It is often said that the journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into the American West was the equivalent in its day of a journey to the moon. The preparations, the dangers, the marriage of science and politics, the geopolitical implications, and of course, the individual heroism, all invite comparisons between the explorers and the astronauts so many of us grew up idolizing.
It is impossible to overstate the excitement and national pride engendered by the astronaut program. No less than six ticket-tape parades wound their way through Broadway’s “Canyon of Heroes.” The press coverage, especially that delivered by Walter Cronkite and by the ubiquitous Life magazine, tied the astronauts strongly to a sense of national renewal, and promoted an image that was an irresistible combination of aw-shucks modesty, toughness, courage, and brainpower.
There was no mass media in Lewis & Clark’s day, no television to transmit their images around the world, no Life to package and spin their achievements. In fact, Lewis could have used a little help from the boys at Life, who had exclusive rights to tell the personal stories of the astronauts when they returned from space. Lewis had to write his own report, and as Stephen Ambrose details in Undaunted Courage, he neglected to mention his own scientific discoveries.
The report Lewis produced concentrated not on “the right stuff” but “show me the money.” Specifically, Lewis wrote a detailed treatise on the river systems he and Clark had explored and how they might be exploited to build an American fur-trading empire. And for fortune-seekers on the brink of the great era of the fur trade, it was an electrifying document: “The Missouri and it’s branches from the Cheyenne upwards abound more in beaver and Common Otter, than any other streams on earth, particularly that portion of them lying within the Rocky Mountains.”
In a separate document, Lewis and Clark wrote a letter to Clark’s brother Jonathan in Louisville, with instructions to publish the letter in the newspapers. It was in this letter that the explorers first detailed the exciting adventures experienced by the Corps of Discovery: shooting the rapids, getting chased by bears, dancing and romancing with the Indians, traversing the perilous Rocky Mountains. First published in Frankfort on October 11, 1806, by mid-November it had flashed all over the country, creating the indelible portrait of Lewis & Clark as rugged adventurers that persists to this very day.
In the meantime, Lewis and Clark were welcomed home with all of the pageantry available in Jeffersonian America. There were parties and celebrations everywhere they went. A legendary bash at Christy’s Tavern in St. Louis featured 17 toasts. Clark’s hometown of Louisville threw a huge banquet and ball, and Lewis’s hometown of Charlottesville put on a huge bash at the Stone Tavern for their prodigal son. On January 14, 1807, a terrific party in Washington honored Lewis and Clark and their “victory over the wilderness.”
To continue the parallel with space exploration, even as Lewis & Clark were being honored, a backlash was developing against the Expedition. In part, this came from Lewis’s decision to hold back any discussion of the intensely laborious work he had done on the scientific front. He publicized nothing of his amazing ethnography among the Indians, many of whom had never before met a white person; nothing of his discovery and descriptions of dozens of new plants, birds, reptiles, fish, and fossils; little of Clark’s extensive mapping of the entire route.
Lewis was saving it all for the book he planned to write. But as Lewis’s life slipped into politics (and, according to many historians, out of control personally), the book project never materialized. To Federalist detractors, then, the Lewis & Clark Expedition was fair game to criticize as a big waste of money, an expensive adventure for a few well-connected individuals, with the American taxpayer footing the bill.
Chief among the detractors was John Quincy Adams, then a senator from Massachusetts and a prominent critic of President Jefferson. Known for his rapier wit, Adams published (anonymously in keeping with the tradition of the era) a blistering satiric poem about the Expedition:
Good people, listen to my tale
‘Tis nothing but what true is
I”ll tell you of the mighty deeds
Atchieved by Captain Lewis
How starting from the Atlantick shore
By fair and easy motion
He journied, all the way by land,
Until he met the ocean …
And must we then resign the hope
These Elements of changing?
And must we still, alas! be told
That after all his ranging
The Captain could discover naught
But Water in the Fountains?
Must Forests still be formed of Trees?
Of Rugged Rocks the Mountains? …
Let Dusky Sally henceforth bear
The name of Isabella;
And let the mountain, all of salt
Be christened Monticella–
The hog with navel on his back
Tom Pain may be when drunk, sir–
And Joel* call the prairie dog
What once was called a skunk, sir.
* [biblical prophet]
It is sometimes said that Lewis & Clark were forgotten for much of the 19th century. This is not strictly true. The parallel with the space program turns out to be an apt one. The Apollo program dissolved in budget cuts and irresolution about the worth of manned space exploration. It’s hardly forgotten, but the rocket ships and lunar landers that fueled playground adventures are long gone. Children want to be hip-hop stars and basketball players, not astronauts. NASA taped over the moon landing, for crying out loud.
In a similar manner, the memory of Lewis & Clark faded in the rush of events, especially the new technology of steamboats and railroads that soon made their rugged journey hopelessly obsolete. But interestingly enough, Lewis & Clark were rediscovered with a vengeance around the turn of the century, first by historians Elliot Coues and Reuben Gold Thwaites, who rescued the entire story from the long-ignored journals and published it again for the world to appreciate, and then by popular novelists and the public, who responded warmly to the courage, brilliance, and individual achievement embodied in the Lewis & Clark story.
As America gained enough distance to look back in awe at the taming of the West, Lewis & Clark were permanently enshrined as American heroes. It will be interesting to see if such a phenomenon ever occurs with the fading memories of Apollo. Maybe … if, with time, we once again consider going forth into the wilderness, to touch the stars.
More great reading:
One Giant Screw-Up For Mankind (Wired article about how NASA lost the videotape of the moon landing)
Rocket Science, photo essay by Lauren Orchowski of great old space-age playgrounds