As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. These are my stories.
Life Lesson #41- The Lewis and Clark Expedition
On August 12, 1805, Captain Meriwether Lewis and a contingent from his Corps of Discovery hiked up a stream in the Rocky Mountains. The stream became so small that a member of the expedition stood across it, one foot on each bank. That day Lewis found something he had been seeking for over a year: the source of the Missouri River.
He captured the triumph in his journal, noting the moment that his corpsman “had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.” (p. 266, Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose).
That’s one of my favorite episodes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which was full of historic accomplishments. I’ve backpacked along many mountain streams and imagined Lewis doing the same. There was an elegant simplicity in what he discovered- the very beginning of a stream. Yet the significance was monumental, as the Missouri was already known to have enormous geographic importance and economic potential.
My affinity for the expedition led by Lewis and 2nd Lieutenant William Clark was passed to me by my father, who was born and reared in Montana and was a history major at the University of Montana (actually, both of my parents were). Given that the Corps of Discovery traversed what later became Montana, my dad was steeped in Lewis and Clark lore at an early age. Dad has always had a soft spot for good adventure stories, and Lewis and Clark lived a great one.
The expedition was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the huge territory acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. One objective was to find a practical route to the western half of the continent, such as a waterway (that was a reason they travelled up the Missouri River, thinking that it could lead them through the Rockies to the Pacific).
The Corps of Discovery’s mission was also scientific (they observed and collected data on wildlife) and diplomatic (establishing trade with Native American tribes). The expedition was aided by Sacagawea, a young woman of the Shoshone tribe who served as an interpreter and de facto ambassador.
I want my sons to know about Lewis and Clark, and they already know a fair amount. Josh, my oldest, studied them in 8th grade social studies. Gabe, my middle son, has a couple of books about the expedition. They both remember a really cool exhibit on Lewis and Clark in my hometown of Bozeman, MT.
I have several motivations for this life lesson. Knowing about the Corps of Discovery would be intergenerational, from my father to his son and then to his grandsons. I would love for them to read some of the same books their grandfather and I read, like Undaunted Courage, and we’ll visit a few of the same historic sites in Montana I went to as a kid.
My sons should appreciate Lewis and Clark as part of their Montana heritage. Josh and Gabe were born in Durham, NC and my youngest, Luke, was born in Charlotte, NC, where we now reside. But they love visiting Montana- it’s a huge wilderness playground. I take a lot of pride in having grown up there and sharing my home state has meant a lot.
On my dad’s side of the family, there are several generations of Montana ranchers. Getting into the history of the state will help my sons understand that not so long ago it was even less developed than it is now, without any highways, power lines, strip malls, or sub-divisions.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition is my opening to a broader discussion about the importance of history. Students often have vague ideas about why they should study history, leading to low engagement and motivation. Fortunately, research has shown that this can be turned around by devoting more efforts towards helping students understand the rationales and benefits of studying history. So with some guidance, they can see the light.
The American Historical Association (AHA) outlined a strong case for the study of history. It is essential for good citizenship, promoting habits of mind that are needed to be an informed voter or civic leader: “History provides data about the emergence of national institutions, problems, and values.” For example, I intend for my sons to be feminists, and understanding the history of feminism will help that come to be.
Some of the AHA’s argument relates to cognitive development. Studying history provides practice with assessing evidence. A good history course should have plenty of discussions and even debate, giving students experience grappling with juxtaposed viewpoints. In fact, students should regularly have to argue for a position at odds with their own belief system, or swing from one side of an argument to another. Education should enable students to assimilate new opinions, rather than ossify existing ones.
“The ultimate lesson for my sons here is that deeper appreciation, of anything, comes from seeing nuance. Beauty is enhanced and amplified by blemishes.”
Studying history also fosters moral development. Real-life events can be contemplated and argued. What were the motivations behind decisions of historical importance? How might dilemmas have been handled differently? What were negative ramifications of events that have been celebrated as triumphs?
Which brings me back to Captain Lewis and Lieutenant Clark. Yes, their expedition was a tremendous success in terms of geography and science. They showed perseverance and leadership. In two-plus years they voyaged from near St. Louis by boat, horseback, and foot up the Missouri and over the Continental Divide. Without roads (or roadmaps) they found their way to the Pacific Ocean. Then they made it all the way back.
But at what cost? I’m going to help my sons connect the dots between the Louisiana Purchase, the Corps of Discovery, and Manifest Destiny. I probably would not have grown up in Montana were it not for Lewis and Clark. But our nation displaced Native Americans in high numbers, driving them onto reservations where economic prospects were dismal.
Indian Removal Act. Trail of Tears. Sand Creek Massacre. Wounded Knee. Native Americans were denied U.S. citizenship until 1924, with the right to vote coming decades later for many. The tragic history of how the United States treated Native Americans goes hand-in-hand with understanding civil rights.
I’m not blaming Lewis and Clark for the racial injustices that came in their wake. Nor should their legacy be tarnished by the destruction of natural habits that followed. The point is to place what they accomplished in context. I was heartened that Josh’s study of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was part of a unit on the Westward Expansion.
“The Lewis and Clark Expedition is my opening to a broader discussion about the importance of history. Students often have vague ideas about why they should study history, leading to low engagement and motivation.”
I am a patriot. I love my country and am proud of its achievements and its promise. If it seems like I want it both ways- celebrating the heroism of Lewis and Clark while lamenting the damage that stemmed from their journey, championing America’s triumphs while criticizing its flaws- well, yes, I do. But that’s not hypocrisy. That’s an authentic form of patriotism. One can love America and decry its imperfections like one can love a friend and see his shortcomings.
So the ultimate lesson for my sons here is that deeper appreciation, of anything, comes from seeing nuance. Beauty is enhanced and amplified by blemishes. The yang needs the yin. As it was for Lewis and Clark it is in life- it’s about the return journey as well as getting there.
Be sure to check back next month for another of Craig’s Life Lessons for his sons. Have a suggestion? Something you are teaching your son or daughter? Please share in a comment!