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.

Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery left the St. Louis area in a specially designed keelboat in May of 1804. The party returned in September of 1806 (without the keelboat). I and my wife, Anna Marie, and our three children, ages ten, twelve, and fourteen, left St. Louis in a rented Ford minivan in the middle of last July. We returned in the middle of August (with the minivan). Our strategy was to intersperse bursts of vast distance -- say, 700 miles in a day -- between stays of two, three, or four days at selected spots. If we were to make the trip over again, we would stay longer in three specific areas. These stand out as offering not only a microcosm of the original Lewis and Clark expedition but also many historical sidelights and family amenities.

The first of these is the region around Bismarck, North Dakota. There is a fetching candor about this compact state capital (population: 53,500) on the Missouri. The capitol building is a modest Depression-era skyscraper, as if the government had insisted that some symbol of its power stand taller than the grain elevators. To a family hailing from Boston, a city like Bismarck boasts a touch of the exotic. The city also occupies a stretch of the Missouri that we came to appreciate as typical of the river: a powerful ribbon, fringed green with cottonwoods, and winding through a floodplain sharply defined by ocher bluffs and hills. (Karl Bodmer's painting View of the Bear Paw Mountains From Fort McKenzie superbly captures the Missouri's character.) From Fort Abraham Lincoln, on a grassy, windswept knob across the river, George Armstrong Custer set out in 1876 for his final destiny at the Little Bighorn.
The winter that Lewis and Clark spent just north of Bismarck, at the place they called Fort Mandan, was crucial to their success. With the Mandan Indians they bartered for supplies to tide the corps over. Several Hidatsa villages lay nearby, at the confluence of the Knife River and the Missouri, and from the Hidatsa the corps obtained intelligence about the journey ahead. Among the Hidatsa, Lewis and Clark also found the young Shoshone woman Sacagawea, who had come from farther west and who would be an interpreter. At the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site the little that remains of these Hidatsa communities has been protected: when the sun is low, it reveals on a bluff above the river the shadowed depressions where earth lodges stood. Portions of the bluff that have been eroded sharply by water offer a cutaway view of archaeological strata -- one can see clearly, for instance, places where hundreds of years ago buffalo bones were buried in middens. Our children meandered for half a mile, peering intently at the layers. The Knife River site, maintained by the National Park Service, offers a well-stocked visitor center but little in the way of modern restoration. It is an excellent example of how intelligent commentary and modest display can make a natural setting speak across the ages.

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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.

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