The Charted Wilderness: The Map Lewis and Clark Followed

Article excerpt

Alice Beck Kehoe is adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin.

Lewis and Clark stand in the middle of Montana, at the junction of two rivers. Which to follow? Which can they bet will lead them to a pass through the Rockies? Lewis decides to take the river flowing from the north, Clark to continue on the one that goes straight west. The Indian guides support Clark's choice. Days later, Lewis returns, disappointed, to rejoin Clark and their main party.

So goes the epic story. Lewis' journal, however, tells a more complicated narrative. In July 1806, he and nine men cut cross-country from the eastern flank of the Bitterroots to the Missouri. They then backtracked along the Missouri to the confluence with Maria's River. They followed this river north to ascertain, Lewis wrote, whether it reached the fiftieth parallel. Seeing, after four days' ride, that it turned west to the mountains--well below that latitude--he returned to the Missouri.

Along the way, there was an unfortunate meeting with a party of Indian men herding horses. The Americans and the Indians camped together overnight. However, the Indians tried to steal the Americans' guns, forcing one of Lewis' men to stab a man while wrestling with him for control of a rifle. Lewis also shot, with his pistol, another man who was running off with a horse.

This is what we learn from Lewis' narrative. What he doesn't say is why Maria's River was selected for exploration northward. In fact, in 1803, President Jefferson had given Lewis a map recently published in London that laid out the entire Missouri watershed. It covered territory from the Mandan towns in central North Dakota, the intermontane valleys of Montana, and the Snake River to its juncture with the Columbia west of the mountains. Finally, it showed that river running as a straight line west to the Pacific.

This map, drawn for the Hudson's Bay Company, showed Maria's River running northwest from the Missouri to a pass in the Rockies (which in fact it does: Maria's Pass is the route of federal highway 2 from the Plains through the mountains to the Flathead Valley and Idaho). Lewis and Clark had not gone into an uncharted wilderness.

The Old Swan's map

The map published in London was drawn by Akai Mokti (Old Swan), principal leader of the Blackfoot alliance. During February 1801, while he and his band were visiting the Hudson's Bay Company post at the Red Deer River in southernmost Alberta, he drew several maps for the trader, Peter Fidler. Fidler annotated the maps according to Akai Mokti's explanations, informing the Bay headquarters that:

This Chief has seen the greater part of the different Tribes he has marked down & has heard of the rest when in company with other nations who live nearer those distant tribes. ... Of all those different Tribes in the Indian map only the Tattood & Cottonahow [Arapaho and Kootenay] Indians have been at any of our houses to trade. (Quoted in Moodie and Kaye 1977:13)

Fidler himself had seen only a limited portion of the maps' vast territory--200,000 square miles of the Northern Plains and intermontane valleys.

The Hudson's Bay Company managers immediately recognized the value of Akai Mokti's map. They ordered professional cartographer Aaron Arrowsmith to redraw it for impending publication. The secretary of the Hudson's Bay Company told Sir Joseph Banks, on December 17, 1802, that

Mr. Arrowsmith ... considers [the map] as important in ascertaining, with some degree of certainty, the sources of the Missisoury, they also convey much curious Information respecting the face of many Countries hitherto unknown to Europeans. (Moodie and Kaye 1977:10-11).

Geographers Moodie and Kaye say Akai Mokti's map was "instrumental, if not decisive, in deciding upon the correct course of exploration" (Moodie and Kaye 1977:11). Historian Theodore Binnema adds that Arrowsmith, unable to talk with Akai Mokti, distorted some of the clarity of the Blackfoot map by assuming it showed all mountains and rivers, rather than singling out those that must be dealt with by travelers. …