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One historian described it as an expedition that seemed a “tedious march from one place to another made known to them by Indians and French traders, with an occasional incident to testify to the strangeness of the land and the unique challenges that the West presented.” Most Americans understand it as an expedition directed by President Thomas Jefferson from 1804-1806 to find a water route to the West Coast, explore an “unknown” territory, meet the people already living there, and show the so-called Louisiana Purchase territory was now owned by the United States. The historian Vine Deloria, Jr. and member of the Standing Rock tribe, called it “a routine venture now revered because we desperately need to have a heroic past.”

Of course, the Lewis and Clark expedition was not the first encounter of white explorers with the native peoples and inhabitants of the so called Louisiana Territory, purchased by the United States from France. The Mandan villages throughout present day north and south Dakota, had common knowledge of French and British traders. In fact, when the Lewis and Clark expedition visited the Yankton Sioux camp, the natives flew a Spanish flag. Moreover, the Yankton Sioux sent a delegation to the British conference at Albany before the American Rebellion/Revolution, and sent warriors to support the British during the War of 1812. Deloria cites the journals of Lewis and Clark as being particularly concerned about the “oversupply of bears on the prairies and bottom lands, and that sandbars posed a continuing barrier to the expedition, making the development of a heavy and easy commerce with the Orient via an inland waterway impossible.” Keeping in the mind that the French colonial policy had encouraged intermarriage with the native peoples and exchange of children to form kinship networks with eastern tribes, Deloria speculates, if we think about what this new population represented, could there be an “alternative possible scenario for the settling of the West”?

Could a “mixed-blood” government have dealt with the United States on better terms? Would the “interior” of the United States have been developed with a goal of “maintaining a sustainable yield of products rather than of exhausting the resources? Would treaties even have been necessary if the various tribes had adopted enough of French culture that they adapted their institutions to resemble those of western Europe and guaranteed equality in both law and custom to new settlers of the region?” It is hard to say for certain, of course.

But the journals of Lewis and Clark clearly show that they had little respect for the natives or the native institutions. They seemed to be far more concerned with natives “scheming to do them evil, and a sense of impending danger colors many of their recorded comments.” But others who visited the various tribes of the Great Plains recognized the nuances of the native culture. American Henry Marie Brackenridge, visiting the Arikara villages, noted, “we here see an independent nation with all the interests and anxieties of the largest, how little would its history differ from that of one of the Grecian states! A war, a treaty, deputations sent and received, warlike excursions, national mourning or rejoicing, and a thousand other particulars, which constitute the chronicle of the most celebrated people.”

In the words of N. Scott Momaday, “for all Americans then and now, the journey of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery was the epic odyssey of the nation’s mind and imagination. For the men who entered the unknown and returned, and for those who knew the land and watched from the heart of the wilderness, nothing would be the same ever again. It was the most difficult of journeys, marked by the extraordinary triumph and defeat. It was in the truest sense a vision quest, and the visions gained were of profound consequence. All that we are, good and bad, was in it.”

Vine Deloria, Jr., Frenchman, Bears and Sandbars, in Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., ed., Lewis and Clark: Through Indian Eyes, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2006), 5-23.

N. Scott Momaday, The Voices of Encounter, in Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., ed., Lewis and Clark: Through Indian Eyes, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2006), 185-192.

Henry Marie Brakenridge, “The Anrikara Villages,” in Exploring the Northern Plains 1804-1876, ed. Lloyd McFarling, (Caxton, ID: The Caxton Printers, 1955), 31.

Photo by Raychel Sanner:

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you for your usual new window. One thinks of the Métis in what became Manitoba, a whole population and culture that developed out of the intermarriage of French traders and Natives. Evey Canadian is expected to know the tragic history of Louis Riel. The example suggests that even if such a wonderful culture as we might imagine had developed in the Louisiana Purchase, the pressures of American Capitalism would have forced its ultimately vicious conquest and subjugation anyway.

  • Rebecca,

    As always, thank you for this wonderful new perspective. Your writing always gives me new information and makes me think. What a blessings.

    Thank you.

  • June De Wit says:

    Hmm. Thank you so much for this information that blesses and stretches us into new ways of thinking and being.

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