Shotgun on My Chest:
Memoirs of a Lewis and
Clark Book Collector
by Roger Wendlick
On December 2, 1806, in his State of the Union address, Thomas Jefferson formally announced the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition from their historic transcontinental journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Jefferson had sent the “Corps of Discovery” in 1804 to explore the recently purchased Louisiana Territory and to find a water route to the Pacific. He concluded his proclamation regarding their return with this note of admiration: “Lewis and Clarke (sic) and their brave companions have by this arduous service deserved well of their country.” They had overcome hostile natives, challenging and unknown terrain, extremes of weather, and survived countless brushes with death.
Their contribution to geography and science was immense. But Jefferson’s words of gratitude were not repeated, at least during Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s lifetime. Lewis committed suicide in 1809. Clark went on to serve in various army posts and as a superintendent of Indian affairs. When he died in 1838, the Corps of Discovery was a fading memory. At the end of the 19th century, the great historian Henry Adams devoted four volumes and nearly 2,000 pages to Jefferson’s presidency. Lewis and Clark got five sentences.
Adams’ lack of interest in the explorers capped 80 years of indifference. There had been an initial flurry of interest in the expedition after the men returned. Patrick Gass, the Corps’ carpenter, published the first and bestselling account of the adventure, Journal of Voyages and Travels, in 1807. It went through four American, a British, and a French edition in the first five years. But by the time the Lewis and Clark's official report was published in 1814, reader interest had evaporated.
A new edition of Lewis and Clark’s journals would not appear in the United States until 1842, when nearly everyone involved was dead. The Lewis and Clark legend has been revived only in the past 100 years, and with that new interest came a fascination for Sacagawea, the pregnant, 16-year-old Indian girl who served as their translator on the expedition. Hundreds of books have now been devoted to the feats of the Corps of Discovery, and after two centuries, the public now shows an enduring interest in their feats of discovery.