About Lewis and Clark And Their Trek

21 Apr

Munger, Susan H. And Thomas, Charlotte Staub, Common to This Country;
Botanical Discoveries of Lewis & Clark.
New York, Artisan/Workman Publishing, Inc., 2003, 128 pp., illus. , $22.

Some years ago I bought this book on Lewis and Clark on remainder.  This past week I picked it up, thinking I should read it before sending along to my sister.

I knew generally about the expedition, the fact that Sacagawea, an Shoshone Indian woman was the guiding angel in the expedition, but didn’t know she was married to Touissant Charbonneau, a French trapper who also went along with the expedition and that she had a five-month old son at the commencement of her involvement, or that the engagement occurred in South Dakota. Also I had no idea that a number of the expedition were French watermen or egage, hired to help on the first stretch upriver. I also was ignorant about York, a Negro valet to William Clark, who went along, thereby becoming the first African-American to see the Pacific Ocean from the Oregon Coast. a fascinating fact  about slaves. Along with comments about the physical travails of the trip, some of the worst occurring once the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, it was as virgin reading for me as the trek was for the fifty-five men who ventured forth, fifty-four returning , only thirty-three of whom made it to the Pacific Ocean.  The others turned back the spring of 1805.

This book, however, focuses on eighteen species of plants identified by Lewis,
who had trained as a botanist, out of native curiosity and at the behest of our third President. In this slim volume, the specimens are meticulously drawn, described and recorded on a map where they were found and collected.  If you are thrilled at smallnesses, as I am, these 128 pages  proved one of those casually-acquired treasures.

For those interested, the specimens found along the Missouri River included the Osage Orange, being cultivated by Pierre Chouteau, the direct ancestor of Yvonne Chouteau, ballerina with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo [Have to get dance in there, somewhere!]. Along the Missouri,, but in South Dakota were the Bur Oak and the Prickly Pear and further, in North Dakota the Bearberry and the Narrow Leaf Cornflower.   The Gumbo Evening Primrose was identified on the outward journey through Montana and the Missouri River’s Great Falls. then the Silky Lupine, the Wood Lily and Lewis’ Prairie Flax were identified at Missouri’s Great Falls, the latter three on Lewis’ briefly separated return trek in what became Montana.

As the travelers moved south towards the Idaho border, their finds were Angelica and the Snowberry; moving northward Bitterroot, Bear Grass and the Shrubby Penstemon.  Apparently back in Southwest Montana, they found Camas and Old Man’s Whiskers, followed by the Ponderosa Pine, Lewis’ Syringa , Ragged Robin and the Glacier Lily.  What followed was the long journey along the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast. In mid Oregon, the Oregon Grape Holly and the Western Service Berry were identified. The final identification apparently took place near the end of the lengthy expedition at the border of Nebraska and Kansas on the Missouri River, Calliopsis, today’s garden stalwart.

Altogether 228 specimens  are housed in the Lewis and Clark Herbarium in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, 178 of which were new to Western Science.

There is another reason why the book appealed to me; I received my secretarial training from Elizabeth Lewis Warren Ledford. On her mother’s side, she was descended or in the immediate lineal family of that historic Lewis.  For all her capacity for living in the moment, “Betty” carried that lineage in her comportment; she was  a singular mentor in my early adulthood.

I can’t help wondering about possible descendants of Sacagawea and Touissant as well as York and the various members of the two parts of the expedition.  What a lineage they possess, and do any of the descendants know about it.

For all of the complicated connotations of Thomas Jefferson’s private and political life, his curiosity about the natural world, his directives and enabling of this exploration belongs to one of the shining episodes in American history. How I wish we could have similar ones in these early years of the twenty-first century.


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