Lewis & Clark
by Scott Brown, Editor, Fine Books & Collections magazine

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Two hundred years ago, on December 2, 1806, in his State of the Union address, Thomas Jefferson formally announced the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson had sent out the “Corps of Discovery” in 1804 to explore the recently purchased Louisiana Territory and to find a water route to the Pacific. He concluded his proclamation of their success with this note of admiration: “Lewis and Clarke (sic) and their brave companions have by this arduous service deserved well of their country.”

Only it was not to be, at least during Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s lifetime. Lewis committed suicide in 1809. Clark went on to serve in various army posts and as a superintendent of Indian affairs. When he died in 1838, the Corps of Discovery was a fading memory. At the end of the 19th century, the great historian Henry Adams devoted four volumes and nearly 2,000 pages to Jefferson’s presidency. Lewis and Clark got five sentences.

An unsuccessful bear hunt, depicted in the 1810 illustrated edition of Journal of Voyages and Travels

Adams’ lack of interest capped 80 years of indifference. There had been an initial flurry of attention to the expedition after the men returned. Patrick Gass, the Corps’ carpenter, published the first and bestselling account of the adventure, Journal of Voyages and Travels, in 1807. It went through four American, a British, and a French edition in the first five years. But by the time the Lewis and Clark's official report was published in 1814, reader interest had evaporated.


A new edition of Lewis and Clark’s journals would not appear in the United States until 1842, when nearly everyone involved was dead. The Lewis and Clark legend revived only in the last 100 years, and with that new interest came a fascination for Sacagawea, the pregnant, sixteen-year-old Indian girl who served as their translator on the expedition. Hundreds of books have been devoted to the feats of the Corps of Discovery, and after two centuries, the public shows no signs of losing interest in their story.


Ten Fine Lewis & Clark Picks

Lewis & Clark

The subject of Lewis and Clark offers tremendous opportunities for collectors. Anyone considering this field should get Stephen Dow Beckham’s The Literature of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: A Bibliography and Essays for an overview of the collecting opportunities available. The earliest publications, bookended by President Jefferson’s message to Congress in 1806 and the official account of 1814, run the gamut from expensive to really expensive. However, most of the books published since the mid-19th century, which are essential to understanding how the legend of Lewis and Clark grew, are generally affordable.

Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Laurence, Through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans: In the Years 1789 and 1793

Alexander Mackenzie

Voyages from Montreal

Third American edition. New York: Published by Evert Duyckinck…, 1803. Ten years before Lewis and Clark, Mackenzie crossed what is now Western Canada to reach the Pacific. His expedition inspired Thomas Jefferson, who gave a copy of this edition to Meriwether Lewis.

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A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery, Under the Command of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clarke…

Patrick Gass

A Jounral of the Voyages

The earliest first-hand account of the expedition. The first edition was published in Pittsburgh in 1807, followed by the first illustrated edition (Philadelphia, 1810, shown) and the first edition with a map (Paris, 1810).

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History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. Performed During the Years 1804-5-6

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

History of the Expedition

First edition: Philadelphia: Published by Bradford and Inskeep, 1814. Issued in two volumes with five maps and in some cases, an extra folding map. Copies with the original folding map are quite scarce - most examples on the market include a modern reproduction, sometimes described as a facsimile.

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History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark

Revised by Archibald M’Vicker

First edition: New York: Harper and Brothers, 1842. Two volumes. The beginning of the Lewis and Clark revival. Reprinted many times over sixty years.

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History of the Expedition Under the Command of Lewis and Clark

Elliott Coues, Ed.

First edition: New York: Francis P. Harper, 1893. The definitive edition, with extensive commentary. Four volumes, limited to 1,000 copies, 200 on handmade paper.

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Pioneers of the West: Lewis and Clark


Pioneers of the West: Lewis and Clark

First edition: Boston: Educational Publishing Company, 1898. Young Folk’s Library of Choice Literature. Volume 5, number 99. The first children’s book devoted entirely to Lewis and Clark.

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Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–1806

Reuben Gold Thwaites, Ed.

First edition: New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1904–1905. Two million words on the journey. The trade edition of 750 copies fills eight volumes. The 250-copy limited edition runs 15 volumes. Facsimile editions were issued in 1959 and 1969.

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Bird Woman (Sacagawea): The Guide of Lewis and Clark

James Willard Schultz

Bird Woman (Sacagawea): The Guide of Lewis and Clark

First edition: Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1918. One of the first books to burnish the Sacagawea legend. First editions are dated 1918 on the title page and state “Published May 1918” on the copyright page, with no additional printings listed. Issued in a dust jacket.

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The Journals of Lewis and Clark

Bernard DeVoto

The Journals of Lewis and Clark

First edition: Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953. A popular one-volume edition, edited and annotated by a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian.

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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Stephen Ambrose

Undaunted Courage

First edition: New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. The best book on the subject. First editions have a line of numbers on the copyright page ending in 1. Reissued in 1998 by the Easton Press in a three-volume signed deluxe edition.

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