Lewis and Clark Were Just a Couple of Guys Copying French Notes...#SorryNotSorry
Updated: Jun 28, 2020
Okay, fellow Americans: how many of you learned about the epic exploration story of Lewis and Clark in history class? Probably most of you, if you were even paying attention.
From what you remember (or after a quick Google search), you’d find the story of Meriweather Lewis and William Clark and how they were recruited by President Thomas Jefferson to find a passage to the Pacific. This is where the story we know comes in when Lewis and Clark begin their adventure, later joined by Sacagawea, a young Native American woman who became their guide: their one and only guide...right?
Not quite. As with most American history, there’s always the fine print that doesn’t make the final cut into our history textbooks.
According to historian Denis Vaugeois, there’s a French-Canadian contribution to the famous expedition that was left out of the historical account.
Vaugeois wrote an article titled, “The French Canadian Contribution to the Lewis and Clark Expedition: Taking the Measure of a Continent,” that recounts the names of the forgotten French-Canadians that aided Lewis and Clark in their quest prior to meeting Sacagawea.
So first off, you’re probably wondering how French-Canadians, our neighbors of the great north, trekked down to the then not-so-habitable United States without dying of dysentery.
Well, it goes a little something like this:
“At the beginning of the 18th Century, North America was essentially under French control. Over the centuries, hundreds of voyageurs, trappers, and explorers from New France crisscrossed North America to trade furs, conduct official missions or seek adventure,” Vaugeois said in his article.
The French-Canadian explorers and settlers were described by travelers as being “everywhere,” even in the middle of nowhere, back when most of America was already the middle of nowhere.
At that time, these French were known as “Canadiens” and were farmers, laborers, or traveled around and swapped sweet beaver pelts in the fur trade.
From 1803-04, Lewis and Clark prepared for their expedition by studying maps with a basic outline of the area west of the Mississippi River that they would be checking out for the first time, where those travel-savvy French-Canadians had already settled.
The photo above is a depiction of a Canadien fur trapper, circa the early 1800s.
They were kind of busy after the British "conquest" of 1763 when they hopped from the east side of the Mississippi to the west, and then they went ahead and founded a few places in the state of Missouri: Cape Girardeau, Sainte Genevieve, and Saint Louis.
But back to Lewis and Clark. They recruited Georges Drouillard, a Métis born of a French-Canadian father, as a guide. Drouillard had already done his own share of exploring, so he knew what challenges they might face. He convinced them to expand the team, which only consisted of some soldiers and Clark’s black slave, York.
The Flag of St. Louis is super French. Why? Lewis and Clark? Nope.
It was decided that one keelboat and two pirogues (basically a canoe) would be used. Drouillard brought eight French-Canadian boatmen for one pirogue: Charles Hébert, Jean-Baptiste Lajeunesse, LaLiberté, Étienne Malboeuf, Pierre Pinaut, Paul Primeau, François Rivet, and Pierre Roy, under their leader, Baptiste Deschamps.
Two Métis men, Pierre Cruzatte and François Labiche, also joined and manned the keelboat. The men were acquainted with the Missouri River, so they served as navigators at the keelboat’s helm.
They also liked to show off to the Native Americans with their shiny new toys: Cruzzatte was fond of bragging about his large air rifle while Labiche pulled a “check out my mixtape” by playing the fiddle.
With several Frenchmen around them at all times, Lewis and Clark had trouble with documenting the trip due to language barriers. They also brutally misspelled their companions’ names. Remember Georges Drouillard? Lewis and Clark had recorded his name in their journals as “Drewyer,” “Drullier,” and “Drulyard.”
The author of the original article, Vaugeois, believes the misspellings and cultural barriers may have kept these French-Canadians out of the official story:
“This was the norm for all the Francophones, to the point where on first reading the journals of Lewis and Clark and their officers, it is easy enough to overlook their existence, let alone the scope of their contribution,” he stated.
So because Lewis and Clark didn’t accurately document these men’s names, this may have kept them out of American history. Cool thanks, guys.
Continuing the journey, in La Charrette, they met a trader named Régis Loisel, who lent more traveling advice to the group. While still trekking up the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark met more French-Canadians. In particular, three men: Pierre Dorion, Joseph Gravelines, and Jean Vallée who would also lend their knowledge to the expedition.
Now at this point, Lewis and Clark were really struggling with these French names. They needed an interpreter, so in Fort Mandan, they hired a French-Canadian man, Toussaint Charbonneau, because the French really were all over those parts.
Charbonneau had a rather intimate connection to the other interpreter and guide to Lewis and Clark, a young Shoshone woman we all know from the official history story: Sacagawea.
This is deep, but let’s go a little deeper: you’ve probably seen the image imprinted on the American dollar coin of Sacagawea and her baby. That's her son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, who actually became somewhat of a celebrity back in his day for being the baby who traveled with the expedition to the Pacific and back.
Whew, that was a lot. Let’s recap: we all learned about Lewis and Clark and their guide, Sacagawea, but could you have ever imagined that there was so much more to the story?
To leave the French-Canadian men who acted as crucial guides, interpreters, and navigators completely out of history destroys the credit they deserve for contributing to the legendary expedition. And not just to those specific men, but to the many other French-Canadians who had settled in those remote locations and founded cities that we still know of today.
So the French-Canadians of that day weren’t just roaming around New France but were exploring the unknown areas of America before the actual Americans decided to check it out.