Discovering the Region: Commentary

6. Jefferson's Instructions to Lewis

Although the efforts of fur traders brought limited notice of the Northwest Coast of North America to the United States, it may be said that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark really introduced Americans to the Pacific Northwest. The expedition of their Corps of Discovery, between 1803 and 1806, was a national triumph that greatly increased awareness of the region and its Native inhabitants, staked a stronger U.S. claim to the Northwest, accelerated economic development of adjacent areas, and made the two captains into heroes of an astonishing story. Lewis and Clark kept detailed records of the lands and peoples they encountered. And because they traveled by land rather than sea, their accounts represent the first non-native observations of the vast region inland from the coast.

The Lewis and Clark expedition has been documented and studied thoroughly. The definitive account of the explorers’ own record is now the 13-volume edition of Moulton (1983-2001) (vols. 5-7 deal with the Pacific Northwest). A briefer selection of documents, shrewdly arranged, is Barth (1998). In recent years, Stephen E. Ambrose (1996) has highlighted the heroism of the expedition for a wide audience. One of the best scholarly studies of the expedition is Ronda (1984), which surveys the captains’ interactions with Native Americans and tries to understand Indian perceptions of the Corps of Discovery. Many websites devoted to Lewis and Clark have appeared, and in light of the imminent bicentennial of their expedition the number is growing. The Department of History at Washington State University has compiled one site, aimed at secondary school teachers and students, that examines the explorers’ interactions with Indians of the Northwest:

One key to understanding the literature of discovery is appreciating that discoverers were “programmed” to look for and see certain things, and that the successive expeditions of explorers, or distinct generations of observers, were programmed differently. (The concept of “programming” is developed well by Goetzmann [1966].) Vancouver was programmed by the English government to explore in a nationalistic and scientific manner. Robert Gray was programmed by the merchant-investors backing his voyage to see the Northwest as a source of a valuable commodity—sea otter pelts. In the case of the American Corps of Discovery, exploration was to a large extent programmed by President Thomas Jefferson. For years prior to becoming President, Jefferson had wondered about the lands west of the Mississippi River, worried about securing them for the United States, and schemed to conduct exploration of them. Indeed, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, composed in the early 1780s, demonstrated his wide-ranging interest in the natural resources and Native peoples of the continent. Jefferson’s instructions to Meriwether Lewis, penned on June 20, 1803, list many objectives for the expedition, but they emphasize economic, geopolitical, and scientific matters. Note in particular that the President emphasized that the explorers seek “the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” He sent Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River, and expected that near its headwaters in the Rockies they would find a relatively convenient connection to the Columbia River system. In short, Jefferson was still looking for a version (albeit a freshwater one) of the Northwest Passage that Juan de Fuca had claimed to exist more than two centuries before.

In justifying the expense of the expedition to Congress, Jefferson emphasized again the commercial and geographic benefits that would accrue, as well as the diplomatic and scientific gains for the United States. Yet he also spoke of the expedition as a “literary pursuit”—suggesting that he anticipated that the discoverers would produce something akin to his own book on Virginia. And indeed the journals of Lewis and Clark probably represent the beginnings in the United States of a Pacific Northwest literature.

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