The Lost Legacy of Lewis and Clark

by Eric Penz

What do the journals of Lewis & Clark have in common with the bible? Simply this, while most are familiar with them and believe they know their content, few have actually read them. So it may come as a surprise that Lewis & Clark's history is not as complete as most believe.

Like Lewis & Clark, I and many others keep daily journals. I wrote in mine just yesterday. The funny thing is the date of my last entry prior to yesterday is from May 2005, my youngest son's first birthday. And that's the reality. My daily journal is not so daily. My guess is yours is not either. But then, we can be forgiven. We write for our own enjoyment. We have not been commissioned by the US government and its president to do so. We are not in the middle of a military sponsored expedition into enemy territory. And we are most certainly not in the middle of an adventure the likes of which humanity has never before witnessed nor ever shall.

The same cannot be said for Lewis & Clark, however.

And yet the fact is that their journal entries, as we have known them for the past two hundred years, were apparently recorded at a frequency far less than daily-Lewis's in particular. Over the three-year expedition from September 1803 to September 1806, the following is a sample of the more sizable gaps within Lewis's record: September 19 to November 11, 1803; May 14, 1804 to April 7, 1805; August 26, 1805 to January 1, 1806; and from August 12 to the end of September 1806.

"There is no explanation for the gaps," writes Stephen E. Ambrose in his bestseller, Undaunted Courage. Even so, most experts, including the late Ambrose, generally presume Lewis & Clark's record to be complete. If pressed, however, these same experts are unwilling to declare that there never were journal entries written during these gaps. Such a reluctance to do so obviously begs an explanation as to what might then have happened to these lost records. As a result, there are nearly as many theories as there are experts.

One popular theory is that the missing entries were simply lost along the way during the expedition. Certainly a likely scenario as Lewis & Clark were fortunate enough to come back in one piece, let alone their journals. In fact, this theory would be quite satisfying if it wasn't for the glaring absence of any letter or correspondence from any of the parties involved lamenting the loss of these records. And there is also the matter of internal evidence. The entries we do have do not suggest holes. They read as if they are complete. All of this leads the experts to then suggest that Lewis simply didn't write for long periods of time because he either suffered from writer's block or was otherwise kept from writing due to life happening on the trail to the Pacific. This line of reasoning may explain why you and I don't write in our journals, but nothing that we know about Lewis portrays him to be anything like you and I. History, in fact, profiles Lewis as a man who would have let nothing, save one thing, stand in his way of magnifying his commission by Jefferson. And that one thing would have been death itself.

Speaking of which, the other theory that rings true for many experts is that Lewis did not write due to severe bouts of depression. This theory is widely accepted because of three points of support. First, there is the lengthy delay, even near prevention, of the publication of their journals by Lewis upon their return. Evidence suggests he stalled the process out of an emotional lethargy. Secondly, his family is believed to have suffered from depression going back several generations. And thirdly, there is his death. Suicide to be specific, induced by severe melancholy, or so say the textbooks. On the surface this theory, too, seems to close the matter, except that history also clearly shows that if ever there was a time in Lewis's life when he was free of depression it was during that infamous Corps. of Discovery.

Then what created those gaps in their journal records? Did Lewis even write during that time? Surely he did. The gaps in time are far too long to rationally suppose he did not. The question seems to have no answer. And if at one time journal records did indeed exist for those gaps, then it also seems that unless they are found a piece of Lewis & Clark's legacy has been lost to us forever.

And that may be the most valuable lesson these two legendary explorers can teach us. History is not absolute, it's fluid. Today's supposed truth will be made false by tomorrow's discovery. The bible, for example, is understood differently today due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other documents than it was yesterday. And just the same, tomorrow may yet reveal new Lewis & Clark journals, finally filling in the gaps of their legacy. Not that you and I and most everyone else will know the difference.

We still won't have read their "incomplete" journals. And our excuse won't be that we were too busy not reading our bibles and not writing in our own journals, rather it will be that we were patiently waiting for History to finally re-release The Journals of Lewis & Clark in an unabridged edition.

Eric Penz is the author of Cryptid: The Lost Legacy of Lewis and Clark. Visit his Web site to learn more,