Skip to main content
No. 1767:
Lewis and Clark

Today, after Lewis and Clark. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The closer I look at the Lewis and Clark expedition, the more it becomes two different things. It reflected the America of the time, it was closely tied to Jefferson's presidency, and it immediately began opening up the West. But, on the two-and-a-half-year journey itself, the group entered a world apart -- an unknown world where the explorers depended completely on one another. They were infinitely far from life back in the States.

They set out in 1804 as a military unit, with Captain Lewis, Lieutenant Clark, three sergeants, a corporal, 33 privates, eleven civilians, and Clark's slave, York. Many were part Indian. All but Sergeant Floyd, who'd died of a burst appendix, spent the first winter with Mandan Indians. There they picked up an interpreter along with his teenage Indian wife Sacagawea and an infant son.

By then, the group had bonded in a unique way. The scholarly and depressive Lewis and the outgoing Clark led as one person, setting a pattern of concord. Some military discipline was meted out for offenses like raiding the liquor supply. But after a few months it was not needed again.

By the time the second winter closed in, they'd reached the Pacific Ocean. There they had to decide whether to winter-over on what's now the Washington side of the Columbia River, or cross to the Oregon side, or go back up to the mouth of the Sandy River. Winter would be hard, and this was a crucial decision.

Oregon coast

The Oregon Coast (photo by John Lienhard)

Historian Stephen Ambrose sees what happened next as the revelatory moment in the whole expedition -- a kind of time warp into a distant American future. Lewis and Clark laid out the pros and cons, then called for a vote. The slave York and the Indian woman Sacagawea were included in the vote as a matter of course. America would still be trying to catch up with that act well into the twentieth century. It really was an astonishing thing.

All but Sergeant Floyd returned safely. But Lewis lived only three more years before he fell into a deep depression and took his own life. Clark served first as governor of the Missouri Territory, then as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He cared for Sacagawea's son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, while the boy went to school in Missouri. After York badgered Clark for five years, Clark freed him and set him up in the drayage business.

But slavery worsened until we had to fight a Civil War to end it. And we systematically destroyed the very Indians without whose help the expedition wouldn't've made it. It all seemed to go bad; yet the expedition had left us with an ideal -- of courage, self-sacrifice, cooperation -- even the ideal of a classless society.

If we seemed to lose much of that impetus in the years that followed, we've kept struggling to regain it. The Lewis and Clark expedition left us with an embodiment of the America we want to be. And that lingers. It still points the way, two centuries later.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This episode is derived from a talk that I prepared for a screening of: the IMAX film, Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West. National Geographic Television, 2002.

I have been informed by many of the books written about Lewis and Clark. But the journals themselves are of primary importance. See, e.g.: The Journals of Lewis and Clark. (Frank Bergon, ed.) New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

I also highly recommend the TV miniseries: Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, Discovery TV, 1997.

Image of Lewis and Clark from an 1810 French account of their journey

Image of Lewis and Clark from an 1810 French account of their journey:
Voyage des capitaines Lewis et Clarke