Lewis and Clarke Term Paper

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Lewis and Clarke Expedition

The 'Lewis and Clarke' expedition heralded the rise of a new and mighty American nation. However this exploration also signaled the loss of the tribal culture and traditional values, which is why many historians rightly attribute the 'Lewis and Clarke' expedition to be the 'Beginning of the end ' of the tribal culture

The Lewis and Clarke expedition was a phenomenal one that had a significant impact on the American nation in terms of both geographical expansion and the cultural influence. The exploration was the outcome of the long cherished dream and vision of President Jefferson. The project, which was envisioned by Jefferson, was led by Meriwether Lewis, a twenty-eight-year-old army officer together with his friend William Clark a 32-year-old army man. The expedition was basically a commercial exploration that was planned to look into the possibility of using the Mississippi River as a communication route and increasing the trade with the native Indians. Jefferson organized a contingent to explore the hitherto uncharted territory and to discover a northwest route. Let us look into the details of this all important and interesting adventure, which had significant bearings on the whole of the American nation.

The Expedition

The Expedition started almost two centuries back on July 5th, 1803. Meriwether Lewis was appointed by President Jefferson to lead the task. The Louisiana Purchase also greatly lessened the hardship of the expedition, as they no longer had the necessity to get permission from France. By the end of August 1803 Lewis and his small entrouge traveled the Ohio River and on October 15th they were joined by William Clarke in Kentucky. Here the members of the expedition were finally selected and the group was composed of 32 strong men. The only casualty in whole expedition was Charles Floyd who succumbed to appendicitis. On September 23, 1806 the expedition returned back to St. Louis. Overall the expedition had lasted for two years four months and 9 days and the group had traveled a total distance of about 8000 miles. Let us now briefly discuss some of the important members who were involved in the expedition. [Heritage Foundation]

Meriwether Lewis

Lewis was a military officer and a close associate of President Jefferson. He was well versed with the Indian ways of life and had an inquisitive bent of mind and hence was chosen to lead the expedition. In his letter to Benjamin Smith Barton, a Naturalist at the university of Pennsylvania, Jefferson states that, "It was impossible to find a character who to a compleat science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits, adopted to the woods, & a familiarity with the Indian manners & character, requisite for this undertaking.... Altho' no regular botanist he possesses a remarkable store of accurate observation on all the subjects of the three kingdoms, & will therefore readily single out whatever presents itself new to him in either." [Jefferson National Expansion Museum]

William Clarke

William Clarke was a skillful cartographer and created maps with all the fine details. His detailed maps are still considered to be a great work given the limited equipment that he had to chart down the territory. His people skills were also far better than Lewis and he maintained excellent relationships with the many Indian tribes that the entrouge had to encounter on their expedition. It was due to this special quality in him that he was appointed the 'Superintendent of the Indian Affairs' in the aftermath of the successful expedition. [University of Virginia]


The "Lewis and Clarke" expedition group had to meet a variety of Indian tribes on their way and they depended on help and assistance from these tribal groups. These native Indian tribal groups were the first inhabitants of the vast lands on the American west. Sacagawea was a native Indian teenage girl who was of great help to the expedition. Almost all historians assign great significance to the contribution of this Indian girl in the great expedition. Sacagawea was presumed to be a girl originally belonging to the 'Histada' tribe but captured as a prisoner of war by the 'Shoshoni tribe'. She was multilingual and could speak "Shoshoni', "Minitari' and French as well. 'Lewis and Clarke' group needed horses to cross the mountainous regions (Rocky Mountains) and for this they had to negotiate with the Shoshoni tribes. Sacagawea was ideal as an interpreter and without the assistance of this girl the expedition would have been a lot more difficult.

Furthermore Sacagawea had a better understanding of the terrain and it's vegetation. This was very critical to the mission because they had to survive on roots, fruits and other forms of available edibles for the most part of their journey. Above all these things is the fact that 'Lewis and Clarke' used Sacagawea as a peacemaker so that the Indian tribes would not mistake them for adversaries.

The Historic Importance (Impact on Native Indian Culture)

This expedition indeed stands out as the single most important and an unparalleled one in annals of American history. It is unmistakably a symbol of the American frontier expansion, the result of the continuous dream of progress. However in assessing the importance of such an expedition we also need to study and understand the impact that it had on the native Indian tribes. The greatest impact that the expedition had was on the lives of these Indian tribes. With the opening of the American west and the subsequent inroads the tribal people were exposed to an entirely different atmosphere which was in reality a far cry from their traditional way of living. From a pure dependence on nature, spiritual and tribal customs they were literally exposed to and encumbered by the dependence on the western traders and their military influence. This resulted in a drastic change in the life styles of these people, a loss of the culture and traditional values, which is why many historians rightly attribute the 'Lewis and Clarke' expedition to be the 'Beginning of the end ' of the tribal culture.

To illustrate this point let us see how contradictory the native culture is from the European-Americans. For example fighting amongst the different tribal groups is a common feature within the Native American community. In fact it was the custom of the tribal groups to choose their 'Chief' or their leader by his success in the tribal warfare. But one of the important tasks of the expedition was to put an end to the continuous fighting between the rival tribes. This however seems to directly conflict the traditional ways of the native community. Clarke, one of the co-leaders of the expedition was trying to elucidate this idea to a native man from the Hidatsa tribe. "Now we're here, just stop fighting, we'll give you some goods and it's OK.." But the native man retorted, "But if we have peace, how will we have chiefs?," "If we don't fight one another, how do we exist, how do we have chiefs?." [PBS] Herein we see the huge cultural divide between the native Indians and the Americans.

Diplomatic Approach

The objective of the expedition was a far reaching one and instead of just establishing a trading route the group was also entrusted with the responsibility of bringing the whole land under the control of the single American Nation. "Lewis and Clarke" followed a clearly charted out plan to achieve this objective. Their approach in handling the native Indians was a quite unique. Firstly they would introduce the products of industrial revolution to the native Indians and then they would try to impress upon them that becoming a part of the American nation would enable them to have all these new objects and facilities. By giving away gifts and other objects they tried to gain their confidence and acceptance of the single American leadership. Furthermore in accepting these free gifts and peace medals the native Indians developed a feeling of oneness with the Americans. (Equal status) Lewis and Clarke followed this diplomatic approach throughout their expedition. [PBS]

The Indian Tribes

It is known that the "Lewis and Clarke" team encountered more than 50 different native Indian tribal groups each with their own peculiar customs and habits. Let us look into some of these important tribal groups and analyze their traditions. The Oto Indians were among the most important tribes met by the "Corps of Discovery." They hunted buffaloes and were in constant conflict with the neighboring Omaha Indians. 'Little Thief', the chief of the Oto Indians met Lewis and Clarke on 18th August of 1804 and agreed to be amicable with the Omaha tribes.

The Arikara's were another group of Indian tribes who met with the expedition on 8th October 1804. Their primary occupation was farming and they had trade with the neighboring Sioux tribes. The men wore buffalo skins and the women wore dresses made of Antelope skins. [PBS]

Shoshone Tribes

The Shoshone tribes lived on either side of the Rocky Mountains.…

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