A Realm of American Originals: Three Hundred Years after the Voyage of Discovery, the Findings of Lewis and Clark Are Still Affecting Our Everyday Lives

By Lantz, Gary | American Forests, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

A Realm of American Originals: Three Hundred Years after the Voyage of Discovery, the Findings of Lewis and Clark Are Still Affecting Our Everyday Lives


Lantz, Gary, American Forests


When Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the uncharted West, he set in motion actions which even today affect how we manage our forestlands. In this issue of American Forests, we look at some of those connections, including a closer look at some of the trees Lewis and Clark identified and brought back East. Among them were species like ponderosa and lodgepole pine, trees that proved so commercially valuable they contributed significantly to the building of the country. Those trees continue to influence AMERICAN FORESTS' ecosystem restoration projects as we strive to plant damaged lands with beneficial native species. In fact, some of the national champions of those species still grow along or near the explorers' route. And some of the trees on the route have historical status, having borne witness to the events of 300 years ago.

The maps meticulously drawn by William Clark were a forerunner to the maps we use today, although the differences between them are vast. While Clark's maps detailed their route and latitude and longitude, allowing people to travel from place to place, cartographers today can combine satellite technology with sophisticated computer programs that allow them to map out courses of action that would achieve sought-after outcomes. For example, with the technology available today, it's possible to see how the danger of erosion would be lessened along a stream-bank if a certain number of trees were planted there.

Perhaps the most interesting correlation between Lewis and Clark's journey and the world today is the working together of peoples from different cultures. Lewis and Clark were successful in part because of the Shoshone woman Sacajawea, who joined the expedition with her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, a hired interpreter. Today that same reaching out across cultural and interest boundaries can be seen in the community-based forestry movement, where locals at the edge of the public forests work with agency officials, businesses, and environmental groups to find common ground on the best way to manage the forest.--The Editors

It was home to the red nations, yet an enigma to recently arrived whites. French and Spanish traders made inroads along the major waterways, yet little was known of this vast slice of continent other than rumors that blended a dash of speculation with boundless exaggeration. It was our very own African heart of darkness, with a handful of men proceeding cautiously upriver to obtain furs from the various native tribes ... and courting death in the process.

Before Lewis and Clark, the territory west of the Mississippi River was about as well understood as outer space--almost as mysterious as the Americas were to Christopher Columbus the day he dropped anchor off El Salvador.

At the time President Jefferson himself entertained notions that fabled creatures like woolly mammoths might still live in the huge wilderness he had recently claimed with a stroke of his pen. Traders told of large Indian villages up the Missouri River, and in fact the Mandan village where the Lewis and Clark expedition first wintered was actually larger than the city of St. Louis then.

Contemporary folklore regaled listeners with beyond-the-Mississippi tales of blue-eyed Indians speaking a Welsh dialect and of an endless sweep of erupting volcanoes, huge mountains of salt, 7-foot-tall beavers, buffaloes with slim waists and cheerful demeanors, and of course unicorns.

Then in 1803, they suddenly became our unicorns, another American original if someone dared venture forth to document it. That venturing was left up to captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark-a pair of Virginians with a knack for leadership and equal parts raw courage and inquisitiveness-to face the unknown and make a full report.

Jefferson ordered Lewis and Clark to assemble a crew to explore the 820,000 square miles of newly acquired U. …

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