Explorers’ Journals Survive Time’s Rigors
Although they are nearly 200 years old, the journals describing the Lewis and Clark Expedition are in excellent condition and are likely to last for many more years, according to a leading expert on the documents.
Gary Moulton, a University of Nebraska history professor, attributes the documents’ condition to care taken before, during and after the expedition.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had relatively good handwriting, and journals kept by other members of the expedition also are clean and neat, Moulton said. He has nearly completed work on a 12-volume edition of the expedition journals.
“Lewis and Clark’s papers will last 300 years,” Moulton said in a weekend talk at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
Accounts of the expedition were written on high-quality paper, better than papers in use today, Moulton said.
He marvels at the logistics behind the record keeping.
“How much ink do you carry with you?” he asked, noting the expedition was a surprisingly long 2-1/2 years. Ink was subject to freezing in the winter and evaporation in the summer.
The explorers often carried the journals in tin cases, which kept the writings dry but offered little protection against humidity.
In some instances, it appears the explorers took field notes and later transcribed them into bound journals.
Although the journals are relatively neat, there are barriers to interpretation.
“Clark was not only a bad speller, he was an inconsistent one,” Moulton said. “He spelled the Sioux name 27 different ways.”
The work of those who handled the journals after the expedition also adds an element of intrigue for researchers.
A ghostwriter, who worked with Clark after the trip’s conclusion, added to the journals. Entries in red ink are believed to be his.
Later, Elliot Coues, who edited a version of the journals, also left his mark by numbering and changing the order of the pages, sometimes trimming ragged edges and using stamps to repair tears.
“These sorts of things, archivists just cringe at,” Moulton said.
Most of the original expedition papers are in institutional collections, but there is the possibility that more writings will be discovered, Moulton said.
At one point in his writings, Lewis noted that seven expedition members were keeping journals. But researchers have never been able to find all the accounts or decide if they exist.
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