Lewis & Clark

The Lewis and Clark Expedition came to a triumphant end on this day in 1806, the adventurers returning to St. Louis after their twenty-eight-month trip to the Pacific coast. The last entries in the journals kept by the two men describe excitement on all sides as the expedition drew to a close, the returning men firing their blunderbusses to the riverbank crowds, the crowds firing return salutes. After a few hours’ sleep, Captain Meriwether Lewis sent a “mission accomplished” note to President Jefferson, the scheduled U.S. Mail pickup delayed for the purpose.

One of Lewis’s journal entries, this collected in Helen Whybrow’s Dead Reckoning: Great Adventure Writing from the Golden Age of Exploration, 1800-1900 (2003), reveals that his expedition almost ended on June 14, 1805. Lewis was out and about on the plains of northern Montana on that day, enjoying his view of “the missoury stretching it’s meandering course to the South through this plain to a great distance filled to it’s even and grassey brim” [original spelling retained, here and below]. Then he was set upon by the locals—a “tyger cat” (probably a wolverine), “three bull buffaloe” and, in the closest of the three encounters, “a large white, or reather brown bear”:

…it was an open level plain, not a bush within miles nor a tree within less than three hundred yards of me; the river bank was sloping and not more than three feet above the level of the water; in short there was no place by means of which I could conceal myself from this monster untill I could charge my rifle; in this situation I thought of retreating in a brisk walk as fast as he was advancing untill I could reach a tree about 300 yards below me, but I had no sooner terned myself about but he pitched at me, open mouthed and full speed, I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water the idea struk me to get into the water to such debth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon [pike]; accordingly I ran haistily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon, at this instant he arrived at the edge of the water within about 20 feet of me; the moment I put myself in this attitude of defence he sudonly wheeled about as if frightened, declined the combat on such unequal grounds, and retreated with quite as great precipitation as he had just before pursued me….

Lewis wryly wonders if “all the beasts of the neighbourhood had made a league to destroy me, or that some fortune was disposed to amuse herself at my expence.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.