Lewis and Clark and the Indian Country: 200 years of American History
Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the Corps of Discovery have long been celebrated as adventurers who “opened” the West for the United States. But what if we set aside the cliché that the explorers traveled across a “wilderness” and the traditional assumption that American expansion was “inevitable?” Viewed from this perspective, what can we learn about American history from the expedition’s encounter with Native America and the aftermath of Lewis and Clark’s journey?
Lewis and Clark and the Indian Country re-examines two hundred years of American history, asking, “How did the explorers pass through the Indian country?” “What did the journey mean to them?” and “What were the consequences of their ‘adventure’?”
The exhibition examines the values and traditions that united the diverse communities of the western “Indian country” at the time of the expedition and then describes Lewis and Clark’s historic encounter with the region’s inhabitants. It explores the impact of the expedition on the Indian country as well as its role in
stimulating the expansion of the United States into the West.
To help tell this complex story, the exhibition focuses on five of the Native American communities the Corps of Discovery met two centuries ago: the Mandans and Hidatsas of the Upper Missouri River; the Blackfeet of the Northern Plains; the Nez Perces, whose homeland straddles the continental divide, the Umatillas of the Oregon plateau; and the Chinook-speaking peoples of the lower Columbia River valley. Many members of these communities continue to live in their traditional homelands.
By tracing the expedition’s role both in bringing two cultures and two histories together and in beginning the process that has woven them into the fabric of America, the exhibition reveals the richness and the possibilities embedded in our national past.
THE INDIAN COUNTRY 1800: A BRILLIANT PLAN FOR LIVING
The people the Corps of Discovery encountered during its two and a half-year round-trip journey to the Pacific Ocean belonged to well-ordered communities. While not a country in the European sense, the region the Americans traversed two centuries ago was bound together by common values and customs.
In 1800, the Native American communities in the Missouri and Columbia River regions were prosperous and thriving. They knew how to take advantage of the abundant natural resources around them, and traded for what they could not produce themselves. They had highly developed social structures to educate their children, care for their elderly, and prevent and resolve community conflicts.
“Our ancestors didn’t need child welfare
agencies or food stamps. They had a system,
a way of life that took care of everyone.
They had a brilliant plan for living.” —Frederick Baker (Mandan-Hidatsa)
Creation, Gifts, and Obligations
For the people of the Indian country, creation was an ongoing process; supernatural forces shaped the world in both the past and in the present. Elders explained that these forces took the form of spirit beings who had the power to influence the weather, the hunt, and the size of the harvest, and all other aspects of the natural and human world. They taught that creation was a complex process that required human participation as well as the gifts and blessings bestowed by invisible helpers.
The exchange of gifts was part of the fabric of life in the Indian country. Each gift received meant that one had to be given in return. Patterns of reciprocity within and between communities facilitated social harmony. Within villages and hunting bands, gift giving
discouraged greed and drew individuals into a web of mutual
support. Gift giving between visitors (travelers, diplomats and traders) and their hosts, and gifts between communities, established the important relationships and alliances that helped the region to prosper and remain stable.
Gifts exchanged between the spirit world and the human world were also an essential component of life in the Indian country. Gifts from the creators sustained the human world with the seasonal cycles of food, healthy children, and wisdom. In return, humans showed their respect and gratitude to the spirit beings by offering gifts of presents and prayers. Gifts from the creators could be as humble as the camas root, as powerful as the elk, or as majestic as the red cedar. The special nature of these gifts—for example, their seasonal lifecycles and their usefulness to humans—was discovered by Indian people over centuries of exploration and experimentation.Gifts exchanged between the spirit world and the human world were also an essential component of life in the Indian country. Gifts from the creators sustained the human world with the seasonal cycles of food, healthy children, and wisdom. In return, humans showed their respect and gratitude to the spirit beings by offering gifts of presents and prayers. Gifts from the creators could be as humble as the camas root, as powerful as the elk, or as majestic as the red cedar. The special nature of these gifts—for example, their seasonal lifecycles and their usefulness to humans—was discovered by Indian people over centuries of exploration and experimentation.
“Beginning from the earliest times the children
of the Indians were taught how they might
best obtain their Weyekin [spirit helper],
which would be their helper, adviser, guide
and comforter, both in daily life, in war,
in hunting and fishing, in business
and in sickness.” —Phillip Minthorn
“Portrait of Phillip Minthorn” in
J. M. Cornelison’s Weyekin Titwatit Stories
San Francisco: E. L. Mackey & Co., 1911
Some gifts from the creators were intended for the entire
community. Others were personal—they came from the spirit
helpers that guided people through their lives. These spirit
helpers linked humans to the supernatural world and acted as
a channel for gifts. They promoted good crops, successful
hunts, and happy relationships.
“A Flathead Woman Basketing Salmon,”
copied from Souvenir of the North
American Indians As They Were in the
Middle of the 19th Century
Pencil on paper, 1852
The Pacific salmon is central to the traditional
culture of Native people living within the
Columbia River watershed. Every part of its
complex life cycle has been carefully observed and
incorporated into their creation stories. The
salmon stories pay special attention to the fish’s
changeable nature. Enduring attacks and betrayals
by other animals, and by humans, Salmon survives
by shifting his form; moving back and forth
between youth and old age, and from an egg to a
man to a fish. The salmon stories are a tool for
teaching people about their origins, and about the
values that hold their communities together.
“Dip Net Fishing at Celilo Falls,” ca.1930
Courtesy of Washington State Historical
Well into the twentieth century, Native American
fishermen working the Columbia River continued
to fish for salmon from the same points along the
river their ancestors had fished. Their right to fish
at these “usual and customary” spots, even when
they were outside of reservation boundaries, was
guaranteed by treaties signed by the U.S. and
tribal leaders in the nineteenth century.
“Mandan Village,” from Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s
Travels to the Interior of North America
London: Ackermann & Co., 1843-44
In traditional Native American culture, men and women had their
distinct spheres, but contributed equally to the success of the community. The Mandans, for example, lived in well-organized villages of earth-built lodges clustered along the banks of the Missouri River. Each lodge housed up to three dozen people—usually groups of adult
sisters with their families. The men dominated public spaces and political leadership; they were also responsible for hunting and for protecting the village from intruders. But it was the women who owned property, such as the lodges and their contents, and they were in charge of the agricultural production. They also were in control of trade, giving them considerable power within the community.
Although this view of a Mandan village was executed in 1833, a
generation after Lewis and Clark visited the upper Missouri River, it captures a scene that closely matches the explorers’ descriptions.
Western Red Cedar (“Thuja plicata”), in Thomas Nuttall’s
The North American Sylva
Philadelphia: D. Rice & A. N. Hart, 1859
The western red cedar is indigenous to the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest. It can grow to heights of 185 feet, and some
thousand-year-old specimens have been identified. Its rot resistant
and water repellent qualities were much appreciated by the inhabitants of the damp coastal areas, and they used all parts of the tree. The wood was used for everything from building materials and tools to ceremonial implements; the fibrous inner bark was used for rope, clothing and baskets.
Camas (Camassia quamash)
Specimen collected by Lewis and Clark Expedition
Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia), Botany Department
The camas plant was an important food source for Native communities in the Columbia River region. Women from the mountainous
Nez Perce country to the Pacific coast visited well-known camas prairies to dig for the edible roots. They practiced sustainable
agriculture, harvesting only the largest roots and replanting the rest.
John James Audubon
“Elk (Cervus canadensis),” from The Quadrupeds of North America
A Vast Network
By 1800, complex networks of trade, alliance, and competition linked every corner of the Indian country. Horses first brought to America by the Spanish were bred and traded from the Columbia Plateau to the Missouri River. Traders carried steel tools and glass beads from Europe up the Missouri and Columbia rivers, and south from Lake Winnipeg.
Native groups jostled one another for space: Sioux bands moved west, Arikaras moved north, Shoshones moved south. Indian farming and trading villages along the Missouri and Columbia rivers struggled to maintain their independence and preserve their standing in the marketplace. No single power dominated the region; it was governed instead by overlapping networks of trade, travel and diplomacy.
Ac ko mok ki’s Map of the River System of the Rockies
Hudson’s Bay Company Archives: Archives of Manitoba (HBCA G.1/25)
This remarkable map provides some of the best evidence of the extensive knowledge Native people had of their environment. It also demonstrates the importance of the relationships forged between Indians and Europeans prior to the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Drawn first in the snow by Ac ko mok ki, a Blackfeet leader, in February 1801, the map was copied onto paper by Hudson’s Bay Company trader, Peter Fidler. Ac ko mok ki’s map is oriented with west at the top of the page; the double line crossing from left to
right represents the Rocky Mountains. The map shows two rivers running west from the Rockies, and seventeen rivers flowing east. The line down the center of the map is the Missouri River. Fidler added details regarding the Native American tribal populations
in the region.
Blackfeet Tribe, unidentified artist
Paint on cloth, before 1897
Courtesy of The Field Museum, Chicago (J. Weinstein, photo)
Although warfare was a male activity, success in battle required the
participation of both men and women. This painting, by an unidentified Blackfeet artist, shows a war party returning to its village. While the men were away, the women prayed for victory, and therefore shared in the glory
of the men’s success. Carrying pieces of scalp given to them by their warrior relatives, the women sing songs praising the successful raid and thanking the spirit helpers for their assistance.
“Lean Wolf Using Sign Talk,” in Garrick Mallery’s
Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared
with that among Other Peoples and Deaf Mutes
Washington: United States Bureau of Ethnology, 1881
In addition to the Chinook trade jargon, Native American diplomats
and traders used a language of signs to bridge linguistic barriers. This
“sign talk” was an independent system of communication not based
on any one tribe’s language. At the time of Lewis and Clark, sign talk
was well established in the Indian country. This was probably the
reason why the American commanders recruited George Drouillard,
the half-Shawnee hunter and interpreter, to be a civilian member
of the expedition.
In this illustration from Sign Language Among North American Indians, Lean Wolf, a Hidatsa leader, is commenting on a recently broken agreement with the United States. He signs “Four years ago the American people agreed to be friends with us, but they lied.
That is all."
S. F. Coombs
Dictionary of Chinook Jargon as Spoken on Puget Sound
and the Northwest
Seattle, WA: Lowman & Hanford, 1891
Across the Pacific Northwest trade between dozens of small tribal groups produced an informal language known as the Chinook trade jargon. Named after the Chinook, a local Columbia River tribe, the trade jargon actually incorporated vocabulary from a number of Indian languages, English, French and Spanish.
When Lewis and Clark arrived in the Northwest, they found that use of the jargon was a common feature of Indian trade along the Pacific coast. Coombs’ glossary, published in 1891, shows the endurance of the Chinook trade jargon into the late nineteenth century.
CROSSING THE INDIAN COUNTRY, 1804 – 1806
Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their company of explorers set off on the historic “Voyage of Discovery” on May 14, 1804, from Wood River, in Illinois. During 1804 and 1805, the group traveled west towards the Pacific Ocean, making the return journey to St. Louis in 1806. Their assignment was to find an easy route to the Pacific Ocean and report on the geography, people, and resources they found along the way.
During their three-year trek, the men of the Corps of Discovery crossed the traditional homelands of more than 50 Native American tribes. Their interactions with Indian country peoples brought together very different worldviews, motivations and expectations. It was a cultural encounter of major proportions.
Although the Corps and Indian people often had very different reasons for wanting to establish relationships, encounters between them were successful when both parties appeared to achieve their objectives. Unfortunately, differing perspectives and assumptions often led to misunderstandings between them. The expedition would have failed without Native generosity, hospitality and
information. But the Americans did not always understand what they owed in return.
On their way west, the Americans were eager to establish friendly ties with tribes. However, once they reached the Pacific coast, they considered themselves experts on the Indian country, and no longer felt motivated to spend time fostering relationships with Native Americans. As they headed home in 1806, this attitude, along with their anxiety about ever-dwindling supplies and their impatience about completing their mission, undermined much of the goodwill they had accumulated.
Why Head West?
Soon after becoming president in 1800, Thomas Jefferson proposed sending an expedition to explore beyond the Mississippi River, outside of American territory. His plan languished until April 1803, when American diplomats in Paris agreed to purchase from France “Louisiana,” the largely undocumented area between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains, for $15 million. Napoleon Bonaparte had acquired this land from Spain in the hopes of creating a French empire in North America.
Even before Congress approved the Louisiana Purchase in October 1803, Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition up the Missouri River and over the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson had a multi-faceted goal for the expedition. He wanted to expand trade with Native Americans, find a water route to the Pacific, and identify natural resources that could be exploited for commercial purposes.
James L. Dick, after a painting by Rembrandt Peale
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Oil on canvas, 1805
Courtesy of Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.
The Corps of Discovery
Thomas Jefferson appointed his secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead the expedition to the Pacific. Lewis, born in 1774 on a plantation near Jefferson’s Virginia home, had served as an
officer in the American army in Ohio and Tennessee. To prepare him for the journey, Jefferson sent Lewis to Philadelphia to study with the nation’s leading scientists, among them Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician, and David Rittenhouse, a noted astronomer and mathematician.
Soon after his own appointment, Captain Lewis offered joint command of the expedition to his former army comrade, William Clark. Clark’s practical experience and talent for diplomacy made him an ideal expedition leader. He was also assigned the job of principal mapmaker for the expedition.
The “Voyage of Discovery” was organized under the auspices of the U.S. Army. After Lewis and Clark received their commissions from President Jefferson, they began to prepare a group of men for the trip west. The Corps of Discovery, as the 27-member company is now known, began the journey on May 14, 1804. The Corps included 14 soldiers, nine civilian woodsmen, an interpreter, two boat men and Clark’s black slave, York. Later that year Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader, and his Shoshone companion, Sakakawea (also known as Sacajawea), joined them.
Charles Willson Peale
Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809),
Oil on canvas, painted from life, 1807
Courtesy of Independence National Historic Park
Charles Willson Peale
William Clark (1770–1838),
Oil on canvas, painted from life, 1807-08
Courtesy of Independence National Historic Park
Journal Commencing at the River Dubois
[Wood River, IL]
May 14, 1804 – November 6, 1805
Thomas Jefferson gave Meriwether Lewis explicit instructions about keeping field notes and diaries: the Corps was to record details of geography, geology, and climate; flora and fauna; and information about local inhabitants. As a safeguard against loss, they also made copies of their records. Lewis ordered all the Sergeants in the company to keep diaries as well.
Joseph Whitehouse was the only enlisted man in the Corps to keep a journal. After he deserted the army in 1817, Whitehouse and his unpublished diary disappeared from history, only coming to light in the twentieth century. The Newberry Library owns two versions of Whitehouse’s journal. One is a manuscript written by Whitehouse himself. The other is in the handwriting of a professional scribe who
copied it from Whitehouse’s original, making corrections and changes at Whitehouse’s request.
What the Americans Knew
When the Corps of Discovery embarked on its journey in 1804, the Indian country of the Upper Missouri, Rocky Mountains and Columbia River lay shrouded in mystery and fantasy. Although the British had recently mapped the coastline north of San Francisco, and Spanish and French traders were familiar with some of the Indian communities of the central plains, the Americans lacked detailed information about the North American interior. This lack of knowledge is reflected in the best-known maps of the era, in which the regions between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean are shown as nearly empty.
The up-to-date scientific training Captain Meriwether Lewis received from leading scientists in Philadelphia prior to the voyage was not of much help. Lewis believed the incorrect assumptions of mapmakers and scholars that the Missouri River drainage extended nearly to the Pacific, and that there were easy passes through the mountain ranges. Based on this information, he certainly had no reason to expect the journey to be as arduous and challenging as it was.
“Map of North America,”
from Brookes' General Gazetteer
Improved (...), based on Aaron
Arrowsmith’s 1802 map
Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson,
& Co., 1806
A Map of Lewis and Clark’s Track
Across the Western Portion of North America
from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean
Ink and pencil on paper, 1811
In December 1810, William Clark drew a three-foot by five-foot map of his route to the Pacific for Nicholas Biddle, the Philadelphia editor preparing the official history of the expedition. Clark recommended that Biddle also consult George Shannon, a private in the Corps of Discovery. In 1811, Biddle reported that he and Shannon had modified Clark’s map “to make it illustrate the route principally.” Shannon is believed to be the draftsman for the manuscript map shown here. The map included in Biddle’s History (published by Paul Allen in 1814) is the same size, and identical in nearly every detail.
The New Experts
When the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1806, the explorers were immediately acknowledged as experts on the Indian country. Sergeant Patrick Gass’s frequently reprinted Journal (1807) and Nicholas Biddle’s official History of the Expedition (completed by Paul Allen in 1814) provided vivid descriptions of the western territory.
The Corps’ ideas and impressions about the region and its inhabitants informed the next generation of westward travelers. However, Native voices were not included in their reports, making it difficult for the American public to understand the complex reality of Indian life. The importance of gift giving, for example, became central to future Indian-white relations. But Native values and customs that the Corps misunderstood, or disapproved of, were labeled “backward” or “ludicrous.”
The members of the Corps made the most of their expert status. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, however, achieved the greatest national prominence. Thomas Jefferson appointed Lewis governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1807, a position he held until his death in 1809. Clark was appointed the principal Indian agent for the Louisiana Territory in 1807, and he was given Lewis’s governor’s post when Lewis died (in late 1812, the northern portion of Louisiana was renamed the Missouri Territory). When Missouri became a state in 1821, Clark served as its Superintendent of Indian Affairs almost until his death in 1838.