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Elliot West, a well-know historian of the American West, speaks Tuesday morning in Missoula to a group of teachers from 16 states during a seminar he is heading on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Behold the lowly, exasperating, good-for-nothing mosquito. Western America should be thanking it.

“How did we get the Louisiana Purchase? Mosquitoes gave us the Louisiana Purchase. Mosquitoes gave us Montana,” Elliott West said Tuesday.

West had spent the better part of the preceding hour leading up to his half-serious conclusion in front of 26 rapt teachers from 16 states.

They’ll battle bugs on a field trip Wednesday to Lolo Pass and Travelers’ Rest State Park, but they spent Monday and Tuesday in a classroom in the Phyllis J. Washington Education Center on the University of Montana campus. It's where West, a name known far and wide by history buffs interested in the western U.S., is directing a weeklong seminar on Lewis and Clark for the second summer.

It's one of 40 put on this summer in the United States and England by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, headquartered on West 45th Street in New York City.

Until last year, there was no Lewis and Clark seminar on the Gilder Lehrman slate, a fact that was pointed out to Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs of Helena.

A well-known historian herself, Tubbs chairs the three-and-a-half-year-old Lewis and Clark Trust Inc., which has taken up the post-bicentennial challenge of preserving the story and completing the trail.

Tubbs said she got to know Dan Jordan during the bicentennial years when he served as director of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and “pretty much ran Monticello” in Virginia.

“He was a great adviser to the Lewis and Clark Trust, and Dan said, 'Why don’t you guys try to get a Lewis and Clark seminar going with Gilder Lehrman, because they didn’t have one out here.' They did nothing on Lewis and Clark,” Tubbs said. “So that started the ball rolling, and Elliott was game.”

From a American history teacher's perspective, it was a good get.

"It's just these kinds of learning opportunities for teachers, when you've got the pre-eminent scholars in the field, that recharge us and recharge our students' learning," said Karen Brennan, who teaches in Newton, Massachusetts, near Boston. "This is why we've come hundreds if not thousands of miles."

“For us to have this here in Montana ... is a huge benefit for the university, for the state and for the story of Lewis and Clark,” Tubbs said.

West defers to others, including Tubbs, when it comes to overall knowledge of Lewis and Clark.

An author and distinguished professor from the University of Arkansas, he has spent a career specializing in the social and environmental history of the American West.

“What I try to do is put the story in a larger context,” he said. “To me the expedition is most interesting because it’s a window into this nation and its early years, sort of moving into its early adolescence – the ambitions of its leaders, what we knew and didn’t know, the kinds of problems we faced, how we thought of other peoples.”

***

America was just finding its way in 1804 through 1806, he said, and it’s difficult for us to imagine what it was like before these days as a world superpower.

A masterful lecturer, West roamed the room as his topic spanned the globe in a program he called “Lewis and Park: Disease and Empire.”

That’s not a misprint. At the same time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led their expedition up the Missouri River, an accomplished Scottish explorer named Mungo Park plunged into the depths of Central Africa to explore the Niger River.

The coincidences are extraordinary. West read the account from William Clark’s journal of April 7, 1805, that was filled with buoyant optimism as the party departed from Fort Mandan. Then he read Park’s account as his similarly sized party left a small island off the west coast of Africa for the Niger. The spirit of the entries was expressed in almost the same words.

Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis in 1806 after losing just one man – Sgt. Charles Floyd, who succumbed to what’s believed to have been a ruptured appendix. No one survived the Park expedition, which West said was as well or better supplied and trained.

The difference? Park’s party of Europeans was in Africa when the rainy season hit in June and July, West said. A virulent strain of yellow fever started claiming the lives of his men. It was spread by mosquitoes and gnats and ravaged Europeans who’d not been exposed to them previously.

“It was the worst possible place on Earth they could go,” West said.

Park’s journals exist because he handed them off to a guide before he and the four remaining explorers with him set sail on the Niger in a last desperate attempt to survive. They perished when they jumped overboard during an attack by the native population.

West divided the world of European expansion into disease zones – green to the north and south of the tropics, representing “contact diseases” or those spread by direct contact; and yellow in the middle, where deadly diseases like malaria and yellow fever are spread.

It was the latter zone that saw the largest numbers of slaves from Africa come to the New World, specifically to the West Indies. The tobacco plantations of the American South received only 6 percent of the slave trade. The Caribbean became the hot spot for an even more valuable commodity – sugar, what West called “the 800-pound gorilla of international commerce.”

It’s also “absolutely brutal” to produce, West said.

***

In the years before the Lewis and Clark expedition, Napoleon Bonaparte and the French were repelled by a slave rebellion in Hispaniola, the largest sugar-producing island and one we know now as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It happened again, West said, when European troops encountered the dreaded yellow fever.

In 1803, as Meriwether Lewis was making preparations for the trip west, Napoleon made a surprise offer to the United States. Instead of just New Orleans, he would sell all of Louisiana, the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, for a mere $15 million.

Yes, West said, he did it because he needed the money for a war against Spain. But he also did it because his dreams of re-establishing French prominence in the Americas had been dashed when he lost his foothold in the Caribbean.

For Napoleon, “the key to the New World was not Louisiana. It was Haiti. Louisiana was secondary,” West said.

Comparing the success of Lewis and Clark to the failure of Park combs out a couple of things.

“First of all, they were really lucky," West said. "And they also had all kinds of things going for them. They weren’t really dealing with what Park was” in tropical, disease-ridden central Africa, which was never imperialized by Europeans for that reason.

The same Europeans brought with them to the “green zone” of the United States contact diseases such as smallpox that devastated entire native populations, but which they themselves were largely immune to.

So Americans heading west “were entering the best of all possible worlds of conquest,” West said. “You had all of the advantages of contact diseases destroying the people ahead of you, and none of the threats and the dangers of vector diseases killing your people outright.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian