Lewis and Clark and Us

The expedition helped to forge a great nation. How does it hold up as a family vacation?

THE map, folded delicately on cloth backing into a book-sized rectangle, slid easily out of its buckram case. Opened up, it expanded twenty-eight-fold to reveal the vast watersheds of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, crossed by parallel strands of pointed mountains running north and south. I had asked John Lannon, the associate director of the Boston Athenaeum, if his library, a venerable repository, had anything in its holdings from the Lewis and Clark expedition, and he had replied, apologetically, that he didn't have anything directly from the expedition, but he did have this one item....
Nicholas King was a mapmaker who lived in Washington, D.C., where he held the position of Surveyor of the City. One of the chief aims of the Corps of Discovery, the group under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, was to chart a water route across North America, if one existed. Clark in particular was meticulous in his cartographic duties, recording celestial measurements and making detailed notes. He supplemented firsthand observation of the route already traveled with secondhand reports of what lay ahead. Long before the expedition's end Lewis and Clark had sent maps and cartographic data back east -- straight to President Thomas Jefferson -- together with floral and faunal specimens. Jefferson forwarded the mapping materials to Nicholas King, who began assembling the information. The Missouri and its tributaries took shape in blue and black. The first stage of the map followed Lewis and Clark to Fort Mandan, in present-day North Dakota, where the corps spent the winter of 1804-1805. The journey continued from there across the plains of Montana to Great Falls and Three Forks; in fits and starts across the Bitterroot Mountains, a grueling passage; down the Columbia and through its majestic gorge to the Pacific; and then back, retracing many of the original footsteps, but with a swing to the south by Clark, following the Yellowstone River to its confluence with the Missouri.

King finished his map, taking in the whole American Northwest, even before Lewis and Clark returned to Washington, and he drew three copies. Months later, with the expedition's final notes in hand, he made extensive corrections on one of them, adding geographic features and proper names. That was the copy on the table in front of me.

Some of the handwritten notations are believed to have been penned by members of the corps. Of the thirty-three men in the expedition's permanent party only one did not survive the trip -- Charles Floyd, a victim of a burst appendix. On the map, near what is now Sioux City, Iowa, one can read in tiny script "Floyd's grave."

I MADE the acquaintance of the King map in advance of a 7,000-mile pursuit of the Lewis and Clark Trail with my family last summer. The impetus for this expedition was, of course, Stephen Ambrose's (1996), a book of old-fashioned narrative history -- unabashed in its nationalism, gruff in its enthusiasm, frank in its opinions, and a good yarn besides. The United States had acquired the vast Louisiana Territory, encompassing all or part of what are now fifteen states, from France in 1803, but entertained only a vague idea of what was actually in it. Thomas Jefferson assembled an expedition to find out more. Ambrose quotes liberally from Jefferson's instructions to Lewis describing what he expected. The instructions display a Jefferson whose misinformation was sometimes endearing -- for instance, he was intrigued by the idea that one tribe of Indians was descended from the Welsh, and he wanted Lewis to listen for evidence of this in the Indians' speech -- but who was relentlessly curious, and far-seeing in his ambitions. No detail was beneath his notice. In admonishing Lewis to make multiple copies of everything he wrote, Jefferson urged that one of the copies be "on the paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper."

has captivated everyone I know who has read it. The book has also prompted many people to wonder if the Lewis and Clark saga might be an appropriate focus for a trip with children, "appropriate" here meaning not just worthy but practical. Are there sights and activities enough to hold the attention of young people? Can the long distances be managed in a manner that children will tolerate, even enjoy? The answer to such questions is yes.

SOME journeys in modern America have the effect of diminishing the achievement of those who made the same journeys hundreds of years ago. It is sometimes hard to appreciate, for instance, the barrier that the Appalachians once represented. A journey on the route taken by Lewis and Clark produces no belittling effect upon the imagination, perhaps because the Missouri River is so large and constant, and because the horizon at the end of the plains beckons unapproachably for so long. Moreover, the journals kept by Clark, by Lewis (though his have mostly been lost), and by many of the other members of the Corps of Discovery give a minutely detailed account of what happened on every day of the expedition. Over the years Lewis and Clark buffs and the government have pinpointed just about every campsite and put up historical markers and interpretive signs. There are reminders, every time you stop, of the demands posed by logistics, illness, and diplomacy, not to mention by an unruly and sometimes violent river whose course was dimly known.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In