Lewis and Clark Expedition

While the Lewis and Clark expedition went through none of the country we passed through on this vacation trip, its influence was present everywhere. All of this high country along the spine of the Rocky Mountains was the center of the fur trade which was opened up by Lewis and Clark. Much of the area was explored by John Colter, who first came into this country with the Lewis and Clark expedition. While the major push of the expedition was to find a water route (the only reliable mode of transportation in 1804) to the northwest to allow furs to come directly east by this path, instead of passing all the way around South America by sea, at the cost of an extra year, another major goal was to wean the Indian tribes away from dependence on the French and British traders (especialy the British) who were supplying them with trade goods from the north.

The expedition failed in both its major goals. First, there was no direct water route to the Pacific Ocean, although Lewis did propose a route for the furs which involved a horse caravan over the Bitterroot Mountains employing the Nez Percé tribe as guides and horse purveyors. Second, they failed to create peace among the Indian tribes along the Missouri, so that a safe trade route would be available, in large measure due to their complete misunderstanding of the trade relationships that existed among the tribes. Their understanding of these relationships was based on a very ethnocentric view, as was everyone's during that time. They were unable to see the hostility of the Sioux toward their attempts to woo the Arikara and Mandan as a response to the threat the U.S. posed to their access to corn and the other crops grown by these tribes. The Sioux were quite justified in feeling that they did not wish to compete with U.S. traders for a limited supply of goods.

However Lewis and Clark did open up the Rocky Mountains to fur trappers (although private trappers such as Dickson and Hancock were only three months behind them), they contributed greatly to the scientific knowledge of the plants and animals to be found in the Northwest Territories and the mapping of the region. But in order to do this they relied heavily on the knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the region who freely shared their knowledge with them, fed them when they could not supply themselves with food (Mandan corn got them through their first winter), supplied them with horses and led them over the mountains (the Shoshones fulfilled this role on the way west and the Nez Percé on the way back east) and allowed them to travel and live among them almost unmolested. The fact that they traveled this entire route with only one outbreak of hostilities (on an ill advised and undermanned side trip up the Marias River on the return trip) is remarkable and perhaps should tell us more about what might have been possible, if only . . . .

One of the major bargaining chips with the Shoshone and the Nez Percé was the offer to supply these tribes with guns. While the Spanish were happy to trade horses with the Indians, allowing the Shoshone to maintain a large herd, they would not trade any guns to the tribes, leaving the Shoshone easy victims of the tribes which were supplied with guns by the French and English traders coming from the North. While the Nez Percé lived on the western side of the mountains, they still were excellent horsemen to whom the offer of guns, both for self-protection and for use during their annual bison hunt, was a strong incentive. The expedition spent two months living with the Nez Percé while collecting the food stores to carry them over the mountains (where there was little game to be found) and waiting for the snow to melt. They had been completely dependent upon the Shoshone to supply them with the horses necessary to carry the expedition over the mountains on the way west and to guide them on the only possible route.

The Shoshone territory covered most of Wyoming, with the Sheepeaters in the high mountains, and other bands in the high plains and the Great Basin. While the Nez Percé lived most of the year over the mountains in Idaho and Oregon, they came over the mountains for their bison hunt and travelled across Yellowstone during their flight to Canada.

Ronda, James, 19988, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians,Univ. Nebraska Press.

Josephy, Alvin M., The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, Houghton Mifflin Co.

Ambrose, Stephen, Undaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Touchstone. (Hardcover)

deVoto, Bernard (Editor), The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Houghton Mifflin Co.

Look for more books on Lewis & Clark.

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© 1995 - Karen M. Strom