Dissecting the Columbia

By Lang, William L. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Dissecting the Columbia


Lang, William L., Oregon Historical Quarterly


An Introduction

EURO-AMERICAN EXPLORERS had seen much of the world before they directed their attention to the northwest corner of North America. Mariners from Spain, Great Britain, and the United States had circumnavigated the globe before they made their way to the rugged, natural resource-rich coastline of present-day Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. In the late eighteenth century, adventuring mariners sought out resources and the illusive Northwest Passage. Meanwhile, land explorers had charted the Mississippi River Valley and traders had made their way up the Missouri River to Indian villages as far north as present-day North Dakota. Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company fur traders had fanned west from Hudson Bay and Montreal to the Continental Divide; and one of them, Alexander Mackenzie, had trekked across the continent to the Pacific Ocean in 1793. These explorations were part of what historian William Goetzmann has called the Second Great Age of Discovery, a burst of aggressive investigations of continents and seas far distant from Europe.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was the first of a succession of explorations of the trans-Mississippi West that carried out dual missions of imperialistic claim and scientific discovery. The expedition was also part of a broader exploration of regions that had not been mapped or described by Euro-Americans, an effort that would occupy scientific explorers for most of the nineteenth century and would take them to Africa, South America, and the Arctic. In the American West, Zebulon Pike, Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis, Charles Wilkes, John Fremont, Stephen Long, and John Wesley Powell carried out missions similar to Lewis and Clark's. Acquiring accurate information about topography, watersheds and river systems, flora and fauna, and natural resources served nationalistic and scientific purposes. It is also important to remember that the Corps of Discovery and subsequent expeditions went west as official government parties, most as military contingents. They were meant, as President Thomas Jefferson wrote in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis in 1803, to be investigations, "to be taken with great pains & accuracy, to be entered distinctly & intelligibly for others as well as yourself."

In practical terms, Jefferson's instructions required that Lewis and Clark catalog the regions they traversed. That meant a purposeful, careful, and often meticulous survey of the environment. Nowhere in their trek was this more important than in the Columbia River Basin. The United States had not acquired the region and had only Capt. Robert Gray's 1792 survey of the mouth of the Columbia River as a pretext for a claim. The explorers' discoveries in the basin provided the U.S. government with its first detailed description of the region, the result of scientific observations and notations that Lewis and Clark recorded in their journals. The voluminous journals of the expedition--including daily entries, maps, field notes, course and distance records, miscellany, and collected plants--document the explorers' observations in fine detail. Reading the journals, we learn what they discovered and often the conditions of discovery, from their first descriptions of plants and animals to the location of Indian villages and the geography of the Columbia country. Reviewing and analyzing their descriptions of the Columbia River Basin environment provides an opportunity to see the landscape as they did and to ask questions about what they understood, what subsequent scientific investigations have discovered about the region, and what enormous ecological changes the river has endured since 1806.

My interest in Lewis and Clark comes from a broader set of questions about environmental change in the Columbia River Basin, especially how we have understood the ways in which human activity has altered the landscape. It is, in large part, a focus on the history of place and how we have understood the changes over time.

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