Few people know more about the day-to-day of the Lewis and Clark Expedition than historical scholar Gary Moulton.
The former University of Nebraska professor is the editor of the latest, full edition of Lewis and Clark’s journals. The original journals are kept in Philadelphia and St. Louis.
Moulton spent two decades compiling the journals into 13 volumes. He wrapped the work into an abridged version in 1999, the same year he spent six weeks at Fort Clatsop in Astoria.
Moulton returned this month to Fort Clatsop as a scholar-in-residence at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.
“His willingness to share his expertise with the staff and public both in the park and in the community provides opportunities for everyone to make a renewed connection with the story we are tasked with protecting,” Scott Tucker, Lewis and Clark National Historical Park superintendent, said.
This time around, Moulton is working on a new project. He is revisiting the edited volumes to write a narrative account of each day of the expedition. He will summarize the activity on each of the 863 days. Some days may only describe the weather, while other days may detail a dramatic experience.
He is calling the work, “Lewis and Clark Day by Day.”
“A person could sit there and say ‘I want to see everything that happened on this day,’ ” Moulton said. “I am simply giving an account of each day of the expedition.”
Moulton calls his work
documentary history, which differs from the work of historians such as Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the popular book “Undaunted Courage.”
Historians like Ambrose read the journals, interpret it and write their own account. They follow a theme or thesis to ask what does this mean? Why is this important?
“That is what a historian usually does,” Moulton said. “They want to prove something or want to disprove something. That is not what I’m doing.”
Moulton updates the journals with footnotes to explain new information on native tribes, maps and plants. He does not take the next step by following a thesis.
“I’m providing the public and scholars with the original sources so they can do the interpretive, revisionist work,” Moulton said. “Here are the raw materials at your hands. You don’t have to go all over the country and pore over documents.”
Last week, Moulton visited the Dismal Nitch site where the Corps of Discovery barely survived in mid-November 1805. The location of the nitch – somewhere near Highway 401 on the Washington-side of the Columbia River – is the focus of debate between two local historians.
Historian Rex Ziak of Naselle, Wash., puts the campsite close to the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Dismal Nitch Rest Area.
Historian Jim Sayce, of Seaview, Wash., interprets the journals as saying the campsite was east of the rest area. Sayce – the Washington State Historical Society’s liaison to the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park – was recently elected to the board of the National Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.
Moulton said he experiences similar disputes when he visits other locations along the Lewis and Clark Trail. He stays out of the debate. “It’s hard to say,” Moulton said. “There is no archaeological evidence at this point to pinpoint Dismal Nitch.”
Tale of Two Forts
Moulton is soaking in his time at Fort Clatsop, which he considers a fascinating part of Lewis and Clark’s journey. He said historical scholars, including himself, enjoy comparing Fort Clatsop and North Dakota’s Fort Mandan, the two places the corps wintered.
Scholars contrast how the group felt about natives, the situations and the climate of the Great Plains compared to the coastal environment.
Many concluded that the Lewis and Clark Expedition had a difficult time at Fort Clatsop.
Part of the hardship at Fort Clatsop related to the corps not understanding the native tribes from their point of view. Moulton notes that the science of anthropology was years away. Not only did Lewis and Clark not understand the different cultures, but they refused to accept them, Moulton said.
“They were so put off by the natives that the cultural habits were alien to them,” Moulton said. “They viewed them negatively. It was the age they were in. They didn’t know how to cross that cultural barrier.”
Despite the difficulties with the natives and the harsh weather at Dismal Nitch, Moulton believes the experience on the coast ended up being positive since if exposed the corps to a new environment and cultural area. In a broader sense, it helped the United States plant a flag on the West Coast so the country would have claims in future years. It set the stage for the settlement of Astoria, and the Oregon Trial.
Before leaving Fort Clatsop in March 1806, William Clark wrote in the journal, “We lived as well as we had any right to expect.”
“That is a great philosophy for life,” Moulton said. “His feeling wasn’t all negative.”
A grand story
As Moulton finishes “Lewis and Clark Day by Day” – expected to be completed by the end of the year – he reflects on what has drawn him and many others to the story of Lewis and Clark.
“It’s a grand story. The adventure of getting across the continent. The miserable, incredible situation they were in coming down the Columbia. Wet, cold and dangerous. They pushed into the shore at Dismal Nitch. What a name. It says it all. It wasn’t a happy time,” Moulton said. “The drama of the story appeals to people.”