Up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark

As we have noted in previous Historical Perspectives, it is easy and tempting to look back on the past in an unrealistic way. While we are quick to note all the problems of modern life, with which we are intimately familiar, we often romanticize the past, seeing only the good, and not the difficulties of earlier times. But in order to appreciate the progress that mankind has made, it’s necessary to realistically appraise the way life was. Then we may come to see that the “good old days” were really pretty hard, and our own times are, by comparison, not too bad.

One fascinating glimpse of the past is found in Stephen Ambrose’s book, “Undaunted Courage,” a description of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. This expedition was the first time that the American West had been formally explored, and in many areas the explorers were the first caucasians to have set foot on it. As these explorers ventured into virgin land, what did they find? It was all country never before defiled or exploited by the White Man. The industrial revolution had not yet even begun.

Did Lewis and Clark find paradise? Not exactly. Lewis, in describing the life of the residents of St. Charles, could just as easily have been describing the travails that faced his group, and any other Western traveler at that time. They were “always subjected to severe and incessant labor, exposed to the ferocity of lawless savages, the vicissitudes of weather and climate, and dependant on chance or accident alone for food, raiment or relief in event of malady.”

As we go through our daily routine amidst the complexity of modern life, it is tempting to think that Lewis and Clark saw nothing but beauty, and experienced nothing but the simplicity of living in nature. Indeed, Lewis, the chief journalist, is often finds himself in a near state of rapture about the beauty of the territory which he is seeing for the first time. At one point Lewis described the scenery as follows: “Nature appears to have exerted herself to beautify the scenery by the variety of flowers.” At another point in the journey Lewis surveys his surroundings and sees “vast herds of buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope feeding in every direction as far as the eye of the observer could reach.” On surveying the plains, Lewis said “the country was beautiful in the extreme.”

But life was not easy. First of all, the travel itself was very slow, and depended heavily on the vagaries of wind and current. As the group traveled up the Missouri, against the current, they would often not travel more than a mile an hour despite back-breaking work. A typical example is one eight-hour stretch of constant rowing and paddling, during which the expedition made 10 1/2 miles of progress. Sometimes the men would attach ropes to the boat and walk along the bank, pulling the boat upstream. Simply getting the boats to move was often very arduous work.

The diet of the travelers relied heavily on the animals that could be shot and killed along the route. Sometimes the hunting was excellent, sometimes not. When it wasn’t, they relied on their rations of hominy and lard on one day, salt pork and flour the next, and cornmeal and pork the following day. When game was available they ate heavily, often consuming nine or ten pounds of meat in a day. But because the meat was so lean, the men were always hungry.

There was very little in the way of fruits and vegetables during much of the trip, so, although they were traveling through a land of bountiful nature, the travelers developed the symptoms of scurvy. Despite the fact that they were traveling on water totally devoid of man-made pollutants, the men developed boils and dysentery as a result of drinking the river water, which was full of mud, scum, and natural debris.

Their natural and open-air travel was accompanied by ticks and gnats. The mosquitoes swarmed upon the men in such quantities as to be locust-like, and got into the men’s eyes, ears, noses and throats.

The expedition’s encounters with Native Americans ranged from peaceful and convivial to warlike and dangerous. But in general, the natives were not the noble savages that Thomas Jefferson expected the travelers to find. Most often they were very materialistic, and often expressed their displeasure when not given a sufficient quantity of gifts. What they sought most ardently were firearms and liquor. At one time, one of the chiefs, Big Horse, showed up naked in order to emphasize his poverty. Far from being unencumbered by material things, the Indians often complained of their poverty when seeking gifts from the explorers. Another chief described their condition as follows: “We are poor and have no powder and ball, our Women has got no clothes.”

At one point in the journey, while passing through what is today South Dakota, the travelers passed through villages that had once been occupied by the Arikara tribe. The tribe had once been as large as 30,000 but was devastated by small-pox, which killed 80 percent of the tribe’s members.

Venereal disease was prevalent among the Indians, and was spread to almost the entire party of the expedition, with syphilis running rampant. Because of the diet and insects, the men, like most soldiers of that time, also suffered from malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, rheumatism and ophthalmia. Sore eyes resulted from, among other things, the fact that fine sand blew so freely that “we cannot keep any article free from it; in short we are compelled to eat, drink, and breathe it very freely.”

In modern society weather is sometimes a nuisance or an inconvenience, but to the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition it was life-threatening. As the expedition traveled across the West the temperatures averaged four degrees above zero in December and three degrees below zero in January. In February it warmed up to eleven degrees above zero. Of course, we still have very cold weather; the difference is the ways in which we protect ourselves. For the explorers the only means of keeping warm was a wood fire. And if the fire went out, freezing to death was a real possibility. And, in fact, the men frequently had frozen toes and fingers. Even the natives were subject to the cold; Lewis had to amputate the frozen toes of one Indian boy.

While the abundance of wildlife was often a picture of great beauty to the explorers, there were times when, even in completely natural conditions, the wildlife was decimated. At one point the group came upon a great pile of rotten, stinking buffalo, piled up in incredible numbers. The cause? Simply mass drowning, where the ice had broken as the buffalo attempted to cross the great river.

And what has become of the incredible beauty which Lewis and Clark described for the first time? They came upon what is now Yellowstone Park — a place still to be enjoyed, but of course much easier to get to now. They came upon what is now Glacier National Park, which remains in its natural condition. They came upon what is now called the Missouri River Breaks, a 160 mile stretch of the Missouri River which is still one of the most isolated parts of the United States. Lewis marveled at the beauty of the White Cliffs which, according to author Ambrose, is as beautiful today as then, and can still only be seen by boat or canoe.

One often hears that modern man has ruined the natural state of things. But is it possible, at least in this case, that the natural beauty of the land has been retained, and that all that has really changed is that the dangers and discomforts of seeing that beauty have been greatly reduced? And if this is the case, is it not a great accomplishment?