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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Exploration of the American West

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Mapping the West

Only very gradually did accurate and detailed maps of the region lying west of the Mississippi River come into being. Early maps depicted the western portion of North America as connected to Asia. In time, however, it became evident that the two land masses were indeed separate continents. The process of documenting the physical and cultural geography of the Trans-Mississippi West generally reflected the pattern of colonization. Details concerning the region that one early map labeled the "Tract of Land full of Wild Bulls" were filled in from east to west and south to north, as first Europeans and later Americans extended their control over the continent. With the exception of its coastline, the Pacific Northwest would long remain one of the least understood areas of North America. Not until the expeditions of Alexander MacKenzie (1789-93) and the Corps of Discovery (1804-6) would significant information about the region begin to appear on maps.

Spanish North America

Spain was the first European power to establish itself in the territory that would become known as the American West. It pushed into the region from the south during the sixteenth century in search of wealthy civilizations to conquer. Conquistadores failed to locate the fabled cities of gold, but Spanish missionaries were determined to Christianize the region. Although they often met with fierce resistance from the native inhabitants, the agents of Spanish expansion succeeded in establishing an extensive network of missions and presidios across the Southwest and up the Pacific Coast. These settlements served as the northern outposts of Spain's American empire as it became increasingly threatened by English, Russian, and American encroachments.

Lewis and Clark

Soon after becoming president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson convinced Congress to fund an expedition to explore the area that lay between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. The objectives of the mission were the establishment of commercial ties with the indigenous people of the Far West and an increase in the knowledge of the region's geography.

Under the command of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the Corps of Discovery set forth from St. Louis on May 14, 1804. The party originally consisted of twenty-nine men, including Clark's black slave York. In the next twenty-eight months, the Corps of Discovery would travel more than 8,000 miles (12,872 km) through unfamiliar terrain inhabited by an array of indigenous peoples.

The expedition made it as far as the Great Bend of the Missouri by the end of 1804. While camped near the villages of the Mandan and Minnetaree, the Corps enlisted the services of Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife Sacagawea. The following year, the expedition journeyed up the Missouri, across the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. At the newly-erected Fort Clatsop, the party suffered through a dismal winter. The following year all members of the Corps of Discovery returned along roughly the same route. During the journey only one person, Sergeant Charles Floyd, lost his life, while another, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, was born to Sacagawea.

Both captains kept detailed journals that depicted a culturally and geographically diverse Western landscape that was rich with natural resources. Their descriptions of vast populations of fur-bearing mammals would spur the extension of the American fur trade into the upper reaches of the Missouri River.