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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.