Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 2008


Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 3, Summer 2008, pp. 231-34.


Copyright 2008 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.



The Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition is a well-known part of the history and lore of the United States. Its recent twohundred- year anniversary from 2003 to 2006 added greatly to popular interest in the expedition and to academic writing on Lewis and Clark.

Often asked during the bicentennial commemorations was the question of the expedition's actual importance. In fact, there has always been debate about the significance of Lewis and Clark in American history and to the ultimate expansion of the United States across the continent. In earlier times, the explorers were idealized as American heroes. More recently, their importance and reputation have been diminished, perhaps too much. What is clear, at least to me, is that the expedition was a critical episode in America's opening and legally claiming the West. The individual personalities, however, were less important. Never mind whether it was the Lewis and Hooke expedition (Lewis had arranged for Lieutenant Moses Hooke to accompany him if Clark refused, Stephen Ambrose tells us in Undaunted Courage [1996], 99, 135), or the Smith and Jones expedition-President Thomas Jefferson intended and promised Congress that the Corps of Discovery would open the West to American commerce and begin the United States' diplomatic and commercial relations with the Indian Nations in the Louisiana Territory and as far as the mouth of the Columbia River. For those geopolitical reasons alone, I think the expedition is more crucial to American history and expansion than some may assume today.

In any event, a long-standing gap in the Lewis and Clark story has been an American Indian perspective. The vast majority of American histories barely relate the impact of Lewis and Clark and the resulting Manifest Destiny on Indian lives and cultures. The bicentennial, however, gave Indian Nations and people a golden opportunity to tell their side of history. And Indians and tribes did just that.

As one would expect, Indian Nations focused on their own stories about the explorers, their own histories, and the issues and problems they face today. The Lewis and Clark anniversary was not something Indians cared to "celebrate" but offered an opportune occasion for highlighting the sobering historical facts regarding those explorers as the forerunners of a tidal wave of American exploration, settlement, and Manifest Destiny.