Lewis and Clark’s epic Western journey endures today

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926); Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia; 1905; Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1961.195

The world and human’s relationship to it have changed profoundly in the last two centuries. Though a tiny fraction of total human existence, it’s a very long time in individual human terms.

This was hammered home to me this summer as I read historian Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, the epic volume on the Lewis and Clark expedition. For those unfamiliar with the tale, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the trip just as the Louisiana Purchase was finalized in 1803.

The purchase included the entire western watershed of the Mississippi River, including the vast Missouri River drainage basin to the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho. While trading settlements of Europeans could be found along the Mississippi, south of St. Louis, the overwhelming portion of non-Native Americans lived along the East Coast.

To put this in context for those of us here in Central Pennsylvania, we were still 50 years away from Altoona being incorporated as a city. With our Appalachian Front presenting an insurmountable obstacle, the “Western Wilderness” really wasn’t very far west. That also meant that the definition of wilderness was taken to a new and extraordinary level west of the Mississippi.

Exploration of the expansive new American territory had its origins decades before any discussions had begun with France to purchase the land. Ambrose noted that “Jefferson’s interest in exploring the country … ran back a full half-century.” He had proposed western explorations three other times, beginning in 1783.

When Jefferson took office in 1801, he asked Merriweather Lewis to be his secretary, something that today might be equated to his chief-of-staff. Lewis was part of nearly every dinner gathering which took place at the White House, and Jefferson had them often.

“The talk flowed freely, on any subject that interested Jefferson, which meant practically all subjects. But the concentration was on natural science, geography, natural philosophy, Indian affairs, and of course politics,” Ambrose wrote.

So it should come as no surprise that Jefferson emphasized the importance of a natural inventory of the vast region. He sensed Lewis would be well-suited to lead the endeavor, and sent him to study with the most highly-respected natural scientists on the continent. The preparation for the trip — both educationally and logistically — was extensive and rigorous. In the end, the expedition’s journals, particularly Lewis’, were a treasure trove of botanical, zoological, and geographic observations.

When Lewis and Clark’s expedition struggled up the Missouri, they were often the first white men that each Plains Indian tribe had ever met. Jefferson stressed the importance of building positive relationships with the Native Americans. Though there were struggles with a few of the tribes, the relationships were peaceful and the Indians were generally helpful. In fact, the trip would have undoubtedly ended in disaster if not for the assistance the Native Americans provided with horses, canoes, food, and geographic guidance.

Particularly with the recent celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day (supplanting Columbus Day in many states), it is worth noting one of the most profound revelations of the Corps of Discovery: The Native Americans were not crazed savages, but civil societies with an understanding of the natural environment that usually far surpassed the famed party exploring their lands.

John Frederick (www.johnj frederick.com) writes on environmental issues the first and third weekend each month.


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