Lewis and Clark: Trailblazers of Western America

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The Lewis and Clark expedition is known as a dangerous journey across the unknown lands of western United States. The exploration proved to be an achievement for the United States by paving the way to new developments in territorial expansion. President Thomas Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804 to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River. This exploration called the Lewis and Clark expedition resulted from the Louisiana Purchase, which granted 828,000 square miles of land to the United States in 1803 by the French. Meriwether Lewis, President Jefferson’s personal secretary, and William Clark, Lewis’ military general, were chosen for this journey through the west, as they studied botany medicine, astronomy, zoology, and cartography (“Lewis and Clark”). After being chosen, they recruited young, well-trained men in Kentucky to form a group called the Corps of Discovery. Almost every member of the Corps of Discovery kept copious notes and journals that provided critical details about the climate, soil, plants, animals, and Native American tribes in the territories. The expedition’s main objective was to set diplomatic relations among the natives and expand trade in the Northwest Passage, a water route that was highly sought after, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Thomas Jefferson requested Congress to finance the expedition “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the US” (Ambrose). Through the journals kept by the Corps of Discovery, the Lewis and Clark expedition expanded the knowledge of flora and fauna. Although the Lewis and Clark expedition resulted in conflicts with hostile natives, it was vital to the expansion of the United States as it established civilized trade among various groups of natives and produced detailed maps which supplemented the knowledge of the unknown lands.

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While the Lewis and Clark expedition immensely contributed to the growth of the United States, the Native Americans faced a multitude of threats. The Corps of Discovery, “however, unwittingly brought new diseases to the area that decimated the local native population” when they arrived at the beginning of 1804 (“Exploration: Lewis and Clark”). The tragedy of the Lewis and Clark expedition was the downfall of many Native American tribes due to new diseases brought in by the Americans, in which the natives were not immune. The statistics of the Mandan population highlight how the Corps of Discovery, unfortunately, brought new diseases to the villages, where many natives died. Even though the exploration had its successes, Native American tribes faced destruction, as they were not accustomed to the new diseases. This resembles Christopher Columbus’ exploration in 1492 of the “New World,” as they destroyed a majority of native tribes and introduced them to new European diseases. Also, natives were forced to convert to Christianity. This went against what the Native Americans represented, as their lives were centered around religion, tradition, and culture. The Lewis and Clark expedition eradicated the culture and identity of some native tribes, which threatened the survival of the Native Americans on the western lands. The idea of Manifest Destiny arose after the Lewis and Clark expedition, causing more detrimental effects to the Native American population, as some historians argue that they were not the first, “non-Indians to explore the area” (Buckley). As Manifest Destiny prompted Americans to believe that expansion through the continent was their right, it was hazardous to the Native American population, as it brought about the appropriation of their lands and their way of life.

The expedition also encountered around 50 native tribes where each had different responses to the Americans. A handful of Native American tribes, such as the Teton Sioux Indians saw the Corps of Discovery as “competitors for the control of trade” (“Hospitality and Hostility”). The Tetons Sioux were known for having a more violent approach when it came to foreigners, as they would demand large toll payments from passing traders. Because of this, tensions arose between the Corps of Discovery and the Teton Sioux nearly leading into an armed conflict. The Blackfeet Indians were known to be hospitable to Europeans, as they were trade partners with Canadian-based British merchants. After meeting Lewis and Clark in 1806, they detected the American plans of peace among all Indian tribes, which “to the Blackfeet, American plans represented a direct threat,” as the plan included the Nez Perces and Shoshones – enemies of the Blackfeet – receiving guns for agreeing to the plan (Neiman). The Blackfeet were worried that giving weapons to their competitors would weaken the power of the tribe. Because of this belief, the Blackfeet attempted to steal arms from the Corps of Discovery which lead to Lewis and a member of the Corps, Reuben Field, to kill a Blackfeet member, causing this to be the first bloodshed moment in the exploration. Lastly, the Chinook Indians were known for their intention to kill Americans. Even though the first encounter with the expedition was peaceful, Clark wrote that it was a necessity for “the protection of our Stores for thieft [sic]” (DeVoto). The Chinooks had stolen a saddle and a robe from the Corps of Discovery, causing an extensive search around the village for the goods. Although native encounters were not as friendly, the Lewis and Clark expedition led to one of the most significant civilian expansions in United States history.

The main goal of the Lewis and Clark expedition was to establish amicable relations with Native Americans tribes in the west. The Corps of Discovery developed a protocol for meeting with new Native American tribes through “[presenting] the tribe’s leader with a Jefferson Indian Peace medal – a coin engraved with the image of Thomas Jefferson on one side and an image of two hands clasped beneath a tomahawk and a peace pipe with the inscription ‘Peace and Friendship’” (“Lewis and Clark”). Lewis and Clark brought 84 peace medals (see appendix A) to distribute among the native tribes, as they were an essential part of the United States government relation between Indian nations and Americans as it displayed the Indians as coequal of the United States. This action among the Corps of Discovery revealed the members’ acceptance to allow Native American tribes to be a part of the United States. For example, the Mandan tribe were receptive to the American plans of the expedition. Councils with the Indians were held (see appendix B) to plan trade networks along the Mississippi and Missouri River, as the Mandan village was the center of fur trading between the French and Native Americans. The Mandans provided food, shelter, also known as Fort Mandan, and material goods to help the Corps of Discovery in exchange for a steady flow of trade. The Shoshone tribe was the most crucial tribe that benefitted the Corps of Discovery. Sacagawea, a fifteen-year-old Shoshone girl, accompanied the Corps of Discovery as they made their way along, acting as a translator for other neighboring tribes. Her knowledge of the lands, customs, and language played a crucial role in the success of the exploration. In Clark’s journals, he mentions that the Shoshones were, “durtry [sic], kind, pore [sic], & extravigent [sic] pursessing [sic] national pride. Not beggarley [sic]” (Ambrose, 180). Lewis and Clark valued the Shoshone and Mandans for assisting them along their journey through the west, and in return administered medical aid among sick children and women and offered their advancement in technology to the natives.

The exploration of the west also contributed to the knowledge of flora and fauna. During the journey, Lewis was able to identify 182 different plant species and 120 animals (see appendix C and D). Orders from President Jefferson was to write down the vegetable production and mineral productions of any kind as well as insects, animals, and plants. The Corps of Discovery found plants that could be eaten and used as medicinal herbs for healing wounds and illnesses that they faced during harsh weather conditions. When finding a new plant species and animals, they sent them back to Jefferson, who wrote to Congress that, “extracts from his observations and copies of his maps of the river… make part of the present communications” (“Thomas Jefferson’s Message”). These contributions to the knowledge of flora and fauna proved to be especially useful when it came to trading and medicine, as illnesses were treated with common plants found in the wild. The Corps of Discovery also took note of soil and rock composition for farming purposes. They followed a land route which increased their awareness of rivers and native tribes, which revealed big fur trading centers. The introduction of more animals and plants contributed to the growth in the fur trading business as it provided new products and critical locations of trading.  Though Jefferson declared, “the object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river… may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across the continent, for purposes of commerce” the Corps of Discovery managed to find a land route which would lead them to new native tribes (Walters Jr). The United States government benefited from the maps created by the Corps of Discovery on their journey to the west. These maps were utilized during westward expansion, which showcased the route they took (see appendix E). The maps provided information about the west, as Lewis incorporated key details about Native American tribes – whether hostile or friendly.

The legacy of the Lewis and Clark expedition acknowledges the vital part it played in the westward expansion of the United States. The exploration was able to attain the goals of forging harmonious relations with the Native American tribes, boost the knowledge of flora and fauna, and improve fur trading. However, Native Americans did face eradication through the introduction of new diseases and a decline in the tribes’ culture. The Lewis and Clark expedition made a pathway for future expansion, such as the gold rush which undoubtedly positively affected the United States economy. Without the expedition, the United States would not have discovered new animals and plants occupying the western region. The Lewis and Clark expedition was a fundamental aspect to the United States history, as it established fur trading  networks between Native Americans and Europeans, along with maps referring to the western lands.

Appendix A

Moulton, Gary E. “Jefferson Peace Medals.” Discovering Lewis & Clark,


Appendix B

“Lewis and Clark Meet with Indians.” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2019,

     www.americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1169478. Accessed May 16, 2019.

Appendix C

Moulton, Gary E. “Plants: Discovering Lewis & Clark.” Discovering Lewis & Clark,


Appendix D

“Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America.” Library of

     Congress, www.loc.gov/exhibits/lewisandclark/lewis-landc.html

Appendix E

“Lewis and Clark Expedition map.” Science and Its Times, edited by Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer, Gale, 2001. U.S. History in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CV2210041681/UHIC?u=mlin_m_lexhigh&sid=UHIC&xid=7ab413b5. Accessed 15 May 2019.


Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources:

DeVoto, Bernard. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Riverside Press, 1953. This book is a primary source written by Meriwether Lewis. This source contains Lewis and Clark’s journals during the expedition, which helped me understand their perspective in the journey. The journals depicted the struggles of the expedition to the west that they encountered, as well as the success of new findings.

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Lewis, Meriwether. Map of Missouri River Used by Lewis and Clark. 1798. Library of Congress. Map. This map is a primary source created by Lewis during their journey through the Missouri River. This source is useful because it shows the journey that the explorers took while traveling through native villages and rivers. Also, it shows when they crossed the Mandan village, who were one of the friendly natives.

President Thomas Jefferson’s message to Congress communicating the discoveries of the explorers Lewis and Clark; 2/19/1806; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/discoveries-lewis-clark, May 16, 2019] This letter is a primary source written by Thomas Jefferson to the Congress about the Lewis and Clark discoveries. This source supplements my understanding of the many discoveries Lewis and Clark made on their journey to the west as well as providing key details of Jefferson’s orders for the journey.

“Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America.” Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/exhibits/lewisandclark/lewis-landc.html. This website contains primary sources about plants, maps, animals, letters, and medals the Corps of Discovery used and found during their expedition. This source was useful because it shows the different perspectives, such as Jefferson, Lewis, and the other members of the Corps of Discovery.

Secondary Sources:

Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996. This source is a book which outlined the expedition with key details. Also, this book quoted many primary sources which helped my understanding of the point of view of the Corps as they made their way through the west. This source is helpful in finding background information as it provided maps created by Lewis and plant/animal drawings.

Blaschke, Anne. “Lewis and Clark Expedition.” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2019, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/253260. Accessed 16 May 2019. This database is an overview of the Lewis and Clark expedition. This source provides key information about Jefferson’s approval of the journey and the journals kept by Lewis and Clark. Even though it doesn’t quote specific quotes from the journal, it still gives a concise explanation of the expedition.

Buckley, Jay H. “Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Encyclopædia Britannica, edited by Jay H. Buckely, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 22 Feb. 2019, www.britannica.com/event/Lewis-and-Clark-Expedition. Accessed 6 June 2019. This source contains information about the legacy of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as points of view from historians. This was useful in understanding the different standpoints people had over the expedition.

“Clark, William and Lewis, Meriwether.” Westward Expansion Reference Library, edited by Allison McNeill, et al, vol.3: Primary Sources, UXL, 2000, pp. 5-18. U.S. History in Context,http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3426500067/UHIC?u=mlin_m_lexhigh&sid=UHIC&xid=f7e08c6d. Accessed 15 May 2019. This database contains excerpts of journals written by Lewis and Clark, as well as background information about Thomas Jefferson’s orders and the Louisiana Purchase. This source helps me to understand the key details in how this trip came to be, and what was needed along the journey.

History.com Editors. “Lewis and Clark.” History, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/lewis-and-clark#section_13. Accessed 15 May 2019. This database provides an overview of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as it helps in developing background information. Also, this source explains the native americans encounters the men in the Corps faced, ranging from friendly to hostile natives. This helps me understand the conflicts between the natives and the Corps, as well as formulate my argument of the difficulties with native tribes.

“Lewis and Clark Expedition map.” Science and Its Times, edited by Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer, Gale, 2001. U.S. History in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CV2210041681/UHIC?u=mlin_m_lexhigh&sid=UHIC&xid=7ab413b5. Accessed 15 May 2019. This database contains a map of the Lewis and Clark expedition with important notes in key areas. This map provides descriptions of the routes taken by Lewis and Clark, as well as Sacagawea’s route towards the west, and the journey back home.

“Lewis and Clark Meet with Indians.” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2019, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1169478. Accessed 16 May 2019. This image on this database shows how some native americans were friendly with Lewis and Clark. The point of view in this political drawing of Lewis and Clark holding a Council with the natives is supporters of the expedition as it is depicted as a calm environment between the natives and Lewis’s group.

Moulton, Gary E. “Plants: Discovering Lewis & Clark.” Discovering Lewis & Clark, www.lewis-clark.org/channel/156. This website provided details on the plants the Corps of Discovery found in the western region. This included images and descriptions of the plants as they were able to discover new things in the west. This helps me understand how important the expedition was to the United States.

Moulton, Gary E. “Jefferson Peace Medals.” Discovering Lewis & Clark, www.lewis-clark.org/article/350. This website provided images of the Jefferson peace medal, which helped me understand the interactions between the Native Americans and the Corps of Discovery. They images of the medal were useful because they showed what the medal or coin had engraved in them, which was used as a gift for the Native Americans.

Neiman, David. “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.” PBS, www.pbs.org/lewisandclark/native/index.html. This website contains information about the different Native American tribes. This source was useful because for each tribe, it included brief descriptions about where they live, their culture and traditions, as well as their interactions with the Corps of Discovery. This was helpful in determining which if the tribes were hostile towards the Corps of Discovery, as the descriptions told me about the attacks and violence.

University of Virginia. “Native Americans and the Lewis and Clark Expedition: Hospitality and Hostility.” Medicine and Health on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, U of Virginia, 2007, exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/lewisclark/natives/. Accessed 21 May 2019. This website offers an explanation of the different encounters of native american tribes, as some tribes were hostile to the expedition group. This source also differentiates the lifestyles, customs, and languages that native americans tribes have, as this helped me understand the various actions many of the tribes used towards the Corps.

Ushistory.org. “Exploration: Lewis and Clark.” U.S. History in Context, 2019, www.ushistory.org/us/21b.asp. Accessed 5 June 2019. This database was useful in providing information about the help received by the Native Americans, as well as the conflicts they faced among different tribes. This source is useful in understanding the various native interactions the Corps of Discovery had during their journey.

Walters Jr., William D. “A Geographer Looks at Lewis and Clark’s Route and Its Later Impacts.” A Geographer Looks at Lewis and Clark’s Route and Its Later Impacts. Illinois Periodicals Online, 2003. Web. https://www.lib.niu.edu/2003/iht1030339.html. 6 June. 2019. This source is a secondary source which provided a useful timeline of events during the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as general information about how the expedition came to be. Also, this source included the types of animals and plants they discovered.

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