When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their westward trek, they were tasked by President Thomas Jefferson to do several things, including recording a list of words in Native American languages.
“One of them – elephant,” University of Arkansas distinguished professor of history Elliott West said during a lecture on the explorers Tuesday.
It wasn’t the only odd task Jefferson gave them, said West, who’s the instructor during this week’s Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History seminar “Lewis and Clark: An American Epic.”
Jefferson’s requests are only one of the aspects of Lewis and Clark’s expedition that 29 teachers are delving into as part of the seminar.
Participating teachers hailing from roughly 20 different states had to apply to be accepted to the program, which for the first time is being held on the University of Montana campus. Teachers arrived at their UM dormitory digs Sunday and will stay in town through Friday.
On Wednesday, field trips to places of significance, such as Travelers’ Rest State Park, are planned, and each day is full of lectures and discussion sessions. Teachers also must complete lesson plans and other tools that they later will be able to use in their classrooms.
The goal of the Lewis and Clark seminar, as well as at 39 others on various topics taking place worldwide, is to inspire and reinvigorate teachers with in-depth information about historical topics, said Fred Raphael, who is coordinating the Montana session.
“And then to bring their knowledge and their passion back to their classrooms,” Raphael said.
Despite the significance of Lewis and Clark’s work, the tale is not always done justice in classrooms, he said.
“It’s often being skimmed over,” he said.
The Corps of Discovery expedition took place during a time of rapid change, Raphael said.
“It was sort of this race between the American and European powers to get out here,” he said.
While Jefferson wanted to establish trade and had a burning curiosity, he also had a keen desire to show that the U.S. was at the forefront of civilization and development, West said.
One historian from France – the center of the Enlightenment – questioned if America’s discovery was a good thing, citing the treatment of slaves and Indians.
“Was the discovery of America a blessing or a curse to humankind,” Abbe Guillaume Raynal questioned.
“It’s a very kind of modern take on this,” West said, adding it was a position with which Jefferson disagreed.
Jefferson also disagreed with another French scientist, Comte de Buffon, who said that America was literally a newer world than Europe – one of the reasons being that the animals in the U.S. weren’t as large as, say, an elephant.
Because the U.S. was newer, its life-forms weren’t as sophisticated as elsewhere, Buffon reasoned.
“This drove Jefferson crazy,” West said.
Jefferson, himself a pupil of the Enlightenment, disagreed vehemently and went so far as to have a large moose shot, stuffed and shipped to Buffon.
Mastodons existed in America at one point, so perhaps a relative, such as an elephant, was still in existence, Jefferson reasoned for Lewis and Clark’s task to record Native American words for elephant.
“It’s curiosity of course, but it’s also, ‘In your face, Buffon,’ ” West said.