FEATURE — Summer 2004
   

 
A statue of William Clark (left), Meriwether Lewis, and Lewis' Newfoundland, Seaman, is located in Frontier Park in St. Charles, Missouri.

Discovering Lewis & Clark

Using the famed Lewis and Clark expedition as subject matter, Arts & Sciences faculty and students immerse themselves in a modern-day adventure of learning—and discover the wonders of multidisciplinary studies along the way.

by Terri McClain

In May 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis departed St. Louis to rejoin his friend and co-captain, William Clark, in the nearby French village of St. Charles. Here, Clark and the Corps of Discovery were finalizing preparations for their journey up the Missouri River: laying in supplies, hiring boatmen, gathering information. For Lewis, it was but the closing phase of a long and often arduous prelude to exploration that had begun many months before.

Professors Wayne Fields (left) and David Konig were among the faculty to first team-teach the course Lewis and Clark and the American Challenge.

President Thomas Jefferson selected Lewis to lead this mission for his myriad qualities, including his knowledge of what was then the West, his familiarity with Indians, and his loyalty, courage, and prudence. But Jefferson's aims required more from his secretary turned explorer. This was no mere military expedition in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, a hoped-for water route to the Pacific coast. Jefferson, a man of science and letters, also hoped to satisfy his intellectual curiosity on a host of issues—flora and fauna, native peoples, geology, and geography. So he sent Meriwether Lewis away to be educated. Lewis received medical instruction from America's leading physician, the eminent Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. From other important scholars, Lewis learned about cartography, astronomy, and the use of navigational instruments. He also studied botany (perhaps Jefferson's favorite science), including classification and methods for preserving samples.

Jefferson's West

When Thomas Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase, he probably acted illegally, says David Konig, professor of history, director of the program in legal studies in Arts & Sciences, and professor of law, whose research focuses on Jefferson's legal thought and practice.

"Jefferson didn't have the authority to purchase Louisiana," says Konig.

"And even when Congress finally learned of it, did Congress have the authority? There's nothing in the Constitution that provides that. There was a lot of opposition to it."

Jefferson foresaw the potential problems. In his law practice he often handled cases involving the guardianship of children.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark gifted leaders of American Indian tribes with Thomas Jefferson Indian Peace Medals. Adopted from European powers, this practice originally promoted relationships of good faith between the U.S. government and native peoples.

"He quite expressly said the government in this instance was acting like a lawyer trustee for children, and he was not referring to Indians," says Konig. "This was property that, as a trustee, one had a responsibility to acquire for a later generation. He was confident that they should be English-speaking and European-oriented."

Despite his best intentions, and his instructions to Lewis and Clark to make friendly contact with native tribes, American Indians would not enjoy the benefits of Jefferson's grand vision for the West.

"There wasn't an impulse by Jefferson to conquer them and strip them of their land," says Konig. "Jefferson still held out hope that there could be this kind of peaceful evolution into stable agrarian communities among the American Indians. What frustrated him and eventually turned him against some of the Indian nations was their reluctance to stay in one spot, grow crops, and own property like Europeans. But that was so inconsistent with their way of thinking about property and society and human relations that it was a transition they couldn't make.

"The next generation, of course, didn't even have that hope. The reservation wasn't something Jefferson thought of. You start seeing that with Andrew Jackson, who even removed Indians like the Cherokee who were becoming farmers and fulfilling Jefferson's vision for peaceful assimilation. But, by that time, there was a different mentality of aggressive frontier conquest."

 

Finally, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery boarded their boats and pushed off into the unknown Louisiana Territory. They would not return until 1806, and their carefully maintained journals and scientific records, detailing their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean and back, would continue to stir intellectual curiosity two centuries later.

 

Lewis & Clark—Cultural Icon

Many freshman courses include the word "introduction" in their titles, each one opening the door to a particular field of study. But what do you call a class that introduces freshmen to something as broad as a new, multidisciplinary approach to understanding the humanities?

Peter Kastor, assistant professor of history, introduces freshmen to the importance of primary source material in scholarship, and the use of technology, when necessary, in acquiring such sources.

You call it American Culture Studies 101: Lewis and Clark and the American Challenge. Originally conceived as part of the two-year interdisciplinary Hewlett Program, it is now the first class in the American Culture Studies freshman program in Arts & Sciences.

"The Lewis and Clark expedition is the perfect way of introducing students to the multidisciplinary study of culture," says Peter Kastor, assistant professor of history and American culture studies, and author of The Nation's Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America. "If academic study is a form of intellectual exploration, what better to use than this expedition of exploration? More important, understanding the expedition means understanding the way Lewis and Clark functioned as scientists, anthropologists, cartographers, historians, and writers. They are poster children for multidisciplinary work at the same time that understanding them requires a multidisciplinary perspective."

Using Lewis and Clark as a springboard for multidisciplinary studies was "a bright idea from the fertile mind of Wayne Fields," says David Konig, professor of history, director of the program in legal studies in Arts & Sciences, and professor of law. "The combination of his insight and creativity inspired me to hop on board."

Remapping the Expedition
Robert Criss, professor of earth and planetary sciences, was doing a little "nightstand reading" of the Lewis and Clark journals when he became intrigued with some unusual mathematical notations.

Using current magnetic north and true north measurements, Professor Robert Criss corrected the maps of the Lewis and Clark journals.

"As I looked carefully into their scientific work," says Criss, "I realized there was a story there that had escaped people. This was a scientific expedition first and foremost, because Jefferson was such an enlightened and versatile scholar. Consequently, on every page Lewis and Clark are writing about compass azimuths. But the compass doesn't point the same as it did 200 years ago. In fact, there's a very sizeable difference, so all their maps are skewed."

However, because their measurements were accurate, often to within less than one degree, Criss was able to rotate and correct the maps, creating a historical record of magnetic declination in North America. His findings were published in the October 2003 issue of the Geological Society of America's GSA Today.

True north differs from magnetic north, both from place to place and across time. In 1804, magnetic and true north were nearly aligned in Philadelphia. Today, that alignment is temporarily in St. Louis, a difference of nearly eight degrees from Lewis and Clark's time.

"You need that correction to properly interpret every map, every page of their journals," says Criss. "These are in fact the oldest accurate measurements in North America," he continues. "And their accuracy is very unusual. What is interesting is that, unlike any other American explorers that I know of, Lewis and Clark actually had sea captains' equipment. They had a sextant and a chronometer (their accurate clock)-a very, very expensive piece of equipment for the day. These are delicate instruments. Since they were living outside for years, I'm sure it was difficult to take care of them. "Mostly, Criss is impressed with Lewis and Clark as scientists. "They described a natural environment in a very enlightened way, and they made measurements that are still useful today, measurements that have not been interpreted properly up to now. But the other thing that should be noted is the crucial message that what one does can have value hundreds of years later, if it's done right."

Initially the course was team-taught by three faculty members: Fields, Konig, and Barbara Schaal, the Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts & Sciences and an expert on plant biology. Kastor, then a postdoctoral fellow, helped develop the course and now teaches it on his own, bringing in guest lecturers such as paleoethnobotanist Gail Fritz, associate professor of anthropology, to discuss American Indians, and Bob Criss, professor of earth and planetary sciences, to talk about the expedition's surveying and mapping equipment (see "Remapping the Expedition" sidebar).

"I loved the team teaching," says Brian Hamman, A.B. '02. "The novelty of having professors in class asking each other questions and discussing ideas among themselves was, in retrospect, very refreshing. At the time I didn't realize how different that was from normal classroom lectures."

From the beginning in fall 1998, the course has been coupled with efforts to introduce technological fluency to students. At the end of the semester, students create Web-based group projects. Hamman, who majored in American culture studies (AmCS) and English with a minor in computer science, now works for the American Culture Studies Program on both classroom-based digital projects and the program's growing Web archive of historical legal documents (see "Archiving the Past" sidebar).

"One of the goals of the course was to explore ways of using digital technology in the study of culture," says Kastor. "That meant having a large Web site with a host of archival materials, visual images, and handwritten documents that you couldn't have distributed to students in other ways."

Students in the American Culture Studies 101: Lewis and Clark and the American Challenge course travel to the White Cliffs area of the upper Missouri River in Montana to get a better sense for the landscape and the feel of sitting on a river.

"To get freshman students closer to primary texts and materials seemed to us an important ambition," says Wayne Fields, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English and director of the American Culture Studies Program. "We realized very early that primary materials not easily reached by other means could be looked at over the Internet. We also realized that we were going to have to learn more about using Web sites in class. Those were the reasons we conducted the search that brought Peter Kastor here. He had that kind of experience."

John Colter sued the estate of Meriwether Lewis for unpaid wages. The document can be found in the online archive of legal documents relating to members of the expedition.

Archiving the Past
Early 19th-century St. Louis was a litigious place, which is good news for scholars. "Court records can be incredibly revealing," says Peter Kastor, assistant professor of history. "The cases in our archive are really wonderful because they help make sense of the extended lives of Lewis and Clark and other members of the corps after the expedition."

A joint effort by the American Culture Studies Program, Missouri State Archives, and St. Louis Circuit Court Clerk's Office has created an online archive of legal documents relating to members of the Lewis and Clark expedition (stlcourtrecords. wustl.edu). These include Clark's 500-page probate records and a suit by John Colter, who was discharged early from the Corps of Discovery, against the estate of Meriwether Lewis to collect his unpaid wages. The records also provide insight into unexpected areas, such as the lives of slaves on Clark's estates.

"The process itself has been important for developing the ways in which the University collaborates with outside entities," says Kastor. "We already have a track record of doing that in the sciences, but this project breaks new ground for collaboration in the humanities."

The collection includes approximately 1,500 documents relating to 81 court cases involving expedition members. American culture studies (AmCS) students scanned records and designed the Web site's searchable interface.

"We started with the Lewis and Clark records because of their manageable size," says Wayne Fields, director of AmCS. "We followed that with the freedom suits project—slaves using the court system to argue for their freedom. What we learned from archiving the Lewis and Clark materials allowed us to deal with a larger body of material."

"It was a wonderful, nontraditional learning environment," says Sarah Mullen, A.B. '04, who assisted Kastor and Conevery Bolton Valencius, assistant professor of history, with researching their article on the health of Sacagawea (see "An Incident in the Health of Sacagawea" below). "The early exposure to primary sources carried over into all my studies, and the follow-up class trip to Montana was a great way to cap off my freshman year."

Bob Moore, M.A. '96, Ph.D. '03, is author of Lewis & Clark Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing, & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery and teaches a University College course on Lewis and Clark.

In fall 2004, an election year, AmCS will offer freshmen a course on presidential elections instead of the Lewis and Clark course. But Kastor plans to teach a graduate course on the expedition. "One of my goals," he says, "is to use our approach to this one event as a way to get graduate students thinking about how multidisciplinary work can make them better scholars and better teachers."

University College also offers a graduate history course on Lewis and Clark, taught by Bob Moore, M.A. '96, Ph.D. '03, a historian for the National Park Service at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch) and the author of Lewis & Clark Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing, & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery. He has been working on Lewis and Clark events, exhibits, and interpretive programming for several years. Kastor's Louisiana Purchase research, Moore says, is important because it puts Lewis and Clark in an international context, something Moore tries to do in his own work.

The Lewis and Clark expedition provides fertile ground for studying anthropology, botany, cartography, history, and literature.

He also tries to dispel some common myths. "Even graduate students admit to their pre-class conception of Lewis and Clark as just a couple of guys wearing coonskin caps and walking across the country with an Indian woman as a guide," says Moore. "They just don't see it as a military and scientific expedition within the broader context of colonialism."

"One of the things we are trying to show is that it's not a simple story of conquest," says Konig. "It's not a simple story of economic expansion to find a water route to the Pacific. It was a multifaceted effort by a different age. It's been said that the past is a foreign country. For students to become tourists and understand the culture of that foreign country, they need the tools of several disciplines—botany, anthropology, political science, literature. Each of those disciplines is a different tool to translate the language of a foreign country."

An Incident in the Health of Sacagawea
As a result of their cooperation in the American Culture Studies Program, Peter Kastor, assistant professor of history, and Conevery Bolton Valencius, assistant professor of history and a historian of medicine, made a startling discovery about Sacagawea, the only woman on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

According to the journals, Sacagawea became extremely ill when her son, Jean Baptiste, was a little more than 4 months old. Clark wrote that if she died, it would be the fault of her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau.

Lewis concluded that she suffered from "an obstruction of the mensis in consequence of taking could (sic)." He gave her water from a sulphur spring and applied poultices to her pelvic region. She made a full recovery.

When Kastor and Valencius began looking at the language used to describe this event, Valencius had a hunch that Sacagawea's "cold" was not what it appeared to be. It also seemed peculiar that the explorers blamed Charbonneau.

"In fact," says Valencius, "the language used to refer to her sickness is that which is commonly used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to refer to a complicated set of ideas about women's reproductive health.

Her menstrual periods may have been out of order in some way that's not related to reproduction, because that was a possibility at that time.

But we think it's more likely that they were using—taking a cold—as a euphemism for pregnancy, as was commonly done; therefore, she may have had a miscarriage."

Historians have not perceived this illness as pregnancy, Valencius says, because they have not understood the euphemistic language or the layers of modesty with which women's health was discussed at that time.

Kastor sees this omission as one example of how many scholars over many years have read the journals, yet failed to come to terms with important aspects of them.

"Peter and I have been working on this research jointly and trying to come at it from our different areas of specialty, and now we're going to present a paper that neither of us could have written alone," says Valencius. "There's still a lot more to see in the journals, despite all that's been written and said about them."

Terri McClain is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.