Pacific Postcards

Ella Kaale: The Journals of Lewis and Clark

After the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States’ territory in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark westward to explore the vast region. Between 1803 and 1806, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery journeyed to the Pacific Ocean and back. Along the expedition, they mapped the lands, described natural features, interacted with indigenous peoples, and kept their findings in detailed journals. These writings laid the foundation for further exploration and eventual settlement of the West, fueling the American ideology of manifest destiny. The opening of this “new” territory expanded the market for fur and lumber trade and diffused stories that instilled the American dream of starting a new life in the West, and as more people filtered into the territory, indigenous communities were overridden and replaced. The journals from the expeditions of Lewis and Clark and the views expressed within them reflect American beliefs regarding the Pacific before the twentieth century such as manifest destiny and perceptions of indigenous peoples. 
Lewis and Clark’s writings fueled the American idea of manifest destiny, used to justify westward expansion and settlement as the divine duty of the United States. Those who believed in manifest destiny sought that the United States spread democratic and capitalist ideas across the North American continent. As an action of manifest destiny, Lewis and Clark’s journey was sponsored by the United States government for them to seek out potential resources, travel routes, and settlements in the West. In a journal entry from the Columbia River, the modern-day border between Washington and Oregon, Lewis describes the patterns of food collection in indigenous groups such as the Chopunnish and details their processes of salmon fishing. Lewis writes “these fish were as fat as any I ever saw; sufficiently so to cook themselves without the addition of grease; those which were sound were extremely delicious; their flesh is of a fine rose color with a small admixture of yellow”, demonstrating a potential economic extraction in the Pacific Northwest. Lewis and Clark additionally wrote heavily on the abundance of fur and lumber in the region. For example, Clark notes in March of 1806 that some of the natives “have a kind of beaver fur garment”, noting the preexisting fur trade between indigenous peoples in the region, another source for settlers to potentially exploit. The journals highlighted the Oregon Country as a gold mine of economic opportunity, prompting the growth of business, commerce, and settlement in the region. Raw materials such as fur and lumber could be used in the creation of luxury goods that would be exported across the world, bolstering the young nation’s economy, and placing it on the global stage. In Kariann Akemi Yokota’s Pacific America, Yokota argues that the development of the British North American colonies and eventual United States was motivated by engagement with the transpacific world. She writes “long before the tenets of ‘manifest destiny’ were formally articulated, ambitious individuals were looking westward from their settlements along the East Coast and imagining a sovereign territory that would eventually span the entire North American continent, thus connecting Asia and Europe” (Yokota 30).  The early American economy sought to rival the commercial powerhouse of China through the production of manufactured goods and commodities. After the Louisiana Territory was acquired, a seemingly new world of raw materials was available for economic tools, which Lewis and Clark explored and researched in their journals. The economic landscape fueled by Lewis and Clark’s writings in the Pacific Northwest is still extremely active to this day, as 29% of lumber produced in the United States comes from the forests of Oregon and Washington, according to the Washington Forest Protection Association, and the largest destination of lumber exports from the United States in 2017 was China, according to the United States International Trade Commission. Yokota’s argument that American expansionism was motivated by the desire to connect the Atlantic and Pacific economies is not only reflected in the Pacific Northwest, but in any territory explored and seized by the United States. The acquisition of Pacific territories such as Hawaii and Guam reflect the American trend of imposing a capitalist system on pre-existing indigenous communities and taking advantage of bountiful natural resources to boost American economic and political presence on the global stage. The writings of Lewis and Clark, alongside the writings of other explorers of acquired territory, provided a vital step in the United States’ goal of manifest destiny spanning the North American continent and the Pacific beyond.
The journals of Lewis and Clark also demonstrate perceptions of native peoples, specifically the unquestioned interruption of indigenous communities by American colonists. As Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Territory and made their way to the Pacific, they encountered and frequently interacted with indigenous peoples. Their writings treat these communities and their inhabitants as if they are a part of the natural landscape. They describe the natives with neutral tones, reminiscent of how they describe the flora and fauna of the different regions they encountered. In June of 1806, Lewis writes “the custom of sacrificing horses to the deceased appears to be common to all the nations of the plains of Columbia”. In March of the same year, he also wrote “the natives who inhabit this valley are larger and rather better made than those of the coast…They have also a very singular custom among them of bathing themselves allover with urine every morning”. It’s surprising to see the explorers describe customs that would likely be seen as gruesome or uncouth by many of their white American contemporaries with an academic expository tone. Lewis and Clark’s writings do not provide commentary on the “ethics” of native practices, rather, they present them as facts in their research. However, while they never directly disrespectfully speak about the indigenous peoples of the Northwest, the equation of native peoples to nature reveals that Lewis and Clark viewed them as another aspect of the terrain to be explored and reported back to the United States government in hopes of creating settlements and industry in the West.  While their writings express that most of their interactions with natives proceeded without violent conflict, the Corps of Discovery undoubtedly carried epidemics with them, and the rush of settlers that came to the Pacific Northwest after their journey would decimate long-existing healthy indigenous communities. Lewis and Clark as well as their successors failed to acknowledge or consider the impact their presence would have on native peoples. David Igler argues in The Great Ocean that the primary cause of death for indigenous Americans and peoples of the Pacific was the introduction of disease brought by colonists, settlers, and explorers. Additionally, Igler discusses the lasting impact that venereal diseases had on indigenous communities, writing that “fertility and birthrates plummeted, while disfigurement and chronic ill health became common…Infant mortality rates rose” (Igler 52). Lewis and Clark’s survey of the land prompted a population movement that would firmly override any lasting mark of indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest and impose an American culture and economy upon the ground they once roamed without interruption from colonists.  Just as the trends discussed with Yokota’s writing, this mindset and phenomenon is not exclusive to the Pacific Northwest, but to any setting of a pre-existing community interrupted and decimated by the arrival of Europeans. Just as the peoples of the Pacific Northwest were overridden by Americans heading West in search of new economic prosperity, communities across the Pacific faced the same fate of decimation.
Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Territory and the publication that followed demonstrates ideals that would displace and decimate indigenous peoples in real time. Their mission to survey the vast land was motivated by the democratic construct of manifest destiny, and as they headed West, they failed to consider the detrimental impacts their journey would have on the people who inhabited the region for generations prior. Ultimately, the journals of Lewis and Clark serve as a microcosm of the beliefs held by colonists as they arrived in communities across the Pacific. While they never wrote negatively on native cultures, their treatment of natives as an aspect of the vast wilderness they explored is related to how indigenous peoples were seen as less than human by colonists through centuries of interactions. Furthermore, the journals reflect how colonialism is fueled by primarily economic motivations. While Lewis and Clark’s journals are frequently referenced as a scientific text that guided later scientific development and research in the Pacific Northwest, the Corps of Discovery were only sent to the West to explore the new territory, discover which areas would be habitable, what extractable resources were available, and therefore how capitalists could create maximum profit off the space. The journals of Lewis and Clark are a singular example of events that pushed more people westward and resulted in cataclysmic costs for indigenous peoples.

Works Cited

“Forest Products | USITC.”, 2017, Accessed 20 Sept. 2021.

Igler, David. The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark. “Home | Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.”, 2005, Accessed 20 Sept. 2021.

Washington Forest Protection Association. “Forest Facts and Figures.” Washington Forest Protection Association, Dec. 2004,

Yokota, Kariann Akemi. Pacific America: Histories of Transoceanic Crossings. Honolulu, University Of Hawaiʻi Press, 2019.

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