Placing Lewis and Clark in History
One of the ways that the Lewis and Clark journey stands out among all the other explorations of the Americas is the over one million words that Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals. Clark was the most faithful journalist, writing nearly every day, and he was also the most idiosyncratic speller. He spelled the word “mosquito,” for example, over two dozen ways, without once spelling it the way Americans spell it today.
The journals are an unparalleled record of fact, opinion, bias, affection, anger, humor, sadness, and mortal danger. They make Lewis’s and Clark’s continental journey a human story, full of life and its triumphs and failures, joys and sorrows, and never-ending challenges.
Most of the intrepid explorers were dead just a few years after returning from the West, but because they kept journals that record every place they went and what they saw, heard, and did, the Lewis and Clark expedition lives on in American imaginations, hearts, and history classes.
The Lewis and Clark expedition, preserved in those journals, paved the way for rapid and radical change, and the country has made almost mind-boggling progress since the early 1800s. Yet that progress has come at a terrible cost to indigenous peoples and the environment.
Beginning Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny, the nineteenth-century doctrine that America’s westward expansion was pre-determined and inevitable, wasn’t named until later in the century, but it was the obvious course of U.S. politics when Lewis and Clark set off on their voyage. The western half of the North American continent contained a million square miles in 1800, all unknown to United States citizens. This enormous uncharted land mass inspired visions of future U.S. power and prosperity in statesmen like President Jefferson, who conceived and planned the Lewis and Clark expedition. The West beckoned to men like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who were young, fit, courageous, confident, and willing to test their fortunes against it.
Jefferson believed that western tribes could be instrumental in the development of a fur-trade empire and would gradually be assimilated into white culture. If not, they would have to be removed to some other place. Jefferson worried that assimilation would not happen fast enough on the frontier — it had not happened with tribes in the East, who had moved or been run off from their lands or gone into hiding. And it was not happening in Indiana Territory at that moment, where settlers were deciding that the Indians needed to leave and were clamoring for government intervention.
Jefferson thought that the surviving Eastern and Midwestern tribes were best protected from whites and should be removed to somewhere west of the Mississippi River, somewhere whites didn’t want to live. The logical extension to that thought was that eventually, some western tribes would also have to be removed, although Jefferson may or may not have thought that far in advance.
White Americans believed that it was their God-given right to settle the West, and the path had to be cleared. Nineteenth-century Americans perceived the presence of Indian tribes all over the continent as an obstacle to settlement of U.S. territory — wherever whites chose to live.
A century of conquest
As you look back 200 years to the Lewis and Clark expedition, the landscape has radically changed. The environment has been critically damaged, and the tribes were nearly decimated. The expedition may not have directly caused these changes, but it was the catalyst for change. The West was certainly never the same after Lewis and Clark’s visit.
Disease brought by Euro-Americans was the first wholesale killer of American Indians. Then, conflict with white settlers resulted in the loss of traditional homelands and hunting territories and removal or confinement to reservations. White settlement depleted the game animals that the tribes depended on for food, clothing, and self-sufficiency. Federal policy built dams that buried tribal lands in water and stopped the great salmon runs. Poverty, starvation, and dependency plagued reservation tribes. Federal government policy took Indian children from their parents and placed them in faraway boarding schools, where they were forced to give up their languages and cultures. Solemn treaties with tribes were broken. Presidential executive orders and acts of Congress continually reduced tribal lands. Federal policy withdrew sovereignty status from tribes and rescinded support for struggling tribal governments, schools, and social services. Federal policy tried to eradicate Indians.
Today, the tribes are striving to preserve their languages — languages that Lewis and Clark heard and tried to phonetically record in their journals. Tribes are working successfully to revitalize their cultures, traditions, practices, arts and crafts, songs, and stories. American Indian tribes are beginning to recover.
Waging a century of war against the environment
The overwhelming bounty of the West that Lewis and Clark described over and over was gone by the end of the same century in which they described it. Many animal and plant species were driven to extinction and many remain endangered. The countless numbers of buffalo that covered the plains for miles and held up Lewis’s and Clark’s canoes for hours while crossing rivers were decimated to near extinction by white hunters and settlers. Dams now constrict the natural flow of rivers. The huge salmon runs of the Columbia River and Pacific Northwest were stopped by dam after dam built to supply hydroelectric power, and some species of salmon recorded by Lewis and Clark are now extinct. These same dams buried the mighty Great Falls of the Missouri and the thundering Celilo Falls on the Columbia.
The beaver and otter were trapped out. Grizzly bears and wolves were forced to the brink of extinction. And the passenger pigeon that darkened the skies in Lewis’s and Clark’s day and provided supper for the explorers on occasion, perished completely from the face of the earth.
Today, many Americans are interested in conserving what bounty is left. National environmental organizations have focused their efforts on preserving and restoring the lands and waters traveled by Lewis and Clark. Federal, state, and tribal resource-management agencies enforce sustainable use regulations. And individual Americans are being more respectful, picking up their litter and contributing tax-deductible dollars to help protect and preserve America’s natural treasures.
As a result, the rivers are slightly less polluted, although still dammed. Tribal consortiums are bringing back the salmon and buffalo bit by bit. Grizzly bears and wolves are multiplying again. Severe threats from resource extraction, growth, sprawl, drought, and general idiocy still exist; for most Americans, what was once squandered is now valued.