The Journals Of Lewis And Clark

Edited by Bernard DeVoto, 1953

Review is copyright 2016 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2016.03.29

Copyright 2014 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: The Journals Of Lewis And Clark
Author: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, et al
Editor: Bernard DeVoto
Year: 1953 (mine was a 1997 edition)
Publisher: Mariner Books
ISBN 978-0-395-85996-4 (U.S.)
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This is the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as told in their own words. Ninety-nine percent of the text in the book is straight from their journals, not counting the foreword (by Stephen E. Ambrose) and the preface and introduction (by Bernard DeVoto), with a few additions from other members of the expedition and a few parenthetical explanations from DeVoto.

DeVoto’s 38-page introduction sets the stage and explains the context, and then the reader dives straight into the story, of Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Missouri River — from the Mississippi, just north of St. Louis — up to the Rocky Mountains, and then over the mountains and down to the Pacific via the Columbia River. And back again.

The journey, mostly by boat, lasted two years and four months, and touched the modern-day states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

What I Liked Least About It

For me, the most difficult part of reading this book was the sheer number of misspellings on the part of the authors. Granted, they were writing by hand while riding in boats or by candlelight while camped in mosquito-laden river bottoms, but both Lewis and Clark were children of Virginia landowners and had been educated by private tutors, so I expected at least some consistency in their spelling of words. I realize American English had not been standardized by the early 1800s, and also that the language has changed in the past 200 years, but this does not explain Clark’ twenty-seven different spellings of the word “Souix”, for example. My own journals are fraught with misspellings, but these are usually consistent — “seperate”, for example. There are also strange abbreviations, like “brackft.” (breakfast, I think) and a curious lack of punctuation, especially in Clark’s writings — entire paragraphs without commas or periods. You just have to guess where sentences or clauses end.

The second thing that made the book difficult to read was not the fault of the writers, but still made it difficult. Lewis and Clark, the first U.S. citizens to explore many of the places they went, named dozens of rivers, points, hills, and so on (sometimes using the names provided by natives), but because their journals took so long to get into the public eye, other names became official as other people spread into the same territories. So the editor (DeVoto) added in footnotes the current names. For people (like me) who follow along on maps while reading this type of story, it quickly became confusing.

What I Liked Most About It

The best part for me was reading these adventures in their own words. Having already read Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, which I greatly enjoyed, I was curious to take it straight from the journals. There is a sense of immediacy to each writing, enhanced by the mistakes mentioned above, that pervades the book, because the reader knows these men were hastily scribbling these notes each evening before they fell asleep to begin another day’s adventure.

I also found enjoyable Lewis and Clark’s descriptions of the Native American tribes they met along the way, though I was often confused by the names of these tribes — most I had never heard of before. It is clear that the white men on this voyage attempted to be non-partial in their descriptions, and that the use of the word “savage” was almost always used as a synonym for “Indian” rather than as a description of their character. I found it humorous that in several cases the white men were forced to roll up their sleeves to prove they were not other Native Americans, because their exposed skin (hands and faces) were just as brown as the people they were meeting — due to exposure to the elements.

When describing the “Shoshonees”, a band of about 100 warriors and 300 women and children, Lewis uses these words:
“there are but few very old persons, nor did they appear to treat those with much tenderness and rispect. The man is the sole propryetor of his wives and daughters, and can barter or dispose if either as he thinks proper. a plurality of wives is common among them, but but are purchased of different fathers. The father frequently disposes of his infant daughters in marriage to men who are grown or to men who have sons for whom they think proper to provide wives. the compensation given in such cases usually consists of horses or mules... the girl remains with her parents untill she is considered to be about the age of 13 or 14 years. the female at this age is surrendered to her sovereign lord and husband agreeably to contract... Sah-car-gar-we-ah [Sacagawea] had thus been disposed of before she was taken by the Minnetares, or had arrived to the years of puberty...

They seldom correct their children particularly the boys who soon become masters of their own acts. they give as a reason that it cows and breaks the sperit of the boy to whip him, and that he never recovers his independence of mind after he is grown. They treat their women but with little rispect, and compel them to perform every species of drudgery... the chastity of their women is not held in high estimation, and the husband will for a trifle barter the companion of his bead for a night or longer if he conceives the reward adiquate...”
Of each tribe or band they met, the descriptions differed. In a few cases (including the Souix), Lewis was surprised at how they treated their elderly:
“ is a custom when a person of either sex becomes so old and infurm that they are unable to travel on foot from camp to camp as they rome in surch of subsistance, for the children or near relations of such person to leave them without compunction or remo[r]se; on those occasions they usually place within their reach a small peace of meat and a platter of water, telling the poor old superannuated wretch for his consolation, that he or she had lived long enough, that it was time they should dye and go to their relations who can afford to take care of them much better than they could.”
In most cases, including those above, Lewis and Clark were careful to write only their observations rather than their opinions, but those observations were colored by their own experiences and worldview. Throughout, I felt instructed about my own observations of people and places and the unconscious judgments I might pass in my mind about them.

The Most Surprising Thing

One long paragraph stood out to me more than any other in the book, and it was Lewis’ refelctions upon his 31st birthday as the expedition rested somewhere in the Dakotas before creating Fort Mandan to spend the winter.
“This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little, indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me if they had been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought, and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavor to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.”
Several things are interesting here. Perhaps the first is that he thought 31 years was “half the period” he expected to live. He died four years later at the age of 35 (it is debated whether his death was suicide or murder), nowhere close to his expectation of 60 or more years. From this, I am reminded that none of us knows for certain when or how we will die. Secondly, that he thinks the “two primary objects of human existence” are to further the happiness of the human race and to increase the knowledge base of future generations. Both are worthwhile goals and it is arguable that Lewis succeeded well in at least one of them before his death four years later. These two goals also reflect something else I noticed about the writings of both Lewis and Clark — the curious absence of religious genuflexion. There is a strong air of agnostic objective naturalism in their written thoughts. Thirdly, this reflection of Lewis’ is curiously humble and modest, considering all that he had already accomplished by this time. As a child, he had hunted alone — at night, in winter — with only his dog. He had graduated from private school, joined the Virginia militia, fought in the Whiskey Rebellion, joined the U.S. Army, rose to the rank of Captain, was appointed as an aide to President Thomas Jefferson, resided in the presidential mansion, and was private secretary to the president. Despite all this, he thought he had not done enough at age 31.


For the average reader interested in the Lewis and Clark expedition, I would recommend Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, which is a much easier read, and draws on many sources besides the journals of the men. Ambrose is an easy-to-read writer, and I couldn't think of a single thing I disliked about his book. But if you want to read it straight from the men who went on this massive and incredibly dangerous journey, then pick up the Journals.

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