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Geographical Expectations for Lewis and Clark

From the beginning of New World exploration, Europe's stubborn belief was that the world simply didn't have room for a continent between Europe and Asia. After they discovered that a continent did lie between them, Europe next believed that America was narrow from east to west and easily crossed by a waterway. The waterway across the continent was known as the Northwest Passage (also called the Passage to India) and was the one Christopher Columbus was looking for in 1492.

Looking for a new Eden

So convinced were the French of the Passage's existence that even the smallest scrap of evidence was enlisted in upholding the belief. If a discovery didn't absolutely prove otherwise, it became a confirmation of the existence of the Passage. So when explorers Marquette and Joliet found the mouth of the Missouri River in 1673, everyone involved believed that this river must be the Passage, or at least the key to discovering the Passage.

Keep in mind that no European country had actually explored the Missouri River to its source, and none had a clue whether another great river existed west of the Missouri. None of the European countries had explored the Rocky Mountains, so they didn't know whether the range was high or low, although some had guessed it marked a divide in the continent. Most of what was "known" by non-Indians about the American West boiled down to conjecture and wishful thinking.

Some people were convinced they knew what Lewis and Clark would see on their journey:

  • About a thousand miles into the trip, they'd come to a mountain of rock salt that was 180 miles long and 45 miles wide.
  • They'd see a number of volcanoes along the Missouri River.
  • They'd encounter the woolly mammoth, long extinct elsewhere in the world. President Jefferson himself believed they might find one.

In addition, the Indians of the West were believed to be different from those that the United States had already encountered and conquered. Some believed that western tribes were descended from pre-Columbian European explorers, such as the Norse or Welsh, or that they were remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. In some circles, it was assumed that Indian cultures became more advanced the further west they were located. Others believed that some tribes in the West would be white, and some would be black.

The West represented new opportunity, new hope, so before it was explored by Lewis and Clark, the American West reached mythical proportions. It became the ideal, a garden, a new Eden — a place where the soils and climates were the best in the world, the natives were of ancient noble descent, the portages (traveling overland between bodies of water) were short, the mountains were small, and the barriers to a magnificent new existence were few.

Mapping out the unknown

Among the most precious cargo on the Lewis and Clark expedition were maps that summarized the works of all the leading explorers and geographers of the day. They had a new map by Nicolas King, commissioned by Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, for the expedition. Today, these maps are fascinating (as well as amusing) to look at because they bear almost no relation to the true geography of the West, especially the Missouri River, Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest.

The flaws were not for lack of trying. Nicolas King had consulted two versions of the map of North America produced by Aaron Arrowsmith, the finest mapmaker of the time. The first version, from 1795, was made from data collected from the archives of the Hudson's Bay Company, the British fur trading company that had vast experience trekking around the West. It showed the Missouri River as a fragment unconnected to the "Stony Mountains" or the Mississippi River. A note said that the Stony Mountains were "3250 feet high above the level of their Base."

What you can ascertain from these primitive maps with their sketchy, mistaken information is that the Northwest was a deeply mysterious place to Euro-Americans of the time. The tendency was to fill in the parts that were least known with the most fanciful details.

Dispelling myths about the West

Even after Europeans found the continent to be rather substantial, faith in the existence of a waterway (or perhaps two waterways with a short overland trip in the middle) remained strong. Centuries passed, and many explorations were launched before minds were changed on this score. In fact, this was the main bubble that Lewis and Clark burst.

The history of the 130 years (1673 to 1803) that passed between the explorations of Marquette and Joliet and Lewis and Clark — although often disappointing in the details — didn't dim this belief. Explorations by the Frenchman Hennepin a short way up the Missouri in 1680 established the four central beliefs that Lewis and Clark would operate from when they began their journey from Wood River in 1804.

  • The Missouri was a mighty river originating far to the west.
  • Its source was in a range of mountains in the western interior.
  • You could see the sea (or even ships) from those mountains.
  • From those mountains, you could locate another great river that flowed to the Pacific.

The Missouri went through a "magnificent pass," one official wrote confidently in the early 1700s, "through a range of mountains not requiring a difficult portage." Pierre Charlevoix, a Jesuit (Roman Catholic religious order) sent by the French duke of Orleans to find out more about Louisiana, assured the duke that "after sailing up the Missouri as far as is navigable you come to a great river which runs westward and discharges into the Sea." France's search for the Passage to India ended in 1763, when Spain took control of Louisiana and Great Britain took over what was known then as "New France" (Canada).

But France's withdrawal didn't dampen enthusiasm for exploration. English, Spanish, and U.S. explorers took up the French gauntlet as the explorers of the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys in the last half of the eighteenth century. Little by little, improved scientific methods allowed for a more accurate view of what the West was like. By the end of the century, longitudes and latitudes of key places could be determined and maps began to be accurate in a few of their details.

The sensational accounts of every journey that went a bit farther into the unknown were followed with fascination by the public and U.S. politicians. Thomas Jefferson avidly followed every report of every exploration on the continent, collecting and reading journals and pouring over maps. Jefferson was a rapt student during those intervening years of exploration before Lewis and Clark, and he would impart much of what he'd learned to Meriwether Lewis.

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