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HIST 114: History of the American West

Professor Will Barnett


Lecture, August 31, 2020

The Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Start of U.S. Expansion into the Far West

I. President Thomas Jefferson, the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and the Corps of Discovery
President Jefferson doubled the nation’s size with a $15 million land purchase in 1803
U.S. tried to buy New Orleans from France, who offered to sell a much larger region instead
U.S. purchased a huge, vaguely defined region from Mississippi River to Rocky Mountains
Purchase set precedent for government to acquire new lands and for the nation to grow
President Jefferson planned a military and scientific expedition with federal funding
The foremost goal was to assess rivers, hoping to find a water route across the continent
Also seek to befriend and trade with Indians, and examine geology, flora, fauna, and climate
It was a scientific mission, a diplomatic mission, and part of U.S. efforts to claim Oregon
Jefferson chose Captain Meriwether Lewis, his personal secretary, to lead the expedition
Lewis selected his army friend William Clark, who was skilled Indian negotiator, mapmaker
Lewis was more literate and was trained in science, Clark had more backwoods experience

II. The 1804-1806 Journey of the Corps of Discovery – A Great American Adventure Story
40+ men began in Illinois, and traveled by boat 1,600 miles up Missouri River in 1804
They wintered in Mandan villages (ND), then took a month to portage at Great Falls (MT)
They hired Charbonneau and Sacagawea, then sought out her Shoshoni people to get horses
Smaller group of 31 crossed Rocky Mountains in 1805, into lands no Europeans had seen
Shocked to find more huge mountains, crossed snowy Bitterroots, then aided by Nez Perce
Trek became easier, canoed down Snake + Columbia Rivers to Pacific, wintered in Oregon
Left Fort Clatsop on Pacific Coast in spring 1806, arrived back in St. Louis in late September
Team of explorers traveled over 8,000 miles in 2 years, 4 months; only 1 death, from illness

III. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and their Legacy
Huge set of journals published 1814, detailed information on Far West available to public
Nine men kept journals, recorded scientific data, Enlightenment project to seek knowledge
Described 100+ animal species: prairie dog, antelope, grizzly bear, elk, + huge bison herds

Two different roles: rational/scientific research vs. mythic/symbolic voyage into unknown
Journey opened up vast new territory and made Americans interested in settling Oregon

IV. Notable Themes in the Lewis and Clark Story and in the Larger History of the American West
Note the critical role of federal government in West, from Corps of Discovery to today
Yet we usually focus on heroic individuals, on the two Anglo-American men, not the Corps
Note the cultural alliances: French fur traders, a Native American woman, an African slave
Many peaceful meetings with Indians, two cultures exchange gifts, trade, form alliances
Friendship/trade (Mandan, Shoshoni, Nez Perce) but distrust/conflict (Lakota, Blackfeet)
Journals provide rich information about expedition, but numerous unanswered questions
Not known when or where Sacagawea died, not clear what happened to Lewis’s slave York
Not known how Meriwether Lewis died at age 35 – suicide or murder, never wrote his book
Some imagine it as journey through North America’s Garden of Eden, led by Sacagawea
Can see the expedition as a blueprint for nonviolent Indian relations that was not followed
This epic journey became an essential American story, two national heroes enter into myth