Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) were the first Americans to investigate the Great Plains. Both men were born in Virginia (Lewis near Charlottesville on August 17, 1774, and Clark in Caroline County on August 1, 1770) and served in the army together briefly in the mid-1790s. Clark resigned his commission and returned home in 1796, while Lewis continued in military service and in 1801 became President Thomas Jefferson's private secretary. In 1803 Jefferson placed Lewis as leader of the Corps of Discovery, and Lewis offered Clark an invitation to greatness as co-commander. In the nearly two and a half years on the expedition, the two men shared command responsibilities and a friendship that has become legendary.

The men's conclusions about the region were more optimistic than some later explorers and tended to support a garden concept of the region. As the men entered the Plains environment in the summer of 1804, they had a chance to test this idea. Beyond the Platte River, terms like "high and dry" were more frequent than the usual "beautiful and wellwatered," but their impressions did not change greatly. Indeed, it was the profusion of wildlife that caught their attention rather than the endless grassland and semiarid climate. Fascinated by the varied animal life, the captains wrote scientific descriptions of a host of Plains animals. Moreover, they told of vast numbers of bison. And it was the captains' reports of abundant beaver that sent fur trappers into the interior. From the party's Fort Mandan, in present-day North Dakota, Lewis penned this overall impression: "This immense river so far as we have yet ascended, waters one of the fairest portions of the globe, nor do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country, equally fertile." This positive evaluation of the Plains resulted from a river-bottom perspective–a fact that prejudiced Lewis's opinion.

As the explorers turned west in the spring of 1805, the terrain became more arid, treeless, and rugged. Nonetheless, along the riverbanks Lewis still sighted groves of trees, and in the underbrush he saw thick stands of berry-laden bushes. New animals, like bighorn sheep, were seen farther west, and the famed grizzly bear appeared. The men discounted stories about its ferocity, but after several bouts with bears, Lewis concluded, "I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had reather fight two Indians than one bear." As the party moved into a harsher terrain, Lewis's evaluations of the land became increasingly bleak, until he finally called the region a "desert barren country." The negative appraisals were restricted, however, to the far northwestern edge of the Great Plains.

Lewis and Clark's meetings with Plains Indians focused on two principal goals. One was diplomatic–to apprise the tribes of United States' sovereignty under the Louisiana Purchase and to explain the purposes of their mission. They also wanted to establish intertribal peace. It is doubtful that many Plains Indians understood the purpose of exploration, nor did they grasp the idea of diplomacy outside of trade. Lewis and Clark envisioned trade in the long run; the Indians desired an immediate exchange of goods. Lewis and Clark wanted to expand the United States' commercial influence, while Plains Indians wanted the best goods at the lowest price from the most dependable supplier. Nor were the Indians ready to talk of peace with their traditional enemies without some assurance of security. Lewis and Clark could not give that.

The commanders' other function was ethnographic–to gather information about tribes in order to increase knowledge. In this regard, Lewis and Clark interviewed Indians and resident traders, reported on observations, participated in Indian activities, and collected cultural objects. The captains did their best work in recounting objective matters and describing external cultural aspects. They were not as good at relating ritualistic behavior or subjective matter, and they misunderstood or misinterpreted some activities. They also missed some important ceremonies due to timing. Nevertheless, they rose above the prejudices of their time and left a valuable ethnographic legacy.

After the expedition Lewis became governor of Louisiana Territory but did not fare well. Mounting difficulties in St. Louis and disputes with federal officials sent him to Washington in 1809. Along the way, plagued by multiple problems, he took his life on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee on October 11. Clark, on the other hand, lived a prosperous and productive life as a politician and public servant, most notably as superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis, where he died on September 1, 1838.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: The Garden.

Lewis and Clark Journals Online website.

Gary Moulton University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage: Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Moulton, Gary, ed. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-1999.

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