By the late 19th century, Lewis and Clark were negligible figures. They weren't found in textbooks, according to the University of Tulsa's James Ronda, a leading scholar of the expedition. Americans didn't hearken back to the adventure. It was so unimportant that Henry Adams could dismiss it in no time flat in his history of the Jefferson administration as having "added little to the stock of science and wealth."
The first Lewis and Clark revival occurred at the turn of the 20th century, when the journals were published again after an 80-year hiatus. Americans were remembering the trip only after the West had been settled, the Indians had been wiped out, and the frontier closed. During the years that the empire was actually being built, at the time of settlement and conquest, Americans hadn't cared at all about Lewis and Clark.
After World War I, says Ronda, the expedition was ignored again. University of Texas historian William Goetzmann says that when he was writing his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American Westin the mid-'60s, he wasn't even going to include Lewis and Clark, but "my publisher talked me into it."
But by the late '60s, Americans had rediscovered Lewis and Clark, and their fervor has not flagged since. The creation of the 3,700-mile Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in 1978 made the story accessible in a way that history rarely is. Millions of people have followed Lewis and Clark's footsteps and oar-swings since the trail opened. Ambrose's book attracted tens of thousands of new fans to the tale. The expedition's various appeal—ecological, patriotic, diverse, literary, thrill-seeking—gives it traction. More and more Americans read directly from the captains' journals, whose blunt, direct, and oddly beautiful language makes the story live. And the United States, as Ronda notes, is a country that loves road stories, and there is none more vivid or exciting than Lewis and Clark's.
But our fascination with Lewis and Clark is much more about us than about them. The expedition is a useful American mythology: How a pair of hardy souls and their happy-go-lucky multiculti flotilla discovered Eden, befriended the Indian, and invented the American West. The myth of Lewis and Clark papers over the grittier story of how the United States conquered the land, tribe by slaughtered, betrayed tribe.
Lewis and Clark didn't give Americans any of the tools they required to settle the continent—not new technology, not a popular narrative, not a good route, not arable land. It didn't matter. Nineteenth-century pioneers were bound to take the great West, with or without Lewis and Clark. Their own greed, ambition, bravery, and desperation guaranteed it. They did not need Lewis and Clark to conquer and build the West. But we do need Lewis and Clark to justify having done it.