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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Historic Reality Check

A scholar who set out to catalog the artifacts of the Lewis and Clark expedition made a discovery: Only a few of them are authentic.

March 30, 2004|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

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.

It took Lewis and Clark 28 months to make their way from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back. It took Gilman seven years to track down the few dozen artifacts she can be certain accompanied them.

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Lewis and Clark -- A March 30 article in Section A on the Lewis and Clark bicentennial exhibition in St. Louis stated that curator Carolyn Gilman could authenticate just 50 artifacts from the expedition. That number was provided by the public information office of the Missouri Historical Society, which sponsored the exhibition. Gilman considers any precise figure misleading because historians disagree on whether to include items that belonged to the explorers or President Jefferson but did not accompany the expedition.

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 fraudulent. 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 is 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 here at the Missouri History Museum and will tour over the next two years to Philadelphia, Denver, Portland, Ore., 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 Jefferson directed his personal secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, to gather a military party and head west to find "the most direct & 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% over budget. They had to dismiss a man for deserting and another for insubordination; they had to bury a young sergeant on the banks of an unnamed river. But on Nov. 7, 1805 -- 4,142 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.

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Historian's quest

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