Society for the History of Discoveries


Wood, W. Raymond. Prologue to Lewis and Clark: the Mackay and Evans expedition. Foreword by James P. Ronda. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003. 234 p. ISBN 0806134917.

With this book, Ray Wood has given new life to a story that is too little known. James MacKay and his protégé John Evans traveled from St. Louis to the Mandans on the Upper Missouri in the late 1790’s. While they were not the first Europeans to set foot in the Mandan villages, they were the first to chart their journey so that others might follow. Among those who found their work invaluable were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

The MacKay-Evans route lay within territory that France had ceded to Spain in 1762. Spain had at first little interest in the region other than as a vast buffer zone around her riches in Mexico. But Spanish interest grew in the 1790’s after reports that the British were encroaching on the northern edges of Spanish Louisiana, winning over the lucrative fur trade with the Upper Missouri tribes in unmanned Spanish territory. A group of St. Louisans formed a syndicate called the Missouri Company to share the expense and any eventual profit of upper Missouri exploration to regain Spanish control of that region. The Mackay-Evans expedition was the third and last venture funded by the Missouri Company.

Mackay and Evans have received little popular attention, especially compared to their celebrated successors. One major factor is the complexity of the struggle for empire in the Mississippi Valley at the turn of the nineteenth century. To the uninitiated, the matrix of loyalties, local conditions, and international diplomacy that spawned these expeditions can be daunting and confusing. Wood is to be commended for taking a complex subject and making it clear without oversimplifying it. He sets the stage for the MacKay-Evans expedition admirably, introducing the reader to the varied cast of characters that desired more access to this uncharted land.

James MacKay was an entrepreneurial Scot who brought scarce and much needed talent to the scene. He was literate in many languages, experienced in working with Indians and voyageurs, familiar with British trading practices, and skilled as a surveyor. MacKay’s young protégé, John Evans, brings a touch of poignant eccentricity to the story. A highly idealistic Welshman in his early twenties, he came to the U.S. seeking a lost tribe of Welsh Indians and, arriving in St. Louis at a crucial time, became a partner on MacKay’s expedition.

Wood also explicates another major reason why MacKay and Evans’ contributions to cartographic history are not more well known: the attribution of their most significant maps and charts has been unclear. Wood devotes a large section of his book to the various states and versions of their charts, and analyzes two of the most important surviving copies (known as the Indian Office map and the Beinecke Library map). He also includes a redrawing of the Beinecke map with new interpretations of some ambiguous labels. This will undoubtedly become a valued aid for further scholarship, as will an appendix comparing the place names on the two maps with their present day forms.

In addition to his close analysis of maps and related documentary evidence, Wood’s training as an anthropologist informs his research and brings some of the most vivid detail to his narrative. Members of SHD in particular will appreciate Wood’s use of archaeological and physical evidence to round out his retracing of the expedition route and to compare its charted course in detail with today’s landscape.

Another reason for the relative obscurity of the Mackay-Evans story is the sparseness of the documentary evidence. We have here no rich historical mine such as the voluminous journals of the Corps of Discovery. Wood does his readers a service by appending transcriptions of all of the significant surviving primary documents that pertain to the expedition, noting that “Most of the documents may be found in A. P. Nasatir’s monumental Before Lewis and Clark, but these have been augmented by texts from rare or hard-to-obtain . . . sources . . . .”(p. 163).

Ray Wood brings numerous forms of detailed evidence – cartographic, documentary, geographical, archaeological and anthropological – together in a single volume in an enormously convenient fashion for anyone seriously interested in this region or this time period. He also weaves these fragments together into a narrative that helps to paint a picture of the rigors of exploration, the complexity of the milieu, and insofar as the evidence permits, the character of these men. In so doing, Wood has made an excellent case for reassessing the contribution of these too much neglected precursors to Lewis and Clark.

Emily Troxell Jaycox
Missouri Historical Society


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