In chapters that stand alone as essays and follow themes not found in more sober works of history (“Dreams,” “Writing First,” “Why Snakes?,” etc.), Slaughter (History/Notre Dame) examines questions that some celebrants of the Lewis and Clark bicentenary may not want to see raised.
Who, for instance, was the woman Meriwether Lewis and William Clark called Sacagawea? Would she have answered to that name? Did she die in 1812, as most histories tell us? On the second and third questions, Slaughter (The Natures of John and William Bartram, 1996, etc.) shows why “no” is the best answer; on the first, he tells us much, concluding that Americans have mythologized Porivo (a name she would have answered to) “by denying her enslavement, her life, and her voice . . . ignor[ing] the violence done to her and upon which our nation is based.” Another slave, Clark’s servant York, receives similarly close and rueful consideration. The author gives much thought to the explorers’ obsession with the issue of whether they were the first white men, even the first Americans, to have followed the course of the Missouri and Columbia rivers to the Pacific, again showing that “no” is the best answer, as Lewis and Clark knew. Traversing the North American continent 200 years ago, they were haunted by the sense that they were always a running a league or a week behind where they should have been. Sensibly taking the point of view of the native people the explorers encountered along the way, Slaughter asks, “How could you be late for a mountain?” Even as he gainsays myth and points to some of their shortcomings, however, he honors Lewis and Clark for their bravery. There’s no needless demolition of hard-won reputation here, and their self-doubt acquires a certain poignancy in Slaughter’s hands. Pensive and lyrical, this is not just about the famous expedition, but also “about naming, discovery, being an explorer, finding yourself, and losing your way.”
A rich, provocative work that merits attention during the commemorative season to come. (See Brian Hall’s I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, p. 1494, for an expertly drawn fictional recreation of the Lewis and Clark expedition.)