JOHN L. ALLEN
During the nineteenth century a dramatic shift in the purpose, priorities, and results of the exploration of North America occurred. As the century opened, much of the exploratory activity of British, Russian, Spanish, and American explorers was still linked with the game of empire. By the 1830s, commercial interests--primarily of the fur trade--had become the primary exploratory incentive, although imperial dashes between the British and the Americans were still very much a factor in exploration. But by midcentury, with the resolution of most international political issues involving North America and with the decline in the economic benefits of the fur trade, exploration of the continent began to take on a different flavor -- that of scientific inquiry. This new spirit of science was not necessarily science conducted for science's sake. Some was motivated by the search for new resources or new transportation routes and some by military purposes. But a clear transition took place as the spirit of the Enlightenment gave way to economic imperatives and then to the "new" science of the post-Darwinian world. If the earlier centuries of exploration had resulted in the discovery of the continent and in its geographical definition, exploration in the nineteenth century led to the comprehension of the continent, including a fuller understanding of its native peoples. Fur trade exploration, in particular, relied on geographical lore and data from Native Americans, as did, to a lesser degree, military and scientific exploration.
In the opening chapter, James P. Ronda, H. G. Barnard Professor of History at the University of Tulsa, articulates the beginning stage of nineteenth-century exploration. Ronda notes, "Between the 1790s and the 1820s, the American West was both battleground and prize in an epic clash involving Russians, Spaniards, Americans, Canadians, and native peoples." Men like Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Zebulon Montgomery Pike were, in William Goetzmann's phrasing, "diplomats in buckskin."