Society for the History of Discoveries


Jackson, Donald. Thomas Jefferson and the Rocky Mountains; Exploring the West from Monticello. Norman; University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. xx, 339p. ISBN 0806125047. $24.95

Ronda, James P. Lewis and Clark among the Indians. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xv, 310 p. ISBN 0803289901. $17.95

Clarke, Charles G. The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition; A Biographical Roster of the Fifty-one Members and a Composite Diary of their Activities from all known Sources. Lincoln and London : University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xix, 351 p. ISBN 1803264194. $16.95

The year 2003 marks the bicentennial of the United States’ largest single territorial acquisition, the Louisiana Purchase. With the excessive hype that seems increasingly to typefy the American approach to public commemoration of momentous events, the “official” bicentennial program will continue through 2006 and will attempt to meticulously choreograph public memory of the event that is most famously associated with the Louisiana Purchase, namely, the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Bicentennial notwithstanding, “Lewis and Clark” is already an industry in the United States, and this is reflected in various sectors from heritage tourism to recreation to publishing. In the literary melee over Lewis and Clark – which has produced a confusing array of volumes running the gamut from tourist handbooks, novels, map collections, glossy “coffee table” pictorials, and even “first-person” accounts written from the point of view of Meriwether Lewis’s pet dog – it is heartening to see the release of new editions of some of the most magisterial works yet produced on the Corps of Discovery. It is in reference to three re-released volumes that I address my remarks. 

Donald Jackson’s Thomas Jefferson and the Rocky Mountains continues to be the definitive bridge connecting three major subfields of American scholarship – Jeffersonian studies, Lewis and Clark studies, studies of westward expansion. Jackson situates Jefferson’s unflagging desire for continental exploration within his overall commitment to science and to the furthering in North American of the intellectual project of the Enlightenment. He also addresses how the geopolitical concerns of Jefferson’s day impacted the practical aspects of mounting exploration parties. Noting that Jefferson largely accepted as inevitable a multi-national presence in North American and a competition among various national and commercial enterprises vying for influence, he describes Jefferson’s belief in a different manifest destiny, in which western lands ought to be left to form “whatever free and independent principalities they wished, allied with but not a part of the United States” (p. 297). 

Of Lewis and Clark, Jackson observes, “one often forgets to consider their expedition as part of a greater plan of exploration. What began as a response to (Alexander) Mackenzie became, with the achievement of the Louisiana Purchase, also the first step in Jefferson’s larger scheme to examine and map the territory” (p. 223). Indeed, it is valuable to reflect that the relationship between the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition is not as obvious as one would think. The Congressional agreement to fund an exploration party up the Missouri River was secured by Jefferson in January 2003, a full four months before the Louisiana Purchase was abruptly transacted in April. This means, of course, that interpretations of the Expedition as simply being a group sent to reconnoiter the newly claimed and purchased territory of Louisiana are misleading. Lewis’ personal preparation for the journey had begun long before 1803, and he would have set out irrespective of the Louisiana Purchase. Moreover, since it was Jefferson’s expressed intent to explore a route to the Pacific Ocean, far beyond any conception of Louisiana’s albeit vague outlines, the undertaking was undeniably one that would pass into lands in which other national claims, including Indian claims, would have to be studied and carefully negotiated. Thus, the Expedition represented not Jefferson’s assurance of US primacy, but rather his wish that America join with other nations in the scramble for dominance over lands seen as too distant for viable habitation, but valuable for other reasons nonetheless.

Jackson also devotes substantial text to the journeys not only of Lewis and Clark but also of other roughly concurrent exploration ventures, such as those of Dunbar and of Pike, bringing together in the context of a single volume material that is usually considered quite separately. 

Jackson expands the reader’s appreciation of various dimensions of Lewis and Clark, and particularly informative is his description of the military regimentation of the party’s daily routines (p. 164-169). This partly corrects the tendency to regard the frontier as a setting of laxity. Instead, the reader sees how the effort to maintain military discipline was both a survival tactic and a subtle effort to claim authority over the landscape. And Jackson describes the particulars of some of Lewis and Clark’s more meticulous efforts to record scientific data, including their more common mistakes, such as in the calculation of longitude (p. 172-176). 

From Jackson emerges the picture of Jefferson as paradoxically both a segregationist and an assimilationist. Jefferson believed fervently in using territory to spatially manipulate people and cultures, and his “Indian Policy” (p. 203-222) amounted to forced separation of Indians for the period of time it would take them to accept the agrarian ways of white Americans, after which voluntary social and racial assimilation would occur (p. 218). In light of the recent pattern of critical history, many twenty-first century readers are likely to be jarred by Jackson’s apologetic reminder that Jefferson “was a benevolent man facing an insoluble situation” (p. 217). Likewise, his remark that in the aftermath of the Expedition, “Clark turned his job into a rewarding career,” sounds dated and amazingly uncritical. Obviously, Jackson’s work preceded the scrutiny that Clark has more recently received in his capacity as chief administrator of Indian affairs in the West for thirty years after the Expedition.1 Still, the scope of Jackson’s work, the thoroughness of his documentation, and his style of including useful sidebars in notes that invite the reader to probe more deeply into specific issues, all ensure that this volume will remain indispensable in literature on Jefferson and on the American West alike. 

The assimilation of western North America into the Euro-American civilizational paradigm was anything but a confrontation with virgin wilderness. Rather, it was a series of engagements with an already settled landscape that included – and later benefited from – the recorded experiences and observations of Lewis and Clark’s long procession of interactions with indigenous nations. Unfortunately, the title of Ronda’s Lewis and Clark Among the Indians almost trivializes its subject by suggesting that the Expedition’s succession of interactions situated in a series of distinct cultural and social landscapes was instead some kind of unified encounter, and this belies the rich and detailed content of the volume. The importance of studying the Indian cultures and languages, of learning how the various groups were postured politically relative to one another as well as to European and commercial representatives, and of promoting harmonious relations with the United States had all been inculcated in Meriwether Lewis through his different sets of instructions from the Jeffersonian circle. Ronda’s work is the definitive study on how the Expedition pursued that set of priorities. He follows the Expedition roughly chronologically through about eight stages, each of which involved negotiating relationships ranging from prolonged and seemingly harmonious contacts over weeks and months, producing astonishingly detailed ethnographic observations, to shorter more problematic encounters in which the men of the Expedition seemed preoccupied with simply “proceeding on” their way quickly.

Ronda’s engaging narrative is replete with reminders of the chronic difficulties in communication, with various members of the party drawn typically drawn into an elaborate “translation chain.” Dialogue with the Salish-speaking Flatheads, for example, was only made possible by the presence among the Flatheads of a captive Shoshoni child and involved “the captains’ English, Labiche’s French, Charbonneau’s Hidatsa, Sacagawea’s Shoshoni, and on to the boy’s Salish.” (p. 156). It also addresses at length a dilemma that was ever-present in most of the Expedition’s dealings with tribal groups, namely, how to use trade goods and cooperation to effect alliances without trafficking in guns and arms, an act that would suggest the Americans’ taking sides relative to inter-tribal disputes about which they knew little. One fascinating way in which this quandary was played out involved the first winter spent near the Mandan and Hidatsa towns on the upper plains. The Mandan and Hidatsa already possessed a variety of forged iron tools and weapons, and Ronda offers an engrossing account of how the men of the Expedition set up an iron forge and began a mutually satisfying exchange of blacksmith services for food (p. 102-104). However, Ronda also analyzes the ramifications of this, as it quickly became apparent that “war axes” were far and away in the highest demand, and the men of the expedition were soon scrounging for scrap metal for the manufacture of more axes. Ronda draws from the journals for his analysis of this delicate situation, such as Clark’s observation that the pressure to make war axes meant that “the smiths have not an hour of idle time to spare.” Ronda himself observes that “the captains never intended to fuel the fires of raid and ambush, but neither were they so naïve as to think that the ‘impliments of War’ from the Mandan forge were for defensive purposes only,” and he insightfully suggests that the Indians “must have wondered just what sort of man would arm a warrior and then tell him not to engage the enemy.” 

In all, Ronda’s work is an example of that rare and masterful combination of authoritative scholarship with entertaining reading. Although the book’s title and the way it has been received in the Lewis and Clark literature seems to suggest that the Expedition’s interactions with the Indians can be somehow sequestered from other facets of the journey, no reader would come away with that impression. The volume functions equally well as a general account of the Expedition as it does for the more serious student of Lewis and Clark who wants to delve into the specifics of the rich cross-cultural interactions that were the backdrop of the entire Expedition. 

Although it represents a sharp turn away from the commanding works by Ronda and Jackson, Charles G. Clarke’s Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is a useful, albeit somewhat odd, little collection. This new edition is strengthened by an excellent introduction by noted historian of the American West, Dayton Duncan, in which Duncan comments upon Clarke’s aim – to turn the monolithic “Expedition” into a collection of individual human stories. The “biographical roster” that forms the book’s core, however, is less than 40 pages, and some members get scarcely a short paragraph. The remaining 250 pages of text are devoted to an abridgement of the captains’ diaries, covering the entire journey, and obviously engineered to draw attention to the daily activities of individual members of the party. Clarke is true to his tactic, but his selection serves to obscure many other facets of the expedition that would be of interest to the general reader. By Clarke’s own admission, “As all the descriptions of geography, ethnology, zoology, botany, mineralogy, meteorology, and astronomy are omitted in this compilation, the result becomes a relation principally of the men, and therefore runs the risk of reading like a glorious hunting expedition” (p. 77). This latter point is definitely the case, as the dominant strand running throughout his selected entries is the disclosure of the hunters and an accounting of what they killed. 

Still, Clarke’s book performed a valuable service in 1970 when it was first published, primarily for its compact cataloguing of the expedition members, their backgrounds, and their fates following the expedition. In light of the recent progress in the Lewis and Clark scholarship, it is probable that many of these sketches could be updated and expanded, and it is unfortunate that no one has yet done so. But the reader cannot help but be drawn into the sketches, learning such intriguing nuggets as one member’s 1852 overland migration to California at the age of seventy-four (p. 56) and the survival to age ninety-nine of Patrick Gass (p. 40), remembered for his published diary that was welcomed by an eager public in a somewhat sensationalized form several years before the “official” journal publication, much to the chagrin of Jefferson. Clarke also includes the only photograph believed to exist of any Expedition member. Such material is both entertaining and informative. And the author reveals an interesting feature of his research methodology. In 1965, he submitted a story on his roster compilation project to the Daughters of the American Revolution monthly national magazine, hoping to spark interest among the genealogy-obsessed Daughters, especially ones who might themselves be descended from members, and that he would thus be able to fill in gaps in his research. Finally, the Clarke volume reminds us of the possibility of amateur researchers making lasting contributions to scholarship. By profession Clarke was a Hollywood cinematographer; but his book leaves unanswered the question of how he came to be drawn into historical research. 

Several important themes are emerging from the Lewis and Clark bicentennial climate. One is the issue of reconciling the experience of indigenous peoples with the Expedition and its aftermath. Ronda’s book goes far in addressing this problematic issue by providing such a thorough picture of the complexity of cross-cultural encounter that sweeping generalizations about a “legacy” are impossible and pointless, while at the same accentuating the tragedy that such an intricate cultural and social geography was soon to be erased. Other themes demanding attention involve reconsidering the “hero worship” aspect of Lewis and Clark discourse and also reassessing the west as a natural landscape that was soon to be profoundly altered. Jackson’s book is relevant to both of these. While it may not set out to knock Lewis, Clark, or Jefferson off their respective pedestals, neither does it fight to keep them there. And Jackson reminds us that Jefferson confronted the West as a political and cultural landscape, not as a wilderness. Indeed, “wilderness” was a term of political critique relative to the Louisiana Purchase, as it implied that the land added nothing of value to the United States. Upon being welcomed back to St. Louis at the conclusion of their journey into “the wilderness,” Lewis corrected the speaker and stated that the party had rather returned from the “wild lands” of North America. This wording seemed intended to suggest that a course of action had begun whereby those lands would become tame. Two hundred years later we continue to cope with the meaning of that process. 

Carol Medlicott
The University of California at Los Angeles


Society for the History of Discoveries home page

All Original Material, Translations and HTML Coding Copyright © The Society for the History of Discoveries 1999 - 2004. All rights reserved.