Archive for the ‘It Could Only Happen to Lewis’ Category

Three Forks area, Montana

Three Forks area, Montana

It was August 11, 1805, and Meriwether Lewis was getting desperate. Since leaving Fort Mandan in April 1805, the Corps of Discovery had navigated the twists and turns of the Upper Missouri, run their canoes through the Missouri Breaks, and portaged their boats and equipment on a grueling 18-mile land route around the Great Falls of the Missouri River. As July wore on into August, the Corps pressed on into what is now western Montana, searching for the Shoshone Indians. The Shoshone’s formidable horse herds were critical to the success of Lewis and Clark’s plan for reaching the Pacific Ocean. If they could only barter for horses, they believed they could swap their increasingly grueling river travel for an easy horseback ride across the Continental Divide.

There was only one problem. The Shoshone were nowhere to be found. In many places along the Upper Missouri, Lewis and Clark saw signs of Indian camps, hunting expeditions, cook fires, and smoke signals. But they did not encounter any people. In any case, they could not be sure whether these deserted camps belonged to the Shoshone, or indicated the unwelcome presence of hostile Assiniboine or Blackfeet.

By late July the party had reached the Three Forks, and Sacagawea began to recognize landmarks from the area in which she lived prior to being kidnapped as a child. While Lewis wrangled the boats up the river, Clark led a party by land, suffering blistered feet and prickly pear punctures. But they still saw no Indians. The explorers simply did not realize that the Shoshone were still hunting and fishing west of the Divide and typically did not cross the mountains until early fall.

Beaverhead Rock

Beaverhead Rock (courtesy NPS)

By the first week of August, Lewis and Clark’s party was exhausted, demoralized, and hungry. The river was barely navigable, Clark was sick and his feet painful and infected. If they could not find horses, the expedition would have to attempt the Rocky Mountains on foot, carrying only a fraction of their supplies and relying on finding scarce game in the mountains in winter. It was a bleak prospect indeed. Then, a ray of hope: Sacagawea recognized Beaverhead Rock. She was certain that her people would be camped along the river nearby.

Clark still being too ill to lead a scouting party, Lewis set out with George Drouillard, John Shields, and Hugh McNeal. On the morning of August 11, he finally found the man he was looking for:

after having marched in this order for about five miles I discovered an Indian on horse back about two miles distance coming down the plain toward us.    with my glass I discovered from his dress that he was of a different nation from any that we had yet seen, and was satisfyed of his being a Sosone; his arms were a bow and quiver of arrows, and was mounted on an eligant horse without a saddle, and a small string which was attatched to the underjaw of the horse which answered as a bridle. I was overjoyed at the sight of this stranger and had no doubt of obtaining a friendly introduction to his nation provided I could get near enough to him to convince him of our being whitemen. I therefore proceeded towards him at my usual pace.    when I had arrived within about a mile he mad a halt which I did also and unloosing my blanket from my pack, I mad him the signal of friendship known to the Indians of the Rocky mountains and those of the Missouri, which is by holding the mantle or robe in your hands at two corners and then throwing up in the air higher than the head bringing it to the earth as if in the act of spreading it, thus repeating three times.    this signal of the robe has arrisen from a custom among all those nations of spreading a robe or skin for ther gests to set on when they are visited.    this signal had not the desired effect, he still kept his position and seemed to view Drewyer an Shields who were now comiming in sight on either hand with an air of suspicions, I wold willingly have made them halt but they were too far distant to hear me and I feared to make any signal to them least it should increase the suspicion in the mind of the Indian of our having some unfriendly design upon him. I therefore haistened to take out of my sack some b[e]ads a looking glas and a few trinketes which I had brought with me for this purpose and leaving my gun and pouch with McNeal advanced unarmed towards him.    he remained in the same stedfast poisture untill I arrived in about 200 paces of him when he turn his hose about and began to move off slowly from me; I now called to him in as loud a voice as I could command repeating the word tab-ba-bone, which in their language signifyes white man.

Shoshone on horseback

Shoshone on horseback

Lewis advanced slowly, repeatedly shouting the word “tab-ba-bone,” a word which he had undoubtedly gotten from Sacagawea as the best way to describe white men to her people. Seeing the Indian glancing nervously over his shoulder, Lewis frantically motioned for Drouillard and Shields to halt their advance so as not to spook the man, but Shields failed to see the signal and continued forward. Lewis continued in his journal: “whe I arrived within about 150 paces I again repepeated the word tab-ba-bone and held up the trinkits in my hands and striped up my shirt sleve to give him an opportunity of seeing the colour of my skin and advanced leasure towards him but he did not remain untill I got nearer than about 100 paces when he suddonly turned his hose about, gave him the whip leaped the creek and disapeared in the willow brush in an instant and with him vanished all my hopes of obtaining horses for the present.”

Lewis was mortified, disappointed, and furious at Shields and the other men. He confessed that he “could not forbare abraiding them a little for their want of attention and imprudence on this occasion.” In other words, Shields got a good old-fashioned army ass-chewing.

Still hoping to make contact, Lewis and his men tracked the Shoshone for two more days. On the morning of August 13, Lewis again had a close encounter:

we had proceeded about four miles through a wavy plain parallel to the valley or river bottom when at the distance of about a mile we saw two women, a man and some dogs on an eminence immediately before us.    they appeared to vew us with attention and two of them after a few minutes set down as if to wait our arrival we continued our usual pace towards them.    when we had arrived within half a mile of them I directed the party to halt and leaving my pack and rifle I took the flag which I unfurled and avanced singly towards them the women soon disappeared behind the hill, the man continued untill I arrived within a hundred yards of him and then likewise absconded.    tho’ I frequently repeated the word tab-ba-bone sufficiently loud for him to have heard it. I now haistened to the top of the hill where they had stood but could see nothing of them.

Shoshone women and children

Shoshone women and children

A short time later, however, Lewis finally hit paydirt:

we had not continued our rout more than a mile when we were so fortunate as to meet with three female savages.    the short and steep ravines which we passed concealed us from each other untill we arrived within 30 paces.    a young woman immediately took to flight, an Elderly woman and a girl of about 12 years old remained. I instantly laid by my gun and advanced towards them.    they appeared much allarmed but saw that we were to near for them to escape by flight they therefore seated themselves on the ground, holding down their heads as if reconciled to die which the expected no doubt would be their fate; I took the elderly woman by the hand and raised her up repeated the word tab-ba-bone and strip up my shirt sleve to sew her my skin; to prove to her the truth of the ascertion that I was a white man for my face and hads which have been constantly exposed to the sun were quite as dark as their own. they appeared instantly reconciled, and the men coming up I gave these women some beads a few mockerson awls some pewter looking-glasses and a little paint.

After calling back the young woman who had run away, Lewis “painted their tawny cheeks with some vermilion” as a sign of friendship and bestowed trinkets on the women to convince them of his good intentions. The women agreed to lead him to their camp. Lewis recorded in  his journal that after walking with the women another two miles, “we met a party of about 60 warriors mounted on excellent horses who came in nearly full speed,  when they arrived I advanced towards them with the flag leaving my gun with the party about 50 paces behid me.    the chief and two others who were a little in advance of the main body spoke to the women, and they informed them who we were and exultingly shewed the presents which had been given them    these men then advanced and embraced me very affectionately in their way which is by puting their left arm over you wright sholder clasping your back, while they apply their left cheek to yours and frequently vociforate the word âh-hi’-e, âh-hi’-e  that is, I am much pleased, I am much rejoiced.    bothe parties now advanced and we wer all carresed and besmeared with their grease and paint till I was heartily tired of the national hug.”

Charlie Russell's Captain Lewis Meeting the Shoshones

“Captain Lewis Meeting the Shoshones” by Charles Russell

Lewis might not have been a “huggy” person, but he was a most fortunate one. Having never encountered white people before, the Shoshone were friendly and eager to embrace their new “tab-ba-bone” friend. According to the notes in Moulton’s Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, sources disagree on the translation of this word. Some say it meant “alien” or “stranger,” which would not have reassured the Shoshone upon repeated shoutings. Some say that Lewis meant to say Ti-yo bo-nin, meaning “I’m a white man! See!” deriving from Ti-you, meaning “one originating from the sun” (i.e., the east). Having no experience with whites, it is quite possible that tab-ba-bone meant nothing to the Shoshone at all.  Perhaps they just saw Lewis as a tired and desperate human being, and took him in.

Lewis met the principal chief, Cameahwait, who regretfully told Lewis the Shoshone had nothing to eat but berries. Lewis accepted them gratefully, and he and his famished men “made a hearty meal.” Lewis wrote that later, “an indian called me in to his bower and gave me a small morsel of the flesh of an antelope boiled, and a peice of a fresh salmon roasted; both which I eat with a very good relish.”He added with evident satisfaction: “This was the first salmon I had seen and perfectly convinced me that we were on the waters of the Pacific Ocean.”

More interesting reading: Lewis and Clark Among the Shoshones

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Early American Boat Builder

Early American Boat Builder

Anyone who’s ever worked with a building contractor knows that projects don’t always go smoothly. Meriwether Lewis found that out the hard way in the spring and summer of 1803, when he was making preparations to embark down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to join up with Clark. For Lewis’s primary means of transportation, the U.S. government had contracted with a boat-builder to build a large keelboat, capable of carrying the 30 tons of supplies and equipment the Corps of Discovery would need for their cross-continental journey. There was only one problem. The contractor wouldn’t finish the job.

Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh in mid-July 1803, having spent months training in scientific methods, procuring arms and equipment, and boning up on everything known about western geography and native peoples. He wrote to Jefferson immediately to let him know he would soon be making final preparations to embark down the Ohio River. On Lewis’s mind was the water level in the Ohio, which was unusually low due to lack of spring rains. “I have not yet seen Lieut. Hook nor made the enquiry relative to my boat, on the state of which, the time of my departure from hence must materially depend,” he wrote to Jefferson on July 15th. “The Ohio is quite low, but not so much so as to obstruct my passage altogether.”

As it turned out, the water level was the least of Lewis’s problems. He had expected the boat to be ready to load within a week, but it was far from finished.  On July 22, Lewis wrote to Jefferson again:

The person who contracted to build my boat engaged to have it in readiness by the 20th inst. [July 20th]; in this however he has failed; he pleads his having been disappointed in procuring timber, but says he has now supplyed himself with the necessary materials, and that she shall be completed by the last of this month, however in this I am by no means sanguine, nor do I believe from the progress he makes that she will be ready before the 5th of August; I visit him every day, and endeavor by every means in my power to hasten the completion of the work; I have prevailed on him to engage more hands, and he tells me that two others will join him in the morning, if so, he may probably finish the boat by the time he mentioned: I shall embark immediately the boat is in readiness, there being no other consideration at the moment which detains me.

He added hopefully: “The current of the Ohio is extreemely low and continues to decline, this may impede my progress but shall not prevent me from proceeding.”

Clark's drawing of the keelboat

Clark's drawing of the keelboat

The identity of this recalcitrant boat builder has, unfortunately, been lost to history. According to the Discovering Lewis and Clark website, historians of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania insist that Lewis’s boat was built there at the boatyard of Captain John Walker, but stronger evidence suggests that it was built at William Greenough’s boatyard in Pittsburgh. It is not known how much the U.S. government paid for the keelboat, though an early estimate of Lewis’s expenses – that optimistically pegged the estimated cost of outfitting the expedition at a mere $2500 – lists “Means of Transportation” at $430. It is possible that this sum could have represented the cost of the keelboat.

Regardless of who the boat builder was and how much he was paid, he was in no hurry to finish the work. On August 3rd, Lewis wrote to Clark to give him an update on when he would arrive in Louisville. “The articles of every discription forming my outfit for this expedition have arrived in good order; my boat only detains me, she is not yet compleated tho’ the work-man who contracted to build her promises that she shall be in readiness by the last of the next week,” Lewis wrote.  He expressed concern about the low water but concluded optimistically, “I have been detained much longer than I expected but shall be with you by the last of this month.”

Unfortunately, Lewis’s worst ordeal with the contractor was yet to come, and instead of reaching Clark on August 31st, he was just leaving Pittsburgh. In a letter to Jefferson from Wheeling, dated September 8th, Lewis describes what happened. His anger, frustration, and stress are palpable.

“It was not until 7 O’Clock on the morning of the 31stUltmo. that my boat was completed,” Lewis wrote. “She was instantly loaded, and at 10 A.M. on the same day I left Pittsburgh, where I had been moste shamefully detained by the unpardonable negligence of my boat-builder.” Lewis told Jefferson that when he realized that the boat was not going to be done by the first week of August, he considered abandoning it and buying several large pirogues to get his supplies downriver, taking the chance that he would be able procure a larger and more suitable vessel somewhere along the route.

But the difficulty of finding a suitable boat discouraged Lewis, and the boat builder promised Lewis he would mend his ways and finish the keelboat by August 13th . “However a few days after, according to his usual custom he got drunk, quarrelled with his workmen, and several of them left him, nor could they be prevailed upon to return,” Lewis wrote. Furious, Lewis threatened the boat builder with a breach of contract charge, which “exacted a promise of greater sobriety in future which, he took care to perform with as little good faith, as he had his previous promises.”  Lewis spent most of August with the workmen, “alternately persuading and threatening,” but it did little good. Lewis explained to Jefferson that”neither threats, persuasion or any other means which I could devise were sufficient to procure the completion of the work sooner than the31st of August.”

Lewis and Clark keelboat

August 31, 1803: The keelboat finally sets sail

By this time, the water level in the Ohio was so low –only six inches deep in places –that Lewis had to buy a pirogue to lighten the keelboat’s load and hire teams of horses and oxen to drag the boat over sandbars as he descended the river.  A worn-out Lewis finally reached Cincinnati on September 28th. “After the most tedious and laborious passage from Pittsburgh I have at length reached this place,” he wrote to Clark, then expressed his relief at having finally left the Pittsburgh boatyard and its “set of incorrigible drunkards” behind.

More interesting reading:

River Travel in Lewis and Clark’s Time

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By all accounts, Meriwether Lewis was a competent, respected and reliable army officer – otherwise, he would not have been selected as leader of the cross-continental exploring expedition. But when he was just starting out in the army, Lewis did not travel a golden road any more than any young person beginning a new career. In 1795, 21-year-old Ensign Lewis was in trouble so deep he could not have foreseen his later success. He had just joined the Fourth Sublegion of “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s army, and he was facing a potentially disastrous court-martial.

Officers at a court martial, circa 1835

Officers at a court martial, circa 1835

Courts-martial are as old as armies. To maintain army discipline in the field, the court martial deals with crimes committed by soldiers, especially uniquely military offenses. Then as now, courts-martial are not standing courts, but ad hoc bodies convened each time that charges are referred for trial. A military court may consist of a military judge, the prosecutor and defense counsel, and the members of the court who will decide guilt or innocence and pass sentence on the accused. In Lewis’s case, the outcome of the trial was being followed closely by General Anthony Wayne himself.

"Mad Anthony" Wayne

General "Mad Anthony" Wayne

One of the more comprehensive accounts of Lewis’s court-martial published to date is in Richard Dillon’s Meriwether Lewis: A Biography, originally published in 1965. (We eagerly await new research and a fuller account of the court-martial in Thomas Danisi’s forthcoming book, Uncovering the Truth about Meriwether Lewis, due out this month.)  Here is how Dillon describes the events of November 6, 1795:

Major Joseph Shaylor presided at [Meriwether Lewis’s] trial, the first such court-martial held in Wayne’s Legion. Testimony began on the 6th and did not close until the 12th because of an adjournment. The charges were brought against Lewis by a Lieutenant Elliott (perhaps Surgeon John Elliott, a New Yorker [or Lieutenant Joseph Elliott – ed.]). The first was the accusation that Lewis had made a direct, open and contemptuous violation of Articles One and Two of the Seventh Section of the Rules and Articles of War. To wit, that on September 24, 1795, Lewis had engaged in provocative speech and gestured in the Lieutenant’s quarters and had presumed, that same day, to send him a challenge to a duel. Elliott’s second charge was that of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. According to the accuser, Lewis, drunk, had burst into his room, uninvited and “abruptly and in an ungentlemanly manner.” He had then not only insulted the Lieutenant without provocation and offered to duel to the death with him, but had disturbed the “peace and harmony” of the officers who were Elliott’s guests that day.

It is believed that the conflict that triggered Lewis’s outburst was over politics. Then as now, politics made quick enemies. Lewis was, of course, a Jeffersonian Republican, and Elliott was evidently a Federalist.

See The Politics of Meriwether Lewis

Given the mores among the officers of Wayne’s Legion in the 1790’s, drunkenness and political disagreements were hardly uncommon, so perhaps the most serious of the infractions of which Lewis was accused was dueling. Gentlemen of the time, particularly Southern gentlemen, lived by the code duello, in which insults and other offenses to personal honor could not be tolerated. Such an insult must be quickly redressed – if not verbally, than with pistols at ten paces, in a ritual of carefully choreographed violence.

Dueling in the 18th century

Dueling in the 18th century

According to Alan D. Gaff’s Bayonets in the Wilderness, numerous duels had interrupted the Legion’s training and led to at least six fatalities amongst an already thin officer corps in the preceding years.  Even for Anthony Wayne — who had disagreed with George Washington’s remonstrances against dueling among officers during the Revolution – enough was enough. He was ready to dismiss officers who resorted to dueling when they could not get along. Article 2 of the Seventh Section of the Rules and Articles of War read: “No officer or soldier shall presume to send a challenge to any other officer or soldier, to fight a duel, upon pain, if a commissioned officer, of being cashiered.”

Bayonets in the Wilderness by Alan D. Gaff

Bayonets in the Wilderness by Alan D. Gaff (2008)

The battery of charges was stated to Lewis at the start of his court-martial, and he was asked to plead. According to Dillon, “The reply from the now stone-cold sober Virginian was a resounding ‘Not Guilty.'” The officers of the court called witnesses, studied the evidence, and finally issued their decision six days later. Lewis was indeed found not guilty of the charges against him. The court recommended that he be “acquitted with Honor,” a verdict that was upheld by Anthony Wayne, with the added “fond hope” that “as this is the first, that it also may be the last instance in the Legion of convening a Court for a trial of this nature.”

The fact that Meriwether Lewis was competent and reliable – adjectives that could not be applied to every officer in Wayne’s army – no doubt worked in his favor. As fate would have it, this unpleasant experience led to one of the most fortuitous events in Lewis’s life. To forestall any possible further conflict with Elliott, Lewis received a transfer. He was reassigned to the Chosen Rifle Company, a unit of elite sharpshooters commanded by another young officer, Lieutenant William Clark. The rest, as they say, is history.

More interesting reading from “The Art of Manliness” Blog: An Affair of Honor – The Duel

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The fall of 1807 marked one year since Meriwether Lewis returned from the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Appointed by Jefferson to the post of Governor of Upper Louisiana, Lewis had yet to leave for St. Louis to take up his duties. He lingered in the east, romance among the many things crowding his mind. Although he had been entranced by several “bewitching gypsies” in that city, Lewis had yet to find that special someone.

Portrait of a Young Woman, by Jean-Marc Nattier

Portrait of a Young Woman, by Jean-Marc Nattier

“I am now a perfect widower with rispect to love,” Lewis complained to his friend Mahlon Dickerson of Philadelphia. “I feel all that restlessness, that inquietude, that certain indiscribable something common to old bachelors, which I cannot avoid thinking my dear fellow, proceeds, from that void in our hearts, which might, or ought to be better filled. Whence it comes I know not, but certain it is, that I never felt less like a heroe than at the present moment. What may be my next adventure god knows, but on this I am determined, to get a wife.”

That November, Lewis thought he had found the ideal candidate. While visiting the Fincastle, Virginia home of George Hancock (the father of William Clark’s intended, Julia Hancock), Lewis made the acquaintance of lovely 16 year-old Letitia Breckinridge and her sister, Elizabeth. Letitia and Elizabeth were the daughters of prominent Fincastle lawyer and Revolutionary War veteran James Breckenridge, a member of the Virginia legislature and a future Congressman and brigadier general.

Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was smitten with Letitia. His brother Reuben Lewis wrote home that the “accomplished and beautiful” girl was “one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, both as to form and features … I should like to have her as a sister.”

James Breckinridge

James Breckinridge, Letitia's father

Hoping to win the young lady’s affections, Lewis expressed his intention of making a formal call on Letitia with the object of courting her. Unfortunately for Lewis, the girl reacted negatively. She was not interested and seemed to want to flee from Lewis’s “challenge.” Shortly after her meeting with Lewis, Letitia decamped to Richmond with her father. Reuben wrote glumly, “unfortunately for his Excellency [Lewis], she left the neighborhood 2 days after our arrival so that he was disappointed in his design of addressing her.”

Of all Lewis’s abortive affairs of the heart, this one seems particularly to have stung. It is not known why Letitia fled from Lewis’s affections. Undaunted Courage author Stephen Ambrose suggests that perhaps Lewis simply came on too strong, or maybe Letitia was put off by his heavy drinking – though Lewis would hardly have been unique among Virginia gentry in that respect. It may have been all too obvious that Lewis was still struggling with the problems of re-entry into “normal” life following the high adventure and independent command of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Or perhaps Letitia simply had someone else already in mind.

Following his attendance at his co-captain William Clark’s wedding in January 1808, Lewis left for St. Louis to take up his governor’s post. That summer, he heard from another friend, William Preston, that Letitia had married a rich young fellow named Robert Gamble of Richmond. “So be it,” Lewis replied, resigned. “May God be with her and her’s, and the favored angels of heaven guard her bliss both here and hereafter, is the sincere prayer of her very sincere friend, to whom she has left the noble concentration of scratching his head and biting his nails, with ample leasure to reuminate on the chapter of accidents in matters of love and the folly of castle-building.”

Lewis tried to be generous to the winning suitor, Robert Gamble. “Gamble is a good tempered, easy honest fellow,” Lewis conceded wistfully. “I have known him from a boy; both his means and his disposition well fit him for sluming away life with his fair one in the fassionable rounds of a large City. Such is the life she has celected and in it’s pursuit I wish she may meet all the pleasures of which it is susceptable.”

There is no further real mention of romance or courting in Lewis’s letters and papers. The press of business and increasing financial woes may have made courting impractical. Or maybe Lewis simply never found the right person. He was destined to die in 1809, aged 35, a “musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor” to the end.

As for Letitia, her marriage to Robert Gamble appears to have been a successful one. She bore Gamble nine children. Eventually they moved to Tallahassee, Florida. During the Civil War, several of Letitia and Robert Gamble’s sons served as officers in the Confederate Army. Letitia survived the war, dying in Tallahassee in March 1866, aged 75.

John C. Breckinridge in Confederate uniform

John C. Breckinridge in Confederate uniform

If Letitia’s maiden name, Breckinridge, rings a bell, it should. Letitia’s uncle, John Breckinridge, was the progenitor of the famous Breckinridge dynasty of Kentucky, which produced generations of illustrious politicians, military officers, social activists, and diplomats. The most famous member of the Breckinridge clan was John C. Breckinridge, who served as Vice President under James Buchanan and ran unsuccessfully for President in 1860, coming in third to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Although Kentucky decided to remain with the Union upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Breckinridge broke ranks with his state and sided with the Confederacy, serving as a general in many of the major battles in both the western and the eastern theater.

Named Confederate Secretary of War in early 1865, Breckinridge did his best to broker an honorable peace for the Confederacy. Historians owe him a debt, as he was instrumental in saving the Confederate government archives from destruction during the fall of Richmond in April 1865. Fearing he would be put on trial, Breckinridge fled the country after the Confederate surrender, but was granted amnesty and returned to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1869. He died there of cirrhosis in 1875.

John "Bunny" Breckinridge in Plan 9 from Outer Space

John "Bunny" Breckinridge in Plan 9 from Outer Space

If John C. Breckinridge was the most famous member of the Breckinridge clan, the  most infamous member was his great grandson, John Cabell “Bunny” Breckinridge, who appeared as the alien leader  in Ed Wood’s notorious cult film Plan 9 from Outer Space. A flamboyant homosexual and sometime drag queen, Bunny Breckinridge worked as a burlesque performer and actor in Europe before settling in San Francisco in the 1920’s. Openly gay in an era when it was unheard of, Breckinridge later attracted the attention of pulp movie director Ed Wood, who cast him in Plan 9, which would affectionately come to be called “the worst movie ever made.”

Although Breckinridge was convicted of “sex perversion” and briefly committed to a criminal hospital following the release of the movie in 1959, he continued to live his life openly and unrepentantly, becoming a favorite of other celebrities and young hippies for his unique lifestyle and flamboyant ways. He lived long enough to see Plan 9 become a cult favorite and to see himself portrayed in Tim Burton’s 1994 movie, Ed Wood.  When he passed away in 1996 at age 93, the following quote in his obituary summed up his life: “I was a little bit wild when I was young, darling, but I lived my life grandly.”

More great reading: The Two Wives of William Clark

Postscript: My frequent commenter Shannon Kelly found this portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble in the inventory files of the Smithsonian. It was painted by Cephas Thompson (1775-1856).  Excellent sleuthing, Shannon! Thanks!

Portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble, by Cephas Thompson

Portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble, by Cephas Thompson

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June 14, 1805, was a day of surreal occurrences for Meriwether Lewis. Lewis and his party were in the vicinity of the Great Falls of the Missouri, an amazing spectacle he had come upon only the day before. On the morning of the 14th, Lewis set off by himself to begin to scout a route for the Corps of Discovery to portage their supplies and equipment around the falls. Quickly realizing that the “great falls” was not one waterfall but a series of five waterfalls stretching over several miles of roiling rapids, Lewis’s journal entry reveals a man clearly distracted from the navigational problem that confronted him by the amazing rugged natural beauty around him.

Lewis at the Great Falls by Charles Fritz

The Arrival of Captain Lewis at the Great Falls of the Missouri, by Charles Fritz

After debating in his journal which waterfall was the most beautiful, Lewis noticed a “beautiful little island” in the middle of the rapids where a black eagle had built her nest in a cottonwood tree. “A more inaccessable spot I beleive she could not have found,” he wrote, “for neither man nor beast dare pass those gulphs which seperate her little domain from the shores.”

Buffalo grazing on the plain

"a herd of at least a thousand buffaloe..."

The day would bring more surprises.  To the south and west below the falls, Lewis found that Missouri River  “lies a smoth even and unruffled sheet of water of nearly a mile in width bearing on it’s watry bosome vast flocks of geese which feed at pleasure in the delightfull pasture on either border.” He also spotted the river the Indians called Medicine River and determined to explore it. After resting a while, Lewis “decended the hills and directed my course to the bend of the Missouri near which there was a herd of at least a thousand buffaloe; here I thought it would be well to kill a buffaloe and leave him untill my return from the river and if I then found that I had not time to get back to camp this evening.” Lewis selected a buffalo and shot him through the lungs. While he was standing with an unloaded rifle waiting for the beast to fall, he suddenly noticed the large grizzly bear that had “crept on me within 20 steps.”

Angry grizzly bear

Angry grizzly bear

Lewis tried backing away slowly, hoping to have a chance to reload his rifle, but the bear charged. “I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water    the idea struk me to get into the water to such debth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon; accordingly I ran haistily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon.” Inexplicably, the bear turned tail on Lewis and rapidly ran away, leaving Lewis to puzzle over his close call. Climbing out of the water when he was sure the coast was clear, Lewis shuddered when he saw the ground torn with the bear’s talons.

Proceeding on to the Medicine River with his newly recharged rifle, Lewis spent the afternoon exploring and decided to head back to camp around 6:30pm, “having by my estimate about 12 miles to walk.” On his way back, he encountered a strange animal.


Wolverine - possibly Lewis's 'tyger cat'

in returning through the level bottom of Medecine river and about 200 yards distant from the Missouri, my direction led me directly to an anamal that I at first supposed was a wolf;  but on nearer approach or about sixty paces distant I discovered that it was not, it’s colour was a brownish yellow; it was standing near it’s burrow, and when I approached it thus nearly, it couched itself down like a cat looking immediately at me as if it designed to spring on me. I took aim at it and fired, it instantly disappeared in it’s burrow; I loaded my gun and exmined the place which was dusty and saw the track from which I am still further convinced that it was of the tiger kind.    whether I struck it or not I could not determine, but I am almost confident that I did; my gun is true and I had a steady rest by means of my espontoon, which I have found very serviceable to me in this way in the open plains

Some have speculated that the creature Lewis saw may have been a bobcat, or perhaps a wolverine, in which case he was lucky that he did not get closer to it, as they are known for having a ferocious temperament and being able to kill prey many times their size.  Whatever the creature was, Lewis could not find it. But soon he had bigger problems to worry about.  He wrote:

It now seemed to me that all the beasts of the neighbourhood had made a league to distroy me, or that some fortune was disposed to amuse herself at my expence, for I had not proceded more than three hundred yards from the burrow of this tyger cat, before three bull buffaloe, which wer feeding with a large herd about half a mile from me on my left, seperated from the herd and ran full speed towards me, I thought at least to give them some amusement and altered my direction to meet them; when they arrived within a hundred yards they made a halt, took a good view of me and retreated with precipitation.

Prickly pear thorns

"the prickley pears which pierced my feet very severely"

Although it was getting late, Lewis was clearly unnerved by his series of near-misses. He considered making camp for the night and feasting on the buffalo he had killed, then decide he “did not think it prudent to remain all night at this place which really from the succession of curious adventures wore the impression on my mind of inchantment.” The adventure had not only rattled his nerves, but it seemed to be having a hallucinogenic affect on his brain. “At sometimes for a moment I thought it might be a dream, but the prickley pears which pierced my feet very severely once in a while, particularly after it grew dark, convinced me that I was really awake, and that it was necessary to make the best of my way to camp.”

When one considers what all had happened to Lewis in the previous 7 days, it is no wonder his mind might have been playing tricks on him. One week before, on June 7, Lewis had returned from a 60-mile trip up the north fork of the Missouri, much of it in a driving rain, and culminating in Lewis and Private Windsor nearly falling off a 90-foot precipice. Lewis’s small party rejoined Clark and the main party two days later than expected, and  Lewis admitted to being  “much fatiegued.” Nevertheless, the next day, Lewis determined to go on another scouting trip, this time up the south fork of the Missouri. He and Captain Clark stood alone, believing this to be the right route.

On June 10, Lewis recorded that “I still feel myself somewhat unwell with the disentary,” having evidently suffered from it for several days. Nevertheless, he set off the next day anyway. He was so ill on the 11th that he could not eat and had to dose himself with a tea made from chokecherries to treat his intestinal pain and fever. But he covered 27 miles the next day, and on the 13th, he reached the first of the Great Falls of the Missouri River, which meant he had chosen the right route but also that he had a huge logistical problem to solve. With such a momentous week behind him, it would not have been surprising if Lewis had simply been overwhelmed—mentally, physically, and emotionally—from all that he had experienced.

The Great Falls of the Missouri River, 1880

The Great Falls of the Missouri River, 1880

After his ordeal with the animals, Lewis’s relief at getting home safe to camp was palpable –and so was that of his men. “It was sometime after dark before I returned to the party; I found them extremely uneasy for my safety; they had formed a thousand conjectures, all of which equally forboding my death, which they had so far settled among them, that they had already agreed on the rout which each should take in the morning to surch for me. I felt myself much fortiegued, but eat a hearty supper and took a good night’s rest.”

Prairie rattlesnake

Prairie rattlesnake

He spent the next day fishing and sleeping off his adventure. The only event of note was that when he awoke from a nap under a tree, he found a large rattlesnake about 10 feet away. Lewis calmly killed it, and reported in his journal that “he had 176 scuta on the abdomen and 17 half formed scuta on the tale.”

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Joseph Perkins and Meriwether Lewis inspecting the iron boat frame. Courtesy Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.

Because of the changes in technology over the last 200 years, it is easy to forget that Lewis & Clark’s Voyage of Discovery was the equivalent in its day of the Apollo missions of the 1960s. Meriwether Lewis had what amounted to a blank check to outfit the expedition, and he used it to acquire the best in men, weapons, and equipment.    

In March 1803, Lewis arrived at the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today’s West Virginia) and began working with superintendent Joseph Perkins on the guns, powder horns, bullet molds, tomahawks, knives, and other weapons the Expedition would need to make it across the continent. He also had a special project for the armory, one of his own invention. Lewis realized that if the Corps of Discovery succeeded in its mission of reaching the source of the Missouri River, that eventually the river would become too shallow for navigation by heavy wooden boats. His solution? A collapsible iron boat.    

According to Lewis’s design, the boat frame would be stored in sections, ready to be brought out at the opportune moment and covered in hides. With a seal of tar pitch or resin, it would be water-tight. But the first job was getting the thing fabricated. Lewis had originally planned on staying at Harpers Ferry for only a week, but he ended up spending over a month on what he called “my favorite boat.” On completion, the boat weighed just 176 pounds (a tiny fraction of the total 3500 pounds of gear the Expedition took), but would be capable of transporting over 8000 pounds of men and equipment if everything went according to plan.    

The iron boat rode quietly along in with the rest of the baggage until June of 1805, when Lewis’s big moment finally arrived — or so it seemed. The Expedition had discovered a series of enormous waterfalls in the vicinity of present-day Great Falls, Montana. The falls were beautiful, but they also meant that the Expedition would have to portage every single thing they had around them in order to get back on the river. Hauling everything 18 miles through rough unbroken country, under human power using makeshift wagons, was a month-long ordeal. And it was easy to see that past the falls, the river grew rocky and shallow. Lewis and Clark set up camps on either end of the portage. It largely fell to Clark to supervise the daily grind of the grueling portage. In the meantime, Lewis found hiding places to sink their heavy pirogues and began work on the iron boat.   

The hardships of the portage are vividly depicted in this exhibit at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center at Great Falls.

You have to feel sorry for Lewis over what happened next. How could a frontiersman from the East have ever anticipated the wide-open plains of Montana? Beautiful, and without a pine tree in sight. Without a means to make resin, the project seemed doomed, but Lewis was determined to find a way.   

For those who hold to the theory that Lewis might have been manic-depressive, the iron boat episode could be Exhibit A for a manic phase. In any case, his journal entries give something of the flavor of excitement, anxiety, and mounting desperation that accompanied the boat project:   

June 28: Set Drewyer to shaving the Elk skins, Fields to make the cross stays for the boat, Frazier and Whitehouse continue their operation with the skins, Shields and Gass finish the horizontal bars of the sections; after which I sent them in surch of willow bark, a sufficient supply of which they now obtained to bind the boat.    expecting the party this evening I prepared a supper for them but they did not arrive.    not having quite Elk skins enough I employed three buffaloe hides to cover one section.    not being able to shave these skins I had them singed pretty closely with a blazeing torch; I think they will answer tolerable well.   

June 30: Fraizer and Whitehouse still continue their opperation of sewing the skins together. I set Shields and gass to shaving bark and Fields continued to make the cross brases. Drewyer and myself rendered a considerable quantity of tallow and cooked. I begin to be extremely impatient to be off as the season is now waisting a pace    nearly three months have now elapsed since we left Fort Mandan and not yet reached the Rocky Mountains   

July 1 by evening the skins were all attatched to their sections and I returned them again to the water.    all matters were now in readiness to commence the opperation of puting the parts of the boat together in the morning.    the way strips are not yet ready but will be done in time as I have obtained the necessary timber.    the difficulty in obtaining the necessary materials has retarded my operations in forming this boat extreemly tedious and troublesome; and as it was a novel peice of machinism to all who were employed my constant attention was necessary to every part of the work; this together with the duties of cheif cook has kept me pretty well employed.    

Joseph Field, Meriwether Lewis, Patrick Gass, and John Shields work on covering the boat frame with hides. Courtesy Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.

Lewis and a number of the men worked hard on hunting, tanning hides, and sewing the hides together. Eventually they made a cover of 28 elk hides and 4 buffalo hides. They assembled the boat frame and fitted it with the hides. (As Lewis notes, he was also acting as the expedition cook at this time, a noteworthy duty for an officer of his rank. This way, the exhausted men could return to camp for a hot fresh meal without having to set up their usual messes.)    

July 3 – our tar-kiln which ought to have began to run this morning has yealded no tar as yet and I am much affraid will not yeald any, if so I fear the whole opperation of my boat will be useless. I fear I have committed another blunder also in sewing the skins with a nedle which has sharp edges these have cut the skin and as it drys I discover that the throng dose not fill the holes as I expected tho’ I made them sew with a large throng for that purpose. … The current of the river looks so gentle and inviting that the men all seem anxious to be moving upward as well as ourselves.    we have got the boat prety well forward today and think we shall be able to complete her tomorrow … she has assumed her shape and looks extreemly well. She will be very light, more so than any vessel of her size that I ever saw.

July 4 – no appearance of tar yet and I am now confident that we shall not be able to obtain any; a serious misfortune. I employed a number of hands on the boat today and by 4 P. M. in the evening completed her except the most difficult part of the work that of making her seams secure.    

Clark, who had an amazing knack for being cryptic and expressive at the same time, also wrote on July 4: our Tar kill like to turn out nothing from the following cause. Lewis continues: 

July 5 – This morning I had the boat removed to an open situation, scaffold her off the ground, turned her keel to the sun and kindled fires under her to dry her more expediciously. I then set a couple of men to pounding of charcoal to form a composition with some beeswax which we have and buffaloe tallow now my only hope and resource for paying my boat; I sincerely hope it may answer yet I fear it will not.    …  the stitches begin to gape very much since she has began to dry; I am now convinced this would not have been the case had the skins been sewed with a sharp point only and the leather not cut by the edges of a sharp nedle.      

July 7 – The weather warm and cloudy therefore unfavourable for many operations; I keep small fires under the boat; the blowing flies are innumerable about it; the moisture retained by the bark prevents it from drying as fast as it otherwise would.     

They coated the hides with a thick mixture of charcoal, beeswax, and buffalo tallow, a substitute for pitch that Lewis concocted after agonizing experimentation. After it dried, they launched the boat and Lewis was able to write like a proud father: She lay like a perfect cork on the water.  They would leave the next day! But then: 

July 9: the wind continued violent untill late in the evening, by which time we discovered that a greater part of the composition had seperated from the skins and left the seams of the boat exposed to the water and she leaked in such manner that she would not answer. I need not add that this circumstance mortifyed me not a little; and to prevent her leaking without pich was impossible with us, and to obtain this article was equally impossible, therefore the evil was irraparable … To make any further experiments in our present situation seemed to me madness; the buffaloe had principally dserted us, and the season was now advancing fast. I therefore relinquished all further hope of my favorite boat and ordered her to be sunk …  it was now too late to introduce a remidy and I bid a dieu to my boat, and her expected services.—

Clark was quite terse about the boat construction in his journal, leading some historians to speculate that he may have been mad at Lewis for spending almost two weeks on his miracle project that was supposed to have taken only a few hours. But I find a world of sympathy in his final word on the matter, which memorializes the boat using Lewis’s own phrase: this falire of our favourate boat was a great disapointment to us.

The Missouri River just above the Great Falls today

Obviously, Lewis felt like a flop. He had visualized himself as an inventor and innovator, a worthy heir to Thomas Jefferson (who, it is worth noting, never turned his hand to a paddle in his life). He and the men buried the frame of the boat. Fortunately, Lewis and Clark still had six dugout canoes, in which they had been traveling since Fort Mandan. To replace the iron boat, Clark located some cottonwood trees and he and the men spent five days building two new canoes. Lewis writes:

July 15 – At 10 A. M. we once more saw ourselves fairly under way much to my joy and I beleive that of every individual who compose the party.

On the return trip on 1806, Lewis dug up the cache and found the boat had “not suffered materially.” The boat then disappears from history, its fate unknown.

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Geology and mineralogy, as well as anthropology, botany, and zoology, were part of Meriwether Lewis’s job description when he set out on his expedition to the Pacific Ocean. In the extensive marching orders he received from Thomas Jefferson, Lewis was ordered to document more than just the Native American tribes, plant, and animal life he observed along the route.  “Other objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country,” Jefferson wrote. “…the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal & salpetre; salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last, & such circumstances as may indicate their character.” Lewis took these instructions very seriously—so seriously that he endangered his own life.

Missouri River bluff

Missouri River bluff

Clark’s journal entry of August 22, 1804 tells the tale. The Corps of Discovery was passing along some bluffs near present-day Vermillion, South Dakota, when Lewis’s scientific investigations went awry.

the High land near the river for Some distance below. This Bluff contain Pyrites alum, Copperass & a Kind Markesites also a clear Soft Substance which Capt lewis was near being Poisened by the Smell in pounding this Substance I belv to be arsenic or Cabalt.

Capt. Lewis took a Dost of Salts this evening to carry of the effects of (arsenec) or cobalt which he was trying to find out the real quallity.

Lewis had evidently taken a mineral sample from the bluff, and in attempting to analyze it by pulverizing the rock, either inhaled or ingested enough of the resulting powder to poison himself.

So why would Lewis do such a thing? Before leaving for the west, Lewis had studied geology and mineralogy with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Smith Barton, and Andrew Ellicott. For reference, he brought along Richard Kirwan’s two-volume Elements of Mineralogy to consult during the expedition. In the absence of the equipment and chemicals necessary to do a proper mineral analysis, smell, and taste were (and still are) legitimate scientific techniques to determine a rock’s composition. But they can also be dangerous.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

As Lewis found out, the rocks he ingested contained some poisonous substance. Based on current mineral analysis in the area of the bluffs he was sampling, it is unlikely that the mineral was cobalt, as Clark suspected. However, South Dakota is loaded with pyrite and marcasite, and under the right circumstances, especially when combined with iron sulfides, these two minerals can produce traces of arsenic. Low exposures of arsenic can produce headaches, vertigo, nausea, and acute diarrhea—the last symptom probably not alleviated by the “Dost of salts” Lewis took “to work off the effects of the Arsenic.”

Lewis was lucky. In more serious cases, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning can include difficulty in swallowing, burning pain, vomiting, throat constriction, diarrhea, dehydration, renal failure, liver failure, pulmonary edema, gastrointestinal distress, headache, drowsiness, confusion, delirium, seizures, and finally, death.

In spite of his efforts to purge his system, Lewis was still feeling poorly two days later, though it didn’t stop him from accompanying Clark and a number of other men to see the famous “Spirit Mound” supposedly populated by tiny devils with large heads. Clark wrote in his journal on Saturday, August 25, 1804:

a Cloudy morning    Capt Lewis & my Self Concluded to go and See the Mound which was viewed with Such turrow by all the different Nation in this quarter  droped down to the mouth of White Stone River where we left the Perogue with two men and at 200 yards we assended a riseing ground of about Sixty feet, from the top of this High land the Countrey is leavel & open as far as Can be Seen, except Some few rises at a Great Distance, and the Mound which the Indians Call Mountain of little people or Spirits    this mound appears of a Conic form & is N. 20° W. from the mouth of the Creek, we left the river at 8 oClock, at 4 miles we Crossed the Creek 23 yards wide in an extensive Valley and continued on    at two miles further our Dog was So Heeted & fatigued we was obliged Send him back to the Creek, at 12 oClock we arrived at the hill    Capt Lewis much fatigued from heat the day it being verry hot & he being in a debilitated State from the Precautions he was obliged to take to provent the affects of the Cobalt, & Minl. Substance which had like to have poisoned him two days ago, his want of water, and Several of the men complaining of Great thirst, deturmined us to make for the first water which was the Creek in a bend N. E. from the mound about 3 miles—

Spirit Mound

Spirit Mound, South Dakota

Despite the fatigue and strain of the day, Lewis made it to the top of the hill, as well as walking nine miles back to camp in the blazing heat. He was slowly getting back to his old self, as evidenced by his own journal entry for the day:

on our return from the mound of sperits saw the first bats that we had observed since we began to ascend the Missouri—        also saw on our return on the Creek that passes this mound about 2 M. distant S. a bird of heron kind as large as the Cormorant short tale long leggs of a colour on the back and wings deep copper brown with a shade of red.    we could not kill it therefore I can not describe it more particularly.

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