May 11, 2017

A Continuing Journey: The Conservation of Published Accounts of the Journals of the Corps of Discovery

Molly Kruckenberg
Research Center Director


William Clark, Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery’s successful return to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, was far from the end of the story of the Corps.  Tasked with keeping a written record of their journey, Lewis and Clark as well as several other members of the expedition kept daily journals of their activities.  Sergeants John Ordway and Patrick Gass as well as Private Robert Frazer were among those that also kept a record of the journey. [i] After the return of the Corps there began a brief battle over who would publish the first account of the expedition.

Although rumors of a publication of Private Frazer’s journal surfaced and Lewis did his best to discredit publications not by he and Clark[ii], Patrick Gass’ journal was the first one published.  Shortly after returning from the Expedition, Gass had sold his journal and publication rights to David McKeehan, a Pittsburgh, PA, bookseller.  After much editing and transcription, McKeehan published the journal in 1807, under the title Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corp of Discovery and followed with an additional printing in 1808.  Two years later, Mathew Carey of Philadelphia, acquired the copyright to Gass’ journal and published more editions in 1810, 1811, and 1812.


It wasn’t until 1814, five years after Lewis’ death, and through the work of Philadelphian Nicholas Biddle, that Clark was able to see an edition of the official journals published.  Clark had worked closely with Private George Shannon to assist Biddle in the production of History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark.[iii]  Published by Bradford and Inskeep, also of Philadelphia, the two-volume set was primarily a narrative account of the expedition and did not include any details of the scientific discoveries recorded by Lewis and Clark.[iv]

The MHS Research Center is fortunate to hold several early publications of the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, including an 1810 edition of the Gass journal and the 1814 Biddle edition of Lewis and Clark’s journals.  While the Gass journal is a recent donation, the Biddle edition has been in the care of the Research Center for more than a century. 

Kept in our secure and environmentally-controlled storage facilities, these volumes are a significant part of our rare book collection.  Given their age of more than two centuries, though, the books were beginning to show some gentle wear and tear.  Last year the Research Center undertook a project to see that these volumes were properly conserved so that they would be available for use and study for the next two hundred years.


The professional conservators at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts received the books in the fall of 2016 and conducted an initial review of their condition.  Each of the three volumes contained several issues, from patches and scuffs on the leather covers, to dirt, discoloration and water stains.  Conservators cleaned the pages, repaired bindings, reinforced sewing, mended tears and created custom storage boxes for each volume.  The images here illustrate the before and after condition of the title pages for two of the volumes.  The completion of this work stabilizes the volumes making them ready for study by the next generation of Montana history scholars.

The Research Center works continually to balance our joint missions of conservation and preservation of collections with public access to the materials that tell Montana’s history.  Through the conservation of the 1810 edition of Patrick Gass’ journal and the 1814 Biddle edition of Lewis and Clark’s journals, we are continuing our work to ensure Montana’s history is available for research far into the future.




[i] Private Joseph Whitehouse also kept a journal and Sergeant Charles Floyd kept a journal until his untimely death August 20, 1803.
[ii] Meriwether Lewis published a notice in the National Intelligencer (Washington D.C.) on March 18, 1807 warning the public not to purchase any publication about the Expedition not authored by himself.
[iii] The complete title is History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri, Thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.
[iv] Aarstad, Rich and Jennie Stapp. “Travel and Exploration Narratives in the Montana Historical Society Collection.”  Montana the Magazine of Western History (Vol. 55 No. 3), p63-65.


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