Rediscovering Lewis and Clark

Historian Thomas P. Slaughter on the real significance of Lewis and Clark.

The Lewis and Clark expedition did not matter two centuries ago. The explorers were not the first to make the transcontinental journey, as they well knew, having been preceded in both travels and publication by the Canadian Alexander Mackenzie. They followed Cook, Vancouver, and dozens of trading ships that made landfall on the West Coast and had ongoing contacts with Indians in the Northwest, just as French and Anglo-Canadian fur traders had already engaged Indians east of the Rockies.

And if Lewis and Clark didn’t get there first, neither did they achieve any of the major goals of their expedition: they did not find a water route to the Pacific, a Lost Tribe of Israel, or Welsh Indians. During the return leg of their journey, they met up with traders who had believed them dead and were proceeding west nonetheless. The explorers’ survival and the information they brought back with them were irrelevant to the westward course of American empire. They did not publish their journals in a timely fashion and eventually did so, after Lewis’s death, in an abridgement that achieved limited circulation. Quickly, the explorers and their achievements faded from public memory.

Lewis and Clark were rediscovered after the passing of the American frontier. Celebration of them is a twentieth-, now twenty-first-century phenomenon that reflects more on the creation of a national origins myth than it does the historical significance of the expedition in its own time….Lewis and Clark matter, then, because our nation needs their contribution to the multicultural and ecologically sensitive stories that we now tell about ourselves. They are central characters in the superficial “feel-good” brand of American history that catapults books to the top of nonfiction bestseller lists.

An interesting brief essay. Slaughter is the author of Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men and Wilderness (2003).