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[Detail] Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, ca. 1890's

Exploration of the West

In 1803, shortly after purchasing Louisiana from France, President Thomas Jefferson sent an expedition under Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the western regions. This collection includes one map from the Lewis and Clark expedition, showing the topography of Colorado and the headwaters of the Arkansas River. Search on Lewis and Clark to access this map.

  • What can you infer from the map about what Lewis and Clark set out to learn and accomplish on their expedition?
  • What can you learn from the map about their journey? What might it have been like?

Read a transcription of Jefferson's instructions to Lewis (external link) available on the Monticello web site to confirm or correct the inferences you drew from the map.

  • What goals did Jefferson outline in his instructions?
  • What do you think were the main motivations for the expedition?

Other expeditions charted the western trails in the following decades. Use the collection's Categories of Material Index to access several published trail guides that came out of such explorations. An Account of an expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains published the findings of Major Stephen Long's expedition, which had been authorized by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in 1819 to gather information that might lead to settlement of the territory. Long's party reinforced the findings of earlier expeditions by Zebulon Pike, who described the area as the "Great American Desert," hardly fit for supporting agrarian settlements. For years, the Great Plains were considered nothing more than a barrier between the Mississippi and the fertile valleys of Oregon and Mexican California.

The first volume of Long's Account . . . (frontendpages 08 and 09) presents the Secretary of War's instructions to Major Long, including a reference to President Jefferson's instructions to Lewis. The tables of content in the frontendpages of each volume outline a variety of topics and events, including numerous encounters with Native-American tribes, such as the following:

"Aug. 1st. Set out late, and after having traveled about two miles, a horseman armed with a spear was seen on the Bluffs, at the distance of about a quarter of a mile, who, after gazing at our line for a short time, disappeared. Our Pawnee interpreters being at a considerable distance in the rear, Julien was sent forward to reconnoiter. He mounted the Bluff to the general level of the country, and abruptly halted his horse within our view, as if appearances before him rendered precaution necessary. The Indian again came in sight, and, in full career, rushed towards him, passed him, and wheeling halted his horse. Many other Indians then appeared, who surrounded Julien, and, after a short and hurried conference, they dashed at full speed down the steep bank of the Bluff to meet us, the whole in concert singing the scalp-song. . . . We needed no additional information to convince us that this was a war party; their appearance was a sufficient evidence of the nature of their occupation. One of us asked an individual, if they were Kiawas, and was answered in the affirmative; he asked a second if they were Kaskaias, and a third if they were Arrapahoes, who both also answered affirmatively. This conduct, added to their general deportment, served to excite our suspicions and redouble our vigilance. . . . Our interpreters having joined us, it was proposed that we should avail ourselves of the shade of a large tree, which stood near the river, to sit down and smoke with them. They reared their spears against the tree, with apparent carelessness and indifference, and took their seats in the form of a semicircle on the ground. Having staked our horses in the rear, and stationed the men to protect them and the baggage, we seated ourselves, and circulated the pipe as usual. But as the party opposed to us was nearly quadruple our number, we did not choose to follow their example, in relinquishing our arms, but grasped them securely in our hands, and retained a cautious attitude."

Account of an expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Volume 2. (pages 196-197)

  • What kinds of interactions did explorers and Native Americans have?
  • How many different tribes of Native Americans did any given expedition encounter?
  • How well prepared were explorers to interact with Native Americans?
  • How did explorers communicate with Native Americans? How effective was such communication?
  • What kinds of information did explorers provide about Native Americans in their guidebooks?
  • What can you tell from the explorers' use of language about their attitudes towards Native Americans?
  • How do you think that explorers' descriptions of Native Americans would have impacted emigrants' attitudes and expectations?
  • In these early explorations, what priority did gathering information about Native Americans have? What can you tell from Jefferson's and Calhoun's instructions about how such information was to be used?

In addition to Native Americans, explorers also provide accounts of what Long calls, "the phenomena of nature . . . the varied and beautiful productions of animal and vegetable life, and . . . the more magnificent if less attractive features of the inorganic creation." Browse the published trail guides for records of astronomical observations and descriptions of nature. A Journal of an exploring tour beyond the Rocky Mountains by Samuel Parker includes the following geological analysis:

"From careful examination of the geological condition of this country I have been led to conclude, that the great volcanic fires continued in operation through a long period of time and in many series of operations. On examining bluffs, or perpendicular banks of rivers and mountains, I have numbered from between ten and twenty different strata of amygdaloid, basalt, and breccia. . . . The section of the broken but consolidated fragments, laying between the regularly formed basalt, or the amygdaloid, is generally only a very few feet in thickness. This presents the appearance of having been the surface for a long period of time, until a partial disintegration and decomposition had taken place, after which a new eruption superimposed another stratum of basalt, or amygdaloid. . . . The probability is, that they were thus in operation for centuries, but for centuries past have ceased; so that time has been given for atmospheric agencies to decompose the volcanic productions, sufficiently to form a soil covering most parts of the count-ry, excepting the great desert in the Shoshones country, laying between two ranges of mountains, extending three hundred miles in width."

Journal of an exploring tour beyond the Rocky Mountains.(pages 226-227)

  • What information did explorers ascertain from their astronomical observations?
  • What information did they gain from the use of a barometer?
  • What other kinds of observations and records were made by members of exploration expeditions?
  • Why would officials of the United States have been interested in having such information?

Captain John Charles Frémont, nicknamed "the Pathfinder," directed one of the important later scientific expeditions into the Rocky Mountains in 1842 and to the Great Basin between the Rockies and the Sierras in 1843-44. Search on Fremont for his Report of the exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842, and to Oregon and north California in the years 1843-'44.

Frémont reports on new genera and species of plants, maps geological formations, and makes astronomical and meteorological observations. He also provides an engaging account of the expedition's journey, including a harrowing ride in an India-rubber boat on the Platte River as it coursed through a narrow canyon:

"An ugly pass lay before us. We had made fast to the stern of the boat a strong rope about fifty feet long' and three of the men clambered along among the rocks, and with this rope let her down slowly through the pass. In several places high rocks lay scattered about in the channel; and in the narrows it required all our strength and skill to avoid staving the boat on the sharp points. . . . We reached the place where Mr. Preuss was standing, took him on board, and, with the aid of the boat, put the men with the rope on the succeeding pile of rocks. We found this passage much worse than the previous one, and our position was rather a bad one. To go back, was impossible; before us, the cataract was a sheet of foam; and shut up in the chasm by the rocks, which, in some places seemed almost to meet overhead, the roar of the water was deafening. We pushed off again; but, after making a little distance, the force of the current became too great for the men on shore, and two of them let go the rope. Lajeunnesse, the third man, hung on, and was jerked headforemost into the river from a rock about twelve feet high; and down the boat shot like an arrow, Basil following us in the rapid current, and exerting all his strength to keep in mid channel — his head only seen occasionally like a black spot in the white foam. How far we went, I do not exactly know; but we succeeded in turning the boat into an eddy below . . . Lajeunnesse . . . owed his life to his skill as a swimmer; and I determined to take him and the two others on board, and trust to skill and fortune to reach the other end in safety. We placed ourselves on our knees, with the short paddles in our hands, the most skilful boatman being at the bow; and again we commenced our rapid descent. We cleared rock after rock, and shot past fall after fall, our little boat seeming to play with the cataract. We became flushed with success, and familiar with the danger; and, yielding to the excitement of the occasion, broke forth together into a Canadian boat song. Singing, or rather shouting, we dashed along; and were, I believe, in the midst of the chorus, when the boat struck a concealed rock immediately at the foot of a fall, which whirled her over in an instant. Three of my men could not swim, and my first feeling was to assist them, and save some of our effects; but a sharp concussion or two convinced me that I had not yet saved myself."

Fremont for his Report of the exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842, and to Oregon and north California in the years 1843-'44 (pages 74-75).

  • What can you infer about the early westward explorers from the published trail guides? What kinds of qualifications and skills did they have?
  • How many people comprised the expeditions?
  • What tools, materials, and privileges did explorers have with which to accomplish their missions?
  • How dangerous were their missions?
  • How were expeditions organized and managed?
  • What was the cost if an explorer did not return safely from his expedition?