January 13, 2013
Lewis and Clark introduced America to the western American Indian, and vice versa. The party was organized under the Corps of Discovery, and the expedition was a scientific exploration of the far reaching western part of the American continent. Despite this, the ultimate goal of the expedition was an imperialistic reconnaissance of the Native American nations to the west. This was demonstrated by the information to be gathered during the trip, and how this information was used in future American governmental policies towards the Native Americans.
The Jefferson administration that financed and organized the Corps of Discovery had an expansionist mindset for the rest of the continent, and was set on American sovereignty over the region. The administration’s policy aimed at securing treaties with the various Indian nations in hopes of denying European power in the areas west of the Mississippi. Part of Jefferson’s instructions, “were to access the state of morality, religion, and information so that later expeditions would better be suited to civilize and instruct them.”1 Jefferson and the American government wanted good relations, treaties, and information to later exploit these facets towards the goal of this sovereignty. It must not be said that these were the only reasons for the expedition; Jefferson and the exploration party had a great scientific interest in the journey. It would be remiss to not accept that both aspects of the expedition as actual and intertwined.
The Lewis and Clark expedition spanned May 1804 through September 1806. Prior to this, the most contact the regions covered had with the new American people was in the Smallpox pandemic that devastated the western Native American population.2 Noted tribes encountered were the Arikaras, Assiniboins, Blackfeet, Chinooks, Clatsops, Hidatsas, Mandans, Missouris, Nez Perces, Otos, Shoshoni, Teton Sioux, Tillamooks, Walla Wallas, Wishrams, and Yankton Sioux.3 There was an importance placed on their interaction with the Sioux; this tribe was seen as exceedingly important for further American expansion. Interaction with the Yankton Sioux went well. The Teton Sioux were more hostile towards the party, and interaction was prematurely cut short just prior to violence. Further west the party had positive interaction with the Shoshoni, who greatly assisted the party with horses needed for the journey over the Rocky Mountains.
On the western slope of the Rocky Mountains the Nez Perce assisted the expedition on both the outbound and homeward bound legs with both horses and as serving as guides. Members of the Cathlamets and other northwest tribes had amicable experiences with the expedition; however, while wintering among the tribes of the northwest a change occurred amongst the party. The demeanor of the expedition changed, they became aggressive, more ethnocentric, and almost imperialist in their dealings with the Native American nations on the return route.4 A number of things could account for this change, near starvation, price gauging by the locals, recurring theft, or of a missed European trading vessel the Cathamets did not inform the party of until long after its departure.5 Despite the reasons, the change was reflected in both their dealings and accounts of the native inhabitants. This reflection would only suit the expansionist and imperialistic nature of the American government towards the Native Americans in the lasting years to come.
This change again caused a major incident with the Blackfoot while heading back towards St. Louis. The Blackfoot warriors were allegedly stealing supplies and/ or rifles from the expedition. One warrior was killed by knife, another being shot, and a third nearly escaping the party’s wrath due to Lewis’s restraint. The incident is indicative of the change of demeanor as the party…