Three Year Walk

I’ve read a good deal about Lewis and Clark recently and their three year tramp across the north and west of what is now the US. And there it is, Lewis and Clark introduce everything into language, describing, noting, transforming the great big unknown into words, into consciousness.

It is a shame that we can’t read the impressions of the indigenous people who they came across and sent to Washington to meet Thomas Jefferson, to see how they brought all those white folks into consciousness and into language. But we know, good cultural studies people that we are, that language is the tool of power and the transformation of tribal lands into the language of European otherness means that they are now subject to power and purchase. Those lands are gone and are now strip malls.

The narratives are awesome: the endless hardship, the terrible weather, the awful illnesses, the crushing burden of carrying years and years of supplies, and also the fantastic courage to go for a three year walk.

After they make it back down the Missouri River (retracing their steps to St. Louis and thence back along the Mississippi to the Ohio and then to Washington and President Jefferson) Lewis & Clark are celebrated, given balls, land grants and cash rewards by Congress. A couple of months later Lewis is appointed Governor of the Louisana territories (not actually Lousiana but the northern watersheds of the Mississippi and Missouri that made up the northern half of the French Louisiana claim)by Jefferson and Congress and Clark is appointed his Secretary for Indian Affairs.

Clark finds love and children and a sense of accomplishment in returning to the river. Lewis does not find love or accomplishment. He is burdened by the terrible guilt that every single American seems to ask him when his journals will be published and he cannot bear to look at his journals (he knows that the language will diminish the unknown and render it touristy).

He can’t do it all again, can’t bear to look at them, can’t respond to Jefferson’s gentle nudges toward getting the journals published. He spirals into whiskey and debt and pursues some pointless Indian wars against the Osages. The punitive expeditions took place right at the end of Jefferson’s second term as President, and sadly for Lewis the new President does not see these actions against the osages as being worthy and refuses to accept Lewis’ accounts or pay the bills related to the actions.

This means that Lewis is liable for the costs incurred and will bankrupt him. It is too much, he packs his remaining property (not very quickly as he was still drinking hard) and begins his journey to Washington via riverboat. He is drinking a lot and mixing a not inconsiderable amount of laudanum into his bottles. He attempts to shoot himself, the riverboat captain is not going to let a all American hero top himself on his boat and takes away the booze.

So Lewis sobers up a bit and makes all the usual resolutions for the future. But on leaving the river and heading overland across the Appalachians Lewis finds himself in a small saloon near Natchez and begins to drink again. Sometime in the night Lewis shoots himself twice, the second time he wounds himself mortally and by morning Lewis is dead. There’s another frontier. Heartbreaking.


About rustichello

A rather too quiet fellow of little reknown.
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