The Journals of Lewis and Clark

The Journals of Lewis and Clark

Book - 1997
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The Journals of Lewis and Clark are "the first report on the West, on the United States over the hill and beyond the sunset, on the province of the American future" (Bernard DeVoto).

In 1803, the great expanse of the Louisiana Purchase was an empty canvas. Keenly aware that the course of the nation's destiny lay westward--and that a "Voyage of Discovery" would be necessary to determine the nature of the frontier--President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition from the Missouri River to the northern Pacific coast and back. From 1804 to 1806, accompanied by co-captain William Clark, the Shoshone guide Sacajawea, and thirty-two men, Lewis mapped rivers, traced the principal waterways to the sea, and established the American claim to the territories of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Together the captains kept this journal: a richly detailed record of the flora and fauna they sighted, the native tribes they encountered, and the awe-inspiring landscape they traversed, from their base camp near present-day St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River, that has become an incomparable contribution to the literature ofexploration and the writing of natural history.

Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., c1997
ISBN: 9780395859964
Characteristics: lx, 504 p. : maps ; 21 cm


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Mar 28, 2017

I’ve often had to teach about this in history classes, and I finally checked out this book to read some of the primary source material. It’s not just interesting from a historical viewpoint –it actually makes an engaging read (thought that could be partially because this book is heavily edited, with what I’m assuming are the more tedious or repetitive sections left out). The anthropological, geological, and biological details are fascinating, even if a small amount of it is erroneous – there is, for example, mention of an herbal “cure for the bite of the rattlesnake and the mad dog”, and an inexplicable mistake about the anatomy of a brown bear that is supposedly drawn from life. Leaving aside those occasional errors... Customs of local peoples are chronicled in some detail, and there is little of the expected racism from that less-enlightened era (until the party reaches their destination on the Pacific Coast). One particularly interesting detail is the use of the well-developed sign-language, understood and used as a lingua-franca by most of the tribes west of the Mississippi. There is also some humor: prairie dogs are called “barking squirrels”, and members of one tribe state that they’d met some people who’d come up the coast in a boat and spoke the same language as Lewis; they prove this contact by repeating some English swear words. (The more things change, the more they stay the same…!) The older, and often idiosyncratic, spellings are left in, as well as some of the unfinished syntax; at times it almost seems like a modern experimental or stream-of-consciousness narrative, though this of course is an anachronistic judgment. Anyway it’s worth at least a glance, and not just for historical significance.


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