, Kentucky on October 19, 1803, and is usually considered one of the “nine young men from Kentucky,” although his ties to Kentucky were forged later. Shannon was hired onto the expedition as a hunter, at the rank of private. His salary was $25 per month.

Shannon wintered over at Camp Dubois with the rest of the Corps, and was placed in the first squad under Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor. He seems to have been considered a capable and reliable young man, who rarely caused the captains any trouble.The captains thought enough of Shannon’s abilities that they tapped him to discharge Pryor’s duties should Pryor need to be absent from the squad.

Shannon’s ordeal began on August 26, 1804, when he was detailed to search for two missing pack horses near Spirit Mound in present-day South Dakota. Shannon found the horses quickly and proceeded upriver, believing the rest of the Corps to be ahead of him. In fact, the Corps was actually trailing him. With only a rifle and a handful of ammunition, Shannon wandered alone in the wilderness for the next sixteen days, desperately trying to catch up to his companions.

A skilled hunter, Shannon was able to kill his own food until his ammunition ran out, several days after he went missing. He was forced to abandon one of the pack horses which gave out in the wilderness. Loading his rifle with a hard stick, he managed to bring down one rabbit. Otherwise, he survived by eating grapes, keeping the second pack horse in reserve as a last resort.

Finally, on September 11, 1804, Shannon spied the Corps of Discovery coming up the river. One can only imagine his emotions upon finally being reunited with his fellows. A relieved Captain Clark wrote in his journal:

here the man who left us with the horses 16 days ago and has been a head ever Since joined, us nearly Starved to Death, he had been 12 days without any thing to eate but Grapes & one Rabit, which he Killed by shooting a piece of hard Stick in place of a ball—. This man Supposeing the boat to be a head pushed on as long as he Could, when he became weak and feeble deturmined to lay by and waite for a tradeing boat, which is expected  Keeping one horse for the last resorse,—    thus a man had like to have Starved to death in a land of Plenty for the want of Bulletes or Something to kill his meat.

Private Shannon Lost Map

Children’s map – “Where in the World is Private George Shannon?”

Unfortunately for Shannon, it wasn’t the last time he got lost. On August 6, 1805, he was sent out to hunt near the Three Forks, a dangerous and confusing area inhabited by unfamiliar Indians. It was a stressful day for the Corps, with Clark ailing from a hurt ankle and Private Whitehouse seriously injured from almost being crushed by a canoe. A harried Captain Lewis wrote in his journal that night:

Shannon had been dispatched up the rapid fork this morning to hunt, by Capt Clark before he met with Drewyer or learnt his mistake in the rivers. When he returned he sent Drewyer in surch of him, but he rejoined us this evening and reported that he had been several miles up the river and could find nothing of him.    we had the trumpet sounded and fired several guns but he did not join us this evening. I am fearful he is lost again. this is the same man who was seperated from us 15 days as we came up the Missouri and subsisted 9 days of that time on grapes only.

Lewis sent Reubin Fields in search of Shannon, but Fields returned on August 8 and “reported that he had been up Wisdom river some miles above where it entered the mountain and could find nothing of Shannon.”  But the next day, Lewis happily reported that Shannon had finally rejoined the group.

while we halted here Shannon arrived, and informed us that having missed the party the day on which he set out he had returned the next morning to the place from whence he had set out or furst left them and not finding that he had supposed that they wer above him; that he then set out and marched one day up wisdom river, by which time he was convinced that they were not above him as the river could not be navigated; he then returned to the forks and had pursued us up this river.    he brought the skins of three deer which he had killed which he said were in good order. he had lived very plentifully this trip but looked a good deel worried with his march.

Shannon suffered some minor mishaps during the remainder of the expedition, but was careful not to get lost on the return trip. He returned up the Missouri River in 1807, on an ill-fated fur-trading expedition that had the added goal of returning Mandan chief Sheheke to his village. The party was attacked by the Arikara Indians, and Shannon suffered a bullet wound that broke his leg. By the time the party straggled back down the river, gangrene had set in and Shannon was not expected to live. Shannon’s amputated leg was buried at Fort Bellefontaine on the bank of the Missouri River. The young man survived, but his exploring days were over. He was still only 22.

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

Shannon went on to study law in Lexington, Kentucky. In the spring of 1810, William Clark recruited him to travel to Philadelphia to assist Nicholas Biddle with editing the Lewis and Clark journals. Clark’s letter of introduction stated that Shannon “possesses a sincere and undisguised heart, he is highly spoken of by all his acquaintances and much respected at the Lexington University where he has been for the last two years.”

After his involvement with the Lewis and Clark journals, Shannon returned to Kentucky, married into a prominent Lexington family, fathered seven children, and embarked on a turbulent legal and political career in Kentucky and Missouri that spanned almost three decades. George Shannon died suddenly August 30, 1836 at the age of 51. A St. Louis newspaper reported that his masonic funeral was attended by “a large assemblage of the ladies and gentlemen of the town … to offer their last testimony of respect to the remains of a good man.” He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Massie Mill Cemetery near Palmyra, Missouri.

The compelling story of Shannon’s ordeal in the wilderness continues to resonate with students of the Lewis and Clark expedition, especially young people. Shannon is the subject of several children’s books, second only to the expedition’s dog, Seaman.

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Meriwether Lewis, by Charles Saint-Memin

This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.

What would you think about someone who wrote this in his diary? Would you think the person was depressed and gloomy—tormented by regret and full of self-doubt? Or would you think the writer was motivated and forward-looking, determined to improve himself and eager to explore future possibilities?

Meriwether Lewis wrote this passage in his journal on August 18, 1805, the evening of his thirty-first birthday. It is probably the most picked-over paragraph in the entire body of the Lewis and Clark journals. Of everything Lewis ever wrote, these words have done more than anything else to cement his image as a melancholy, troubled man, already headed down the path to suicide.

Continental Divide

The Rocky Mountains at the Continental Divide

Historians differ in their interpretation of Lewis’s birthday note. It is nearly impossible not to view his words through the prism of his violent death four years later. It is striking that Lewis wrote these words while at the Continental Divide—a critical point in the Expedition, where he seemed to have come so far and accomplished so much. Yet Lewis had no way of knowing at that moment how the journey would turn out. He didn’t know that in a little over a year he would be returning home a hero. At that moment, he had the Rocky Mountains to cross.

His thoughts seemed to be running along the lines of “I haven’t done anything yet.” Given the task ahead—and the reality that there was no turning back—it would not be surprising if he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. Still, this is hardly evidence of excessive melancholy. Impatience with himself and the situation, perhaps—but hardly suicidal impulses.

By His Own Hand? The Strange Death of Meriwether Lewis, edited by John D.W. Guice (2006)

One of the most interesting commentaries on the birthday note I have read comes from historian John D. W. Guice in By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis. As a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, Guice used to hand out the birthday journal entry to his university students on the first day of class, with instructions to write a few sentences about the person who wrote it. “Of the several hundred paragraphs that I received over two years, not one student identified the birthday thoughts as evidence of depression or impending self-destruction,” Guice wrote. In some respects, he suggests, the self-reflective thoughts Lewis expresses are typical of someone who is approaching what they consider to be middle-age.

So what do you think? Was Lewis already losing it at the point in the expedition? Is the birthday note evidence of depression and impending mental disintegration? Or as the country song says, was he simply expressing the hope that, “I’ll do better in my next thirty years?”

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“I received, my dear Sir, with unspeakable joy your letter of Sep. 23 announcing the return of yourself, Capt. Clarke & your party in good health to St. Louis,” Thomas Jefferson wrote on October 24, 1806. “The unknown scenes in which you were engaged, & the length of time without hearing of you had begun to be felt awfully.”

Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale

Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale, 1807

Meriwether Lewis had finally made it home. Jefferson had not heard from him in well over a year, since the shipment of specimens and artifacts Lewis and Clark sent from their winter camp in Fort Mandan in April 1805 had reached Washington. Jefferson welcomed Lewis home, assuring Lewis of “my constant affection for you & the joy with which all your friends here will receive you.” Lewis was hailed as a hero when he finally arrived back at the President’s House on December 28. He had last seen Jefferson three and a half years before.

It must have been a great moment for the young explorer. Even so, Lewis knew the trip was not without its disappointments. The fabled Northwest Passage, an easy all-water route across the continent, had not been found—because it didn’t exist. Both Lewis and Jefferson hoped that the other benefits of the trip—the knowledge of the flora and fauna, Indian peoples, potential trade routes and geography—would be enough to justify the expedition’s considerable expense to Congress.

The President's House

The President's House, 1801-1808

Lewis remained with Jefferson for several months, debriefing the president on the specifics of the journey. In February 1807, as a reward for his success, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana. In addition, Jefferson assigned Lewis the important task of getting the expedition journals ready for publication, a work that would include a two-volume narrative of the voyage, a scientific volume describing the plant, animal, and mineral discoveries of the expedition, and a final volume featuring Clark’s map and other geographic data.

It was too  much—and a sure recipe for failure. Lewis hurried to Philadelphia to enlist the advice of experts to help with the journals, but he seems not to have considered hiring anyone else to actually write the narrative. No doubt Jefferson, with his facility with words, assumed Lewis could do it easily himself. But Lewis struggled with re-entry into normal life; after two and a half years immersed in the wilderness—not to mention recovering from a painful gunshot wound—it would not be surprising if he were overwhelmed and exhausted. Jefferson, who had traveled to France as a U.S. diplomat but otherwise never been more than a few hundred miles from Monticello, simply did not understand.

For months, Lewis drowned in paperwork, trying to get together records and receipts of the expedition’s expenditures. He worked on a detailed paper on an Indian policy for Louisiana. Business in Louisiana was increasingly urgent—the territory was fraught with disputes over land and Indian rights—but Lewis did not actually arrive in the territory to take up his job until March of 1808. He was immediately engulfed in a political hornet’s nest.

Meanwhile, the expedition journals sat there, unpublished. By the summer of 1808, Jefferson was losing patience. “Since I parted with you in Albemarle in Sept. last I have never had a line from you,” he chided in a letter to Lewis dated July 17. After wanting to know what Lewis was going to do about returning the Indian chief Sheheke to the Mandan villages, he nagged: “We have no tidings yet of the forwardness of your printer. I hope the first part will not be delayed much longer.”

Lewis did not reply to the letter. Imagine his anxiety at Jefferson’s disappointment—he had not yet written a single line. Most writers need quiet, uninterrupted time to complete a work; it requires both concentration and effort. Lewis did not have uninterrupted time. And now he was letting Thomas Jefferson down.

Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully

Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1821

Jefferson’s last communication to Lewis was on August 16, 1809. By this time Jefferson was out of office, and the journals had languished for almost three years. Jefferson wrote: “I am very often applied to know when your work will begin to appear; and I have so long promised copies to my literary correspondents in France, that I am almost bankrupt in their eyes. I shall be very happy to receive from yourself information of your expectations on the subject. Every body is impatient for it.”

Again, Lewis didn’t reply. He still had not started the narrative, and by this time, he was in deep trouble with the Madison administration for expenses incurred trying to get Sheheke back home. Lewis made plans to go to Washington to straighten the mess out, but he was never to see his mentor again.

In October 1809, at Grinder’s Stand on the Natchez Trace, Lewis “did the deed which plunged his friends into affliction, and deprived his country of one of her most valued citizens,” Jefferson wrote in a biographical sketch published in 1813. He continued, “While he lived with me, in Washington, I observed at times sensible depressions of mind…after he returned to St. Louis, and sedentary occupations, they returned upon him with redoubled vigor, and began seriously to alarm his friends.”

It is unknowable to what degree the pressure of Jefferson’s expectations—and Lewis’s failure to meet them—contributed to Lewis’s misery. What is known is that Jefferson was still disappointed, four years later. He had invested a great deal of time training Lewis, and perhaps he felt that it didn’t pay off.

Still chafing over the unpublished journals, Jefferson added to his memorial of Lewis: “[The nation] lost, too … the benefit of receiving from his own hand the narrative…of his sufferings and successes in endeavoring to extend for them the boundaries of science, and to present to their knowledge that vast and fertile country which their sons are destined to fill with arts, with science, with freedom and happiness.”

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As Lewis and Clark fans know, William Clark was a journal-keepin’, letter-writin’ man. Well over half of the words of the Lewis & Clark journals were written by Clark, and he is acknowledged to be the more faithful journal-keeper of the pair. It was no anomaly. Clark kept journals at other times in his life too.

Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers

Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers

The summer he turned 24, Clark was a young lieutenant on the march with Anthony Wayne’s army to fight the Indians in the Ohio Valley. Clark started a journal of the campaign which is full of a sense of certainty, self-importance, and resentment of authority that only a young person can muster.  (In fact, his attitude earned him some ribbing from a fellow recruit, who labeled a book of company records,  “Company Book of Lt. Clark’s & Wayne’s Wars.”)  Personal resentments aside, Clark’s journal is a priceless record, one of only three first-hand primary-source accounts of this turning point in American history. Through the filter of his own perspective, Clark writes in detail about the intrigues among the officers, the march through the Ohio wilderness, and the climactic Battle of Fallen Timbers.

Reading young Clark’s diary, one thing is certain: he didn’t like Anthony Wayne very much. We enjoyed playing off this resentment in our upcoming book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe.

Clark also kept a journal in later years, when he was the federal superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis (1820-1838). This journal, which runs from May, 1826 (the time of a great flood along the Mississippi) to February 1831, appears to be the surviving volume of a set. It lacks the personal touch of the youthful diary, much less the rich observational details and profound humanity of the Lewis & Clark journals. For the most part, it’s a dry record of daily weather, river conditions, and the comings and goings of steamboats and visitors from his office in St. Louis. In fact, many of the entries in the book are in the handwriting of Clark’s clerk.

However, there are a few personal glimpses to be found in the diary. In March 1827, the diary notes, “On this day George R. Clark son of Genl Clark when Hunting with Henry (a yellow fellow)-by accident was wounded under the right eye-by the discharge of Henry’s gun 3 miles out.” Clark’s son was ten years old at the time, and it was thought for a time that he might lose his eye. Fortunately, the boy recovered, doubtless to the immense relief of his parents and poor Henry. No wonder Clark’s hair turned white!

A few months later comes another more heart-breaking entry, this time in Clark’s own handwriting: “Edmond Clark (my Infant Son) died at 81/2 A.M. . . .” This journal is now in the collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

Finally, here is a doozy of a parody of Clark’s expedition journals. Enjoy!

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journals_collageOf all the many treasures they brought back from their trail-blazing exploration of the west, nothing was more valuable to  Lewis and Clark –and to history — than the daily journals they kept of their journey. The Lewis & Clark Journals are far more than a record of high adventure and bravery (though they are that). They are more, even, than great and irreplacable American literature.

For above all else, the Lewis & Clark Expedition was about information. Without the meticulously recorded data of the journals — the observations and drawings of animals and plants, the ethnological observations and vocabularies from the Native Americans they encountered, the maps, the astronomical observations, the evaluations of the economic, political, and military potential of the vast territory they explored — the Expedition might as well have never happened. Without the journals, we wouldn’t have any reason to remember Lewis & Clark.

That being the case, it’s not surprising to learn that Meriwether Lewis was packing the journals with him at the time of his death along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. After all, Lewis was supposed to be writing a book about the expedition and all its findings. He may have even chosen the dangerous route along the “Devil’s Backbone” to avoid the possibility of being captured by the British if he shipped out of New Orleans, and having the journals fall into enemy hands. And it isn’t surprising to learn that William Clark, right after he expressed shock in learning of Lewis’s death, exclaimed, “What will become of our papers?”

Nicholas Biddle went on to become president of the Bank of the United States and the bane of Andrew Jackson's existence.

Nicholas Biddle went on to become president of the Bank of the United States and the bane of Andrew Jackson's existence.

Fortunately, Jefferson recovered Lewis’s trunk and his papers. The former president was just as determined as ever to get the findings of the Lewis & Clark Expedition published. He and Clark worked together with a writer named Nicholas Biddle to produce a book, though the abridged work, published in 1814, failed to come close to capturing the vast body of knowledge locked inside the journals’ pages.

Over the years, various pages had been torn out of the journals, and other notes had been separated. For example, some material had been given to an astronomer to analyze, while other pages had gone to a well-known naturalist. Unlike the jokers at NASA who taped over the moon mission,  Jefferson and Clark both recognized the incalculable value of the originals. By 1818, Jefferson had managed to round up all of the journals still floating around in the hands of various writers and naturalists, and got them all deposited at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, a private scientific organization to which Jefferson had belonged for decades and which was the only suitable repository in the United States at that time.

Elliot Coues was a pioneer in the observation and study of American birds.

Elliot Coues was a pioneer in the observation and study of American birds.

There the journals stayed safe and mostly forgotten until 1892, when a writer named Elliot Coues unearthed them for a project to republish an annotated version of the Biddle book. Coues got permission to take the journals home to Washington, D.C., where he did the hard yeoman’s work of analyzing what was in each journal and developing aids for future researchers to use them. Coues identified 18 bound notebooks and 12 smaller parcels of loose notes, which mostly consisted of the pages that had been torn out of the journals. Coues even had a complete transcription made of the journals, hoping to finally publish them in their entirety. Though he never pulled off the project, he left a lasting legacy, which was not entirely positive. Coues had been so certain that his work would be the last word on Lewis & Clark, he made margin notes on pages of the original journals. When an aghast Philosophical Society found out what he had done, they reclaimed the journals and required all future researchers to use them onsite in Philadelphia.

Reuben Gold Thwaites was secretary of Wisconsin History Society and author of numerous books on early Western exploration.

Reuben Gold Thwaites was secretary of the Historical Society of Wisconsin and author of numerous books on early Western exploration.

Western historian Reuben Gold Thwaites, building on the momentum of Coues, the Lewis & Clark Centennial of 1904-06, and the interest in the West sparked by the end of the frontier and the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, was the first historian to bring a complete edition of the Journals to publication. Thwaites was also responsible for unearthing the tremendously valuable collection of five previously unknown Clark journals and a wealth of letters, maps, and other materials that were in the possession of one of Clark’s granddaughters. The family donated these items to the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis.

Over the years, more Lewis & Clark material has been discovered. Nicholas Biddle’s grandson found important items such as the journal that Lewis and Clark kept before they left for the journey, and the journal of Sergeant John Ordway. These materials were given to the American Philosophical Society. Other materials, such as Clark’s field notes and priceless maps, ended up at Yale University. In 1953, the federal government made a move to claim some of the Lewis & Clark materials (the Expedition was, after all, a U.S. Army operation), but the courts ruled against their claims.

Besides the captains’ journals, several of the enlisted men kept journals. Of these, the journals of Sergeants Patrick Gass and Nathaniel Pryor, and Privates Robert Frazer and Alexander Willard are unaccounted for. Thanks to the somewhat rapacious collecting of director Lyman Draper, the brief journal of Sergeant Charles Floyd ended up at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Sergeant Joseph Whitehouse gave his journal to an Italian priest, and after many adventures and owners the book ended up at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Dr. Gary Moulton spent twenty years developing the first comprehensive set of the Lewis & Clark journals.

Dr. Gary Moulton spent twenty years developing the first comprehensive set of the Lewis & Clark journals.

Making use of all this material was Dr. Gary Moulton of the University of Nebraska. From 1983-2001, Moulton edited, annotated, and published the Complete Lewis & Clark Journals. We had the pleasure of going on a tour of Montana and Idaho with Gary in 2003 and it was amazing to realize the depth of knowledge he had of the Expedition and the West due to his work. While nothing in history can ever be said to be definitive, Gary’s work on the Lewis & Clark journals will stand forever in making this spectacular American treasure available and accessible to us all.

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