Lewis and Clark, Manifest Destiny and Thoughts on America

In the long and storied history of the United States, a key moment occurred on August 18, 1805. That day, the “Corps of Discovery”, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, crossed the North American continental divide on their way west. Just over a month earlier, on July 4 of that year (exactly 210 years ago), the crew had drank the last of their whiskey and fired off their guns and hoped that by the time the year was out, they would see the Pacific Ocean. But while the men celebrated the 29th birthday of their nation, the two captains looked anxiously west, and saw huge mountains on the horizon that white people had never before seen, and wondered how long it would take them to get over them.

But Lewis had something else on his mind on August 18, which was his 31st birthday. He took up his pen that night to write in his journal, which was part of his daily duty (although there are unexplained gaps in the record), and wrote this:

“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 had they 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 indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, 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.–“

If you want to understand why so many people, myself included, remain fascinated with Lewis and Clark, part of the reason is those words. Lewis was just two years older than the nation itself, and he had lived with the President (Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian), who had assigned him, of all people, the responsibility of exploring and surveying the country that had recently expanded west due to the Louisiana Purchase. The expedition had managed to get to the continental divide after having had many adventures going up the Missouri river, encountering the many indigenous tribes and establishing (or re-affirming) friendly relations with most, and had lost only one man, to a disease that couldn’t have been treated even if they had been in the best contemporary hospital. That would actually be the expedition’s only casualty, and Lewis and Clark, by the following year, would be bringing all their men home safely.

And yet when Lewis, on his birthday, sits down to write, he chastises himself. He lets all his guilt over spending hours drinking and being “indolent” wash over him, and while he does affirm his resolve at the end, it’s a peek inside a troubled, sad man’s soul. There are plenty of reasons to be interested in Lewis and Clark. But the charismatic, troubled character of Lewis has to be near of the top of the list. Here was a man who obviously suffered from what we could call today “Depression” and possibly a biploar disorder, but he overcame it, and pulled it together for the duration of the expedition, without any modern medication or therapy. (Lewis, being the company medical officer in addition to everything else, had access to opium, as well as the standard-issue cannabis tincture, which he may have used in the really tough times.)

Lewis and Clark were very much like Space Program of their day. In fact, the astronauts of the US space program in the 1960s saw themselves very consciously as the successors to Lewis and Clark. Primarily military men, assigned on a government mission by a visionary President (in their case, Kennedy), executing their duties with professionalism, for the sake of the nation, not their own personal glory. Lewis and Clark’s expedition, the Corps of Discovery, had similar imperatives. For example, in passing through the rocky mountains they didn’t stop to look for gold or other useful minerals, some of which were literally falling out of the earth in front of them. Not interested – without a railway, how do you get that stuff back east?

And besides, this was a new kind exploration, not for personal glory or wealth, nor, and this is an important point, a Missionary project, either. Neither Lewis nor Clark was particularly religious, and this was common enough among educated people at the time. They certainly had no interest in “converting” any native people to anything except loyalty to the US, and perhaps buying some of their horses. Their main mission was to map a route from St Louis to the Pacific, preferably all-water, and establish good relations with the people already living there.

There was another purpose, as well, and one that wasn’t written down. The superb comic Manifest Destiny, of which I have been and continue to be a strong supporter, uses this ambiguity to create a fictionalized version of the expedition, suggesting that Jefferson secretly sent Lewis (who recruited Clark) to fight huge monsters he knew to exist in the deep, dark west. After fifteen issues, the comic has seen Lewis and Clark face some fairly monstrous things, most recently a flock of toothed blue birds, but they have also fought giant frogs and there seems to be something even more threatening lurking in the forest, as they travel up the Missouri. The comic will, if the creators are able, follow the expedition all the way to the Pacific and back, but as of now they haven’t even reached their first wintering point (Mandan), so there’s quite a lot to go.

In the real world, obviously Lewis wasn’t sent to fight monsters, but he was instructed to look for some pretty strange things that reflect his times. Jefferson was interested, for example, in whether or not there were still Wooly Mammoths out there on the plains. He also was interested in whether any of these native tribes resembled the legendary “lost tribe of Israel”. But mainly Jefferson, and he imprinted these values on Lewis, just wanted to know what was there. That’s the heart of a scientist, which Jefferson no doubt had. No news was  going to disappoint him, except a lack of information. Whatever Lewis found, his job was to document, in a scientific way, and bring back samples where possible. It was a great expression of the Enlightenment, and the birth of a recognizably “modern” person. They may still have worn pantaloons and shiny buttons, but their thinking was getting increasingly like someone from the 19th century, that revolutionary century of social and technological innovation, rather than the 18th century with its political revolutions, driven as they were by new ideas like “freedom”.

Part of the joy in following along with Lewis and Clark, whether it be in the pages of Manifest Destiny or the historical record, is knowing that they were making history with every mile. You’re rooting for them as you read the journals, as the men fight off a grizzly bear, for example, which was close to a monster to them as anything from the imaginations of Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts. There are colourful personalities, not the least of which is the enigmatic Sacagawea, whose husband Toussaint Charbonneau was employed as the expedition’s interpreter. She was a teenager, bought and sold in her life like she was some sort of “pet” (this was the status of women in those times and place, let us not forget), undoubtedly had been raped and abused in her life, and yet she, by the strength of her character and her obvious intelligence and compassion, becomes an essential part of the team. Clark in particular developed an affection for her, and the baby she had while on the expedition, named Jean Baptiste. After the expedition returned, for example, Clark adopted the boy, sent him to excellent schools and he later lived with aristocracy in Europe. In Manifest Destiny, her inner strength is turned outward, as she is presented as a fierce warrior woman with a useless, dissolute husband. That isn’t entirely fair to Charbonneau, but it’s a great metaphor. In reality, Sacagawea was quiet and kept her own counsel, no doubt a survival tactic that she learned at a young age, but which Lewis, in a stunning display of insensitivity, couldn’t understand and read as either suspicious or disdainful.

Lewis and Clark, of course, did make it to the Pacific, floating down the Columbia past where The Gorge Amphitheatre sits today. (If only they knew that their descendants, centuries in the future, would gather there to dance at Phish concerts.) After passing a rainy winter eating nothing but Elk meat and drinking rainwater, they made their way back quickly, re-establishing contact with many of the tribes they had met on the way up the river, returning home to a hero’s welcome, just like the astronauts.

The plunder that Lewis and Clark brought back was indicative of the kind of expedition it was. No gold, as we mentioned before, but a live prairie dog, many feathers from hitherto unknown birds, seeds for plants never grown west of the Mississippi (Jefferson, an enthusiastic agricultural scientist, planted them in his own garden) but most importantly a map. Lewis visited Jefferson in the White House, spread the map out on the floor, and walked the President through the expedition step by step. Their conversation is not recorded for history, but one question all us enthusiasts wonder is how personal this got. Jefferson had known Lewis for a long time by that point, and he had noticed his tendency towards depression (he had also noted this in several members of his family, and we now know that this disease has a genetic component). Did Lewis confess his moment of sadness at the continental divide? Or any number of any other moments of sadness? The answer is probably not. These were Virginia gentlemen, after all. And moreover, Lewis idolized Jefferson in every way.

While Clark found a place for himself in the new west after the expedition, managing relations with the many Native American nations they had met, and organizing trade and other issues, Lewis struggled. As Governor of Northern Louisiana, which then contained a huge swath of land, he was not particularly effective. He was seen drinking too much and using far too much opium, cannabis, and other tonics from the south (no doubt including cocaine). There were clearly demons that he could overcome while working every day in the wilderness that were too much for him sitting in an office, managing state affairs.

Lewis, like Jefferson and many people of the enlightenment, felt a pull between the rational and the romantic. They were entering a rational age, an age that would see breathtaking changes both in society (Jefferson was a slave owner, after all, and that would only last one generation more), and technology, with the invention of photography only a few years in the future, and movies, telephone, streetcars and railroads all just over the horizon. But they also strove for harmony, in that characteristically Ancient Greek way, as they intuitively thought that harmony was the end product of all endeavours. And neither man, by the way, had much luck with women. Jefferson’s wife, who he adored, was long dead, and his children grown and gone. He never re-married. Lewis simply struck out in love due to an erratic personality. But Jefferson put it all on paper, back in 1786, in a letter to himself called “The Head and The Heart”, which he wrote as a dialogue between these two forces within himself. Lewis must have read this, and used it as way to understand his idol, and himself.

If Lewis has a modern parallel, it might be someone like Buzz Aldrin, another unquestioned American hero, by the way, who struggled with depression and substance abuse and fell very far after the completion of his own historic mission, Apollo 11. The difference is that Aldrin, in this modern age, could ask for help, and get it, and he survives to this day, recovered from his additions and his illnesses, living life to the fullest.

Lewis had no such help. In September 1809 he met with Clark for the last time, and Clark noticed that he was in a bad way and was concerned about him, but then again, many people had been concerned about Meriwether Lewis for his entire adult life and couldn’t help him. Lewis was traveling to Washington to meet with the President (not Jefferson, who was by that time back on his farm in Virginia) to untangle one mess or another. He stopped at a familiar house along the way for a night (this was common in that pre-Holiday Inn era, where travel was by horse at 5 miles an hour). Other guests at the house remember him staring into the distance, saying, “Clark is on his way. Clark will save me.” But of course Clark had no idea what was happening. On October 11, 1809, Lewis was found dead, having shot himself, most poetically, in the head and the heart, just as Jefferson had written all those years ago. Even his last act was a tribute to not only his personal idol, but a remembrance of the Corps of Discovery, the best time of his life.

As a foreigner, I find America fascinating for many reasons and I’m drawn to the space program and its ancestor, Lewis and Clark, because in my mind it represents that country at its best, when it reached out ahead of time and shows us the world that could be. Lewis and Clark, for example, took a vote at the Pacific about their winter location, and allowed Sacagawea, a Native American woman, and York, an African American slave, to vote along with the rest of the men. That’s a powerful moment in 1805. Just as Buzz Aldrin joining Neil Armstrong on the moon, and the two sharing a quiet smile and Neil saying, almost causally, “It has a stark beauty all its own, doesn’t it?” He was saying that to Buzz, not to the world. That’s the sprit of Lewis and Clark: to see, record and marvel, and also to reach for things beyond the mundane, but to do it with an understated, aw-shucks sort of attitude that “reads” as quintessentially American. There are times when that nation takes great risks, and reaches for greatness, and sometimes it actually gets there. It’s often frustrating, often takes one step forward and two steps back, often lags behind the rest of the world (welcome to the marriage equality party, folks), but it’s never boring, and I am drawn to its fragile heroes like Lewis, or Aldrin.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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