Footnote 32: “The Mandans and Hidatsas lived on easy terms with each other, but there was a good deal of competitiveness between the two groups. In 1806 Alexander Henry reported that ‘nothwithstanding they are situated so near each other, and appear to live in amity and good friendship, they nevertheless are not free from certain points of jealousy, and often have had very serious misunderstanding….’ Apparently the Mandans had been trying to discourage the Hidatsas from developing relationships with the expedition, probably to lesson competition for the expedition’s limited supply of trade goods.”
This whole project was something of an ordeal, for reasons not worth rehashing here. But it was worth all the sleepless nights and emergency shipments of CDs with introductions, texts, annotations, and editorial notes, often from the middle of nowhere.
What makes the book important, I think, is its structure. Most editions of Lewis and Clark either omit the lesser journal keepers altogether, or relegate them to a ghettoized existence in volumes IX, X, and XI. I’m a devoted Lewis and Clark scholar, but I know there have been times when I would have liked to know what Ordway, Whitehouse, Gass, or Floyd thought of such and such an event, but sometimes I just did not go to those late addendum volumes because I was lazy or tired or not certain the commitment of time would pay off.
We chose to print everything that happened on such and such a day on that day, every journal (including, often enough, two by Clark and two by Whitehouse), so that readers could effortlessly see what every journal keeper wrote about that day. This should make a considerable difference in Lewis and Clark scholarship. My friend David Nicandri, for example, believes that Joseph Whitehouse is sometimes the most interesting of the journal keepers, providing details notice by no other journal keeper, and looking at the expedition from a private’s perspective. I feel the same way about Ordway, who is typically ignored even now, in accounts of the journey.
Moreover, I love the art of annotation. I take more pleasure in annotating than in writing. The goal of good annotation is to provide the reader the information he or she needs to make sense of the original text, seldom more and certainly not less. So you have to be able to put yourself into the mind of an intelligent reader who does not need to know what a pronghorn antelope is, but might need to know how it got its name; who does not need to know what longitude is, but might need to know something about the particular way Lewis ascertained longitude on the expedition.
When I was just starting out as a scholar, I had the honor of working with professor Thomas H. Pinney of Pomona College. He was one of America’s master editors. His editions of the Macauley papers and the Kipling papers won awards and brought him the deepest esteem from the scholarly community. Dr. Pinney provided just the amount of information the reader needed, and never more. His principle (Pinney’s Law of Annotation) was “Never annotate the annotations.” I have tried to live by that code in my own scholarly work.
I had the chance to reread the entire book not long ago, as I was advising the big HBO Playtone miniseries on Lewis and Clark. I had not really done much reading in A Vast and Open Plain since I finished the project. In the course of about two weeks of perusal, I found only four or five footnotes that are erroneous or imprecise. In a few of these instances, we know now certain things that were not yet known when I did the book. In perhaps twenty cases, I would like to rewrite my footnotes to make them more clear, to tighten up the language a little, to prevent the reader from being stuck with an ambiguity that was unintended as I wrote the footnotes in 2003. But my general impression was that A Vast and Open Plain was a very solid, accurate, and even incisive piece of scholarship, perhaps the only pure scholarship I have ever undertaken. I came away proud of what I had done, sorry that the North Dakota project did not lead to similar editions in the other states.
I’m particularly proud of my interpretation of three subjects: Sacagawea, sex, and Toussaint Charbonneau. In examining the journal texts exhaustively, I came to the conclusion that Toussaint Charbonneau, for all that Lewis thought him a coward, a buffoon, and a rascal, was in fact a very remarkable man, what we might call a gifted opportunist and survivor. He managed in the winter of 1804-05 to work for both the LC expedition and traders from the Canadian fur trade forts. He insinuated himself into Lewis and Clark’s world not only while they were in residence at Fort Mandan, but for nearly the rest of the whole transcontinental journey. He bounced back from every failure or setback, and he managed to impress even Lewis with his celebrated boudin blanc recipe. He may have been a rascal, but he managed to keep Sacagawea after her return to the Shoshone tribe from which she had been captured, so he must have seemed to her worthy of her continuing devotion (or attachment). I think I managed to rehabilitate Charbonneau from his status as the vulgarian of the expedition.
Sacagawea is really not much more than a mystery. I regard her as a “cultural construct,” a Shoshone-Hidatsa historical figure, about whom we know almost nothing, upon whom generations of Americans have projected their prejudices, fantasies (including erotic fantasies), and cultural mythologies. I tried hard in my edition to de-mythologize her as much as possible, but to try to assess honestly what her role was for the expedition. I see her neither as a guide, diplomatic emissary, or exemplar of pluck and resourcefulness, but as a shadowy Native American woman who may well have been unknown to President Jefferson and the American public of his time. Unfortunately, North Dakota continues to spell her name Sakakawea, even though she is better rendered as Sacagawea. I fought to get the North Dakota Historical Society to adopt the standard national spelling, but was unsuccessful. I do not see her as Sacajawea, though I respect members of the Shoshone nation who insist that that is the name by which she should be remembered.
Whenever Lewis and Clark mingled among a tribe for more than a day or so, sexual exchange was sure to follow. The average age of the men of the expedition was ca. 24, and most were unmarried, so it is no surprise that most of the men of the expedition sought sexual satisfaction with Indian women whenever it was possible. But we all know that sex means different things to different people. The sexual exchanges that occurred in the course of the expedition may have been seen by the men of the expedition from a purely opportunistic and instrumental point of view, but Native American cultures regarded them with a greater sense of complexity. I took advantage of every possible moment in the text to try to complicate and contextualize the sexual activities of the expedition. Several of my annotations were omitted from the final publication, both because the book was already plenty long, and because my editorial colleagues believed enough had already been said. I regret that. I feel a particular sense of diffidence and respect for the Mandan Buffalo Calling Ceremony, in which carnal knowledge was passed from master hunters, usually elders, to young men of the tribe through mutual sexual intercourse with the young man’s wife. Naturally, Lewis and Clark’s men were only too happy to be regarded as possessing “medicine” that should be incorporated (literally) into the tribal physical and spiritual DNA, but it would be a mistake to leave the discussion there. Sacred ceremonies deserve careful and even reverential treatment. In the past couple of years I have been advising the HBO Playtone Lewis and Clark miniseries to attenuate any suggestion that sex with Indian women was a kind of trans-racial fraternity party, something to be joked and winked about, and to be treated with the kind of dignity and respect it deserves.
Moreover, I do believe that some men of the expedition, far from home in a company of other young men, most of whom were strangers, sought more than mere sexual release in their relations with Indian women. We have no proof of a deeper emotional attachment, but it does not take much generous imagination to envision attachments of the heart, a quest for some level of domesticity, relief from the hyper-testosteronic nature of the Corps of Discovery roster, and a desire to participate (even across linguistic barriers) in something like genuine family life during the long winter at Fort Mandan. If each of the men had kept a personal (not an official) journal during that winter, I believe we would have a much more human portrait of the expedition, and a more humane one.
If I had the chance, I would edit the journals of Lewis and Clark for all of the other states they visited, beginning with Montana, and then Oregon/Washington, Idaho, South Dakota, and on down. Lewis and Clark scholarship would benefit from such state by state accounts, with the journal keepers writing side by side, on the day of their journal entries.
Plus, we printed the month-end meteorological reports day by day, so that readers of A Vast and Open Plain can see what the weather was like each of the 215 days Lewis and Clark spent in today’s North Dakota.
To read a sampling of Clay’s annotations, or his character sketches of Sacagawea and Charbonneau, click here.