FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
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LOST LEWIS AND CLARK
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A HAZARDOUS WORLD
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Vision is published annually by The University of Montana Office of the Vice President for Research and Development and University Relations. It is printed by UM Printing & Graphic Services.
PUBLISHER: Daniel J. Dwyer. MANAGING EDITOR AND GRAPHIC DESIGNER: Cary Shimek. PHOTOGRAPHER: Todd Goodrich. CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Brianne Burrowes, Brenda Day, Judy Fredenberg, Joan Melcher, Rita Munzenrider, Patia Stephens and Alex Strickland. WEB DESIGN: Patia Stephens. EDITORIAL OFFICE: University Relations, Brantly Hall 330, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-5914. MANAGEMENT: Judy Fredenberg, Office of the Vice President for Research and Development, 116 Main Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-6670.
Lost Lewis and Clark
Professor Rediscovers Forgotten Expedition
By Alex Strickland
The crowd of amateur and professional experts in the field of western exploration never knew what hit them.
“I remember glancing up and seeing 300 mouths open all at one time,” Dan Flores says. “No one in the audience had ever heard of this.”
Flores, a UM history professor, was talking to a St. Louis gathering of Lewis and Clark buffs about the Freeman and Custis expedition of 1806, the southern counterpart to the Corps of Discovery.
If you’ve never heard of them, join the club.
Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis were charged with exploring the Red River, which runs through Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma. Better funded than Meriwether Lewis’ crew, Freeman and Custis were instructed by President Thomas Jefferson to ascend the Red to its headwaters, which were believed to be in the mountains near Santa Fe, N.M.
But despite being bigger, richer and more organized than Lewis and Clark, history forgot Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis for one simple reason: They failed.
Flores says “Loo-zy-anna” in such a way that it’s immediately clear he’s from there. The Red River has meandered through Flores’ life and work the same way it snaked through his hometown of Natchitoches. During his graduate student days at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Flores was looking for a thesis topic and talking with an archivist about his interest in Lewis and Clark and the fur trade that characterized the history of the American West in the early 19th century.
“She said, ‘You might be the person I should show this to,’” Flores says of his fateful encounter.
What she showed him was a microfilm of the original Freeman and Custis report, a document with only 11 copies in existence.
“That’s what launched me on this project,” Flores says. “It’s history as high adventure, really.”
By the time Freeman and Custis launched up the Red River in April 1806, their expedition was years behind schedule. Jefferson had planned for the exploration of the Red to coincide with Lewis and Clark’s trip on the Missouri, but Jefferson had only one Meriwether Lewis — a man he had personally trained for years to be a mix of scientist and woodsman.
Jefferson was still looking for a leader for the southern excursion in 1805 with little success until a letter arrived from Philadelphia surveyor Thomas Freeman, who had been encouraged by an associate of Lewis to apply. Following a private White House dinner with Jefferson, he was chosen to lead the southwestern probe, which Jefferson called the “Grand Expedition.” He and Jefferson then went to work to find a trained naturalist or botanist who would be up to such a trip, a post Jefferson regretted he could not have filled on the Lewis and Clark journey. Freeman and leading botanist Benjamin Smith Barton picked Peter Custis, a young medical student with a broad education in natural history but no field experience. Of Custis, Jefferson nervously confided, “[I] hope we have procured a good botanist.”
Through his work Flores encountered a chapter of history that had been so thoroughly passed over that there wasn’t even a mention of it in William Goetzmann’s “Exploration and Empire,” the seminal book on the exploration of the American West.
“The way we do history is that we have a selective memory and remember things that reflect well on us,” Flores says. “Everyone was interested in forgetting about this and concentrating on the success of Lewis and Clark.”
When Flores spoke about Freeman and Custis at the National Park Service’s convention in St. Louis to kick off the Corps of Discovery bicentennial, he followed a presentation by a Hispanic Southwest Borderlands scholar.
“One of the things he said to the crowd was, ‘My people tried to stop Lewis and Clark numerous times, and I still dream that they could have done so,’” Flores recalled. “I got up and said that I could make his dream come true. He was as clueless about (Freeman and Custis) as the rest of the audience.”
The University of Oklahoma Press signed Flores to a contract to produce the journals of the Freeman and Custis expedition. The journals, along with Flores’ comprehensive introduction and epilogue, were published in 1984 in a volume titled “Jefferson and Southwestern Exploration.” The same account with about 80 pages of expanded material was reprinted in 2004 at the start of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration under the new title “Southern Counterpart to Lewis and Clark.”
“In the ’80s it was more important to have ‘Jefferson’ in the title,” Flores says. “In 2004 it was more important to have ‘Lewis and Clark.’”
Freeman, Custis and 22 men left Fort Adams on the Mississippi for the mouth of the Red on April 19, 1806, with two flat-bottomed barges and a pirogue. At an American outpost upriver, they would add five boats and 32 troops, guides and interpreters, making them the largest exploring party of the age and the only one led by civilians.
Unlike Lewis and Clark, who were heading into an area that no world power had any significant claim to, the Red River expedition ventured into a landscape that had been populated by the Spanish — and to a lesser extent, the French — for hundreds of years. The southern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase was fuzzy, but in international circles Jefferson had advanced the Rio Grande River as the boundary, a claim the Spanish government regarded as “absurd reasoning.” Flores says the president was trying to establish an American presence on the Red River because it could work as a compromise boundary.
What Freeman, Custis and Jefferson didn’t know was that this border dispute was being stoked from behind the scenes by James Wilkinson, the commanding general of the U.S. Army and “Secret Agent 13” on payroll from the king of Spain. Many historians think Wilkinson, in conjunction with former Vice President Aaron Burr — for whom the conspiracy would be named — were trying to foment a war so that they could conduct a land-grab of their own while two major powers fought a battle for control of the Southwest. The plan was to form a separate nation with Burr at its head. Ultimately, Wilkinson — one of history’s great scoundrels — decided the plan was doomed to fail and informed Jefferson of Burr’s schemes.
The expedition made good time up the Red River despite obstacles such as the “Great Raft,” a 200-mile-long logjam that was so dense it could dam up tributaries.
From Freeman’s journal: “Thus after 14 days of incessant fatigue, toil and danger, doubt and uncertainty, we at length gained the river above the Great Raft, contrary to the decided opinion of every person who had knowledge of the difficulties we had to encounter.”
Above the raft the men encountered Creek Indians from the Coashutta village upstream. To get to this point, near the present Arkansas border, Custis estimated the party had traveled through “almost impenetrable swamps and lakes for more than 100 miles.” But he was sufficiently impressed by the river valley above the raft to declare in the same journal entry that “were the rafts removed so as to admit navigation to this country in a very short time it would become the Paradise of America.”
The expedition continued up the Red until the end of July, dining on 70-pound catfish and recording many flora and fauna previously unknown to science. But on July 28, 615 miles up the Red River, they were abruptly — and unceremoniously — stopped.
One hundred and fifty mounted Spanish soldiers and another 50 infantry were waiting for the expedition at a bluff along the river, to this day marked on maps as Spanish Bluff. As with the Lewis and Clark expedition, Jefferson had explicitly instructed Freeman that if met by a superior force he should evaluate the situation, but returning with what they had was preferable to not returning at all. The next day the expedition was headed back down the Red.
The stoppage of the president’s own exploring party by a foreign power was met with outrage, leading to a military confrontation on the Texas border between American and Spanish troops a few weeks later. The Neutral Ground Agreement between Spain and the United States defused the situation.
A month after Freeman and Custis returned with heads hung low, news of Meriwether Lewis’ triumphant return reached Washington, and the Red River debacle was quickly forgotten. In fact, a national newspaper (the National Intelligencer — run by the administration) published a front-page story summarizing the events in the Southwest with Spain and the Burr conspiracy. Freeman and Custis were not mentioned.
“There was no one like William Clark, since Freeman died and Custis became a country doctor,” says Flores.
Clark was a famous man in his time because of his work in the western territories, and his fame helped increase that of the Corps of Discovery. The men of the Freeman and Custis expedition faded into obscurity.
“It’s one of the best disappearing acts in history I have ever seen,” Flores says. “It was kind of a perfect storm to obscure this expedition.”
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