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Saturday, August 14, 2004 - Page updated at 07:21 P.M.
Missouri historian's journey of discovery gives authenticity to expedition artifacts
By Stephanie Simon
ST. LOUIS When they pushed up the Missouri River into the wilds of America on a spring day in 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark commanded a keelboat groaning with supplies: gunpowder, muskets and brass kettles, beads and mirrors to trade with the Indians, compasses and chronometers to map a path into the unknown.
In 1997, as the bicentennial of that bold departure approached, historian Carolyn Gilman decided to find out what had happened to that inventory.
She had no idea what she was getting herself into.
Thanks to the remarkable journals the explorers kept, scholars can recount each day of the expedition in intimate detail: What the men ate, where they hiked, what they saw, who suffered diarrhea, who pitched with insomnia, who stole whiskey from the commanders' stash.
But the objects that the Corps of Discovery used, traded and collected during that epic trek have been subjected to far less scrutiny.
Dozens of museums from Massachusetts to Oregon display artifacts that have been billed, over the years, as expedition originals: an air gun that could fire 22 rounds, a buffalo-skin robe painted with fierce warriors, silver peace medals handed out to tribal chiefs.
Until Gilman started her project, however, no one had attempted a comprehensive catalog of Lewis and Clark memorabilia or tried to separate the authentic from the fraud. No one had tried to figure out, piece by piece, what happened to the scientific specimens, the supplies and the Native American curiosities the explorers brought back to this frontier town in September 1806.
"This was one huge detective story," said Robert Archibald, who's directing three years of tributes to the expedition as president of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.
Working mostly alone, sometimes with a researcher, Gilman finished her sleuthing just in time to mount a museum exhibition for this year's commemorations. "Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition" opened in January at the Missouri History Museum and will tour over the next two years to Philadelphia, Denver, Portland and Washington, D.C.
Traveling to nearly 50 museums and five Native American reservations, Gilman stumbled across some great stories in her research:
There was the eccentric old woman, a descendant of Clark, who held a superb collection of his maps in a shuttered apartment and who refused, for some reason, to open any mail that arrived on a Wednesday. And there was the shady St. Louis shopkeeper who in 1842 hustled to Switzerland several stunning Indian robes that may well have been expedition originals.
Still, her research by its nature was often dry and technical. Gilman, 49, sometimes found herself wondering why she bothered.
Why did it matter if this iron battle ax was the precise one the explorers forged in the icy bleakness of what is now North Dakota to trade with the Mandan Indians for corn? Why was it important to know if this brass spyglass was the very one Lewis put to his eye in a sun-streaked valley, straining to see whether the approaching warriors were friend or foe?
Gilman answered her doubts with this: She had a duty to set the record straight.
"Museums deal in the authentic," she said. "That's what sets us apart from theme parks and those restaurants that put old-timey stuff on the walls."
Or as James Ronda, a noted scholar of the expedition, put it: "We have a moral obligation to the past to get it right."
The expedition's story begins in 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson directed his personal secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, to gather a military party and head west to find "the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce." Along the way, the explorers were to map the terrain, study the language and customs of Indian tribes and collect samples of the West's exotic plants, animals and minerals.
Lewis selected his former Army commander, Lt. William Clark, to join him at the helm of the expedition. Together, they recruited nearly three dozen adventurers for the trip.
Lewis and Clark ran 1,420 percent over budget. They had to dismiss a man for deserting and another for insubordination; they had to bury a young sergeant. But on Nov. 7, 1805 at the mouth of the Columbia River some 4,000 perilous miles from their first camp at the mouth of the Missouri Clark wrote in his journal: "Ocian in view! O! the joy!" The Corps of Discovery had accomplished every goal the president had set for them.
Gilman's own journey of discovery began in the archives of the Missouri Historical Society. She studied more than 100 pieces in the society's permanent collection, among them such treasures as the frayed letter of credit from Jefferson that Lewis took with him on the journey.
Working off tips from other curators and her own hunches, Gilman then traveled the country to inspect hundreds of items claimed as expedition souvenirs by museums and collectors.
She could tell at a glance that some were fakes, like the antler-handle knife with a curved blade; that style that didn't come into vogue until a generation after the expedition. Other pieces, including many of Clark's hand-drawn maps, she was quick to accept as authentic because they had been passed in an unbroken chain of custody from the explorers to their descendants.
And then there were moments of pure serendipity, such as the spring morning in 2001 when a woman in Austin, Texas, brought an elaborate scroll to be appraised by the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow." It turned out to be the 1802 document commissioning Lewis as a captain in the U.S. infantry a scrap of history Gilman had been hunting for years.
Most of the other objects she pursued required much more tedious research.
In the end, Gilman identified just 50 artifacts she felt sure came from the expedition, including 12 from the Missouri Historical Society's permanent collection. Those 50, along with hundreds of period pieces, are part of Gilman's presentation in the bicentennial exhibition.
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