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The tribes reacted differently to their changed positions in the new order. The Nez Perce, who had considered killing Lewis and Clark when they first spotted them limping out of the mountains in what is now Idaho, welcomed them like lost brothers on their return trip, offering idealistic pledges of permanent friendship with the U.S., whose citizens would later repay the gesture by forcing the tribe from its hunting and grazing grounds and corralling its weakened remnants on reservations. The Blackfeet had a touchier response, perhaps because their unrivaled dominance on the northern plains was threatened by the Americans' plans to begin trading with the neighboring tribes. One morning, while camping in what is now Montana, Lewis awoke to a struggle between an underling and an Indian who was trying to steal a rifle. Moments later, one Blackfoot brave lay fatally stabbed, and another was bleeding from the gut, cut down by a bullet from Lewis' gun.
Aside from the captains' early floggings of disobedient underlings, this was the party's only violent act. More remarkable, perhaps, is how much violence the explorers avoided, despite their varied ethnic and racial backgrounds and the ceaseless frustrations of the trip. It's an inspiring thought--the melting pot on the march--but like most simple images of the famous journey, it doesn't tell the full story, or even half of it. For every uplifting aspect of the tale, there's a difficult, melancholy sidelight, which may well be the secret of its abiding power.
After 8,000 miles and 28 months of travel from their start near St. Louis, the corps returned to a hero's welcome as joyful as it was short-lived. Jefferson, according to historians, soon grew disappointed in the enterprise. It had failed to substantiate his western dreams of a well-watered garden convenient to the Pacific where generations of self-sufficient farmers would live in democratic bliss, free from old, corrosive political controversies such as slavery. As for peace with the Indians, and among the Indians, well, those medals certainly were handsome. And then there was Lewis, of course, the chronic depressive who may have reached his spiritual high point somewhere back along the wild Missouri. In 1809, while on his way to Washington to defend his expense report to a bureaucrat in the War Department, he lay down in a Tennessee inn and shot himself.
Some people are better at leaving than at returning.
But who knew? Not Lewis, not Jefferson, not the Indians. In July 2002 we don't know either. Particularly since the events of last September, we sense that there's something enormous and strange ahead of us--in the darkness, over the mountains, through the trees--but we have no idea what it is or how far off. To find it, face it and live to write the story, we'll have to be resourceful, lucky, patient, flexible and observant, much as Lewis and Clark were. We'll have to row into the current of our ignorance, one stroke at a time.
--With reporting by Deirdre van Dyk/New York