Article 4

ART. IV. A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery, under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clarke, from the Mouth of the River Missouri, through the interior Parts of North America, to the Pacific Ocean. By Patrick Gass, one of the Persons employed on the Expedition, pp. 381. 8vo. Pittsburgh, printed. London, re-printed. Budd. 1808

  1. THE Continent of North America, as far as the United States are concerned, naturally presents itself under three great divisions. The first extends from the shores of the Atlantic to the Apalachian mountains; the second from those mountains to the Mississippi; and the last from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean. The tide of population setting westward from the Atlantic coast, has long spread over the first division, and passing the Apalachian or Alleghany ridge, within the last thirty or forty years, has poured down on the countries watered by the Ohio and Tennassee, with a rapidity unparalleled, perhaps, in the annals of the world. As the tide rolls on, indeed, it has to displace the miserable natives; for there is not much disposition on either side to amalgamate, and no time, we fear, will be allowed for the general success of those benevolent efforts at civilizing the Indians, which the Friends have made on a small scale. The natives have nearly completed their own extermination with weapons put into their hands; and however we may be shocked with particular instances of cruelty, it is impossible to regret, that a race of almost irreclaimable barbarians should be gradually superseded by the inheritors of European enterprize and improvement. That part of the second division we have mentioned, which extends on either side of the Ohio, is destined one day to be the boast of the American continent. It may be regarded as a parallelogram 900 miles long from east to west, and 200 broad, between the temperate latitudes of 36° and 40°, traversed in every direction by the Beautiful River, and its twenty tributary streams, all navigable to a great height, and containing 15,000 square leagues, most part of which is reckoned susceptible of culture.* Such a country as this was not meant to remain for ever overspread with interminable forests, [293] affording shelter and precarious subsistence to a few wild beasts and wandering savages. Without inquiring too curiously into the bargains by which the natives resign their possessions, we are content with the fact that European culture and civilization are here shooting along the line of the river and its branches: and the inland country will soon feel the effects of the finest internal navigation, perhaps, that any where exists. In the mean time this partial improvement has reached the banks of the Mississippi, which, till lately, was the western boundary of the United States; and since the purchase of Louisiana (the immense tract that lies between that river and the Pacific), the spirit of gain and adventure has produced attempts to explore regions which the jealousy of the Spaniards had hitherto concealed from our knowledge. It is to one of those attempts set on foot and supported by the American government, that our attention is called by the journal before us.

  2. The purchase of Louisiana was completed in December, 1803; and early in 1804 that government, with laudable activity, determined to send an expedition of discovery across their newly acquired territory to the ocean. No plan appeared more promising than to ascend the Missouri, which falls into the Mississippi, 140 miles above the mouth of the Ohio, in lat. 41°; the object being not merely to explore the country, but to determine the possibility of a commercial communication between the first of those rivers and the Pacific by means of the Columbia. The Missouri, which is in fact the main stream, though it loses the name at its confluence with the Mississippi, had been already ascended by French traders to the distance of l300 miles; but no accurate account had been given even of that part; and of the course of the river and country beyond we were altogether ignorant. To the expedition were attached 43 men under the command of Captains Lewis and Clarke; and on the 14th of May they proceeded up the Missouri in one batteau and two periogues. So few parts of the globe remain unexplored, especially in the temperate latitudes from 38 to 48°, that we looked forward to the discoveries of this corps with considerable expectation. Our hopes were somewhat checked in the outset, when instead of sitting down to a magnificent quarto, with maps, plates, and 'all appliances and means to boot', as we had a right to expect from a plan executed under such auspices, we took up a shabby octavo, the production of a mere underling, and without one chart to guide the eye, or assist the memory. Led on, however, by the subject, we began the perusal of this [294] journal, and, what we believe few can say who have seen the book, actually finished it.

  3. It is curious to observe how ingeniously Mr. Gass has avoided whatever could interest or amuse. All he says, we have no doubt, is strictly true: at least, if intolerable dulness be a symptom of truth in narration, he has amply vindicated his veracity. There are so many facts that we care not to know, and so little detail on those we do; and the two kinds are jumbled in so heterogeneous a compound, that we have seldom undergone a severer trial of patience that in attempting to separate them. The appearance of a volcano a thousand miles from the sea, and the death of a grey horse are recorded in the same breath, and with equal faithfulness, brevity and indifference. The day and hour are carefully noted when Captain Lewis issued a glass of old whiskey to all the crew; and when 'Captain Clarke gave the sick a dose of Rush's pills, to see what effect they would have.' Through such sickening minutiae must we wade to pick up, occasionally, a valuable fact, which after all rather whets our curiosity than rewards our search. Thus he tells us at one time, that they journeyed on by a buffalo path ten feet wide, and at another that they killed a deer at a lick: now, important as it is to know the mode of their march and the death of this deer, we should have preferred infinitely such a description of the path and the lick, as might have illustrated some curious facts in the natural history of America.

  4. The plains to the west of the Mississippi are now almost the only resort of that prodigious population of buffaloes, which was formerly diffused over the whole interior. Between the Appalachian ridge and the Mississippi they are nearly extirpated; but when the Anglo-Americans first penetrated the woods of those regions, it was chiefly along the tracks which were formed by the buffaloes in their annual visits to the salt-licks. It is a singular circumstance, that all the quadrupeds of North America, both wild and tame, native and imported, have a sort of instinctive passion for salt; and as if nature had intended that this passion should not be without its object, there are interspersed all over that continent springs of brine, and earthy rocks impregnated with saline matter. To these the elk, the bear, the deer and the buffalo, at whatever distance their pasture-grounds may be, periodically repair, and laying aside their natural antipathies, drink and bathe in the springs, or lick the salt rocks, many of which, in the course of ages, have been excavated by their tongues into the most fantastical shapes. They appear also to have been the resort of the mammoth in remote ages, for it is principally at the [295] licks that the remains of that animal are found. The paths thus formed by the infallibility of instinct, extending often for 200 miles, are lined out with mathematical exactness, going directly to their object by the shortest possible way, and never deviating but to avoid impassable obstructions. So true is this, that a great part of the roads, which now traverse and connect extensive districts in the back settlements, were originally nothing more than buffalo tracks. There is not a word of information, in the journal on this curious subject; but from the frequent mention of licks, &c. we are inclined to think that much might have been obtained. We ought not, however, to complain of Mr. Gass, whose journal of each day, taken on the spot amidst toils and privations, does him credit in his subordinate situation; and to whom alone, of all that were engaged in the expedition, the public, as far as we can hear, are yet under any obligation. If blame attach, any where, it is either to the projectors who equipped the expedition injudiciously, or to the leaders of it who have not done their duty to their employers. The longitude is not once determined—no means, or at least no attempt to observe with this view the moon or the satellites of Jupiter is on record—no thermometrical or barometrical information—no symptom of a single philosophical instrument being on board, except the common sextant for ascertaining the latitude; and we hear of no excursions or experiments of Captains Lewis and Clarke to determine any thing beyond the bearing of a river. Some specimens of their powers of nomenclature are not very favourable to an opinion of their science and discretion. The puerile pedantry of calling rivers Independence and Philosophy is inexcusable: but the consummation of absurdity and loyalty occurs when they arrive at a place near the head of the Missouri, where it divides into three pretty equal branches. It is resolved here that the name Missouri shall be dropt, and the central branch being baptized Jefferson rolls on its presidential course between the sister streams of Wisdom and Philanthropy. We would rather know the American rivers by the most barbarous of native sounds, than submit to such canting affectation as this. Indeed wherever it is possible to catch the Indian appellation it ought to be retained, that some slight record at least may remain of the poor tribes that are melting away before the white man's enterprize and capacity. Thus, we are better pleased with the sounds of Susquehanna, Alleghany, and Monongahela, than if these rivers had been either called after those of our own country, or passed by [296] the names of their first discoverers. There are exceptions however to this rule, and we sincerely hope, for the sake of future poets who are to recline on the banks of the Koos-koos-ke, and celebrate the beauties of Sho-sho-ne, that, ere they tune their lay, some more harmonious names may be imposed on their favorite streams.

  5. Having detained the reader so long with introductory remarks, we shall proceed very shortly to describe the route of the expedition; and shall then sift the chaff of this volume for the few grains of wheat it may contain. With the exception of five months spent in winter quarters, the first year was employed in continually ascending the Missouri, and in May 1805, the party found themselves, by the course of the river, 2000 miles from its mouth. Even here it has a breadth of 300 yards of deep water, and 190 of sandy beach; and it is extraordinary enough, and highly encouraging to future colonists, that not one fall is met with in all this distance, nor even a rapid so strong as to require a portage. Yet the character of the Missouri is that of a rapid river throughout; and if we consider that after joining the Mississippi, it has still a thousand miles to flow to the sea with an average current of four miles an hour, we shall have some idea of the elevation of the ground which Mr. Gass and his friends had reached. Accordingly he informs us that they had now got into a country which presented little to view but barrenness and desolation. Here he stops, as if entering on a new scene, to review the space he had passed, and as it is almost the only attempt he makes at general observation, we shall give the result in his own words.

    'From the mouth of the Missouri to that of the river Platte, a distance of more than six hundred miles, the land is generally of a good quality, with a sufficient quantity of timber; in many places very rich, and the country pleasant and beautiful.

    'From the confluence of the river Platte with the Missouri to the sterile desert we lately entered, a distance of upwards of fifteen hundred miles, the soil is less rich, and, except in the bottoms, the land of an inferior quality; but may in general be called good second-rate land. The country is rather hilly than level, though not mountainous, rocky or stony. The hills in their unsheltered state are much exposed to be washed by heavy rains. This kind of country and soil which has fallen under our observation in our progress up the Missouri, extends, it is understood, to a great distance on both sides of the river. Along the Missouri and the waters which flow into it, cotton wood and willows are frequent in the bottoms and islands; but the upland is almost entirely without timber, and consists [297] of large prairies or plains, the boundaries of which the eye cannot reach. The grass is generally short on these immense natural pastures, which in the proper seasons are decorated with blossoms and flowers of various colours. The views from the hills are interesting and grand. Wide extended plains with their hills and vales, stretching away in lessening wavy ridges, until by their distance they fade from the sight; large rivers and streams in their rapid course, winding in various meanders; groves of cotton-wood and willow along the waters intersecting the landscapes in different directions, dividing them into various forms, at length appearing like dark clouds and sinking in the horizon; these enlivened with the buffaloe, elk, deer, and other animals which in vast numbers feed upon the plains or pursue their prey, are the prominent objects, which compose the extensive prospects presented to the view, and strike the attention of the beholder.'—p. 129.

  6. Continuing their voyage up the Missouri, and selecting from a number of branches what appeared to be the principal stream, they at last arrived at its source among the Rocky mountains, 3120 miles from its mouth, and till the last twenty-five, they advanced in canoes. It is but a mile from the head spring of the Missouri, or Jefferson, to the source of one of the tributary streams of the Columbia, Oregan, or Great River of the West, which flows into the Pacific Ocean in lat. 46°. This small stream, however, they did not follow; but taking across the great range of mountains and high lands, where rivers rise 'that dispart to different seas', they came, after a toilsome march of 200 miles, to the large river Koos-koos-ke, which they descended in canoes of their own making, for about 200 miles more, till it brought them to one great object of their search, the Columbia. This noble river, 860 yards broad where they first saw it, has long been the opprobrium of geographers; but the united exertions of M'Kenzie and this corps have ascertained, that it rises among the Rocky mountains as far north as lat. 58 or 60, and being confined in a plain between two ranges of those mountains which run nearly parallel to the shore of the Pacific, pursues a south-easterly course to the very point where Gass fell in with it, lat. 46º. Having there found an outlet at last by Columbia valley, it proceeds to the sea by a pretty direct westerly course of about 400 miles. The expedition arrived at its mouth in November, 1805, having performed a journey of 4000 miles, though the distance in a straight line is not more than 2000. Here they took up their winter quarters for four months, during which it rained almost incessantly. From the 6th of January [298] to the 6th of March, they had but four days without rain, and even these were thick and cloudy. The weather, however, though moist was very mild, scarcely any snow fell, and flies and other insects were on the wing in the depth of winter; which confirms M'Kenzie's observation that the climate of the Pacific coast assimilates much more than the rest of America to the same latitudes in Europe.

  7. On the 25th of March, 1806, they began to measure back their steps. In the toilsome journey over the mountains before mentioned, they were greeted with snow showers in the beginning of September, and now, in the latter end of June, they marched in the same track over banks of snow 10 feet deep, and on the 10th of July saw the high ridge that separates the eastern and western waters, covered with snow that had fallen the night before. Their toils were at last ended by reaching the Missouri again, where they embarked, secundo flumine, and in a few weeks, arrived at St. Louis from whence they had set out, after an absence of two years, four months and ten days.

  8. We have thus endeavoured to extract an intelligible sketch of the route from an account, which, either from its intrinsic obscurity or the want of a chart, is the most confused, particularly in all that regards the dividing ridges, that we ever recollect to have read. We shall now direct the reader's attention to some interesting facts that are slightly mentioned in the Journal.

  9. 1. One of the most remarkable notices Mr. Gass gives us, is announced in the following words:

    'On the bank opposite our camp is an ancient fortification, or breastwork, similar to those which have been occasionally discovered on the western waters. The two ends run at right angles to the river, and the outside, which is 2500 yards in length, parallel to it: there is no breast-work thrown up next to the river, the bank as is supposed, serving as a sufficient defence on that side.' p. 47.

    This brief notice is connected with a curious subject, which will probably lead to some interesting speculations on the primitive condition of the country, as soon as the Americans find leisure and inclination to exchange the noise and bustle of active pursuits for philosophic enquiry. It is surprising indeed that the subject of American antiquities should have hitherto attracted so little attention. Pinkerton is wholly silent upon it, and Morse (Amer. Geogr. p. 463.) does little more than recognize the existence of such antiquities. We hope therefore hope to be excused for [299] dwelling a little on facts which to many of our readers must be both new and interesting.*

  10. It is impossible to traverse the central parts of North America, especially on the banks of the Ohio and its branches, without encountering these monuments of former ages. Though they vary in size and form, some being oblong and some circular, they are all evidently of the same date; and that, as we shall presently shew, a very remote one. There is little doubt that they are the work of a people greatly superior in power and civilization to the rude and disjointed tribes of barbarians which the Europeans found in those regions. The construction in all is uniform, whether they be intended for convenience in peace or defence in war. It is this: they consist of a space of from three to thirteen acres, raised several feet above the neighbouring soil, arid inclosed by a parapet of earth from three to ten feet high, and twice as many broad. Either within the inclosure, or adjoining the parapet, there is generally also a conical or pyramidical elevation of the same materials, from fifty to seventy feet high and seven or eight hundred in circumference. These artificial mounts appear in some cases to have been places of look-out, in others of retreat in great inundations. There is always too a number of tumuli or barrows in the immediate vicinity, in which remains of dead bodies ranged in perfect order, and fragments of pottery, are still distinguishable. Entrenched camps, composed of these three parts, the breast-work, the pyramids, and the barrows, and sometimes also with a double parapet and fosse, are to be found near the junction of the Muskinghum with the Ohio, on the small river Huron, or Bald Eagle, which runs into the South side of Lake Erie, near the town of Lexington in Kentucky, and in various other parts of the Western territory. There is a little river called Big-Grave Creek, that runs into the Ohio ninety-five miles below Pittsburg; the name is derived from a tomb on its banks, of a conical form, very much resembling the cromlechs, cairns and barrows of our own ancestors; and a mile or two below is found a suite of entrenchments, with their fosses, partly circular [300] and partly square; and redoubts are placed at unequal distances; the whole stretching to an extent which the impenetrable thickness of the forests has yet prevented from being ascertained. The extreme antiquity of all these works is attested by the fact, that they are covered with a stratum of vegetable mould nearly equal in thickness to the adjacent soil, and that trees are now growing on these ramparts three or four feet in diameter. Dr. Cutler, in examining the oaks on the Muskinghum parapets, before they were felled to make way for the new city of Marietta, declared it his opinion, when he saw some fallen from age and others flourishing, that the latter were a second growth; which would carry the æra of the construction of these works at least as far back as a thousand years. If we pass from the Ohio across the Cumberland and Alleghany ridges to the Southern states of Georgia and the two Floridas, we meet with works of similar date and appearance, except that they are not intended for military purposes, but probably either as head places of resort, or for retaining or keeping off the waters of the rivers. Of these peaceful erections the Cherokee tradition says, that they were exactly as they now are, when the forefathers of those Indians, about the end of the 14th century, invaded this country from the mountains of Mexico. In none of the works we have mentioned is there to be found either brick or wrought stone, or any trace of iron tools being employed; which, while it accounts for the comparative rudeness of the execution, increases our astonishment at the combination of strength and counsel necessary for their completion. To have been able to collect and put together the enormous mass of materials which they contain, presupposes a state of life very different from that of savage hunters. The present natives look upon these curious vestiges of antiquity with the most perfect indifference, and even the voice of tradition is silent with respect to their origin. The precarious and far-sought produce of the chace could never have maintained on one spot the labourers necessary for their erection, far less the population which these camps or asylums were destined to contain. The people that raised them, therefore, must have been tillers of the ground, which the Indians we found there not only were not, but which no example nor influence of Europeans can yet prevail on them to be. The co-operation of a people, united in a powerful body by subordination and law, is required to account for appearances: and the question occurs, could such a people be extinguished and replaced by petty, insulated hordes of barbarians? or must we adopt a still more mortifying conclusion, that a long [301] state of warfare could efface even the last traces of civilization in the same people, and brutify them to the degree of ignorance and apathy in which we found them? The perfect similarity of these constructions over a territory of 40° of longitude and 15° of latitude, indicates an identity of origin, institutions and language, that forms a striking contrast with the despicable fragments of nations now scattered over the same country. We do not pretend, nor perhaps is it possible, in the present imperfect state of our knowledge, to come to a just conclusion on this curious subject. The works we have described are now, like the pyramids of Egypt, silent and mysterious witnesses of the existence and industry of an ancient people, and their relations with the former state of this part of the world are enveloped perhaps in impenetrable darkness. But though these camps and earthen pyramids are little more than imperceptible points, when compared with the grandeur of their Egyptian rivals, they are yet, of all human works which America contains, the most ancient, the most extraordinary, and the most worthy of minute examination.*

  11. 2. Another scantling of information, given by Mr. G. with his usual provoking conciseness, may be interesting to those who are inclined to speculate on American zoology. On the top of some high bluffs not a great way up the Missouri, and at least a thousand miles from any sea, there was found 'the skeleton or back bones of a fish, forty-five feet long, and petrified: part of these bones were sent to the city of Washington.'—p.52.

  12. 3. Though the intercourse of our party with the natives was frequent, there are few characteristic traits given, and very little to add to the correct representations we already possess of American-Indian manners. We will not expose the reader's organs of speech to the risk of pronouncing the intractable names of tribes that occupy, rather than inhabit, the vast regions of Louisiana. They are, in general, miserable beings, shivering in the coldest* weather 'without (as Mr. G. expresses it) an article of clothing but their breech-clouts,' and half-starved amidst the means of plenty. Except among the Flat-head Indians, chastity is a virtue held in no estimation. The singular and deforming [302] custom of depressing the forehead, among the Indians just mentioned, and from which they take their name, shews that their ideas of beauty do not much accord with those of the old world. It is performed in infancy in the following manner, and probably tends to increase their natural stupidity. 'A piece of board is placed against the back of the head, extending from the shoulders some distance above it; another shorter piece extends from the eyebrows to the top of the first, and they are then bound together with thongs, so as to press back the forehead, make the head rise at the top, and force it out above the ears.'—p. 224.

  13. Along the route in general the natives were mild and timid, with a kind of instinctive awe of the superiority of white men. Having no attachments to country or government, they changed masters without reluctance, and were proud to be dubbed American subjects and receive nominal honours from Captains Lewis and Clarke. They seldom appear but in vagabond parties of eight or ten families, who move about as the wretched fare that uncultivated nature affords them is exhausted. The most numerous nation Gass saw on the Columbia was the Wall-a-waltz, amounting to 500 souls, and they were not stationary. Except among the Mandans and Rickarees, who raise a little corn, there seems no attempt to claim from nature any thing more than her spontaneous gifts. Yet these people dwell in a country, which wants only the hand of man to make it one of the finest in the world. The face of the earth is not here, as in many other parts of America, wholly overspread with thick forests, requiring the labour of an age to clear it. In many places there is even a great scarcity of timber. During one long day's voyage down the Columbia, the party could not collect sticks enough to cook with. But the greater proportion of the country they traversed is agreeably diversified with woods, and immense plains, or prairies, extending as far as the eye can reach, and covered with a profusion of timothy grass and clover. These plains, so admirably adapted for agricultural purposes, form at present the pasture grounds of vast herds of buffaloes; and though the idea is so obvious, and the thing so practicable, the natives have never dreamed of domesticating an animal, whose muscular strength and gentle nature seem to invite man to the task. They hunt them down for food, and when they have killed one, preserve the head, and present it with a bowlful of victuals, saying 'Eat that!' by way of conciliating the favour and insuring the capture of more. They have horses also of Spanish breed, which they use only for riding: and flax and rice grow wild in [303] the bottoms by the river side, without suggesting an attempt to multiply and improve the produce by culture. That the abstract exclusive right of property in the soil should be vested in these wandering tribes, might perhaps admit of learned dispute; but though we cannot come armed to the discussion with Puffendorff and Grotius, common sense we conceive bears us out in the assertion, that humanity will be a gainer, when the present race shall be melted down into a nobler population. The Americans being a young people have all the spirit of adventure that is necessary for colonizing and improving this extensive country. We may talk of them as vile land-jobbers, actuated only by selfishness and love of gain; but these base motives work so much general good in their aim at individual advantage, that we are almost inclined to prefer them to the indolence and apathy of the Spaniards, the former possessors.

  14. The American government will, it is to be hoped, prosecute their plans of discovery in this interesting country, and with means somewhat more adequate to their end. There are six degrees of latitude between the mouth of the Columbia, and that of the river by which Mackenzie reached the Pacific. Of the intervening space we know nothing but a few points of the coast. It is chiefly, however, about the country to the South of the Columbia and towards the mountains of New Mexico, that we are anxious to gain information; having convinced ourselves, both from the kindly latitudes under which it lies, and the accounts, imperfect as they are, of the adjoining countries, that in that interval will be found, not only objects of philosophical curiosity, but some of the choicest and most valuable settlements to the West of the Mississippi.