[This is one of the essays I wrote for a class. It is longish, so I have divided it into three installments.]
The history of a region and of those who people it is composed of several narratives depending upon who eventually wins the conflicts in the region and reaps the riches the land and waters provide. The American West is certainly a reminder of this. For example, the patriotic historian Stephen E. Ambrose has written,
Surely, the best thing Jefferson ever did as President was the Louisiana Purchase . . . . Since 1803 and the return of the expedition in 1806, every American everywhere has benefited from Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana and his setting in motion the Lewis and Clark Expedition. And we all live in a democracy and enjoy complete religious liberty, thanks to Jefferson. (14)
Native American historian Vine Deloria, Jr., provides a more restrained evaluation. After reading selections from the journals, he humorously notes that three themes stand out for him: Frenchman, bears, and sandbars. For a Native American, there is, by far, less news in the journal. “The expedition actually seems to have been a tedious march from one place to another” (5). Deloria warns us against readings such as Ambrose’s, which emphasizes “undaunted courage.”
Since traditionally historians have understood the journey as the first effort by civilized men to pierce the unknown West, we often tend to clothe the accounts of Lewis and Clark in more heroic terms than they seem to have deserved. Much good history falls by the way side when we stress the heroics and neglect the context of their journey in our understanding. (5)
In this essay, I would like explore some of the “context of their journey.” What are some of the events that occurred before Lewis and Clark journeyed from St. Louis? And what are some of the events that occurred after their return? How do these events guide us in understanding what the expedition accomplished? Vine Deloria, Jr., postulates that at some future time, we might come to view the Lewis and Clark expedition as “but a footnote to a destructive cycle that came and went” (22). Perhaps. Or maybe it was simply one of many events, less a cause and more part of a greater process, that almost wiped one culture completely from the face of the landscape to replace it with another.
I. The Louisiana Purchase and Jefferson’s Instructions
In the popular imagination, the Lewis and Clark Expedition began in 1803 with the purchase of the Louisiana territory from France. To some degree, the timeline bears this out. On April 30, the United States and France signed the agreement to transfer 828,000 square miles of territory, beginning at New Orleans in the Mississippi River delta, stretching up in a kind of tilted funnel west along the Red River (now the Texas northern border) to the edge of the Rocky Mountains and north slightly above the 49th Parallel. The cost was $15,000,000, approximately 4 cents per acre. By June 20, 1803, Thomas Jefferson had written his authorization and instructions for Meriwether Lewis to conduct an exploration of that territory, and beyond.
In this “Letter of Instruction” to Lewis, Thomas Jefferson makes very clear the primary and the secondary purposes of the expedition. “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the water of the Pacific ocean may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce” (qtd. in Lewis and Clark, xxvii). In other words, the primary purpose was to discover if there was truth to the rumor and dream of a water passage from the Mississippi River west across the continent. The motivating factor was trade with Asia. One might even say it was a late vestige of Christopher Columbus’ vision (The Continental Railroad and the Panama Canal being two later vestiges). However, there is also evidence that Jefferson deliberately obscured his real purpose, which was mostly scientific and intellectual. Ambrose reports that the Spanish minister to the United States understood that Jefferson was mostly interested in the exploration for literary and geographical purposes, but could not hope to receive funds from Congress for such goals (77).
The second half of Jefferson’s “Letter of Instruction” is quite clear that beside accurate maps of the Missouri River and related territories Jefferson wished to know detailed information about the Native Americans who lived in the region and the flora and fauna of the territories. Specimens were to be collected, preserved, and shipped back to Washington. Careful notes and journals were to be kept by the leaders of the expedition and by as many others as possible. Up to the cost of personal injury, peaceful relationships with the Native Americans should be pursued and maintained.
But there is another goal hidden inside this fact finding mission. Throughout this letter, one can almost feel Jefferson’s complicated nature expressing itself. The scientist, the politician, and the statesman all attempting to find some kind of reconciliation in this one project. In one document, the author of Notes on the State of Virginia, the Declaration of Independence, and his “First Inaugural Address” search for a sense of balance.
I mention the “First Inaugural Address” not for its long and eloquent list of principles that are the nation’s guides in that time of “revolution and reformation,” with which he concludes his speech. Instead, I notice an inkling of what Jefferson wishes to accomplish in the opening paragraph in which he feigns humility before the greatness of his responsibilities. He contemplates “a rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with the nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye” (79). To me, this sounds like the thoughts of a man who believes that the United States, 14 states, backs pushing against the Appalachian Mountains, and two others (Kentucky and Tennessee) already spilled over the dam, would continue its westward expansion. It is not his recommendation, but his acknowledgement of the inevitable.
Jefferson had long been interested in The West. As David Lavender points out, Jefferson’s father had settled, for that time period, in a far west portion of the Virginia Colony. In addition, Jefferson, while in France, assembled a large library of books concerned with the region. In addition, by the 1770s, Jefferson certainly was aware of current migrations into Kentucky, Ohio, and other western regions. “That the West would be peopled by Americans, though Spain then owned almost all of it, Jefferson had no doubt,” Lavender writes. During the Revolution, many Americans had begun crossing the Alleghenies. Following the war, the numbers increased. Trade down the Ohio increased. Flatboats carrying goods and families moved down its waters. Lavender reports, “By 1800, three hundred thousand people lived in the trans-Allegheny region, as compared to thirty thousand at the close of the Revolution.”
II. Settling the Ohio
By the time Thomas Jefferson became President, three states had been added to the original thirteen: Vermont, Ohio, and Tennessee. During his term, one more was added, Ohio, on March 1, 1803. (For many years, the date was unspecified officially, but this now is the agreed upon date.) This date (or the date that the President signed the bill from Congress, February 19), obviously precedes the official purchase of the Louisiana territory. Therefore, both of these events must have formed some connection in Jefferson’s mind. Perhaps we can see that connection is Lewis’ orders to inquire what the Chouteau’s reaction to Native American removals would be.
The Northwest Territory had passed from British to American control at the end of the Revolutionary War. Before that it had been land contested by the British and the French and Native Americans. With the “Land Ordinance of 1784,” Jefferson was the first to develop policies for the settlement of this territory, no doubt in response to the growing numbers of people who were traveling over The Wilderness Road, developed by Daniel Boone and others, into Kentucky. By 1800, Boone would leave Kentucky and establish his family in Missouri, near St. Louis. William Clark’s family, incidentally, moved from Virginia to Kentucky in 1785.
During this time, of course, conflicts with Native Americans continued. Landon Y. Jones writes, “The rich lands of the Ohio River had been occupied since the late 1730’s by the Shawnee and Delaware Tribes, which had moved from Pennsylvania and Susquehanna Valley under pressure from the Iroquois League and European settlers” (5). Then as Kentucky was being settled, tribes were forced to agree that the Ohio River was their Southern border. “But colonial immigrants from Virginia and Pennsylvania continued to swarm into the Indian lands” (5). Whether it was Americans murdering 96 Christian Delaware Native Americans in the town of Guttenhutten (Jones 43) or the Shawnee attacking American forces and killing 630 soldiers near the Wabash, conflict and slaughter remained the norm for both Americans and Native Americans. Jones compares the days when the French and British traded with Native American in forests of the Northwest Territory to the days when Americans began immigrating there. “The old balance of power in the backcountry, in which Indians had successfully coexisted with foreign trading partners for generations, had collapsed. In its place was a killing field” (42).
William Clark’s family was among the first to cross the Appalachians and establish themselves in the land that would become Kentucky. His brother, George Rogers Clark was one of the first surveyors of the territory, and began his military career in 1774 as a member of Lord Dunsmore’s army, subduing the Shawnee and stabilizing the Ohio River as the border between “White” and “Indian” territories. William was the ninth of ten children, eighteen years younger than his famous brother, George Rogers. Thomas Jefferson regarded George Rogers highly. In fact, in a letter in 1783, thanking Clark for some seeds and shells George Rogers had sent Jefferson from a sulfur spring on the Ohio River, Jefferson mused about the need for an exploratory expedition into the west and offered William’s older brother the job. Obviously, nothing came from this offer. But in the offer, Jones sees a logic to Jefferson’s thinking. “The discovery of the continent, Jefferson thought, should not be carried out by lawless traders, settlers, and speculators” (49). Nor should it be left only to scientists and geographers. “The task of securing an empire should be entrusted to military men, equipped to gather scientific and geographical information but ready to impose their will on anyone—natives or Europeans—who tried to stop them” (49). Twenty years later, in Captain Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson found his man. In William Clark, Meriwether Lewis found his equal and partner. Both men played their part in furthering the continuing development of the vision of an American empire.
III. St. Louis The Chouteaus, and the French
Because the history of the United States is often taught as the story of Dutch, British, German, and Scotch-Irish immigration to the East Coast and of the eventual separation from Great Britain, we are often led to believe that European settlement of the North American continent proceeded east to west. The story, however, is more complicated and layered. In 1776, the land west of the Appalachians and the thirteen colonies was the home of many Native Americans, perhaps numbering into the millions. In addition, settlements such as St. Augustine (founded by Spain 1565), Santa Fe (founded by Spain in 1607), New Orleans (founded by France in 1718), and St. Louis (founded by France in 1764) appeared at important cultural and trade intersections. In fact, the growing importance of St. Louis and New Orleans and the possibility of their interference with American trade down the Ohio and Mississippi was one of the reasons President Thomas Jefferson began discussions with France. Originally, his plans were to prevent Napoleon from closing the cities of St. Louis and New Orleans to American trade, and he threatened alliances with Britain to do so (Lavender).
Much of the land within the Louisiana territory actually was traded between France and Spain and France again. Still in 1803, when St. Louis passed from Spanish to French, then to American possession, the city’s historically French character remained intact. One of the most important families in St. Louis was the Chouteaus. In 1763, a thirteen-year old Auguste Chouteau accompanied his step-father, Pierre Laclede Liguest, and thirty men up the Mississippi to the French Fort de Chartres (Christian 33). At the time, lands were changing hands among the British and French and Spanish, but Laclede decided still to establish a town on the west side of the Mississippi. He called this town St Louis.
By the time that Lewis and Clark arrived in St. Louis in 1803, the Chouteau family were the most important family in the city. Auguste and his half-brother, Pierre, made “a comfortable living trading furs and skins from surrounding Indians and then shipping them to Europe via New Orleans and Montreal” (Christian 5). The brothers had explored a great deal of the region, throughout what is now the state of Missouri, into the future Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa, up the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri rivers. They had traded with the Osage, Sac, Fox, Omaha, Kansas, Iowa, Miami, Pawnee, and Quapaw tribe (Christian 10). Through them, the Chouteaus had learned a great deal about tribes further west, including the Mandans. In addition, the Chouteaus were instrumental in Lewis and Clark acquiring the final goods for their journey and acquiring experienced boatmen to move their pirogues and other boats up river (10) As Vine Deloria, Jr., points out, the French already knew much of the territory that Lewis and Clark were to travel. As some French trappers married Native American women, many of these mixed-families were two or three generations deep. “Most of them had extensive experience in wandering the western lands, and, in sharing their knowledge about the land and its people, they enabled Lewis and Clark to anticipate some of the problems that lay ahead” (8).On one issue, the Chouteaus were not helpful. Thomas Jefferson had directed Meriwether Lewis to broach the subject of the removal of Native Americans from the region east of the Mississippi over the Mississippi in the west, the implication being that the citizens of St. Louis would need to relocate. Shirley Christian reports that the Chouteaus and other inhabitants of St. Louis received this suggestion negatively. Not only was slavery an issue, but so was the close relationships with friendly tribes built upon the fur trade (12-13). Two important points emerge from this issue. First, we can see that by 1803 that the French had already explored much of the region and established profitable relationships with the local Native Americans. Second, we see an example of how early in American history the policy of Native American removal was considered viable as a response to American settlers moving west.
Reference Page will follow the last installment.
Go to Part IV