The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews, Lewis And Clark, Louisiana Purchase

Reviewed by B.B. Swan
By Larry E. Morris
Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2004

During the Lewis and Clark Expedition, now being commemorated 200 years later, the members experienced enough adventures for a lifetime. The actual journals produced by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and other participants tell it all—with assistance from countless armchair explorers for the past two centuries. One amazing fact is that from the time they left the St. Louis area on May 14, 1804, until their return on September 23, 1806—and after more than 8,000 miles of travel on trails and waterways—Lewis and Clark lost only one man. Sergeant Charles Floyd died, probably from appendicitis, on August 20, 1804. I’m sure that the single expedition death was a relief to the survivors, but that also meant that they now had to face life after the expedition. How do you top that incredible journey to the Pacific? Not easy; some might say impossible. Still, most of them (Lewis himself may be one of the exceptions) didn’t give up on life. They plunged ahead, even though, as Larry E. Morris points out, “the greatest adventure of their lives had ended, and with it a sense of unity and purpose that they could never duplicate.”

Their after-the-glory stories are often quite fascinating, and in the hands of Morris, make for excellent supplementary reading for those who have become acquainted with the 33 Corps members through the Lewis and Clark Journals and other accounts. Lewis and Clark remained friendly after the expedition’s return, but the relationship was brief because Lewis died of gunshot wounds (mostly likely it was suicide, but some still suspect murder) at age 35 on October 11, 1809. Clark, who was appointed the chief Indian agent for the vast Louisiana Territory, didn’t die until September 1, 1838, at age 68. The third best known of the Corps members, Sacagawea, most likely died in 1812 before she was 25, although some people still contend that she lived a very long life. Probably No. 4 on the best-known list is John Colter, who went right back out onto the frontier and, as one of the nation’s first mountain men, experienced another full dose of hardships and thrills in the wilds. Capsule biographies of all 33 Corps members (including the nonsurvivor Floyd) appear in Appendix A, but the main text doesn’t jump from explorer to explorer in separate entries or chapters. That seems a wise decision by Morris, since the lives of expedition veterans often interweave in the years and decades that follow their return to St. Louis.

Besides Colter, expedition members who went West again included John Potts, Nathaniel Pryor, George Gibson, George Shannon, George Douillard, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau (Sacagawea’s son) and probably York (Clark’s slave). Some of the expedition members found death soon enough, but others lived long lives. Patrick Gass, who published the first expedition journal in 1807, died in West Virginia in 1870; he was 98. Not even diligent research by Morris could produce much information on several of the members—Silas Goodrich, Hugh Hall and Hugh McNeal—and he certainly can’t solve all the mysteries. Perhaps the book will need some updating down the road, but it looks like a keeper, one that will continue to hold our interest as long as the story of the expedition is told.

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