Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Describing a New Environment: Lewis and Clark and Enlightenment Science in the Columbia River Basin

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Describing a New Environment: Lewis and Clark and Enlightenment Science in the Columbia River Basin

Article excerpt

IN AUGUST 1805, the Corps of Discovery topped the Continental Divide after a laborious journey up the Missouri River--more than thirty-one hundred miles, by William Clark's later reckoning, from their departure point at the river's mouth. (1) Tracing the Missouri to its sources marked the achievement of a major objective, but the view Meriwether Lewis took in as he looked west from Lemhi Pass startled him. "After refreshing ourselves," Lewis wrote on August 12, "we proceeded on to the top of the dividing ridge from which I discovered immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow." That view dashed the imagined geography Lewis and Clark had carried with them since leaving Fort Mandan in April. They had expected the west side of the divide to mimic the east side and to offer an unencumbered descent to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. Looking into the sawtoothed Bitterroot Mountains put Lewis in a position he had endured before when the geography had surprised him and forced new decisions. As they had throughout the expedition, the co-leaders pondered their options, knowing that their destination might be more distant but also knowing that reaching it was compelling and essential to the success of their mission. (2)

The scene is familiar to students of the great exploration led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into the American West. It is a moment of adventure and challenge, the essence of the Lewis and Clark story, a saga of exploration that rivals John Wesley Powell's float of the Grand Canyon, John Glenn's orbit of the Earth, and Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon.

Most Americans have been told the Lewis and Clark story as an adventure, and it has been that way from the first telling of their experiences by Nicholas Biddle in History of the Expedition under Captains Lewis and Clark in 1814 to Stephen Ambrose's enormously successful Undaunted Courage in 1996. The expedition has been a story of accomplishment, often set within a patriotic context. Its background, proximate causes, and stated objectives, however, are not well known to the general public. Even less known and understood are the exploration's scientific purposes. Although President Thomas Jefferson created the expedition for nationalistic, geopolitical, and economic reasons, he also had science in mind when he sent Lewis and Clark to the West two centuries ago. (3)

Science in the eighteenth century had developed principally as an investigation of natural phenomena and the diversity of life. Enlightenment scientists, historian Donald Worster has argued, pursued the description of nature while they also investigated the apparent harmony resident in the natural world. Lewis and Clark carried these Enlightenment scientific interests and assumptions with them as they explored the Columbia River Basin, and their journals disclose their comprehension of the environment as natural and human ecology. They saw the lands west of the divide, in part, as scientists, and as scientists they documented the relationships between people and environment for the scientific enterprise. (4)

A case can be made that Jefferson's interest in the American West grew out of his fascination with the natural world and his pursuit of scientific information about regions west of the Appalachian Mountains. He had science on his mind in 1783, just after Britain and the United States signed the peace treaty, when he first articulated the idea for a western exploration and tried to enlist George Rogers Clark as expedition leader. Clark was one of the young nation's most experienced soldiers, a veteran of Revolutionary War campaigns on the western frontier, an exponent of western expansion, and someone interested in scientific discovery. Writing to Clark in December 1783, Jefferson thanked him for a packet of "shells and seeds" and hoped he would find and send along "different species of bones, teeth and tusks of the Mammoth" Having directed Clark's attention to scientific collecting, Jefferson played on Clark's patriotism by disclosing his anxiety about British explorers getting a jump on Americans in surveying the western territories. …

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