Explorers' journals bring historian fameBy BILL GRAHAM The Kansas City Star
In January 1804, William Clark felt ill as he waited near St. Louis for a trek with Meriwether Lewis to the Pacific.
He had broken through ice the day before while trying to cross a pond on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.
After the dunking, Clark wrote, "I returned before Sun Set, and found that my feet, which were wet, had frozed to my Shoes, which rendered precaution necessary to prevent a frost bite, the Wind from the W, across the Sand Islands in the mouth of the Missouries, raised Such a dust that I could not see in that derection, the Ice Continue to run & river rise Slowly - exceeding Cold day."
This year, as America celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from St. Louis to Oregon and back, history buffs will be able to track details and daily life along the trail largely because a University of Nebraska historian - Gary E. Moulton - labored two decades to bring the words of "the writingest explorers of their time" to life. Such as:
"Christmas 25th Decr:" Clark wrote in 1803. "I was wakened by a Christmas discharge (gunfire) found that Some of the party had got Drunk (2 fought), the men frolicked and hunted all day, Snow this morning, Ice run all day, Several Turkey Killed Shields returned with a cheese & 4 lb butter, Three Indians Come to day to take Christmas with us."
Such are the passages to be gleaned from The Definitive Journals of Lewis and Clark, a 13-volume edition edited by Moulton, 61, of Lincoln, Neb.
The authors are Lewis and Clark and four of their enlisted men on one of America\'s greatest scientific explorations and wilderness adventures.
Modern writers have mined phrases from expedition records for books billed as the journals of Lewis and Clark. But they used only excerpts, often focused mostly on the Rocky Mountains and the Far West.
Only Moulton has compiled every journal, map, field note and scribble on a scrap of paper into a complete and authoritative account of what the explorers wrote.
"Our goal," he said, "was to get every word of Lewis and Clark accessible to the public. We couldn't slight a particular place because we weren't interested in it."
Besides every word the crew wrote, Moulton has edited input from more than 100 consultants to provide footnotes following journal passages that give details about people, places and nature.
For example, Clark's entry for June 24, 1804, simply mentions passing the mouth of a creek 20 yards wide on the larboard shore with straw-covered structures in a camp.
But in Moulton's edition, we learn through footnotes that they are passing by the Little Blue River in what's now Jackson County, and past Shoal Creek to the north in present-day Clay County.
"The Countrey on each Side of the river is fine interspersed with Praries, in which imence herds of Deer is Seen," Clark wrote.
Meriwether Lewis was a fine writer with the most literary style, Moulton said. But for reasons unknown, he wrote little about the trip through Missouri, or else those accounts are lost. Perhaps he was waiting until the party reached more unknown territory to write. That's another reason most journal accounts focus on the West.
But the matter-of-fact writing style of Clark and the enlisted men did capture something of the Missouri and Kansas region, Moulton said. At times they could be poetic, even humorous.
In an entry for June 24, Clark wrote of spending the night alone ashore while hunting and then bringing to the boat a fat bear and two deer, despite "Musquitors Ticks & Knats very troublesome."
But during his time alone he wrote: "In crossing from an Island, I got mired, and was obliged to Craul out, a disagreeable Situation & a Diverting one of any one who Could have Seen me after I got out, all Covered with mud."
President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase in large part to seek an easy route to the Pacific through unknown territory. The Rocky Mountains proved that mission a failure.
But Jefferson also considered it a scientific expedition, and he ordered the keeping of journals. The early published accounts were incomplete, however, and the journals or related papers lay forgotten, some in safe vaults, others adrift in personal desks.
Over the years new writings were discovered, some as late as 1953 and 1966, Moulton said. A letter written by Lewis while on the journey was discovered this fall, he said.
Moulton was hired in 1979 by the University of Nebraska and the Center for Great Plains Studies to compile the first complete edition of all the Lewis and Clark journal materials. Various other grant providers and co-sponsors also have assisted.
Since 1983, he has published every few years. As a final installment, his own condensed version, The Lewis and Clark Journals, was published this year as a single volume separate from the definitive journals.
In a quarter century, Moulton went from being an obscure historian to international fame.
He's even leafed through the steno-pad-style journals that Lewis and Clark themselves wrote in. Moulton worked from microfilm copies. But sometimes only the original pages could help him decipher odd words or blurred images.
Holding the journals was a thrill, he said.
Now Moulton is one of the world's foremost authorities on the expedition, particularly the day-to-day operations. He's become expert in everything from frontier cartography to early botany.
That put him in the expedition documentary by Ken Burns that aired on public television. As America's Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebrations hit full sail from now to 2006, Moulton is in demand on the speaking trail, from the White House last summer to a recent appearance in Kansas City at a wildlife conference.
Lewis and the expedition's crew floated keelboat and pirogues down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, and they took them upstream for a winter camp near St. Louis in 1803.
But many chart the trip as beginning in May 1804, when the party headed upstream on the Missouri River, then returning in 1806.
As the celebration continues, Moulton expects even more interest in the journals.
"They're what everybody who studies Lewis and Clark goes back to eventually," Moulton said. "They are a great literary treasure."
To reach Bill Graham, call
(816) 234-5906 or send e-mail to
- Gary E. Moulton spent 25 years compiling and editing all journals and field notes written by captains and crew during the Lewis and Clark expedition. The 13-volume edition is the first complete account of the journey, and is the scientific document President Thomas Jefferson envisioned when he commissioned the exploration 200 years ago.