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Should We Think of Them as Clark and Lewis?

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, tuning up New Orleans. But first, the Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial Exhibition makes its final stop this summer at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum. The traveling exhibition has been on the road about as long as Lewis and Clark were.

The exhibit documents every detail of their mission. It all starts with President Thomas Jefferson's desire to find a waterway west all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

We visited the museum earlier this week. Our tour guide was Landon Jones. He is the author of the book William Clark and the Shaping of the West, as well as The Essential Lewis and Clark.

Mr. LANDON JONES (Author, William Clark and the Shaping of the West): Here are the instructions. So when they got started, Jefferson wrote a letter to Lewis saying this is what I want you to find. And then Jefferson wrote a letter to Congress. All of these things are here in the exhibit, which is pretty exciting.

WERTHEIMER: Now, are these original letters in Jefferson's hand?

Mr. JONES: Yes. This is the original, Jefferson's instructions to Lewis and also Lewis's estimate of expenses. These are in the hands of the people who did it.

WERTHEIMER: There are letters, Native American paintings and clothing, even a stuffed woodpecker. You can see the compasses they used and the maps they drew, rough drafts of the empty places we now think of as Nebraska or Idaho. Their journals are in the exhibit, tiny writing and delicate drawings.

But behind the artifacts are two complex and fascinating Virginians, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Lewis was the scientist collecting plants and animal and mineral specimens, but Landon Jones says it was Clark who kept the expedition on track.

Mr. JONES: Clark is so fascinating. And I had done the short book called The Essential Lewis and Clark. I wanted to see if I was comfortable writing about this, and then when I realized that there was no biography of William Clark, then this must be the most well-known American for whom there had been no biography, I just had to do that. So I gulped and went ahead and did it.

It turns out that the expedition was just one part of his life, just one chapter in his life. And I think he would've been more famous had he not gone on the expedition, because then we would see what he really did, which was that he was in charge of Indian relations for 30 years, and during the early republic he carved out states, the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota. All this land was acquired by Clark from the Indians and then Clark removed, he began the Indian removal. It's not a happy chapter in our nation's history, but Clark did it and was a good soldier.

And so his role in shaping the country is very significant. And plus, he's a likeable - you know, I don't admire everything he did, but I love him personally because he was just simply so likeable and such a commanding, you know, presence.

WERTHEIMER: He's a kind of architect of the American Middle West.

Mr. JONES: Yes. Yeah. And the far West ultimately because it was he who moved Indian tribes of the old Ohio country and the old Northwest across the Mississippi. And Clark knew every president. He worked directly, reported to every president from Washington to Van Buren. And they all knew him and respected him. I mean I just find him an amazing person.

WERTHEIMER: He also was responsible, as you say in your book, for the Trail of Tears, for the evacuation of the Indian tribes from states like Arkansas and east of there, all the way to Oklahoma. And many, many people died on the Trail of Tears. Thousands died.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. The Trail of Tears happened in the last year of Clark's life. He wasn't directly involved in supervising that, but it was his work in clearing the land from Arkansas and from the West that enabled the Trail of Tears to take place and for the Indians to be removed. In that case, mostly from Georgia and Tennessee and Alabama.

WERTHEIMER: And that was also part of Clark's career.

Mr. JONES: It was part of Clark's long life. When I think about Clark, I see in him all the strengths of an American character in history, but also all of our contradictions. His attitude towards the Indians leaves us a little ambivalent now. He was a slaveholder. He refused to free Lee York, the only slave, or only black man who went on the expedition. You have to kind of put your arms around this. And I think if you do, you begin to understand something about American history we can deal with.

There's a great virtue to the Bicentennial, is that we're starting to do that. And particularly with the Native American story, has been told throughout the Bicentennial, that everywhere we've celebrated this three year long, for long Bicentennial, that the Native American story has been told. And for the first time, I think, people are starting to listen. And I think that's been a great virtue of it.

WERTHEIMER: In the end, do you think that we in the modern world view Lewis and Clark, as we should?

Mr. JONES: I think we tend to exaggerate a little bit and romanticize Lewis and Clark today. Americans would have gone West anyway. They're accomplishments would have happened without them. But the example that they set of cooperation, I mean, what teamwork can accomplish, and also the fact that our nation could reach to the Pacific, and that was the idea that really stuck, that we can get there.

WERTHEIMER: Landon Jones is the author of William Clark And The Shaping Of The West. The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition is at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History through September. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.