When we were first developing the Lewis & Clark Trail as a Vanishing Trails Expedition I kept track of all the books I read in my research, and in fact I’m still reading Lewis & Clark books, sixteen years after my first scouting trip of the trail. I don’t necessarily recommend every book on the list but I have read them all, and I share it with our participants on the trail if they are interested. I’ve lost track of how many I’ve now read, but it is only a fraction of all the Lewis & Clark books that are out there.
There are several titles on Sacagawea, about whom we know almost nothing. I even found one in my collection on the Sakakawea statue* (on the Capitol grounds in Bismarck) when I was rummaging through my bookshelves the other day. Don’t have any information on the woman? Write a book about the statue! (By the way, I haven’t read it, so it’s not on my list.) There are also several books on Lewis’ dog, Seaman, many aimed at children – which is cool, I think, to get kids involved in the story. But again, how can you write an entire book about a dog who is seldom mentioned in the journals and seems to have vanished when the Corps returned?
There are so many Lewis and Clark books in fact that it has gotten to be ridiculous. The Bicentennial Celebration spawned a gajillion of them, but many are quite good, and I’m all in favor of anything that generates interest in American history. However, there is at least one organization, which shall remain nameless, which has published so frequently, for so many years that it has literally run out of topics. I subscribed for a year but when an article appeared enumerating the tally of wildlife killed and consumed by the Corps of Discovery over the course of 28 months, I bailed. Granted, the expedition has been called one glorious hunting expedition and for good reason, but there are still too many really good books out there to be read for me to waste my time on minutia.
I’m actually reading another Lewis & Clark book right now: the new Thomas Jefferson biography, “The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham. This isn’t my first Jefferson biography. From my travels and research I have come to appreciate just how much influence our third President had – not only on promoting the Corps of Discovery’s expedition – but on the entire westward expansion movement. (There is a life-size statue of him at the entrance to the museum at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, even though he himself never ventured further west than his Virginia hilltop.) This visionary with feet of clay is endlessly fascinating to me.
Soon I will be re-reading Stephan Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage”, an annual springtime ritual when this program is on our tour schedule. I never grow tired of it, and it remains the most readable of all the Lewis & Clark books, with the possible exception of James Ronda (anything by James Ronda). Both are natural story tellers which make their books real page-turners, even when we know the outcome in advance!
Story telling is actually the heart of history and in its own way, of our tours as well. We started our Vanishing Trails Expeditions in 1994, and with it, our tradition of providing a recommended reading list for background and to enhance the actual travel experience.
But recommended reading lists are just that: recommendations. This isn’t a classroom. We do find however, that our participants appreciate the suggestions and usually read one or two books prior to departure. On longer tours, we even bring some of them along as reference and allow books to be “checked out” overnight if someone wants to take a good book to bed. I remember one lady on our very first Lewis & Clark expedition checked out Ambrose every single night, finally admitting that she regretted having blown off the reading list idea and now realized how much more she enjoyed the experience with a better understanding of the expedition.
Our reading lists are there for you to use or not – at your pleasure. And if you sign up for a program that doesn’t usually include one, such as a national parks program, feel free to ask for one (somebody did, just last month!) Fortunately, national parks have stories too!
* The story about the spelling of Sacagawea will have to wait for another time, I’m afraid.
To learn more about the Lewis & Clark Trail, check out our history website http://www.explorethelewisandclarktrail.org
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.