— One —

Thomas Jefferson

…As late as 1803, indeed until Lewis and Clark returned from their expedition, Jefferson believed there must be a viable water route to the Pacific from the Missouri River. Strange as that may seem to us, this assumption of a passage to the “South Sea” had been common among geographers and scholars of geography for three hundred years. It was the residue of Columbus’s dream of reaching the Indies across the Atlantic. A rough estimate of the size of the planet had been known since antiquity, but for a number of reasons the scale and width of the North American continent remained something of a mystery. Perhaps one factor was the difficulty of calculating longitude. It was only when the chronometer was developed around 1705 that reasonably accurate calculations of longitude could be made.

The great blank on the map that needed to be filled in was the area from the eastern edge of the Rockies to the coastal waters near the mouth of the Columbia River. No one but Indians had crossed that land or knew its heights or extent. Jefferson had a precise and detailed sense of geography. Had he not been so busy with all his other interests and obligations, one might imagine him as an important mapmaker, with his passion for accurate representation, his draftsmanship and devotion to the study of land.

“Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri,” he wrote to Lewis, “you will take observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places . . . that . . . may . . . be recognized hereafter.” Jefferson, long fascinated by tools and instruments, gave his explorer instructions in the use of compass and logging of distance and told him to note the variations in the magnetic compass readings as he moved up the river to the west.

Neither Jefferson nor anyone else was prepared to learn of the hundreds of miles of forbidding terrain that separated the head of navigation of one river from the head of navigation on the other. Certainly some of the Indian tribes in the region could have told the president differently, but they were out of communication for reasons of language, distance, and war. Besides, the Native Americans had many horses for travel and it might not have occurred to them that it was even desirable to haul boats and tons of baggage from the Missouri watershed, through weeks of travel, to the Pacific watershed.

“The interesting points of the portage between the heads of the Missouri, & of the water offering the best communication with the Pacific ocean,” Jefferson wrote, “should also be fixed by observation . . . Your observations are to be taken with great pains, & accuracy, to be entered distinctly and intelligibly for others as well as yourself.” To ensure survival of the documents, several copies should be made and carried by different members of the party.

And then Jefferson added one of the most unexpected and often quoted sentences in the letter. “A further guard would be that one of these copies be on paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper.” Knowing that the records of the expedition would be carried in canoes and mackinaw boats, on horseback and human backs, through rain storms and snow storms, Jefferson was concerned about the vulnerability of paper. Where Meriwether Lewis was to acquire such pages of bark along the Missouri is not clear. Perhaps Jefferson meant for him to procure a supply of the bark in the East before setting out. Or maybe Jefferson thought Lewis’s party could pause to chop down birch trees and peel their bark on the way up the river.

One of the best known passages in Jefferson’s directions to Lewis is the list of things to be noted about native people along the way. Since commercial interest in the West “renders a knoledge of those people important,” a special effort must be made to learn the names of populations of each nation encountered, as well as

the extent & limits of their possessions;
their relations with other tribes of nations;
their language, traditions, monuments;
their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting,
war, arts, & the implements for these;
their food, clothing, & domestic accommodations;
the diseases prevalent among them, & the remedies they use;
moral & physical circumstances which distinguish them from
the tribes we know;
peculiarities in their laws, customs & dispositions;
and articles of commerce they may need or furnish, & to what extent.

Jefferson also wanted Lewis to gather information about “the state of morality, religion, & information among” the natives. Like most enlightened men of his time, Jefferson believed that those who went among the Indians should seek to “civilize & instruct them,” but he also realized that to do so Europeans must “adapt their measures to the existing notions & practices of those on whom they are to operate.” The last clause of the sentence shows something of Jefferson’s sophistication. English missionaries and administrators usually failed with the native people because they wanted to teach Indians to behave like Europeans. French and sometimes Spanish missionaries were often more successful because they understood that they themselves had to adapt to Indian customs before they could have any effective impact. Had all Americans been as sensitive to this particular issue as Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis, our history might have been very different. To negotiate with others, trade with others, live beside others, we must first know something about who they are and how they view us and their own world. It is a simple principle to state but hard to practice in strange places and on dangerous occasions.

Significantly, Jefferson places study of the indigenous population ahead of his other lists of scientific objects of study. Only after he has described some of the things he wanted to know about the natives did he catalog his other scientific interests. For Jefferson the West was not just the land but also the people who had lived there for thousands of years. The priority of his scientific interest was the study of the people.

One of the most memorable passages in Jefferson’s letter to Lewis is his instructions about the treatment of native people. In no place does Jefferson’s idealism show through more than in this section. “Treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner,” he urged, and “allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it’s innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S., & of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them.” He authorized Lewis to arrange visits of the chiefs to Washington at public expense, if they desired it, and to offer to educate their young. He also told Lewis to carry with him on the expedition “some of the matter of the kine–pox” to inoculate against small pox, which had already killed so many Indians. The inoculation might be especially important in the village where they would pass the winter.

Since it could not be known beforehand whether a given Indian tribe or nation would be welcoming or hostile, it was important for the expedition to have enough men to defend itself. But if a large group of Indians adamantly stood in the way of the expedition, “you must decline it’s farther pursuit, and return.” Not only must the lives of the Corps of Discovery be saved, but the information they have accumulated must be protected.

Jefferson recommended that Lewis commission friendly Indians to carry back letters and copies “of your journal, notes & observations of every kind,” to the settlements at Cahokia and Kaskaskia on the east bank of the Mississippi. That way he could be informed at every stage of the progress of the expedition up the river and to the West Coast. Sensitive messages should be put in code.

And then he gave Lewis a list of his interests in the physical landscape that reads like a passage from a poem by Walt Whitman or a paragraph by Henry David Thoreau.

the soil & face of the country, it’s growth & vegetable
productions, especially those not of the U.S.
the animals of the country generally, & especially those
not known in the U.S.
the remains or accounts of any which may be deemed rare
or extinct;
the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly
metals, limestone, pit coal, & saltpetre; salines &
mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last,
such circumstances as may indicate their character;
volcanic appearances;
climate, as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion
of rainy, cloudy, & clear days, by lightning, hail,
snow, ice, by access & recess of frost, by the
winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at
which particular plants put forth or lose their
flower, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds,
reptiles or insects. 

Jefferson added that he thought it especially important to know the land between the headwaters of the Rio Brava, meaning the Rio Grande, and the headwaters of the Rio Colorado. He was not sure whether the country between these rivers and the Missouri was mountainous or flat land. Few people had studied the existing maps of the west as thoroughly as Jefferson had, yet he thought that by going up the Missouri Lewis might be able to learn “anything certain of the most Northern source of the Missisipi & of it’s position relatively to the lake of the woods,” which English and French traders had described. And Jefferson wanted to know the distance from the mouth of the “Ouisconsing” (Wisconsin) River to the mouth of the Missouri. But it is not clear how Lewis was expected to acquire that information while going up the Missouri, unless he happened to meet someone who knew the exact distance.

Furthermore, if the Pacific coast was reached, the prospects for the fur trade there should be studied. The present center of the fur trade was farther north, at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where British and Russian companies were already dominant. Most important, Lewis should find out if the United States could conduct business in the far northwest by going up the Missouri instead of sailing all the way around Cape Horn, as was the present practice.

When Lewis arrived at the Pacific coast he was to look for a port and if possible send two of his crew back to the United States by sea with copies of the journals and notes made crossing the continent. And if Lewis determined that it was too dangerous to return overland, Jefferson urged him to return with all his men by sea, either around the tip of South America or Africa. Since he would be without money, he must use letters of credit to pay for his passage.

If Lewis decided to return by land, Jefferson asked him to again make such observations “as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.” Each member of the expedition would not only be paid in full when they returned to the United States but would also be given a grant of land, as other soldiers were. Last he tells Lewis, “Repair yourself with your papers to the seat of government” once other duties were discharged.

And then Jefferson thought of one more contingency. In case Lewis should suffer death on the journey west, he should leave a signed document written in his own hand “to name the person among them who shall succeed to the command on your decease.” But as the voyage continued he should feel free to change the desigznated successor as he learns more about the character and competence of his men. And such a successor should be given authority to name his successor in case of his own demise. It does seem that Jefferson thought of everything on that day, June 20, 1803. Reading certain passages of the letter to Meriwether Lewis we are reminded that among his many other accomplishments, Jefferson was a gifted if reluctant lawyer.

Why two history books, Boone: A Biography and now Lions of the West, after publishing fourteen books of poetry and eight volumes of fiction?

I have always been interested in history. My dad, who did not have much formal education, loved to read history and tell stories about Daniel Boone, the Civil War, the Revolution, Cherokee Indians, George Washington, David Crockett. Growing up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina I found arrowheads and pieces of Indian pottery while working in the fields. The very ground seemed haunted by the Indians. I always felt that intimate connection to the frontier past.


Why did you write Lions of the West as ten linked biographies?

There are literally thousands of figures one could write about in the story of the westward expansion. My plan was to tell the story through the lives of ten representative and significant figures, implying the much greater whole story. What Bernard DeVoto called “history by synecdoche.” I like the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is properly no history, only biography.”


The subtitle of Lions of the West is Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion. Who are the heroes and who are the villains?

As it turns out they are all both heroes and villains at different times. Except for John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed. He is mostly a saint. They all did things we are ashamed of. Even the great Thomas Jefferson recommended to William Henry Harrison that he let the Indians go deeply in debt to the government trading posts in Indiana so they would have to pay off their debts by ceding more land to the United States.


Which genre do you prefer, poetry, fiction, or nonfiction?

Whatever I am working on at the time seems the most important.


How would you compare biography writing to novel writing?

Obviously there are great similarities between biographies and novels. Both are about lives, both are prose narratives, both require some research about geography and history. Both require the use of the imagination. But fiction writing requires a different kind of sustained imagination, where the writer often lets the characters and story take over, unfolding with their own surprises and revelations, whereas the imagination in biography writing has to bring alive actual events in
already known sequence, with already known results.


Do you think your experience as a poet and fiction writer has influenced the way you
write history?

I hope my experience with poetry has influenced my use of word choice, economy, and cadence in language. Poetry teaches us that what is implied is often more effective than what is stated. Writing fiction gives a strong sense of structure, and a feeling for narrative dynamics, the way a story has to move, keep unfolding, with something wonderful about to happen around the bend, on the next page, or the next. I think all those things have influenced the way I write biography.


What is the central theme of Lions of the West?

When I started writing the book I thought the central subject was the complex combination of poetry and beauty with the brutal story of Indian removal and the Mexican War. But as I proceeded with the book I came to see several sub-themes. One was the way deeply flawed and mostly ordinary people grew into greatness at the right moment in history. For example, Sam Houston was a bully, a drunk, and a dueler, when he was young. Yet in the Texas War for Independence he sobered up and became the great military leader and statesman that history recognizes. These leaders were made by history as much as they made history.

Another theme that emerged as I wrote was the way many leaders used westward expansion as a way of avoiding the unpleasant issue of slavery. Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed that expansion of the country into the western territories would cause slavery to wither away naturally. Other politicians, instead of confronting the thorny issue, chose to divert attention by the annexation and settlement of the West. When California was acquired there was nowhere farther to go. The events of the next decade, the 1850s, culminated in the Civil War.


What was the greatest surprise to you in your research for Lions of the West?

There were lots of surprises. For example, I didn’t know before that Jefferson was an inch and half taller than George Washington. Washington is always portrayed as a physical giant of a man. I did not know that Jefferson was so shy he almost never spoke in public. He never spoke at the Continental Congress, yet he wrote the Declaration of Independence and is the voice of the Continental Congress and the American Revolution.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was Kit Carson. I did not know that he never learned to read or write. For all his fame he had to dictate his letters and have letters read to him. Yet he had a photographic mind, could remember any land or trail he’d ever seen, and knew many Indian languages as well as Spanish and Canadian French. He was physically small, but probably the greatest scout and mountain man of them all.


Are there any themes in Lions of the West that seem relevant to contemporary issues?

Many of the controversies of the first half of the nineteenth century are still with us. The battles over “internal improvements” is still being fought between those who believe the federal government is the only institution that can build infrastructure, highways, canals, railroads, harbors, airports, versus those who want less government, arguing these things will somehow take care of themselves if the federal government will not interfere. Of course this controversy is closely tied to resistance to taxation. Disputes about involvement in foreign wars then are echoed in the arguments in our time about the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.


What are your future projects?

I have just finished the sequel to the novel Gap Creek, called The Road From Gap Creek. And I’m thinking of a new novel also, set on the Appalachian Trail.