Friday, August 30, 2019

Lewis & Clark Expedition: The Good and the Bad

For several weeks I have wanted to think with you about the impressive feats of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It was 215 years ago in June that they first passed through what is now Kansas City, not far from where I live. Most of their long, dangerous journey was still ahead, though, and what a remarkable journey it was! 
Lewis & Clark Statue at Kaw Point, Kan. (one of my favorite places in Kansas City)
The Corps of Discovery
I had long mistakenly thought that Lewis & Clark’s expedition, which began in May 1804, was a direct result of the huge Louisiana Purchase realized when the U.S. signed a purchase treaty with France in April 1803.
(The Louisiana territory purchased was about 827,000 square miles. Some wonder if part of DJT’s recently reported desire to buy Greenland, which is more than 836,000 sq. mi., isn’t partly due to his desire to claim to have made the largest land purchase in U.S. history.)
Soon after Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he employed Meriwether Lewis as his personal secretary. By the next year, Jefferson was talking with Lewis about the possibility of him leading an expedition from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis (1774~1809) was making definite plans and assembling equipment necessary for such an expedition prior to the Louisiana Purchase, although the latter gave great impetus to implementing that treacherous journey.
In July 1803, William Clark (1770~1838) accepted Lewis’s invitation to become co-captain of the expedition, which came to be called the Corps of Discovery.
The next year on May 14, the Corps started up the Missouri River from the St. Louis area, beginning their long, dangerous trek to the Pacific Ocean. There were about 30 men who started this journey, including York, Clark’s personal black slave.
Positive Results
There were certainly many positive results of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—especially for white men like the expedition’s leaders and the President who dispatched them.
To cite “Lewis and Clark’s Historical Impact,” an online article, the expedition produced an accurately mapped route to the Pacific Ocean, introduced Americans and Europeans to hundreds of varieties of plants and animals, and opened up new territory for the fur and lumber trade.
Overall, it “allowed a young country to blossom into greatness.” Thus, there “is no doubt that the expedition of Lewis and Clark forever changed the course of the country’s history.”
Negative Results
The Introduction of a website titled “Origins of the Ideology of Manifest Destiny” begins, “The most influential ideology in our nation’s history is manifest destiny.”
It seems quite evident that the Lewis & Clark Expedition furthered that ideology. Although the term manifest destiny was not coined until 1845, the core belief that USAmericans were destined by God to reign over the entire continent seems to have been in the minds of the founders of the U.S.—and in the mind of President Jefferson.
Although Lewis and Clark did not seem to have any harsh or oppressive views of the American Indians they encountered, nevertheless, their expedition resulted in harsh and oppressive treatment of the native peoples for most of the 19th century.
A bicentennial article in Teaching Tolerance emphasizes that while “American history tends to eulogize what Lewis and Clark ‘found’ on their 7,400-mile journey,” for Native Americans “the story instead is about what was lost—lives, land, languages and freedom.”
In the same article, a Native American named BlueHorse lamented, “Within 100 years of Lewis and Clark passing through here, every Native nation they encountered”—and there were about 50 of them—“was displaced from their traditional lands and put on reservations.”
What, I wonder, can be done now to mitigate the highly negative results still remaining from Lewis and Clarks’ nation-changing expedition that began 215 years ago?


  1. Good morning and thanks Leroy.
    Current migratory events worldwide present needs both receptively accepted and opposed--our southern borders. Of course the causes differ greatly as will they not in face of expected climate change ongoing? I'm reminded of the ethnical questions raised when we faced potential atomic warfare and built shelders. The question, the bombing has begun, but we have a good shelter with food and water. Our neighbor comes pounding on our shelter door asking for help, but we pontentially have only enough for our family. After all we'd spoken to our neighbor, suggesting he might need to prepare for the possibility. But our advice had been ignored! How do we consider this internationally?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Les. I'd like to hear more, though, about how you link what you wrote to the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

  2. Again this time, the first response I received this morning was from local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman, who wrote,

    "Had not heard the idea of an expedition predated Jefferson’s purchase. Like the Americans that view this as leading to a tragedy for Native Americans, it looks like (as with slavery) this will always be a tear in the collective American psyche. Thanks for writing about it."

    1. Yes, as I wrote in the article, I had always been of the impression that the Expedition was the result of the Louisiana Purchase, but in doing research for the article I learned that Jefferson was making plans for such an expedition before he knew the Purchase would be possible. During the early planning stage, he told Lewis that he and his companions would be in non-U.S. territory from the time they crossed the Mississippi River.

  3. A few years ago my wife and I were visiting our daughter in Portland, Oregon. My birthday fell during the visit, and we made a day trip to the beach, including a stop at Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition wintered over. The stop was both fascinating and disturbing. One fascinating fact was that they held an election to decide which side of the Columbia River to stay on. Each person, even the black slave and the female Indian guide, was given a chance to voice their opinion and to vote on the decision. The sign proudly pointed out that this was long before anywhere else would let either of them vote. I also found out exactly what happened on my birthday, as the visitors center included a what-happened-on-this-date feature. On the other hand, the decades that followed the expedition were filled with blood and fury. Will the quiet camping trip my wife and I took be remembered any more kindly by future environmentalists that the Corps of Discovery is by current civil libertarians? Both the good and the bad that follow in our wake is frequently not only beyond our knowledge, but even beyond our imagination.

    As to what can be done to mitigate the damage, I see no way to untangle the web of history, certainly not a just way to do so. I think the only just way forward is to do just that, go forward. We need to build a just society that works for everyone, not just for the few at the top. We need to establish sound foundations, in the environment, in the economy, in the law, and in the polity of this nation, and of the world. We need to find balance between competition and cooperation, between tradition and science, even between justice and freedom. Realizing the fallacy of Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, and Free Market ideology can open the way, but that is the beginning, not the end, of all the work that is needed. We are running out of options for just muddling through. Global warming, dangerous overpopulation, massive pollution and ideologies of imperialism (both military and economic) bear down on us in a horrific swirl. We are just about out of options.

    1. Craig, thanks so much for your thought-provoking comments. I especially am impressed by what you wrote in the second paragraph, and when I post again on Sept. 5, I will encourage my Thinking Friends to read your comments.

      With regard to your first paragraph, I also was impressed how Sacagawea and York were also allowed to vote on where to build their camp for the winter of 1805~06--as well as on other matters, it seems.

  4. Here are important comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "I especially enjoyed your latest blog about Lewis and Clark. One of my favorite books is 'Undaunted Courage,' by Stephen Ambrose, which is the story of the Corps Of Discovery. It has been several years since I have read the book so details are dim now.

    "As I remember, the party was not abusive of the Native Americans and Lewis and Clark obtained the services as a guide of the pregnant Native American woman, Sacagawea. She has never received the credit she deserves as she was L and C's spokesperson with the various tribes they encountered. I seriously doubt if they could have succeeded in their mission without her.

    "However, our treatment of the American Indians at that time and earlier was abysmal. It is a black mark on American history. The paradox is that the settlers of the New World came here for religious freedom, among other things and yet their attitude and behavior toward the Native Americans was anything but spreading freedom among the natives. Sad, Sad."

    1. Thanks for your pertinent comments, Truett.

      Nothing I read about the Lewis & Clark Expedition suggested that they were in any way abusive toward the Native Americans. On the contrary, since they were such a small, vulnerable group among large groups of Native Americans, they had to do all they could to win their friendship--or at least their tolerance--and they were quite successful in doing that.

      Yes, Sacagawea was quite an outstanding person, it seems--and she was pregnant when L & C first met her, but her baby was soon delivered--and then, incredibly, she went with them all the way to the Pacific Ocean, with the baby, across the Rocky Mountains.

  5. Yesterday, local Thinking Friend Bob Southard commented on the "good ending question,: and then wrote,

    "My answer:
    "1. Support commerce with Native Americans today.
    "2. Highlight the high talent art and valuable cultural contributions.

  6. Here are edited/shortened comments from Thinking Friend Les Hill in Kentucky:

    "As you know two relatives of mine ran in the Oklahoma land runs. I have to admit, that mentally I simply imagined empty territory. No armed efforts related to the runs to my knowledge. Indians continued to live in Oklahoma and I went to school with some of them.

    "You noted previously a recognition that native Indian tribes overran other tribes and took over their land. Attempts (when made theoretically to protect Indian land) seldom remained stronger than the desires of new settlers. The Indian ways of identifying their territory did not resonate with the European land ownership concepts brought with the settlers.

    "I do not know how the government settled with the multiple tribes forced to live in the Oklahoma Indian Reservations and how what land they could continue to live on. You know of the effort simply to kill buffalo by the thousands to deny Indians their major source of food, clothing and housing. And in some instances blankets from settlers suffering from smallpox were deliberately given to the Indians knowing they had no natural resistance (at least much less than the settlers).

    "In one small way some Indians got their share when the land they did have sat on potential oil (I’m guessing that even there they were often cheated out of the true value they should have received subject to a 'white man’s syndrome.')

    "No small matter developed when White Christian settlers set out to 'Christianize' the Indian children using boarding schools. 'Christian' practices were enforced and usually punishment administered if the children spoke in their Indian language even with just friends."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Les. -- To respond to just one of the several important issues you wrote about, Serene Jones in the book I introduced in May 30 blog article is from Oklahoma, and she told about how some of her family were involved in cheating the Indians there out of the revenue from the oil under the land that they owned.

    2. (These are comments Les kindly sent me after my response to his first comments posted above.)

  7. Here is an email message I received today from Bill Haman, a local man I have not yet met:

    "I have the answer to one question about the Lewis and Clark expedition and their ability to make it up the river. It is estimated that the changes made to the Missouri River in Missouri by the COE resulted in a net loss of 100 miles of river. This resulted in a large increase in flow speed throughout the entire Missouri portion of the river. The fuel used per ton mile by tow boats coming up river from St. Louis is about 7 times higher than tows going upstream on the Mississippi."

  8. [Yesterday I posted this with Ken's last name misspelled, so here it is again, corrected.}

    Ken Grenz, a local Facebook friend (and personal friend), posted the following comments on Facebook this afternoon:

    "I’ve been to both Kaw Point here photoed on KS side as well as Clark’s point high across the river on the Missouri side. The Missouri side has a very substantial bronze sculpture and interpretation. The KS side has an interpretation of the native peoples in the area. I’ve read and recommend “Undaunted Courage,” by Stephen Ambrose. Yes, the journey was amazing and represents 'progress.'

    "Yes, while in itself it was not overly 'colonialist' 'Manifest Destiny' and 'American Exceptionalist,' it did feed into that mentality. 'The West' could have been approached in a much more civilized manner than it was!"

    1. Here is the response I posted on Facebook:

      "Thanks for your posting comments, Ken.

      "I am embarrassed to say that I have not yet been to the Missouri side to see the bronze sculpture you mentioned. While doing research for this article, I certainly should have gone there as well as to impressive Kaw Point."