The History

The Lost History of Lewis & Clark 

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. Clark-l-Lewis-r

Like Lewis & Clark, I and many others keep daily journals. I wrote in mine just yesterday. The funny thing is that 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 history 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 history. 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. And could such an edition reveal the first recorded and documented type specimen of an animal known to the Native Americans of the time as Sasquatch? If so, then subsequent events just might play out as they do in my debut novel, Cryptid: The Lost Legacy of Lewis & Clark, right down to Thomas Jefferson's secret confession.

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A Violent and Untimely End for Meriwether Lewis

October 11th, 1809. The crisp autumn day began with a shot. And then another. A rural inn in Tennessee woke to find its infamous guest, Meriwether Lewis, dead. History tells us Lewis, of the legendary exploring duo Lewis & Clark, died of two self-inflicted gunshot wounds--one to the head and the other to the abdomen--along with several lacerations to his extremities. In other words, Lewis committed suicide.

Such an historic fact may not be known by most Americans, but it is well documented in the textbooks. Meriwether Lewis, one of the most heroic names in American history, went to his grave a shameless coward.

Or did he?

Some experts have put forth the theory that Lewis was murdered. Such an end certainly seems more fitting for a man who single handedly tamed the American west. And, of course, today's scandal--and conspiracy theory--hungry public might view such a death with far more interest. Stephen E. Ambrose, in his best selling book Undaunted Courage, even acknowledges the possibility. "There is a considerable literature on the possibility that Lewis did not commit suicide but was murdered. The first to put forth that claim in any detail was Vardis Fisher. Dr. Chuinard has more recently made the same assertion." Ambrose was quick to dismiss the possibility, though. "The literature is not convincing; the detailed refutation by Paul Russell Cutright is."

The evidence would seem to support Ambrose and the suicide theory. Although, certainly there were men with the means and motive to prematurely put Lewis in the grave. Politics, after all, hasn't changed all that much in two hundred years. And as I discovered while researching my latest novel, Cryptid: The Lost Legacy of Lewis & Clark, Lewis's death--whether by suicide or murder--may have had something to do with his field journals. For another little known fact regarding Lewis is the existence of many sizable gaps within his journals that document his experience as the leader of the infamous Corps. of Discovery. Ambrose speaks at length of these gaps, but can offer no resolution to the mystery. "Yet there are long periods--months at a time, nearly a year in one case--for which few and only sporadic journal entries by Lewis are known to exist . . . There is no explanation for the gaps." The matter at this time appears to be wide open for speculation, and thus any conspiracy theorist worth his weight would not be able to resist connecting these two murky facts of history. Certainly I was not able to resist.

Were his journals edited upon his return? Were they censored by the government prior to publication, as are documents sensitive to national security today? Could such censoring explain the eight-year delay in publishing their journals? One can only speculate, and there will always be those who do. Human nature seems compelled to connect such dots when it comes to its heroes and legends.

Either way, by suicide or murder, Lewis still died a violent and untimely death at Grinder's Inn along the Natchez Trace on that October morning. After surviving the perils of the Missouri, the torture of the Bitterroots, a winter on the frigid plains and one on the damp Columbia, and three years among potentially hostile enemy nations, Lewis couldn't survive the deadliest force on earth--the killing hand of man, his own or the malicious hand of another.

Suicide. Murder. The difference is semantics, really. Meriwether Lewis's life was tragically ended by no force of nature, but by that of man. And so by his life and death a valuable lesson should be learned by those of us who are blessed by the sacrifice of men and women such as Lewis. Humanity's ability to create, to discover, to learn is rivaled only by its ability and predisposition to enslave, corrupt, and destroy.

So the next time you think of Lewis & Clark and their epic victory over nature, remember too the failure of Lewis's death. The darkness of humanity can only be avoided by remembering its lurking presence so that we might reach out and turn on the light, banishing it to where it's best kept--in the past.

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Eric Penz

He earned an environmental biology degree from Eastern Washington University in 1995. Soon after he completed a literary program in commercial fiction at the University of Washington. He is also an alumni of The Film School. In 2012 he sold his insurance agency to begin a financial advisor practice and focus on his writing.  Read full bio...