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Exploring Lewis and Clark by Thomas P. Slaughter
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Exploring Lewis and Clark by Thomas P. Slaughter
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Feb 10, 2004 | ISBN 9780375700712

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"Scintillating. . . . Delves deep and asks questions that will forever change [our] reading of these men." —Newsday

"Adds new and fascinating dimensions to our appreciation of the Corps of Discovery and their brave trek through the American West." —The Times-Picayune

“A rueful reading of the historical record that delights in considering the thorniest questions within it.” —The Washington Post

"Slaughter successfully achieves his goal of delving beneath the surface of the journals…Raise[s] interesting questions about Lewis and Clark, and shows that we shouldn’t take everything we read in the journals as truth." —The Seattle Times

“Fascinating… Through close attention to the explorers’ own accounts of their journey, Slaughter probes the threats that confronted Lewis and Clark at every turn.” – The Times-Picayune

Author Essay


Exploring Lewis and Clark is about men, writing, and wilderness. It is about ambition, courage, confusion, and the creation of our national origins myth. It is not a traditional narrative history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, of which we have many fine examples. It is instead an attempt to read between and beneath the lines of the incredible journals that the men kept, to understand more than they wanted us to know or could even know about themselves and their trip.

I started this book twice, once about twelve years ago, when it was going to be about explorers of North American from Columbus to Lewis and Clark. That first time, I got sucked out of the project by the Bartrams, who were of some influence on Lewis, and about whom I knew nothing when I started the research. Their story as father and son, Quaker botanists, and travelers was fascinating to me in itself and also transformed the way that I looked at the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

What I learned from my work on the Bartrams, among other things, is that journals are far richer, much more creative, texts than I knew or than historians’ typical uses of them suggest. The journals of explorers are fascinating because their authors do not know where they are headed. They are stories written by people who have no idea what is around the next bend, never mind how their journeys will end. When we use them simply as sources of fact-where people were and what they did on particular days-we miss the emotional content, the frailties, the challenges, the mistakes, and the disappointments that reveal the deeper humanity of their authors and connect them to us. The celebrations of Lewis and Clark miss much of this story, I think, and it is one that needs to be told.

When I started the book for the second time, during a year that I spent as a resident fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavior Sciences in Palo Alto, California, the project was transformed from my first plan. Now, I was more interested in digging deeply into the journals rather than reaching widely across time to connect them with other expeditions. This is something that I still may do some day, but first I wanted to wallow in the approximately 1.5 million words that the explorers left us, to get to know the journalists as men, rather than as heroes, as well as I could.

This book is the product of that endeavor, one that triangulates the explorers’ identities against buffalo, snakes, Indians, and bears, just as they did. Although they were not fully conscious of it themselves, the explorers engaged in an exploration of the self and it was for some of them transforming, more of a vision quest than a scientific and diplomatic mission. As such, the expedition was different for each of the expedition’s members. So, the book tries to find Sacajawea and York (Clark’s slave) in the journals, too, and to imagine what the expedition must have been like for them. It tries to comprehend Indian perspectives, to imagine what communication may have been like down translation chains that included four or five languages. In the end, I think, the book is about nature, culture, spirituality, and men. It is about the emotional dimensions of exploration and writing. It is about how fascinating the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition are for learning about ourselves as people and a nation. It is a book about us.

–Thomas P. Slaughter

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