Chapter Two: Letters From A New World
September the 3rd, 1803
Dearest Mother and Father,
Much has happened since I last have writ. My Army career, noble and fulfilling as it was, has been put temporarily on hold. I shall no longer enjoy the invigorating push-up routine thrust upon the members of our outfit, seemingly at the whim of whatever commanding presence seems to be about. Nary a day went by when my body did not ache, yet I was made a better man for it.
The prolonged delay of military activities is an entirely positive development. After viewing how well I managed the company stores–talents I owe to your time and patience at Kincade’s Mercantile–our commander, Captain Meriwether Lewis, was emboldened to request my services as the Quartermaster General for our grand outing, which I believe I have mentioned in previous correspondences.
To reiterate, we have been charged by our good President Jefferson–please, father, do not retell the story where he and James Madison visited ye olde Shoppe–to explore lands purchased earlier in the year from the French, west of the Mississippi River. His intents are to declare sovereignty over the savages along the Missouri River, open and chart the still-uncharted West for commerce, and to seek a water route to the Pacific, one joining the Missouri and westward-flowing Columbia River. It appears Alexander Mackenzie’s travels from 1789-1793 have influenced him greatly, as this explorer often spoke of “lucrative trading possibilities” along this latter river.
Word is, the English are interested in taking control of the area, so we are obliged to move swiftly. So important is our quest, at least to our good President, that $2,324, has been allocated to Captain Lewis for the fulfilment of it, a hefty sum I am charged to guard, and naturally my nerves are taxed. Sums such as these were unthinkable back at ye olde Shoppe, eh, father?
At the very least I’m thankful to be away from the commoners in the Army, who seem convinced that Shakespeare be “a kind of fische,” and that France is no more real, say, than a griffin or chimaera.
Throes of great excitement swept over our party on the 31st of last month. Our keelboat, constructed to Captain Lewis’ exact specifications, reached completion. It is one thing to know one is going on the most memorable journey this young nation has ever undertaken, but to see the actual vessel before one’s eyes enflames the heart and inspires the mind. Westward ho!
Our stores being plentiful, we finally set forth from Pittsburgh that same day, as time was of the essence. Gliding down the Ohio River, ever westwards, I was enveloped by a sense of freedom and of opportunity unlike anything I have ever felt, yet was unable to enjoy either. Methinks I shall never know joy again–perhaps I should never have left wonderful Vermont?
Give all my love to our family and friends. I shall be writing Diana again shortly; I miss her presence so. My heart feels halved in her absence.
Your humble son,
May the 30th, 1804
Dearest Mother and Father,
At last have we once again hauled anchor and begun our journeys into the unknown West. Our so-called Corps of Discovery is promised $5-$30 per man (depending on rank), as well as 320 acres, with the exception of York (see below). We left Pittsburgh carrying weapons unheard of in Vermont. A cache of Australian-made .46 caliber Girandoni air rifles made its way on board, along with repeating rifles, each with a tubular 20-round magazine powerful enough to kill deer, as well as all manner of knives and flintlocks. There is cartography equipment, blacksmithing supplies, herbs, and medicines (Flower would have been aghast), flags, and a crate of what Thomas Jefferson deemed “Indian Peace Medals.” These are to be given out liberally to any native chiefs or tribes who support American interests, as the savages are very keen on our medals. After inspecting these medals, I consider it a duplicitous, ignoble affair, as yea, the medals are imprinted with Jefferson’s countenance, but the supposed “silver” of these silver medals is not of the best quality, and makes me wonder how much of it was used, in effect, to produce such bribes.
Captain Lewis has enlisted the help of a frontiersman, William Clark, and he has brought his slave along with him, a powerful African by the name of York. It was my first glimpse of a slave, yet by his telling the South is so full of them the ground is as dark as permanent night there—which I believe to be mere hyperbole, yet still my curious mind wonders.
My companions on the voyage, especially William Clark, appear to be expert huntsmen, and many of the crew are of the hardy and colorful sort.
In a few months’ time we had reached Camp Dubois, in Illinois, our last stop before heading up the Missouri just north of the new trading town of Saint Louis. We whiled away at Camp, and our party grew impatient, but earlier this month on the 14th we finally began traveling again. In a week’s time we were on the Missouri, and had met up with Captain Lewis again, who had been held back on personal matters. Our expedition complete, all 45 of us headed up the Missouri on the 21st, the actual beginning of our voyage into the dark West.
Please give all my love. Landscapes being what they are here, it is difficult to pine for the monumental beauty of our fair state; it is for you, my beloved family, for whom my heart beats longingly. I remain
Your doting son,
September the 3rd, 1804
Dearest Mother and Father,
I have been on my journey for just over a year, and I feel as if I have aged a century.
Upon leaving Pittsburgh and heading into our own backcountry, I have been impressed by two things constantly: the first is the sheer magnificence of the country we call home. The second is the decadence and decay that plagues our countrymen. There seems to be no end to the lows to which some will sink, so forsaken by their God who bore them, their families and communities who raised them, and by whatever ideals they themselves might once have had about decency, respect, kindness, and basic civilized behavior.
I have seen these men heave stones at the most beautiful birds, make lewd and untoward comments toward females we encounter out and about, and fight like rabid dogs upon receiving their first whiff of spirits. The contrast between these two notions—beautiful Nature and decadent man—forces me to wonder just how high we must clamber, if ever we should desire to return to the glory displayed by blessed Nature everywhere we now look. An interminable gulf certainly divides us now.
The natives we have seen were treated by Messrs.’ Lewis and Clark with respect, and each presented with an appropriate medal, as winter is approaching, and we would most likely need help in surviving the terrible frosts.
Our three boats paddled their way westward into August, when our first tragedy struck. A sergeant named Floyd acquired a case of appendicitis from which he never did recover, and we were forced to bury him a world away from his family and loved ones who waited for his return.
There were ill portents shortly thereafter. We reached a place called the “Spirit Mound” on the 25th of August. Captain Lewis and the slave York surmounted the knob with a small party intending to get bearings and look for game. The mound is sacred to many natives, and it is believed “little people” and evil spirits reside there. Upon descent, York fell dreadfully ill, and was plagued by exhaustion. The heat was unbearable, and Mr. Clark said that his slave was “too fat and not accustomed to walking quickly,” yet I have my doubts. I had never seen the slave in but the purest of health, and this sudden reversal had me wondering if there wasn’t something to the Indian legends. Worse, I was sure I glimpsed something wicked in Lewis’ eye I had never seen before. I promised myself I would monitor both.
About a week later, we reached the Great Plains, and I assure you there can certainly be nothing under God’s great heaven as great as the sight of this magnificent landscape. From one end of the horizon to the other one views a panorama of unlimited, immaculate abundance.
The waters of endless rivers saturate this land, rendering it pregnant with more forms of life than one might dream of in a thousand lifetimes. We leave our tents in the morning and cannot decide on what we should dine. Elk, deer, and beavers wander lasciviously over dale and glen, yet I do not grow hungry: my mind and body are sated merely by the appearance of these creatures, each possessing a beauty more noble than the last. One in their number do I purposefully omit, however.
One has seen nothing in life until one has seen the herds of bison stampeding across these great plains. Their numbers are infinite. Our first sighting occurred after we had decided to set up camp for the night, and some noticed a rolling thunder off in the distance that appeared to grow near. The pounding was soon felt by all as it hammered upon the deerskin boots under our feet. The Earth quaked and shook, and erelong, no one was setting up camp.
We ascended a smallish hill and beheld God’s great hand in all of its rumbling glory. One could neither hear, nor speak, nor think of anything else. They rolled on and on, uncountable black ships beating through the clouds of dust they kicked up.
A blood moon rose, and the scene was nothing if not religious.
Yet, as spellbinding as the images were, I chanced to notice a particularly cretinous soldier named Gollum, shooting at the animals with his fingers mimicking a gun. I do not comprehend how it might be possible to view such a scene and not be overwhelmed by awe and nothing else, yet Gollum’s only reaction was violence. This does not bode well for either the buffalo’s or our futures.
York killed an elk one day near the end of August, and I thought it interesting he was allowed to carry and use a firearm. I was forced to consider why he was a slave at all. There was certainly no difference, other than skin color, between our two races, yet William Clark displayed nothing that would indicate his possession of another human, for servile purposes, be unnatural or un-Christian. Sometimes this world confuses me so...
Give my love to family and friends close and distant. You are in my thoughts always, and sometimes your faces are all that reminds me that I am loved, I am needed, and I have a duty to conduct myself as a Kincade would in all of my business. Others in our party, it seems, have no such faces to recall or choose to move beyond them.
Your ever-grateful son,
Dearest Mother and Father,
One of the many tribes we befriended, the Arikara, provided a brilliant example of how similar we all were, be it not for the unwholesome ideas in many white men’s minds.
For these Arikara had never seen a black man before, and he quickly became the darling of our party. He played constantly with Arikara children, roared like a lion, and joked he was an animal before William Clark tamed him, and stated proudly that children “were very good to eat.”
At one point one of the Arikara warriors invited York into his tent, then stood guard outside while the slave and his wife conducted their business.
All of this attention started to gnaw at York however, because by October he pulled a knife on one chief who tried to rub the “paint” from the black man’s skin.
Tensions were high and several men were needed until York could calm himself again. Despite the tensions, York remained one of the expedition’s most valuable members, as no other could placate savage tribes like he could. The thought flittered across my mind that someone—Lewis? Clark? Jefferson, even?—understood this and desired York for the same reason he or they desired the Indian Peace Medals.
But I get ahead of myself. We visited the Arikara only after making contact with the most powerful tribe in the West, if not all of America. The Arikara, like all tribes beforehand, would warn us of the Lakota, a powerful tribe to their North and East with whom most were at war and who wanted to block trade in their territory along the Missouri.
Our peace talks with their leaders broke down many times, and it was a miracle that a larger conflict did not ensue. The Sioux, as we called them (a native word for “enemy,” and the tribe had many of those), desired us either to stay or give more gifts, instead of passing with their blessing. The whole scene was confused because our translator was not present during these talks, and because Captain Lewis offered gifts to partisan chiefs first, instead of the Lakota, who were thus insulted. William Clark called them “warlike,” and “the vilest miscreants of the savage race,” yet I could not silence a voice inside saying we were the intruders, and had little right to expect them to behave as we desired simply because we so wished it. A growing trend continued as well with the use of whiskey as the ultimate weapon of peace. The natives seem enamored of it, and ignorant of what they are giving up in its acquisition.
Once again a semblance of peace was restored, and we traveled westward to the Arikara. After our visit there we continued onwards and reached Mandan country, and we negotiated with them until we were allowed to build Fort Mandan, which became our winter quarters.
It was the worst winter of my life. There were few in the compound that shared my fascination for our magnificent landscape and the native culture there. Most of my companions passed their time drinking whiskey and speaking rubbish. They laughed at one another’s deficiencies and follies, swore, and bragged; made bets which one of them would be able to shoot the most bison when they returned to the Great Plains. Others began betting who would kill the most natives once the Indian wars started. “Once they started!” We had only recently met one other and they already thinking about murder!
President Jefferson wanted to open up the West to commerce, but I remain convinced he was opening it, unconsciously or not, to vice. My fears now—that the bison and natives will be hunted for sport—would be analogous to the murder of our very own soul, represented by the beauty of this endless, bountiful landscape, with its dangers and pitfalls; a place offering, if nothing else, salvation.
It was here where we met with the French-Canadian trapper Charbonneau and his young wife Sacagawea. The trapper became our translator, his wife became the reason I did not perish that winter. Not a moment passed when I did not think of her; I desired nothing more in my life than this fair Indian maiden, and even planned subterfuge and assassinations of her husband. I am not proud of such thoughts. I only illustrate that it is impossible to shield oneself from them when one is cooped up with like-minded civilized refuse.
On April 7th, we began heading West again, but not before sending the keelboat back with all the specimens we had gathered. A part of me yearned to be on board. I was no longer comfortable with exploring, or founding a town in the Kincade name. It would only become another symbol of failure in a place of perfection, should such a location exist.
We followed the Missouri ever westward, and Meriwether Lewis became ever more disturbed at the mountains that grew before us in ever more dizzying heights, more numerous, even, than the humps atop the bison we had seen on the Great Plains, if such a thing were possible. It appears as if he was privy to La Page’s documentation of the Yazoo Moncacht-Apé supposed first transcontinental journey, which neglects to mention what I will call, for want of a better appellation, the “Rocky” mountains. These mountains were what was standing between us and a continuous waterway to the Pacific.
I do not see me surviving this trip much longer, it has become too much of a task for one tired soul to bear. I shall write each of these letters as if they were my last, and can only assure you I have always been
Your loving son,
Mother and Father,
Sacagawea and Charbonneau have proved to be indispensable, like those natives who helped us prevent starvation last winter. Both of these new additions to our party led us, with the help of local native tribes, to the Clearwater and Snake Rivers. Shortly thereafter we reached the Columbia River, and realized the end was nigh.
We have since built another fort—Fort Clatsop—and are currently wintering here near the mouth of the Columbia. We shan’t have made it this far without this wonderful Indian maiden and her more-aged husband Charbonneau, to whom I have been deceitful with all my heart as payment.
An interesting side-story: we reached a point not far from here where we had almost no food and no means anymore of purchasing some from neighboring tribes. We took a vote as to where we should winter, and Sacagawea and York were both allowed to vote. In every civilized corner of the world no savage or slave, from the days of Socrates in Greece to the assemblies of our great Congress in Washington, D.C., was ever allowed the right to cast a ballot in the affairs of state. Yet here at the end of the American wilderness it was performed with nary a batted eye; both of these members of our expedition were equally as valuable as every other–why should they not enjoy a say in our decisions?
On November 7th of last year we saw the Pacific for the first time laying cold and gray off in the distance. The whitecaps indicated anything but placidity.
On the 18th I went with York and William Clark to what would remain my most cherished location of the entire odyssey. We were on a rise above the native settlement called Ilwaco, and Clark carved their names, as well as Lewis’ into a tree there. Thereby York became the first black man to cross the continent, though my mind had already begun to wander. There was something about this mysterious coastline, near the native settlement at Ilwaco, draped in its November garments of gray, that has continued to impress itself upon my inner being. I have never had the sense before of stones being alive, but here I was certain of it.
And so the hours pass in our “paradise” at Fort Clatsop, where we once again bravely attempt to stave off starvation and influenza. Yet these are only ailments of the body; those of the mind will still be part of us long after Fort Clatsop becomes a foggy memory in our past lives. Some part of me dreads the return trip. Whatever I have learned here during our travels deserves to be kept silent, for fear of infecting my fellow men. A wise man once spoke, “one doesn’t know what one has until it is gone,” and I fear everything of true value has already been lost.
Perhaps we are paying the price of the infamous decisions made so long ago by souls neither more nor less advanced than we, despite the great accumulation of knowledge since then.
I bid you adieu. I do not know when I shall see you again, but when I do I hope it will be with a glimmer of hope inside an endlessly black world.
Mother and Father,
It’s Christmastime. New Orleans could not be further from Shackleford, Vermont, unless one counts the occasionally French. I just received word that the commander for our expedition, Meriwether Lewis, committed suicide. Several reports suggest he was robbed and murdered, but these lack substance, and, I think, is the less likely of two options. He was in debt, and troubled. A part of me returns to that day he surmounted the Spirit Mound not far from the Missouri. I never liked the look in his face when he descended again. He looked—transformed. As are we all.
We are damned. We were damned when we set foot on this land; ancient spirits have condemned us. I damn myself for engaging in Satan’s work, and I damn the Kincade name for setting me on a course toward this engagement. I damn all of you for not foreseeing what we are all damned to become.
Written By: Scratch77