Jeffrey P. Brown Historical Research and Narrative
The United States was a complex and quickly changing nation in the years before the Lewis and Clark Expedition. On the one hand, it had a relatively new form of government that was considered revolutionary because it offered political roles to ordinary men. On the other hand, its seacoast communities held established elites to which many men still deferred. Almost one-fifth of its people were slaves. The Constitutional system adopted in 1787-1788 was being challenged, and to many observers, the new nation seemed ready to break into independent states. Thanks to a very high rate of infant survival for the period, the United States' population more than doubled from 1775 to 1800. American pioneers moved quickly into the interior, placing great pressures on Indian communities, which led to a major war in the 1790s and to further tensions in the early 1800s. It is important to review these developments to understand the significance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The Thirteen Colonies had about 2.5 million people under their authority in 1775. At least ninety percent of the colonials were farmers or performed work essential in a farming society such as blacksmithing. Probably more than one hundred thousand Loyalists, including African Americans freed by the British army, left the new nation by 1783, and a smallpox epidemic during the Revolution killed thousands. Relatively few new immigrants from Europe came to the United States except during the period 1783 to 1790, and the states barred new importations of slaves (partly to raise the price of existing slaves, partly to reduce the dangers of slave rebellions). Despite all these factors, the nation's population rose to more than 5.3 million people by the census of 1800. Almost all of this huge increase is attributed to farm families—free white as well as prominently slave black families—
who produced and raised many children. American mothers began bearing children at a relatively young age, and a plentiful food supply and relatively healthy rural living conditions made it possible for the majority of infants to survive. To be sure, many children still died young; for example, four of Thomas Jefferson's six children did not live to adulthood. Still, the American rate of population increase, which lasted well into the 1830s, was one of the highest in the world. Thomas Malthus's famous 1798 essay about population growth directly reflected the American experience.
In an overwhelmingly rural nation, the population explosion stimulated a huge movement to new farmlands. The largest migration of white pioneers (and in the South, black slaves) was to interior counties in the original states. This migration was already underway before the Revolution. The wartime defeat of the Iroquois allowed New Englanders to move to northern New England and upstate New York, while Pennsylvanians and Virginians flowed into the Virginia backcountry and in the area around Pittsburgh. North Carolinians moved into western North Carolina, and Southerners from several states migrated to quickly growing Georgia. Massive smallpox epidemics spreading from the United States and Mexico decimated Native Americans from the Mississippi to the Pacific Coast and may have affected the tribes closer to Anglo-American settlements. Indians were unable to resist pioneer expansion in the original states after 1783, but they did resist as Americans increasingly began moving to the next frontier between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.
The new nation suffered from a great strain between seacoast governments and frontier communities. Even before the Revolution, frontier farmers deeply resented both colonial governments that offered them little representation or services (roads, protection against Indians) and speculative land owners who charged them high land prices. While post-Revolutionary states gave more assembly seats to their interior counties, and in some cases moved state capitals closer to the back country, frontier farmers felt crushed by state taxes raised to pay off war bonds held by sea-coast investors. This led to riots that helped stimulate the movement for a stronger central government through the Constitution.
Pioneers often sought greater self-government, and as parent states began to concede that they could not govern their more distant or resistant areas forever, several new states were accepted into the Union—Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Even under the Articles of Confederation, the central government set in motion a system to ultimately allow statehood for areas within the Northwest Territory (north of Kentucky), and a similar system was later designed for the Southwest Territory (south of Tennessee). For the time being, however, the central government kept an appointive political system in the territories that reflected its considerable distrust for pioneer self-government.
Frontier concerns remained paramount in the new nation. Under the Articles of Confederation, one of the central government's few sources of income was selling Northwest land to speculators. Land sales remained important for the government under the new Constitution, and its excise tax on the manufacture of distilled spirits offered additional revenue. More important, the frontier had great significance for diplomatic relations. Britain retained strategic outposts on the Great Lakes until 1795 in order to tap the Northwest fur trade and to maintain ties with Native American nations that wanted to resist American frontier expansion. Spain had its own outposts on the lower Mississippi. It closed New Orleans to
Americans who wanted to bring export crops down the Mississippi by flatboat, then bargained with Kentucky leaders by offering them trade access if they would lead a frontier independence movement. French agents in the 1790s sought support from frontier leaders such as Revolutionary hero George Rogers Clark to raise an army that might strike at Spanish New Orleans. When the United States launched a war against Northwest Indian nations, the tribes utterly crushed a federal force led by General Arthur St. Clair, the Governor of the Northwest Territory, late in 1791. This defeat threatened to sap all respect for the central government. Many frontier communities, including pioneer regions in Pennsylvania and North Carolina as well as more distant regions, refused to pay the hated whiskey tax. An outside observer might well have assumed that the new nation would dissolve along east-west lines.
This alarming situation improved in 1794-1795. A newly trained federal army under General Anthony Wayne fought more effectively against the Northwest Indian alliance in 1794, while a federal force mostly composed of nationalized militiamen overawed the Whiskey Rebels in western Pennsylvania. Britain gave up its Great Lakes forts, and in 1795 the Northwest Indians ceded control of much of Ohio to the United States. Spain agreed to allow American commerce through New Orleans and turned over a disputed area in southern Alabama-Mississippi to the United States. Although these steps quieted much frontier unrest, the possibility of Western secession never entirely disappeared during the 1790s.
These frontier crises occurred at the same time that the nation unexpectedly developed rival political parties, something that James Madison and others had argued could not occur in a huge and diverse nation. Common domestic concerns and foreign policy interests bound political leaders from distinct regions into two coalescing parties, each of which sought Western support. The Federalists, strongest in New England and South Carolina, supported Alexander Hamilton's efforts to strengthen the central government by having it pay federal and state Revolutionary War debts in full and by chartering a federal Bank of the United States to foster nationwide commerce and investment. These areas had owed huge war-bond debts. The Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans won much support in the Chesapeake South, where planters had long feared outside authority, Parliamentary corruption, and British mercantile domination. These men saw Hamilton's plan as simply creating a northern version of the British Empire. Many had opposed the new Constitution in the first place and were barely reassured that the Bill of Rights might keep the new and distant government from becoming too powerful. The middle states were divided, with pre-Constitutional political groups backing one party or the other while continuing their local rivalries.
One of Hamilton's goals was to increase tariffs (taxes on import goods) in order to allow American manufacturing cities to develop. For Thomas Jefferson, the very survival of
democracy required a rural nation where free land-owning farmers could vote as they chose. Jefferson, the wealthy son of a successful frontier surveyor in central Virginia, argued that frontier expansion was essential for American democracy. He maintained that unless farm families could continually move into new lands, our population growth would inevitably produce European-style manufacturing cities where poverty-stricken workers would have to vote (in an era when ballots were given in public) as their employers and landlords dictated. Jefferson also feared that failure to expand would allow a natural build-up of the slave population to a degree dangerous to white society. Although he had favored manumission as a young man, Jefferson later concluded that slavery must expand into the frontier.
The wars of the French Revolution further shaped the new politics. At first, most Americans applauded the French movement towards constitutional monarchy. However, when the French Revolution turned violent and anti-religious, and when slaves in what became Haiti rebelled against their owners, many Americans were appalled. They worried about the spread of French ideas to the United States. This was especially true in New England (the region with the nation's largest proportion of active church members, despite a growing frontier evangelism movement) and South Carolina (the nation's only slave-majority state). These areas strongly sympathized with Britain when it fought France. The Chesapeake states, saddled with debts to British merchants before the American Revolution, found our Revolutionary ally France more admirable, while Jefferson and others argued that Hamilton sought to establish a British-style monarchy in America. Common domestic and foreign policy interests increasingly bound New Englanders and South Carolinians in the Federalist party and brought Chesapeake Southerners into the Democratic-Republican camp, with both groups seeking votes in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
President John Adams first won broad support in 1798 when the United States entered an undeclared naval war against France over seizures of American ships, but this eroded when his administration levied new taxes and restricted civil liberties through the Alien and Sedition Acts. Still, it took a split among the Federalists in 1800 to guarantee victory for the Jeffersonian Republicans. Since the electoral system of that time gave the Republican candidates for president and vice president—Jefferson and Aaron Burr—equal numbers of electoral votes, many Federalists in the House of Representatives tried to swing the election to Burr. Although they lost, this effort greatly added to a sense of national instability.
Both parties did their best to win support in the growing West, although the Southern origins of many settlers gave Jeffersonians a strong advantage. In the Northwest Territory, Federalist Governor St. Clair appointed Federalists to nationally paid positions, while men who had been Jeffersonians in Virginia or Connecticut quickly built ties to the Jeffersonians at the national level. Once Republicans won national elections in 1800, they sought and won statehood for another new state, Ohio, shaping it along pro-Republican boundaries. Indiana Territory, which had been created in 1800 and included the Illinois region (and for a brief time, Michigan), quickly became Jeffersonian. So did Kentucky, the home state for many of the Americans moving to Indiana and Illinois.
The arguments of Jeffersonians that Federalists represented entrenched elites struck a popular chord in frontier regions that were beginning to adopt the code of the "self-made man," even though many Republican leaders were themselves men of inherited wealth.
The frontier rose in national importance again when Napoleon Bonaparte pressured Spain to give control of French-populated New Orleans and the vast Louisiana region (stretching from the Mississippi to at least the Rocky Mountains) to France. The whole area from Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan to St. Louis was dotted with small French settlements, and Frenchmen had begun to trade with the Indian nations that controlled the vast area west of the Mississippi. Although Napoleon was primarily interested in defeating the former slaves in Haiti and lost interest in the New World when the army he sent to Haiti was destroyed by disease, France's potential ownership of New Orleans (the port through which all Western commerce would flow) deeply worried President Jefferson. France might throttle Western prosperity and growth. Alternately, France's enemy Britain might seize Louisiana and also stop the expansion that Jefferson saw as essential to the survival of American democracy.
Jefferson began plans for the Lewis and Clark Expedition before the Louisiana Purchase, noting in a secret message to Congress that the United States must expand because its population was growing so quickly. The president converted the mission to scientific purposes only after Napoleon agreed to sell the entire Louisiana area to the United States. While frontiersmen celebrated the Purchase, it raised fears in New England and Yankee-settled New York that Southern pioneers would settle a series of trans-Mississippi states and that the nation was destined to be controlled by the ever-expanding South. New Englanders showed almost no support for Jefferson's late-1807 embargo on trade with Britain and France, and many favored a Northern secession until virtually the end of the War of 1812, when Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans stimulated a burst of American patriotism.
During these tumultuous times, the United States evolved in other ways that affected the frontier. Slavery seemed to be a system in decline during the early 1790s. Low tobacco prices helped reduce the price of slaves, and many owners in the upper South began to free some slaves, or to make provisions for manumission in their wills. Although this process reflected religious concerns about slavery, and to some degree the rhetoric of the American Revolution, low prices clearly made it easier for owners to give away property. This began to change during the later 1790s. As white farmers in the frontier South began buying slaves to clear land, and as the new cotton gin made low-fiber cotton a profitable crop, slave prices rose and manumissions became rare. A well-planned slave rebellion in Virginia in 1800 alarmed many owners who concluded that a strong slavery system was necessary to keep them in check. The idealism that led Congress to bar slavery in the Northwest Territory in 1787 already had been challenged by Governor St. Clair's decision that those slaves already present in Indiana and Illinois in 1787 would remain slaves, and while Ohio was admitted as a free state, many men in Indiana and Illinois favored laws allowing the importation of new slaves into Indiana Territory.
At the same time that slavery revived, the nation's seacoast cities boomed as commercial centers, not manufacturing ones. Merchants opened profitable new trade routes to Asia, and a few made stops in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii to acquire trade goods. This helped give the United States a sketchy claim to the Columbia River country, an area to which Lewis and Clark's Expedition gave further claims. The sheer growth of the American population increased importation of European goods, and when British and French attacks on each other's commerce led their merchants to rely on American ships, there was a boom in American ship-building and commerce. However, Britain and France increasingly began to seize American vessels trading with their enemies, embroiling the United States in constant foreign policy crises. Some small western cities (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville) began to produce local manufactures, and they grew quickly once Jefferson's embargo against trade with Britain and France greatly reduced foreign commerce and plunged the seacoast into near-depression.
The United States had complex relationships during this period with the Indian nations living east of the Mississippi. President Jefferson established federal trading posts among them, partly to outflank private traders who relied on alcohol to make sales, but also to ensnare Indians in debts that might lead them to sign away their lands. A complex man, Jefferson admired Indians and wanted to learn
about their cultures, but at the same time he hoped to assimilate them into American society as individuals. Frontier settlers clearly wanted access to Indian lands and feared Indian military power; hence, there was widespread support for policies that gradually eroded Indian ownership of the Mississippi Valley. During the early 1800s, as Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison pressed land cession treaties upon the Indians, tensions rose with the Shawnee in Indiana, and warfare with both the Shawnee and the Alabama Creek erupted prior to the American declaration of war on Britain in 1812. Many pioneers blamed Britain for arming and encouraging Indians, and the declaration of war was popular on most of the frontier.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition took place in the context of all these developments, and Jefferson, who had sought to promote trans-Mississippi exploration for decades, had several reasons to send men west. When France seemed ready to take over the huge Louisiana area in 1803, he thought that the expedition could provide valuable military information, and he suggested to Congress that it might promote trade with Western Indians. After the Purchase, Jefferson gave Lewis and Clark detailed instructions to report about the terrain, travel routes, farming possibilities, plants and animals, and especially about the Indian nations they would encounter. As a gentleman scholar, Jefferson hungered for this information. At the same time, he wanted to learn whether the West could be settled by American farmers and whether the Indians could be brought to accept American sovereignty, to trade with Americans rather than Canadians, and to end their internal wars. Jefferson appointed his trusted aide Meriwether Lewis and soldier William Clark, younger brother of George Rogers Clark, to lead the expedition. Their tasks were to recruit good men, lead a successful venture into semi-unknown territory, and carry out numerous scientific and diplomatic tasks under extraordinary hardships.
Lewis and Clark enlisted a group of young frontiersmen in 1803, and they got as far as St. Louis before wintering in the Illinois country. They set out in the spring of 1804, wintered in the North Dakota area, and went on to the Pacific in 1805. Clark was accompanied by a personal slave, York, and the expedition picked up French traders as interpreters. One was accompanied by his young and pregnant Shoshoni wife, Sacajawea; both York and Sacajawea proved to be valuable in winning friendly receptions from some of the Indians they met. The expedition arrived in the Pacific Northwest in late 1805, spent a gloomy winter near the coast, and returned east in 1806. For Americans who later read their reports and journals, surely the more exciting parts of the adventure included struggles against icy streams, rugged mountains, bitter cold, and fierce grizzly bears; the expedition's frequent meetings with Indian nations; and the sheer joy of discovery. Lewis got involved in a clash with the Blackfoot that led to generations of bad American-Blackfoot relations. One member of the expedition died along the way, and two were discharged. The rest returned from their incredible journey to St. Louis in September 1806.
Jefferson launched other expeditions to the West during his presidency, and he was preoccupied with many graver concerns in 1805-1806. Spain was very displeased by the Louisiana Purchase, and American-Spanish tensions along the Louisiana-Texas border neared war fever. Jefferson received alarming reports that former Vice President Aaron Burr, who had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was organizing an army west of Pittsburgh, and he could not tell what Burr's intentions might be. Britain and France continued to seize American vessels, while the British also took American sailors and forced them into the British navy. Given all of these tensions, Jefferson must have welcomed the periodic reports and skin samples that Lewis and Clark sent to him, as well as the visiting delegation
of Osage Indians who had been encouraged by Lewis to come to the capital. Jefferson was most worried about Burr's expedition at the time that he learned that Lewis and Cark had returned to St. Louis, but he praised them for their service, and the public at large became very interested in the expedition.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was only one of a number of exploratory expeditions to the West, but it gave Americans a sense of pride at a time when they badly needed symbols of national triumph. Americans in the post-Revolutionary period often compared their nation to ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. They developed building styles that reflected the Parthenon, gave classical names to such frontier towns as Syracuse, Troy, and Athens, and formed an officers' veterans organization named the Society of the Cincinnati after the Roman Republic's citizen-soldier Cincinnatus. Given these elegant dreams, the reality they encountered of a divided and relatively weak nation was often depressing, and Lewis and Clark's adventure offered Americans proof that the men of their nation could accomplish great deeds amidst enormous hardships.
As fur traders and mountain men followed Lewis and Clark's path to the West, Americans increasingly assumed a continental destiny, and in a remarkably short period—essentially one lifetime—their nation explored the West, conquered it, and planted settlements all the way to the Pacific Coast. This occupation brought triumph and pain, with some families prospering and others growing poorer throughout the late nineteenth century, with Indians and earlier Hispanic settlers to a great degree dispossessed, with the buffalo and other natural wonders destroyed. Perhaps it was inevitable that many Americans would remain fascinated by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a daring exploration into a pristine and unknown West where the future held limitless possibilities. We retain this fascination for the world of Lewis and Clark as we near the two hundredth anniversary celebrations of their expedition.