An Archival Challenge: The Lewis and Clark Journals

12, October 2016
Scan of page from a Lewis and Clark journalContinued entry from February 25, 1806, Voorhis Journal #2. Clark Family Collection, Missouri History Museum.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier Archives Month posts, researchers who come to the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center can use and handle most of the documents in the archives. However, in some cases the archivists have to decline access in order to preserve the documents for the next hundred years. One such case is our collection of five original journals from the Lewis and Clark expedition.

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left on their expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase Territory in May 1804, President Thomas Jefferson asked them to write down everything they observed during their journey. As a result, Lewis and Clark kept journals that included maps; notations about the weather; sketches of animals, plants, and Native Americans; and a narrative of their activities. As they traveled, the men kept rough notes in field journals. Later on they copied these rough notes into nicer, well-written journals that are often referred to as the red Moroccan leather journals. The complete set of Lewis and Clark journals was sent to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. However, William Clark kept handwritten copies of four of the journals, as well as the only known existing field journal, commonly referred to as the elkskin journal. In the early 1920s, Clark’s granddaughter, Julia Clark Voorhis, donated these journals to the Missouri Historical Society, along with a large collection of papers regarding various members of the Clark family. Today the Clark Family Collection consists of 14 document boxes, 4 oversize boxes, and 26 volumes (we also have a finding aid for the collection online).

Photo of elkskin journalElkskin journal. Clark Family Collection, Missouri History Museum.

These journals are some of most prized documents in our Archives, especially the elkskin journal because, as far as we know, no other field journal from the expedition exists. Because the journals are so special, we have to restrict access to them, which means we can’t bring them out for researchers. However, you can still read the original journals. Thanks to a Save America's Treasures grant, we prepared for the 2004 bicentennial of the expedition by photographing each page, printing the photographs, and making binders of the printouts for each journal. You can flip through these binders and read to your heart's content—and, honestly, it’s much easier to read the text in the printouts than in the originals. More recently, we posted the images on our website, so you can see the red Moroccan journals and the elkskin journal online.

Although we can’t allow researchers to use and handle the original Lewis and Clark journals, we do occasionally bring them out for guests and visitors to see. There are some caveats though. For one, an archivist must be present at all times. Also, only an archivist can touch the journals—with gloves on no less, something we don’t do for any other document. As an extra precaution, we use a small metal spatula to turn the journals' pages.

Photo of Head Archivist Molly turning journal pages with spatulaHandling the Lewis and Clark journals requires special attire—and a spatula.

After explaining all of these precautions, I must say that it’s always fun to show the journals to groups and visitors who get so excited because they realize how special the journals are. My favorite group was a class of fourth graders from a local elementary school participating in our Explore Lewis and Clark workshop. For most of the workshop we use the printouts of the journal pages. However, if there’s time and the students seem especially interested in the journals, I’ll bring one out at the end of the workshop. One class gasped when I walked into the room with the original journal. As I was showing it, the students pleaded with me to let them touch it. When I declined, they all asked if they could touch my hand because it had touched the journal. I agreed and held out my hand—and was immediately surrounded by 20 kids touching and pulling my hand. It was, and will most likely remain, the only moment that I’ll ever feel like a rock star.

These moments are why I love being an archivist. My interest in history started when I was in grade school, and I hope some of the kids I work with will get that same love of history and, just maybe, become an archivist someday so that they can continue to preserve and provide access to these historical treasures.  

—Molly Kodner, Head Archivist

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