Last weekend, I watched the PBS documentary Lewis and Clark: Journey of the Corps of Discovery - thanks to the superb DVD collection at the local public library. Its the fascinating story of the land exploration of the continent aimed at exploring the United States (1804-1806) to the Pacific coast and back, - the expedition led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark, of the US Army. In 1803, then President Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase from the French, more than doubling the size of the USA. Approximately 529,911,681 acres (827,987 mi² or 2,144,476 km²) of land traded hands at a cost of about $15M - barely 3 cents per acre - approximately equivalent of $390 billion in 2003!
A few weeks after the purchase, United States President Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of western expansion, had the U.S. Congress appropriate $2500, "to send intelligent officers with ten or twelve men, to explore even to the western ocean". They were to study the Indian tribes, botany, geology, Western Terrain and wildlife in the region, as well as evaluate the potential interference of British and French-Canadian hunters and trappers who were already well established in the area. [Source: Wikipedia]The documentary details the route taken by the expedition, the Indian tribes they encountered, the route they took - and brings it to life with some stunning visual imagery of the great plains, the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. The move through the plains and their interaction with the Indian tribes - the Sioux, the Shoshones, the Hidatsas, the Blackfeet and a host of others (some extremely helpful and accepting of the white man's arrival at their lands) brings to mind Dances with Wolves - Kevin Costner's superb epic about a US Cavalry officer's interaction with the Lakota Indians. American economic expansion into the west was positively the begining of the end for the Indians, and was heralded in by the Lewis and Clark expedition. And yet the mapping of the continent while rowing up the Missouri and trekking over the continental divide was certainly one of the greatest human endeavors of all time. The Shoshone woman Sacagawea who joined Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery has her face on the new US 1$ coin - to replace the old Susan B. Anthony dollar. Her reunion with her brother during negotiations with the Shoshone tribe seems to be right out of a Hollywood or Bollywood movie, but it seems like the Lewis and Clark expedition was certainly blessed with some great luck.
The way the Corps of Discovery explored the continent and named the terrain (rivers, creeks, waterfalls, their camp locations etc.) reminds me of the Swiss Family Robinson. I also think the expedition's journey bores a close resemblance to the Fellowship of the Ring from Tolkien's book. The journey that starts out through known terrain and meeting friendly people, soon goes awry and off-track as they head through the pass of Carathras (i.e. the Rocky Mountains in case of Lewis and Clark). The long arduous journey to their destination, but relatively swift and easy journey on the way back certainly has its parallels. I would not be surprised if Tolkien was not inspired by the story of Lewis and Clark when he wrote his magnficient book. The PBS documentary is an excellent way of seeing history unfold. One thought that kept coming back to my mind was a regret to have not seen Indian history in the same way. The Indian freedom struggle would be great to see as a documentary series like the PBS collections. Unfortunately, the only most vivid images of the story of Indian independence were frmo Attenborough's award winingin movie Gandhi. Sure there have been movies made about various episodes (including the recent lousy one on Mangal Pandey). But they have been generally tainted by the need to make a commercially successful film. Public television in India is generally absent, and apart from Doordarshan's Bharat Ek Khoj - i do not recall anything that came even remotely close. Perhaps one day, if I have enough time and money - I will try such an endeavor myself.