Pedro Blas González

Are these indeed men worthy of the name?

Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”

The Journals of Lewis and Clark is a treasure of American history and exploration. It is also a testament to the strength of character of early American settlers. In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. President Jefferson understood the importance of exploring and eventually settling this immense newly acquired territory.

The President commissioned Meriwether Lewis, a twenty-eight-year-old Army captain and one of his aides, to head an expedition to travel west on the Missouri River. Among other objectives, the expedition would attempt to find out if the Missouri joined the Columbia River at some point. During that time there was great anticipation in knowing if these two waterways offered a navigable passage to the Pacific Ocean.

Captain Lewis enlisted his friend, a judicious, level-headed Army lieutenant and woodsman named William Clark, as co-captain of the expedition. The Corps of Discovery, as the 1804–1806 Lewis and Clark expedition was originally known, was comprised of thirty-three men—and a dog—which made up the “Permanent Party.” Later the group welcomed the French-Canadian explorer and trapper—and translator—Toussaint Charbonneau, his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, and their baby, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who was born in 1805.

The two leaders stand out for the forethought given to manning and provisioning the journey, but the most striking aspect of the expedition is the courage Lewis and Clark displayed during their two-year trek through vast uncharted wilderness.

Both men were well-trained soldiers and outdoorsmen. Lewis was called by many a “great pathfinder,” while Clark proved to be a fine mapmaker. They gathered excellent equipment and provisions. Lewis was by all accounts a first-rate marksman. His favorite firearm was the Girardoni air rifle (invented by Bartholomaüs Girardoni in 1779 for the Austrian army). In addition, the expedition had fifteen rifles that Lewis acquired at Harpers Ferry Arsenal, as well as muskets and a shotgun-like weapon known as blunderbuss. These weapons were indispensable for self-defense and hunting.

The main transport for the Corps of Discovery was a fifty-five by eight-foot keelboat with a large cannon mounted on a swivel on the bow. The expedition also included several canoes and two smaller boats, which the crew referred to by their French name, pirogue.

When the expedition-to-be was made public, many young men whom Lewis thought of as “Gentlemen’s sons,” applied. Lewis was not impressed by these callow youngsters. He and Clark wanted tried-and-true, worldly men. Their understanding of the objectives set by Jefferson meant that the voyage was to be grueling and dangerous work, not an adventure but a job they had to do. In choosing their crew, the two leaders left romanticism to future writers and historians, with the result that only one expedition member died, of what is believed to be appendicitis. This is the essence of nation-building, the skeleton of history.

The daily stress and perpetual danger that Lewis and Clark endured during their two-year voyage of discovery is difficult for people living in twenty-first century comfort to imagine. The American historian Stephen E. Ambrose ends his book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by citing Jefferson’s tribute to Lewis. In his 1813 letter, the President says of Lewis that he possessed “courage undaunted.” Today we know the historical significance of the expedition in great part due to the journals that several members of the expedition kept. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, in addition to written accounts by other members of the expedition, are invaluable historical documents.

Perhaps what is even more appealing to readers of this period of American history is learning of the day-to-day composure and mindset of the two leaders. The records that these early American explorers left of their individual genius and existential vitality help us to do justice to the Great Man theory of history. Lewis and Clark are a boon to Carlyle’s dictum in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Existential Ethnography

President Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis include the gathering of an array of fascinating ethnological details about the people that Lewis and Clark would encounter on their voyage west. Jefferson’s request incorporates the standard ethnological information that most anthropologists seek when studying a newly discovered people: their name, population, possessions, language, tradition, food, social hierarchy, clothing and customs. Lewis and Clark appropriately referred to the Indian tribes that the Corps of Discovery came across as “nations.” This is what the Greek word “ethnos” means.

The more interesting aspect of Jefferson’s list involves what I refer to as existential ethnography. Jefferson was interested in the religious beliefs and moral makeup of the Indian tribes that the expedition would encounter. The President also wanted to know their views on life and death, their use of reason in daily affairs, their laws, and the impact of the latter on daily life. In other words, as a statesman and philosopher, Jefferson was curious to know the psyche—the spirit of the people who populated the territory west of the Missouri River.

The understated achievement of the Corps of Discovery into what would eventually become the American Northwest was the acquisition of knowledge about the worldview of people who, with few exceptions, had never encountered Europeans. Such significant meetings can only take place once. It may surprise many casual observers of history to discover the extraordinary measures that Lewis and Clark took to communicate with, befriend, and understand the “state of nature” that Native Americans lived in.

Many peoples may desire the same things from life and the world. Yet this is a broad claim. To what extent is it true? Do all cultures practice human sacrifice, like the Aztecs, or cannibalism, as some of the people Captain James Cook encountered in the South Pacific? Certainly, people need food and water, clothing of some sort to ward off cold, rain, and exposure to the sun. Plato acknowledges this in the Laws. In addition, people must live somewhere—on beaches, in the vicinity of waterways, in the high desert, plains, or forests. It is also not difficult to realize that everyone is eventually affected by unpredictable weather, the contingencies of changing seasons, the death of loved ones, disease, old age. All share the instinct for self-preservation through procreation, without which the ravages of disease, wild beasts, marauding raiders, and accidents would have wiped out the human race in prehistory. Human history is hardly the stuff of chance.

It is true thatwe have come upon many of our inventions and discoveries through fortuitous circumstances. Who can deny that chance—what we call good and bad luck—plays a part in individual life? Being in the right or wrong place at a given time is a daily occurrence, the importance of which is amplified in accidents and tragedies.

Perhaps fate and providence override contingencies that affect human fortune in ways we do not fully comprehend. The inscrutability of God; we encounter this in the book of Job, in The Old Testament. In Monadology, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz thinks of God’s knowledge as exhibiting a preestablished harmony.

If human history is the record of man’s worldly legacy, then history is axiological. History is the uncovering of human consciousness, perception, and will in a person’s experience of individual existence. For this reason, history is laden with value, especially in our choice-making. When reflecting on the philosophy of history, we must resist the temptation to trade truth for platitude.

Lewis and Clark were courageous men. Good will—in the form of fellow-feeling—along with a little imagination is essential if we are to complement others. When the expedition party came upon the Teton Sioux Indians, Lewis and Clark were prepared for the worst, for the Teton Sioux were reputed to want to acquire white man’s goods for next to nothing. They were feared and viewed by other Indian tribes as being river pirates. The Spanish and French were bullied by this formidable North American nation.

The standoff between the Corps of Discovery and the Teton Sioux wasintense and was on the verge of turning violent. Captain Lewis used his ability to read human beings to eventually quiet the situation. But not before he told the Teton Sioux Chief, Black Buffalo, that the expedition was composed of warriors not squaws. Captain Lewis had his men load their weapons, including the cannon. The Journals of Lewis and Clark is replete with such stories of bravery against difficult odds.

The influence of great people on history is often felt most, not through the viscera of events, but in the latent qualities and character of the people behind the events. The qualitative legacy of great—as well as evil—people is the creation of conditions that positivists and other philosophical materialists take for granted; a fallacious, preexisting world order.

The ancient Greek philosophers considered courage a virtue. Courage in the light of truth, as Plato refers to this virtue—not foolhardiness—is always a solitary endeavor. Lewis and Clark did not expect to be bailed out of the many difficulties they knew they would face. They experienced with determination the weight of living away from their families, bear attacks, mosquito infestation, frigid weather, hunger, sleep deprivation, and the possibility of being sucked down waterfalls—for over two years. Their greatest anxiety came from not knowing what to expect. They faced the unknown with positive resolve.

Lewis and Clark viewed their expedition as an offshoot of the leadership qualities that soldiers, especially officers, are expected to display. Because of temperament, health, age, and other factors, people are suited for different kinds of work. The members of the Corps of Discovery had little choice in having to tackle many jobs.

It is interesting to note that the ethnographical knowledge the Corps of Discovery gained about Indian nations also sheds light on the early American character. What would have been the outcome of the expedition if not for Lewis and Clark’s fortitude? That is impossible to say. We know they were diplomatic and demonstrated moderation and prudence in their interaction with the people they came across. Undoubtedly, a person’s existential make-up is magnified—in many cases even exposed—when interacting within small groups of people. This eventually leaves an imprint on a people’s culture and customs.

Existential ethnography helps explain the direction of history, as best as we can decipher the meaning of events after the fact. How people view the cosmos, the world, their capacity for self-reflection and life and death, these are essential qualities that inform history. Unfortunately, the sterile and lifeless manner in which many contemporary history books present historical events leaves much to be desired, especially the role that persons play in human history. Lewis and Clark formed and maintained the structural integrity of the Corps of Discovery through their essence as individuals.  

Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.