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American Speech 75.2 (2000) 137-148

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"Sett Out Verry Eairly Wensdy":
The Spelling and Grammar in the Lewis and Clark Journals *

Lawrence M. Davis, Charles L. Houck and Clive Upton


This paper analyzes the spelling and grammar in the journals of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Sergeants Charles Floyd and John Ordway, and Private Joseph Whitehouse--members of the "Corps of Discovery" whose journal manuscripts survive to the present day. 1 So far as we know, no one has analyzed these data in any systematic way.

Gary Moulton (1983), editor of the 11-volume work now considered the definitive edition of the Lewis and Clark journals, cites several scholars who have either done frequency counts of the various "misspellings" or made impressionistic comments about spelling in the journals, then notes the following: "The men's erratic, but delightful and ingenious, manner of spelling and capitalizing creates the most perplexing difficulties of all" (2: 50). Betts (1980, 10-12) comments in a note, "This is especially true of Clark, who was not only the master misspeller of them all, but also displayed dazzling virtuosity in his approach to punctuation, capitalization, and simple sentence structure." In addition, Betts's analysis generally involves counting rather than analyzing the terms. For example, he points out that "Clark spelled the word Sioux no less than twenty-seven different ways." Given that these journals have been available in one form or another since 1818, we believe that their "erratic, but delightful and ingenious, manner of spelling" needs to be approached from a linguistic point of view. The only linguist to publish a study of the journals was Harry Criswell (1940), a former president of the American Dialect Society. His first-rate study devoted over 300 pages to the language of the journals from two points of view: (1) the kinds of topics discussed by the journalists (e.g., flora and fauna, Indian tribes and customs) and (2) questions of word formation and whether the words in the journals can be considered Americanisms. This [End Page 137] second section also included citations of words in the journals that predate those in the OED.

Our method involved collecting the spelling and grammatical data from comparable portions of each of the aforementioned journals, while noting all repetitions and corrections (repetitions are marked with an asterisk). 2 We picked the dates 14 May to 20 August 1804 in order to maximize the use of all of the journals, since Sergeant Charles Floyd died on 20 August 1804, only three months into the expedition, from what current medical opinion believes was a ruptured appendix and the resulting peritonitis. Our corpus is based almost wholly on Moulton (1983) for those three months, with selected additional passages from Stephen E. Ambrose's 1996 best-selling history, Undaunted Courage. 3 Our corpus contains over 2,000 spelling and grammatical entries, including multiple variant spellings of the same word.

Of all the journalists, Lewis, Thomas Jefferson's secretary, was the most educated. Clark, although an army officer and a company commander, was only somewhat more educated than his sergeants. Sergeants, as noncommissioned officers, had to be able to read and write because of record-keeping duties they performed. The overall attitude of previous scholars is a bemused "What can one expect from a group of minimally educated men?" Lewis, of course, was the exception. There is no doubt that the image historians get from Clark's spelling is one of a country bumpkin, despite his extraordinary ability to lead men, to handle boats of all kinds, and to make maps, celestial and terrestrial observations, and surveys. Despite his superior formal education, Lewis's writing contained many, albeit fewer, of the same nonstandard spellings found in that of Clark, Floyd, Ordway, and Whitehouse.

The use of "nonstandard spelling" here is, admittedly, problematic. English spelling was well on the way to being standardized at the beginning of the nineteenth century. 4 However, given the journalists' limited formal education, we cannot be certain...


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