LEWIS & CLARK INC.
By Mike Francis
Paintings by Michael Haynes
A crisp and eloquent mission statement, much capital ventured, terrific return on investment, creative entrepreneurial dash, genius personnel management...were Clark and Lewis the first great American corporate chieftains?
We dont know much about Meriwether Lewis sense of fashion, nor his eye for color, nor his preference for sleeve shape, but we know this: He had the supply chain business down cold.
Forty-eight Calico Ruffled Shirts, it says, right after 130 Rolls of Tobacco (pigtail) and just before 15 Blankets. The shirts are one of 51 items, most listed with detailed weights, units, and cost, in the Indian Presents category of the manifest for Lewis & Clarks Corps of Discovery. Those shirts cost the Government of the United States $71.04, and on the Indian Presents list this was the big ticket item.
Forty-eight shirts dont weigh all that much; you could easily carry them from one room to the next. But if you want to carry them over mountains, through forests, and down rapids, you have to think carefully about the importance of shirts. The shirts dont weigh much compared to, say, the 73 bunches of beads, 11 dozen knives, or two corn mills the Corps also carried. But the shirts will keep indefinitely. They might buy good will through 48 encounters with the Indians. And they could be used for the Corps if necessary. Should we take more than 48? If we did, would we need another horse? How many horses will they buy? How many blankets?
A challenge, indeed, answering such questions, knowing you were answering for yourself, your friends, your hired men, your pack animals, all the people you may encounter in the wilderness, and the president who entrusted you with the mission as important a business enterprise, perhaps, as any in American history.
If cost is a guide, then Lewis & Clarks Corps of Discovery placed a premium on forging good relations with the native peoples. Indian presents was budgeted at $696 a figure Lewis managed to undercut by about $26 when he made his purchases and it was by far the highest expense of the expedition. In Lewis 1803 estimate of expenses, the Indian Presents category amounted to about 28 percent of the entire cost of the expedition.
The term Indian Presents is a bit misleading. A better label for the category might have been Trade Currency, for Indian presents served more purposes than to simply show kindness from the President of the United States. A key purpose of the gifts was to barter for things the Lewis & Clark expedition would need along the trail. Lewis knew he would need horses, food, clothing, canoes, advice, and, especially, good will. He was more likely to get them by trading items of value than he was by simply asking for them.
The late historian Stephen Ambrose noted also that the gifts were intended to impress the Indians. By carrying along a storehouse of beads, colored powders, pocket mirrors, handkerchiefs, shirts, and corn mills, Lewis intended to dazzle the native peoples with the state of white civilization and technology. The gifts would help to deliver the message that the white Americans were wealthy, accomplished, and generous to their friends.
And Indian Presents was just one category in Lewiss lengthy list of provisions. Sections of his budget and inventory were devoted to camp supplies, mathematical instruments, medicine, pay for guides, contingencies, and other things.
What we would now call his Defense Budget, but which Lewis called Arms & Accoutrements extraordinary, was a paltry $81. But maybe that was a matter of weight: 176 pounds of gunpowder in 52 leaden canisters was the equivalent of two or three large people.
This was something to think about. You could carry a lot of lockets, thimbles, and pocket mirrors in the space it would take to haul rifles, knives, gun slings, and whatnot. But their lives were more likely to depend on dry powder than they were on rings, scissors, or calico shirts.
Yet there was a reason Lewis prized calico shirts, pocket mirrors, and other such items so highly. As management guru Peter Drucker has written, Resources, to produce results, must be allocated to opportunities, rather than problems. In other words, good planning avoids defensive thinking. It seeks to maximize opportunities. And the opportunities facing the Lewis & Clark expedition were far more significant than the potential threats arrayed against it.
That Lewis planned so thoroughly and budgeted so precisely reflects the commission he was given by his friend Thomas Jefferson. For a man who had just consummated the biggest land purchase in history, Jefferson knew remarkably little about what he had acquired for America. Neither he nor his trading partner, Napoleon, could say precisely where the western edge of the Louisiana Territory could be drawn, nor much about what it looked like beyond what we would now call the Middle West. (Spain had some strong opinions on the boundaries of the territory, but Jefferson wasnt terribly concerned about those.)
Jefferson compensated for his uncertainties by providing Lewis with written instructions that are a model of clarity. He labored over them for months, settling finally on 21 paragraphs of crisp prose that somehow managed to cover most eventualities that Lewis might have faced. Those instructions remain, today, a template for good communication between a chief executive and a trusted manager.
After a few preliminaries, Jefferson gives Lewis his mission statement, which could not have been improved upon: The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course & communications with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.
Let us think about that. Lewiss primary task was to find a watery passage to the Pacific Ocean, and he failed to do it. Yet his mission was a success, partly because Jefferson was so clear about all the other things he hoped the Corps of Discovery might achieve. Condensed and paraphrased, they were:
.... Make maps of what you find, especially the waterways.
.... Learn about the native peoples:
their names, numbers, possessions, languages, occupations, relations with other tribes, health, clothing, laws, customs, moral and physical characteristics, the ways they wage war and defend themselves, and articles of commerce they desire to buy or sell.
.... Note the soil’s potential to grow crops.
.... Note the animals you find.
.... Note any potential mineral production.
.... Watch for volcanic activity.
.... Observe the climate, the seasons, and their effect upon the plants and animals.
Then Jefferson listed a series of advisories, intended to cover the unforeseen. Teach the natives about us, he told Lewis. Treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit. Invite them to visit us in Washington.
Further, Jefferson advised Lewis that he prized the lives of the members of the Corps of Discovery above the goals of the expedition. Your numbers, he wrote, will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorised opposition of individuals, or of small parties; but if a superior force, authorized or not authorised, by a nation, should be arrayed against your further passage, & inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline its further pursuit, and return.
And most of the rest of the letter concerned itself with helping Lewis find his way home by ship from the western coast, and to pay members of the expedition. It also authorized him to choose a second-in-command. Lewis chose William Clark. Armed with Jeffersons instructions, and equipped with the items that they both deemed most necessary, Lewis had the authority to carry out his mission and the latitude to improvise within specified limits. A manager could ask for nothing more.
Its worth taking a moment to contrast Lewiss skills as a planner and project manager with those of others in comparable situations. Lewis, as we know, led a remarkable collection of people all the way across the mostly undiscovered western half of the continent and back. He represented a new nation to the native tribes, he recorded diverse species of plants and animals, and he mapped new paths to the Pacific Ocean. Even though Lewiss life and career fell apart after he returned, his Corps of Discovery mission was an unalloyed success.
His success contrasts notably with the failures of some others who were charged with equally high profile missions. For example, the Burke-Wills expedition of 1860-61 more than 50 years after the Corps of Discovery was charged with exploring finding a route across inland Australia from Melbourne to the northern coast. It was blessed with every advantage the provincial government could confer, from camels laden with gear, Indian sepoy guides, and literally tons of food and equipment. It was led by a carefully selected leader and encouraged by a vast public sendoff. Further, Burke and Wills werent expected to face potentially hostile adversaries, nor were they commissioned to act as ambassadors to people of other races.
Yet the Australian mission remains one of the most celebrated disasters in exploring history. Explorers were fired, hired, refired; routes were ill-considered; supplies were dreadfully mismanaged. Almost everybody on the trek died. It was such a catastrophic failure that it failed to achieve the nobility of other famed-but-failed voyages, such as Ernest Shackletons doomed journey to the South Pole, or Captain Blighs modest mission to bring breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean.
All the more remarkable, in this context of human exploration, that Meriwether Lewis, knowing so little about where he was going and what he would find, planned and managed his expedition so capably.
The calico shirts, as well as the flannel shirts that Lewis & Clark brought for members of their own expedition, were worth their weight in gunpowder. References to the commerce between the expedition and the natives is scattered throughout the journals kept by members of the group. Among them was Sergeant John Ordway, writing here about an encounter with Shoshones in August 1805 near present-day Dillon, Montana: Our officers Captains Lewis & Clark told the head chief of them that they wanted to by their horses to take our baggage over the mountains. the Chief said they would let us have the use of their horses & promised to assist us over as much as lay in their power. So they gave them out considerable of different kinds of marchandize. gave the chief a meddel made another chief & gave him a meddel also. gave the head chief a uniform coat & Shirt & arm bands & C. & C.
Shirts, we note, were a useful currency. The next day, August 18, another member of the expedition traded an old shirt, a pair of leggings, and a knife for an Indian horse. In Oregon, the Clatsop chief Coboway spoke of Lewis & Clark as pah-shish-e-ooks the cloth men. He recognized them for what they were: traders bringing cloth, beads, and other items to trade with native people. Coboway spent three months during the winter of 1805-06 treating with the expedition; he, no doubt, acquired a Lewis and Clark shirt.
He also acquired a grudge. Unfortunately, by the time Lewis & Clark reached the Pacific, they were discouraged by their isolation, their dwindling supplies and the unwelcoming Oregon winter. They committed their gravest ethical breach of the journey against Coboway and his people, stealing a canoe that the Indians would not sell them at a price they thought was fair. Even the most tolerant historians acknowledge the shabbiness of this episode. James Ronda describes it as a case of desperation and cultural arrogance, as the Americans cloaked the theft as retribution for the loss of some elk to the Indians earlier in the winter. Expediency meant more than civility, he wrote. While it doesnt amount to a full-blown scandal, the Clatsop canoe caper was the least honorable trade of the Americans long, hard journey; their one corporate scandal, as it were.
Yet Lewiss skill as a planner and provisioner was remarkable. Although the Corps finally did run out of Indian presents, leading the men to cut the brass buttons from their coats to give as gifts near the journeys end, they never ran out of true essentials. The expedition ran short of, but never out of, many critical items, noted Ambrose. But when it got home, the expedition had sufficient powder and lead to repeat the journey, and plenty of rifles.
Meriwether Lewis had chosen his stores wisely. And by the success of his mission the incredible adventure that brought his Corps back and forth across thousands of miles of uncharted country it is clear that Thomas Jefferson chose wisely, too.
Mike Francis, long a deft business columnist and editor for The Oregonian, is cofounder of Swan Island Networks, a Portland software company. Michael Haynes is a Missouri painter who specializes in history; his lovely work here first appeared in Tailor Made, Trail Worn (Farcountry Press), a book about the clothing, arms, and life of the Corps of Discovery.
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