“Ocian in View! O the joy!”

November 7, 2005

in Natural history

On November 7, 1805, the Corps of Discovery reached the estuary of the Columbia River.  Mistaking it for their goal, the Pacific Ocean, Corps co-leader William Clark writes in his journal: “Ocian in View! O the joy!”  Although November 7 did not really signify the day the Corps reached their western terminus (that took until the 19th), the popularity of this (inaccurate) quote has solidified this date as the anniversary of the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Two hundred years ago today.

I am frequently amazed at the stunning ignorance of most Americans of their own history.  The journey of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery is one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.  It seems to me that reality-addicted, thrill-loving Americans would love the saga if only for its dramatic themes of hardship, adversity, and danger.  Patriotic Americans (the now-common  type, with a different definition of patriotism than mine) should embrace it for its proof of our pioneers’ ingenuity, courage, and toughness. Yet despite this being the Corp’s bicentennial, many Americans are woefully unaware of the details of this remarkable trip.

Entertainment aspects aside, there are dozens of lessons to be learned by a careful reading of good accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  And none are more relevant today than the simple contrast of what the Corps saw and recorded about the environment, flora, and fauna of the United States on their traverse of the country, and what it looks like today.

Just two hundred years later.

Recall, these were the first white Americans to explore the western half of the continent.  They had only crude maps and no real idea of what lay ahead of them. West of St. Louis, the human population probably did not exceed the numbers of present-day New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

The Corps reported encountering at least 37 Grizzly Bears, which has been calculated to represent over 10,000 grizzlies in the U.S. at the time; today the population is under 400. Standing on one hill, they could see 10,000 bison. Beaver were found “on every bend” of the Missouri River. Great numbers of Sharp-tailed Grouse were found near their first winter quarters at Fort Mandan. The most recurring theme, in fact, in the narratives and journals of the expedition is the staggering abundance of wildlife encountered by the Corps.

Only two hundred years ago.

Several years ago, I attended a conference in Portland.  As I flew over the same Great Plains explored by this incredible expedition, I looked down at the extensive evidence of the hand of man upon the land. Few expanses appeared untouched.  During a break in the conference, I visited Fort Clatsop, where the Corps spent the winter of 1805-06. With my heart in my throat, I reflected on what we have done to this beautiful land in just two hundred short years.

We can only appreciate our losses if we know and understand where we started, and can see the profound changes we have wrought.  We owe a huge debt to Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the other members of the Corps of Discovery for leaving us with detailed accounts of our natural history. Every person who considers themselves a conservationist — indeed, every American — should take the time to truly comprehend the story of the Corps of Discovery.  It is our story. Without knowing the beginning, we cannot write the ending.


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Cindy M. November 7, 2005 at 4:28 pm

Great post- Garry grabbed up 'Undaunted Courage' from one of my recent book orders, before I could get my mitts on it (and he's taking his good time reading it) I don't think of L.& C. as the 'first Americans' to explore the west, rather I think of them as the first to put their experiences down in a vocabulary that was readily accessible to English-speaking folks.
I'd love to step back in time to those years of abundance.. before all of those documented species had prices put on their heads/hides.

TroutGrrrl November 7, 2005 at 5:36 pm

Hey thanks Nutty!

I've read just the icerberg-tip of accounts, summaries and interpretations from the Lewis & Clark and Corps of Discovery exploration. I've felt that void in my brain directing me toward this topic, but I haven't done much about it. Thanks for the links and suggestions. I'm in the market for some new casual reading material as you know…

I also like Cindy's point about qualifying them as the first English-speakers.

Cop Car November 8, 2005 at 12:29 am

"Recall, these were the first Americans to explore the western half of the continent."

Uh…*raising the point timidly*…should the statement not be, "Recall, these were the first white Americans to explore the western half of the continent."

Nuthatch November 8, 2005 at 7:36 am

Absolutely correct! It was clearer in my first draft of that paragraph.

Sandy November 8, 2005 at 10:11 am

Maybe we need a big mainstream movie with major stars to get "most Americans" interested in this. But who would play Lewis and Clark? And Sacajawea?

Cindy M. November 8, 2005 at 12:20 pm

"Who would play Sacajawea?"

My vote would be Tantoo Cardinal, who has many films to her credit. Although Sacajawea was Shoshoni, & Tantoo Cardinal is Cree- she'd be much more realistic than say.. Julia Roberts. (But knowing how UN-realistic film-makers are, they'd probably hire Winona Ryder and slap a wig and makeup on her and call it good).

Aydin November 8, 2005 at 2:38 pm

Another western expedition, perhaps less extensive and less succesful than that of Lewis & Clark's, was Major Long's 1819-1820 expedition to the Rocky Mountains. The distinction of the latter was that it had an official zoologist, Thomas Say, on board. Back in June I had a post about it here: http://snailstales.blogspot.com/2005/07/life-and-times-of-thomas-say-2.html

TroutGrrrl November 8, 2005 at 8:17 pm

I snagged a copy of Undaunted Courage today…it looks like good stuff.

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