Society for the History of Discoveries


Duncan, Dayton. 
Scenes of Visionary Enchantment:  Reflections on Lewis and Clark.  Lincoln and London:  University of Nebraska Press, 2004.  202 pp.  ISBN  0803217242.

The route of the Corps of Discovery has drawn many to follow it and to celebrate the expedition’s accomplishments.  There is probably no trail follower in our time more avid in recreating the Lewis and Clark’s experience than Dayton Duncan who has traversed the route four times and has visited numerous places on it in many additional travels, some in the company of Stephen Ambrose, author of Undaunted Courage, the most recent popular book on Lewis and Clark, and some with Ken Burns whose television account of the expedition attracted millions of viewers.

What more is there to say about this grandest saga of American exploration?  The journals have told the story, and editors have elaborated on them at length – thirteen volumes in the most recent telling, ably edited by Gary Moulten and published by the University of Nebraska Press.  Having read the story, some will produce “reflections” upon it as Dayton Duncan has done.  One cannot foresee any end to reflections, for they are individual responses to this historic human experience, telling as much about their authors as they do about the expedition.  Duncan’s reflections do not emerge as a single rumination upon the event.  They come about in separate episodes and were shared over the years with audiences of enthusiasts for the expedition – its people, purposes, and accomplishments.  Many of the seventeen essays presented here were originally offered as lectures at special occasions of celebration of one or another aspects of the expedition’s progress.  The opening essay, “An Unsatisfied Curiosity”, developed from Duncan’s keynote address to the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in May, 1997, as it set about planning for the two-hundredth anniversary of the expedition.  Here he examines the continuing fascination for many of us with this “four-thousand-mile museum through the heart of the country,” (p.10) whether it be the personalities of the Corps of Discovery, the wildlife they encountered for the first time, the many Native American nations they met, without whose assistance they would not have succeeded, the times of intense physical suffering, the simple but dogged courage that was captured in the frequent comment, “we proceed on”.  Duncan sums up its continuing appeal: “…it is so accessible, so approachable, so human”. (p.13)

The second essay covers Meriwether Lewis’s visit to Philadelphia in 1803 to buy provisions and equipment for the journey, an aspect of its history not frequently presented.  Then, in the next chapter, Duncan gets between the high spots of the expedition’s experience, tales often told by its followers, and dwells on the days when little of note happened, finding reward in the tedium, the hard work, the flies, mosquitos, illnesses, and other daily elements of progress toward the distant Pacific Ocean.

While biographical information on most of the expedition’s members is scarce, a fact which Duncan regrets, he does very well with one of them, Alexander Hamilton Willard, not always an exemplary soldier who was court-martialed for sleeping on sentinel duty.  The example of this man gives insights into the individuality of the Corps’ members and how the commanders dealt with them.  One of Duncan’s most moving episodes is his recounting of the five months the expedition spent at Fort Mandan in west-central North Dakota, a long and harsh winter sojourn which they survived with the generous aid of the Mandan and Hidatsa people, an experience which brought members of the Corps to become “something of a family”.  (p.59)

The landscape along the route was often remarkable, but Duncan saves his highest accolades for the White Cliffs of the Missouri in north-central Montana where he experienced the “seens of visionary enchantment” to use Lewis’s words  - and spelling.  His use of the journals of Lewis, Clark, Patrick Gass, John Whitehouse, John Ordway, and Charles Floyd are a persistent source for Duncan’s ruminations as he celebrates the events of the expedition:  encounters with grizzly bears, tense meetings with Indians, Sakajawea’s illness, temporary separation of members from the Corps, the democratic decision-making process at a crucial point where all members including Sakajawea and York, Clark’s black slave, were to participate equally in the decision, the relentless rains in the Pacific Northwest after the ocean had been attained.  The food they ate, the medicine they took. The whiskey they deemed essential are all interwoven through these essays to make the book an informative and entertaining experience, although inspiration is a more prominent theme than information.

But information is there, and it would be more readily recovered if the book had an index.  The lack of one is a serious flaw, but more serious is the lack of a map.  Although readers will know the route in a general way, many will want to refer to a map for specific locations.  A book about an overland expedition should not be published without a map.  Despite these failings, the content and style of this book will please a wide audience.

 John Parker
Minneapolis, MN


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