History, Department of


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Published in WE PROCEEDED ON 36:2 (May 2010), pp. 8-17. Copyright 2010 Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc. Used by permission


The popular lore of North American exploration and westward expansion has oft been woven with themes of heroic bravery, divine providence and Manifest Destiny. These tales indeed relate portions of actual history, but also offer insight into the self-perception and culture of the societies perpetuating them. As larger-than-life figures braved the "unknown" in the name of nation or creed, the motives behind their ventures often were not so singular. The ever-driving force of economic gain stood as a foundation for most expeditions. Simultaneously justifying the current expedition and providing support for future endeavors, explorers interested in self-preservation placed a premium on results--on discovery. The naive or overly eager optimism of many investors and patrons regularly led to the hasty acceptance of misinformation. In some cases, the intensity of these motives and forces was so strong that different expeditions promising new knowledge or wealth received funding through the centuries in spite of constant disappointment and financial loss. Particularly alluring were the interrelated myths of the Strait of Anian and the Northwest Passage. The promise they offered was more than enough to fuel both imaginative thought and risky endeavors that forever affected North American exploration and its subsequent history.

In and of themselves, the origins and dissemination of these myths provide a strong historical narrative concerning the subsequent impact of "discovery" upon world history. This grand myth of a Northwest Passage generated and sustained numerous explorations as explorers and governments placed surprising trust and faith in unsubstantiated geographical concepts. Clearly driving many of the expeditions that slowly mapped the New World's coastlines and interior waterways, the long-term impact of cartographic myth cannot be overstated. Likewise, the lure of money, or promise thereof, lent fuel to the imaginative exploits that the myths of the Northwest Passage and Strait of Anian proffered. Dissemination of expedition exploits through popular writing, the willingness of explorers to adapt myths to align with new geographical discovery and the potential for wealth consistently underwrote these myths' influence in a geopolitical contest that lasted for generations.

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