The Way to the West before Lewis and Clark - Continued

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

Contact Us

Washington's Secretary of War Henry Knox (who had also filled the position during the last years of the Confederation government) knew that the attempt to enforce American "right of conquest" on the Indians had failed. The sentiments expressed by the Northwest Ordinance signaled his attempt to put together a new approach that would set the terms and the tone of American Indian policy during the first half century of the young republic. They became law in the Indian Intercourse Act of 1790, the foundational statute regulating "trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes." The act created a legal distinction between the territorial jurisdiction of the states and those regions known as "Indian Country," a concept taken directly from the Proclamation of 1763. Indians residing within the territory of the United States were not citizens of the republic but rather subjects of their own nations, nations enjoying jurisdiction over their own homelands, with their own governments and laws. Indian nations, in other words, retained much of their original sovereignty, with the exception that they were not permitted to engage in "state-to-state" relations, neither with the individual states nor with foreign governments - the British in Canada or the Spanish in Florida and Louisiana. Establishing and maintaining relations between the United States and the Indian nations would be achieved through treaty-making. The power to make treaties was detailed in the Constitution - the President was vested with the authority to negotiate them, while the Senate was given the power to approve or reject them. Lewis and Clark were embarking on an expedition into "Indian country." They were on a diplomatic mission, making friendly contact and hopefully laying the basis for making treaties with the Indian nations of the trans-Mississippi West.

To be sure, there was an enormous contradiction at the heart of America's Indian policy. On the one hand was the pledge to protect Indian homelands. On the other was the program to survey, sell, and create new political institutions in those very same lands. Historian Elliott West puts it well: "a policy that could make such promises, all within the same pair of documents, had moved beyond contradiction to schizophrenia."

This was perfectly clear to Indian leaders during the fifteen years preceding the Lewis and Clark expedition. Violent conflict, not "utmost good faith," best characterized Indian-American relations in trans-Appalachia, where a surging population of settlers pressed ruthlessly against the rich farming lands held by Indian villagers. "Though we hear much of the Injuries and depredations that are committed by the Indians upon the Whites," wrote Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory, "there is too much reason to believe that at least equal if not greater Injuries are done to the Indians by the frontier settlers of which we hear very little." According to one American officer, there was not a jury in the West who would punish a man for these crimes. With provocations like these, the Indians struck back at Americans with equally indiscriminate violence.

In defense of their homelands, villages of Shawnees, Delawares, and other Indian peoples of the Northwest Territory confederated with the Miamis under their war chief Little Turtle. In the fall of 1790 Little Turtle lured federal forces led by General Josiah Harmar into the confederacy's stronghold in Ohio and badly mauled them. In November 1791 the confederation inflicted an even more disastrous defeat on a large American force under General Arthur St. Clair. More than 900 Americans were killed or wounded, making this the worst defeat of an army by Indians in North American history, a far more serious loss than the famous defeat of Custer at the Little Big Horn in 1876. In the aftermath of this defeat, the House of Representatives launched the first formal investigation of the executive branch undertaken by the Congress. They found St. Clair's leadership "incompetent," and he soon resigned. Yet few Americans were willing to admit to the contradiction at the heart of American policy. "We acknowledge the Indians as brothers," yet we "seize their lands," Senator Benjamin Hawkins of North Carolina wrote to President Washington. "This doctrine it might be expected would be disliked by the independent Tribes. . . . It is the source of their hostility."

Knowing that he required a dramatic victory in the West, Washington committed over eighty percent of the federal government's operating budget to a massive campaign against the western Indians, and he appointed General Anthony Wayne to lead a greatly strengthened American force to subdue the Ohio confederacy and secure the Northwest. At the Battle of Fallen Timbers, fought in northern Ohio on August 20, 1794, Wayne crushed the Indians. The victory set the stage for the Treaty of Greenville of 1795, in which Indian leaders ceded a huge territory encompassing most of present-day Ohio, much of Indiana, and other enclaves, including the town of Detroit and the tiny village of Chicago. The strengthened American position in the West encouraged the British to settle their differences with the Americans in Jay's Treaty, promising to withdraw from their northwestern forts. The next year Spain settled its boundary dispute and granted Americans free navigation of the Mississippi River with the right to deposit goods at the port of New Orleans. A majority of the defeated Indians remained in their villages and prepared to come to terms with the Americans, but hundreds joined kinsmen and women who had already emigrated west across the Mississippi into Spanish Louisiana.

During their expedition, Lewis and Clark made contact with dozens of Indian tribes and distributed more than a hundred impressive silver peace medals and dozens of American flags. Despite troubles with the Sioux, they found most Indians anxious for allies against their expansionist neighbors as well as for better trading connections. But the captains carried into the trans-Mississippi West not only the imperative to deal with the Indians with "utmost good faith" but also the experience and perspective of conquerors. They were men of their time and place. It is worth noting that Lewis first met Clark when he came under his command shortly following the Battle of Fallen Timbers. 

In evaluating the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition, it must be admitted that the commercial objectives were at best only partly realized. Lewis and Clark proved to be poor Indian diplomats, and they failed to find what Jefferson had declared the most important object of the exploration, a commercial route linking the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific. The route that they charted over the Rockies was impossibly hard going and practically useless and would soon be replaced by the Overland Trail that crossed the Rockies at South Pass. But the mission opened the way for the great American fur companies and the mountain men.

Far more important was the fact that the Lewis and Clark expedition set a pattern and established a precedent for a strong federal role in the development of the American West. Theirs was the first American exploration mounted and pursued with government encouragement and financing. Historians have tended to overlook the basic preparations for nineteenth-century westward expansion undertaken by the government - surveying the land, marking the routes, building the wagon roads, clearing the rivers for navigation, planning and digging canals, subsidizing railroads, suppressing the resistance of Indians, and in general standing close beside the pioneers as they elbowed their way across the continent.

Lewis and Clark also carried with them another legacy of the American experience: slavery. The participation of York, the African American slave of William Clark, recently has been used by some to argue for the "inclusive" and "multi-ethnic" character of the expedition. But as Clark's letters in Jim Holmberg's new collection remind us, he (and surely Lewis as well) thought of York principally as a slave. Both Clark and Lewis were slave owners, thoroughly imbued with the ethics of the slave South and the planter elite.

In the discussion of slavery in the West of the young republic, attention is often called to the fact that in the Northwest Ordinance Congress outlawed involuntary servitude north of the Ohio River. Actually, this was merely a recognition that the northern states were already in the process of abolishing slavery. It ought to be noted that Jefferson's original territorial plan called for keeping slavery out of the entire trans-Appalachian West, but Congress rejected that radical notion out of hand. Southern politicians insisted that the nation do nothing to impede the expansion of slavery into the country west of the Appalachians and south of the Ohio River. When Congress created the Southwest Territory in 1789 (later the states of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi), there were no restrictions on slavery.

Hundreds of thousands of enslaved African Americans were part of the pioneer stream into the old Southwest and across the Mississippi into Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. Black labor cleared the pine forests and drained the swamps, opening plantations and making cotton production the engine of the nation's economy. Many slaves arrived with their masters, but the majority was brought in by traders. "We require more slaves," settler William Dunbar wrote home from the Mississippi frontier in 1799; "ordinary men are worth $500 cash, women $400 and upwards. There is no country where they are better treated." What nonsense! Frontier planters were infamous for driving their slaves beyond the point of endurance, and slaves in the upper South trembled at the thought of being "sold down the river," a threat frequently employed by masters to keep their hands in line. 

William Clark, who became governor of Missouri territory in 1813, oversaw the process by which it joined the ranks of the slave states. When Missouri applied for admission to the union, it created a political firestorm that threatened to divide the nation. "This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror," wrote Jefferson from retirement. "I considered it at once as the knell of the Union." Congress was able to fabricate a compromise, declaring that henceforth slavery would be "forever prohibited" in the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Slavery threatened to divide the union again over the question of the admission of Texas, then again over the extension of slavery into territory seized from Mexico. And finally in 1854, a sectionally divided Congress voted to abandon the Missouri Compromise and admit states carved from the Louisiana Purchase territory on the principal of "popular sovereignty," allowing local residents to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. The controversy over the expansion of slavery in the territories led directly to the Civil War.

In the sunny-side version of American history, westering has traditionally been considered a movement toward freedom. For many it was precisely that. But American expansion also meant the destruction of Indian homelands and the growth of African American slavery. The Lewis and Clark expedition was part of the fabric of American history. It embodied some of the best and some of the worst features of the time. It built on the experience of those who had come before. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Volume 3, Number 4

Back to Top

The Filson Historical Society
1310 South Third Street - Louisville, KY 40208
Phone: (502) 635-5083 Fax: (502) 635-5086

The Ferguson Mansion and Office

Monday - Friday: 9 am. - 5 pm.
Saturday and Sunday closed
Monday - Friday: 9 am. - 5 pm.
Saturday: 9 am. - 12 noon