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Exploring an Inhabited Country

By David Taylor | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

To wrap up the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Newberry Library in Chicago has delved into its collections to find a fresh perspective for understanding this episode in history.

"What often gets lost in the story is that Lewis and Clark did not explore a wilderness; they traveled through an inhabited homeland," says Frederick Hoxie, lead curator of "Lewis and Clark and the Indian Country," a new exhibit at the Newberry that runs from September 28 to January 14.

Many Americans have a basic knowledge of the 1804-1806 expedition: the epic journey involved 33 explorers, four thousand miles of unmapped territory, and a presidential mandate from Thomas Jefferson to find a northwest trade route. What will be fresh terrain are the perspectives on the Mandans, the Nez Perce, the Blackfeet, and others.

The Mandans, for example, lived in villages along the Missouri River and traded widely with different groups. The Sioux were expanding their reach westward, challenging the Mandans' dominance in some places. The Nez Perce, in alliance with the Crow, had already begun trading across the inhospitable mountains of the Continental Divide, essentially creating the path that Lewis and Clark followed.

"When Lewis and Clark come to the Mandans and spend the winter there," says Hoxie, "they find French Canadian traders; they find people trading under the British flag. They get nervous." So the explorers hired Toussaint Charbonneau, one of the French Canadian fur traders, and his wife Sacagawea to help navigate not just the landscape, but also the interrelationships that would be invisible to outsiders.

Little-known elements of the expedition's history come from diaries kept by the recruits, whose opinions were notably more candid than those of Lewis and Clark. From the start, Lewis had viewed his own journal as a public history, following the model of Captain James Cook, whose journal of the Pacific was a bestseller of the time. Conscious of his role, Lewis chose his words carefully.

Private Joseph Whitehouse was less inhibited. He describes their joy at finding Mandan allies in the forbidding upper reaches of the Missouri and the misery of the explorers' passage through the Bitterroot Mountains in late 1805."Our mockersons froze hard," Whitehouse wrote.

"In moments of stress," Hoxie says, "the difference between the very self-conscious commanders' views and the enlisted men's view is illuminating for historians."

Being in unfamiliar diplomatic waters could explain how violence erupted from what might have been a misunderstanding. At Two Medicine River, two Blackfeet youth were killed by Lewis and his party after what appeared to be a friendly beginning in which the visitors presented the Indians with a small flag and a peace medal. The next morning, the Blackfeet, possibly alarmed when Lewis mentioned alliances with the Nez Perce and Shoshones, grabbed some of the explorers' guns and horses, and fled, Lewis and his men in pursuit.

In addition to covering the expedition's encounters, the exhibit addresses current tribal concerns. A segment on Blackfeet language, for instance, explores its importance to the tribe's survival. Every educational program on the Blackfeet reservation in the 1800s set out to replace their language with English. Missionaries, officials, and schoolteachers said the tribe would be left behind if it did not abandon its ancient language. Opposition to English-only education crystallized in 1995, when the Nizipuhwahsin Center in northern Montana first offered courses to revive the Blackfeet language.

The language "made us healthy and allowed us to survive for thousands of years," says the school's director Darrell Kipp, who is quoted in the exhibition. "It is not something to be overcome; it is an integral part of who we are."

Hoxie hopes the exhibit gives Americans a chance to appreciate the different perspectives our histories offer us. "We see this as an exhibition that looks forward as much as it looks back," he says.

About the Author

David Taylor is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Virginia.

Funding Information

The Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois, has received $275,000 in NEH funding for the "Lewis and Clark and the Indian Country" exhibit.