Who were replaceable?
Those of us who follow the Lewis and Clark Expedition and its legacy have spent a great deal of time poring over books and articles to learn everything we can about who these brave people where and what they did. The journey of the Corps of Discovery was a major episode in our American history.
We have learned that President Jefferson wanted the journey to be made by a military unit that was used to life on the frontier. We know that several of the men who were destined to become members of the Corps of Discovery were civilians recruited by Clark from the frontiers of Kentucky.
There must have been some sort of selection criteria since several of the military personnel who made it to Camp Dubois were returned to their units as unacceptable to the Captains. The only clue we get is that Lewis asked Clark to get a few good hunters. In my opinion how the selections were made is one of the least understood, yet most important elements of the preparations for the expedition.
As we read about the early days of life in Camp Dubois we start to get a better picture of what these men could and could not do. We find a mix of skills that would be used throughout the journey such as, blacksmiths, carpenters, surveyors, boatmen, hunters, trappers, fishermen, interpreters, and tailor. Most of the men had some skill in all areas, but each seemed to have something he was best suited for. But what if for some reason one of the selected men did not go and someone else had been sent in his place? How much would the overall expedition suffered? To expand upon that idea, who were replaceable and who were not?
A person could go through the list of people who participated in the expedition, one by one, to show strengths and weaknesses then make a decision to replace or keep. However, that would undoubtedly be a waste of time because we really don’t know enough about most of them to justify such an exercise. Separate the two Captains from the list then, as a group, it can be said they were common men who answered the call. They were people like you and me who did the best they could, most of the time. Then, when the expedition was done they returned to their prior lives of simple, common men.
The Captains were separated because they both went to continued public life until their deaths. But that is not to say that they could not have been replaceable.
I read a book titled The Collected What If, edited by Robert Cowley. He said “what ifs” are questions bantered about by historians when they are not doing otherwise purposeful research. These mental gymnastics can from time to time produce some new or different perspective on an aspect of history. Regardless of outcome they are almost always fun to think about. The question of who was replaceable on the Lewis and Clark Expedition fits very much into the “what if” category.
That question is summed up by one of the contributors to Cowley’s book, William H. McNeal who writes on page 827 (of my copy) “So what if Pizzaro had not found potatoes in Peru? Our world would be radically different for sure, even though no one can say exactly how very different it would be.”