The Way to the West before Lewis and Clark (Part 1 of 2)

By John Mack Faragher, Ph.D.
Arthur Unobskey Professor of American History
Yale University

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Sampling the first few dozen, I was impressed with how good many of them were. There were sites from the "Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Association," the "Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail" (operated by the National Park Service), "The National Council of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial," and a group called "" that operates a site called "Discovering Lewis and Clark." Not all were so good. There are plenty of dot-com sites, mere fronts for commercial outlets selling books, videos, t-shirts, faux-Indian jewelry, yes, and even coonskin caps.

One of the first listings on my Google search was the "PBS online" site for the Ken Burns documentary "Lewis and Clark." This four-hour film is vintage Burns. I do not want to begrudge his amazing success, but forgive me if I found it a little slow. I found myself agreeing with New York Post television critic Marvin Kitman, who wrote that while the film lasted only four hours, to him it seemed as long as the expedition itself. Perhaps the trek would make a better commercial picture, he suggested, in the old MGM historical style, like "Northwest Passage" about Rogers' Rangers with Spencer Tracy. Actually, that picture has already been made, The Far Horizons in 1955, starring Fred MacMurry as Lewis, Charleton Heston as Clark, and Donna Reed as Sacagewea.

If The Far Horizons and Burns's documentary have anything in common, it's their self-seriousness. It is apparently difficult for Americans to find any humor in the Lewis and Clark story, which is why I appreciate the depiction of Lewis and Clark in a spoof called The Complete History of America (Abridged) performed by the The Reduced Shakespeare Company, the group that produced the ninety-minute artistic triumph, The Complete William Shakespeare. In The Complete History of America, Lewis and Clark are reimagined as a comedy team, wearing skunk and cookskin caps, and making politically-incorrect jokes about Sacajawea. I am guessing the Reduced Shakespeare Company stole that idea from Neil Simon, whose comedy The Sunshine Boys revolves around two retired ex-vaudvillians named "Lewis and Clark." If you look up films on Lewis and Clark on the internet, by the way, up comes The Sunshine Boys, with George Burns as Lewis and Walter Matthau as Clark - now that is an exploring team!

My search for humorous treatments of Lewis and Clark was what drove me to rent the video of Almost Heroes, a picture starring Chris Farley (of Saturday Night Live fame) and Matthew Perry (from Friends) as an exploring team trying to beat Lewis and Clark to the Pacific in 1804. It was an interesting concept for a comedy but a dreadful movie, and after trying to watch it I found out that several critics had awarded it the distinction of being the worst film of 1998.

Perusing the websites, it becomes immediately obvious that the principal source for Lewis and Clark information these days comes from Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose. The wonder and excitement of the exploration comes alive in this passionate and intriguing book. Undaunted Courage is a work of synthesis. While drawing much of his narrative from the journals of the expedition - which Gary Moulton edited in a marvelous and definitive modern edition from the University of Nebraska Press - Ambrose candidly acknowledges his heavy reliance on the innovative work of specialists on the Lewis and Clark expedition, like John Allen and James Ronda. Indeed, Ambrose might have paid more attention to more of their perspectives. In recent years historians of the American West have worked hard to overcome the old stereotype of "civilization and savagery," yet Ambrose tends to employ that concept in a very old-fashioned way.

Ambrose promotes the old idea of the "inevitablity" of the American sweep across the continent. "No force on earth could stop the flow," he writes. Lewis and Clark were "the cutting edge of an irresistable force." What is wrong with this kind of thinking is not that it misrepresents the outcome - for that is unarguable - but that it robs us of the contingency, the uncertainty, the sense of possibility of the historical moment. "It could be taken for certain," writes Ambrose about the perspectives of Americans in the time of Jefferson, "that the conquest of the Indian tribes would be bloody, costly, time-consuming, but certain." It is hard to find this sense of certitude in the record. This is not the perspective of a historian but the sentiment of an enthusiast - which is what Mr. Ambrose is in his very good book.

The Lewis and Clark expedition is frequently presented as the opening chapter in the story of the American West. But westering had an important history before Lewis and Clark, and the trans-Mississippi West did not lack explorers before them. The Spanish were, of course, the first white men in North America to go where no white men had gone before. The first of the great treks to enter the historical record was conducted by accident - by the castaway Alvar Ñuónez Cabeza da Vaca, who spent a decade in the 1520s and 1530s living among the native tribes of the Southwest, gradually working himself back to what passed for civilization. He returned a changed man, the result of not only his exploration of geographic territory but of cultural and spiritual spaces. His story makes for great reading.

Unfortunately Cabeza da Vaca's experience was not widely emulated by his sucessors. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, inspired by some of the tall tales Cabeza da Vaca told on his return, cut a destructive swath through the Southwest in search of great cities to plunder in 1539 and 1540. Failing to find them, the Spanish in New Spain/Mexico lost the enthusiasm for exploring el norte. It was not until the middle of the eighteenth century, when the Spanish became concerned about a potential Russian advance down the Pacific coast, that Gaspar de Portolá and Francisco Garcés, guided by Mohave Indians, broke overland trails from northern Mexico and New Mexico to California while Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, also employing Indian guides, extended the radius of Spanish geographic knowledge into the Great Basin.

The great western explorations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were conducted by the French. After plying the waters of the Great Lakes and coursing the length of the Mississippi, French traders and missionaries began following the rivers and streams draining the trans-Mississippi West. As early as 1679 Daniel Greysolon, Sieur Duluth, was west of Lake Superior, among the Lakota Sioux, whom he found dangerous and aggressive - much as Lewis and Clark would one hundred and twenty-five years later. The French tried to work around them. Étienne Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont, traveling in the company of Missouri and Osage warriors, established trade relations with the peoples of the Kansas plains - including the Comanches - in the 1720s, while Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye and his sons, led by Cree guides, pushed south from the northern plains to the Mandan villages in 1738, sixty-six years before Lewis and Clark wintered there. In 1742 two of La Vérendrye's sons traded for horses near the Black Hills and may have been the first white men to see the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. One of them was killed in a violent encounter with the Sioux.

By 1762, when the French formally ceded their western claims to the vast territory they called "Louisiana" to the Spanish - the result of their defeat in the Seven Years' War - they had a very good grasp of the geography of the continental heartland as far west as the front range of the Rockies. In the 1780s and 1790s Indian trader Pierre Vial, who for years had been doing business on the Missouri River, utilized this information when he went to work for the Spanish (who knew him as Pedro Vial), blazing routes from San Antonio across the southern plains to Santa Fe and from Santa Fe northeast to the trading capital of St. Louis.

The Missouri River, Vial reported, was only a twenty-five-day journey from Santa Fe. This threw Spanish authorities at Santa Fe into panic. They were deeply suspicious of the Americans. They are "nomadic like Arabs," declared one Spanish official, "distinguished from savages only in their color, language, and the superiority of their depraved cunning and untrustworthiness." The Americans "are active, industrious, and aggressive," wrote another and it "would be culpable negligence on our part not to thwart their schemes for conquest." Alerted to the Lewis and Clark expedition by General James Wilkinson, commander of American forces in the trans-Appalachian West - and secretly employed as an informer for the Spanish - authorities in Mexico sent out four separate companies to intercept the Americans. They were prevented not for lack of geographic information but by the desertion of troops and by Indian tribes who prevented their passage.

Meanwhile, to the north, English and Scot traders attached to the Hudson Bay Company, and the Montreal-based North West Company had explored and mapped the northern plains and Rockies. As early as 1691 Henry Kelsey, guided by Indians, had reached the northern Great Plains from his base on the western coast of Hudson Bay. By 1754 Anthony Henday had reached the country of the Blackfoot, Assiniboine, and Crow in the foothills of the northern Rockies in today's Saskatchewan and Montana. In 1769 - the same year Daniel Boone first crossed the Cumberland Gap - Samuel Hearne, led by Chipewyan guides, explored the region northwest of Hudson Bay and finally put to rest for the British the legend of a Northwest Passage. English navigators James Cook in 1778 and George Vancouver in 1792 charted the northwest Pacific coast. And in 1793, more than ten years before Lewis and Clark, Nor'Wester Alexander Mackenzie became the first European to reach the Pacific by way of the continental interior when Indians guided him down the maze of western Canadian rivers to the coast, where on a rock he inscribed: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three."

During the same decade David Thompson of the Hudson Bay Company was mapping the northern plains and Rockies and beginning the investigation of the Columbia River basin. Perhaps more than any of the other explorers I have mentioned, Thompson came closest to replicating the journey of Cabeza da Vaca, for his journals display his sympathetic, if prudish, attempts to describe and understand the cultures of the Indian peoples with whom he spent nearly thirty years. He married the métis (or mixed-ancestry) daughter of a Scot trader and a Cree woman, and she and their growing family accompanied him on all his travels. When he retired, he settled with his family near Montreal. Like Cabeza da Vaca, Thompson came back from his wanderings a changed man.

Reading Alexander Mackenzie's published account of his journey was one of the factors that pushed Thomas Jefferson to send Lewis and Clark on their way. David Thompson's geographic findings were used to prepare the English maps that Jefferson consulted as he planned the expedition. For two decades Jefferson had been following the progress of British explorations in western North America. While serving as American ambassador in Paris he met John Ledyard, a Connecticut native and a member of Cook's third voyage to the Northwest in 1778. He listened sympathetically as this young dreamer proposed an expedition that would begin in Siberia, cross the north Pacific, and travel across the continent from west to east. Jefferson was enthusiastic, but Ledyard got only as far as central Russia before being stopped by agents of Catherine the Great and returned to Europe. In 1793 Jefferson contributed funds to a Frenchman named André Michaux who planned a western botanical expedition that never came off. The eighteen-year old Meriwether Lewis begged to accompany Michaux, but Jefferson believed he was too young.

A decade later, when Jefferson was about to become president, he asked Lewis to prepare for a major exploration of the trans-Mississippi West, American traders were already working both ends of the route. Captain Robert Gray, in the vessel Columbia, crossed the sandbar to the estuary of the Columbia River in 1792, and soon Americans were trading for furs along the Pacific coast. By 1800 Americans, working for the Chouteaus and other French traders in St. Louis, were beginning to probe the upper Missouri. Lewis and Clark were outfitted by the Chouteaus, and as the explorers ascended the river in 1804, they met men coming down in pirogues loaded with cargoes of beaver. None of this diminishes the accomplishment of the Corps of Discovery, but it places it in its proper context.

With Jefferson's acquisition of Louisiana from France - which historian Bernard De Voto called "one of the most important events in world history" - the interest in far-western exploration assumed new meaning, even urgency. Much is made of Jefferson's scientific intentions - the investigation of the botany, zoology, and geology of the unknown regions of the West - and they were clearly important to both the president and to Lewis. But most important were the expedition's economic objectives, for the incorporation of this vast tract of continent into the nation hinged on finding a way to exploit it. Jefferson hoped that his explorers would open an easy route across the continent by waterway, even though the stretch over the Rockies and down the Columbia would cross lands claimed by Spain, Great Britain, and Russia. Such a route might redirect the lucrative fur trade of western Canada - built by the efforts of the French and British - into American channels. Corollary gains included more effective ways to exploit the sea-otter trade of the northern Pacific coast pioneered by the Russians and through that means establish commercial connections with China. Essential to these goals was the friendship and cooperation of the native nations along the way, and thus the practical problem of Indian diplomacy was also high on the agenda of the explorers.

The Louisiana Purchase was the beginning of the American continental empire. Nothing proved more important to the development of the American nation than the frequent addition of large tracts of the North American continent. Before 1850 the nation seized Florida from the Spanish, annexed Texas and Oregon, and conquered the northern third of Mexico. The American history of territorial expansion was unparalleled in the modern world.

Expansion was at the heart of the American political system. "Extend the sphere," James Madison, "Father of the Constitution," argued in the Federalist Papers, "and you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens." Madison hitched American republican government to an ever-expanding territory, what he called "one great, respectable, and flourishing empire." George Washington also envisioned the United States as a "rising empire," a growing, expanding sovereign state. The American people, he asserted, were "placed in the most enviable condition as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World. They are, from this period, to be considered as the Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre." Many Americans entertained similar continental ambitions. "The Mississippi was never designed as the western boundary of the American empire," declared Jedediah Morse in his popular textbook, American Geography, published in 1789, the year the Constitution was ratified. He continued:

It is well known that empire has been traveling from east to west. Probably her last and broadest seat will be America, . . . the largest empire that ever existed. . . . We cannot but anticipate the period, as not far distant, when the AMERICAN EMPIRE will comprehend millions of souls west of the Mississippi.

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