Oregon State Bar Bulletin — FEBRUARY/MARCH 2004

Oregon Legal Heritage
Another look at The Lewis and Clark Expedition

By Robert J. Miller

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sit high in the pantheon of American folk heroes. Even today, at the 200-year commemoration of their expedition, Lewis and Clark are viewed as brave adventurers who went where no one had gone before and explored and conquered the Wilderness for the betterment of America. There is another way, however, to view Lewis and Clark, which is closer to the truth. Lewis and Clark were military officers serving American empire — and Manifest Destiny — and were the vanguard of American legal doctrines and policies that ultimately robbed the indigenous peoples of just about everything they possessed. Historian Bernard DeVoto stated that 'the dispatch of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was an act of imperial policy.' This imperialism was directed at the Indians and tribes that inhabited the Pacific Northwest and the Louisiana Territory.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was primarily concerned with Indian affairs from its inception. In January 1803, when President Jefferson sought an appropriation to fund the expedition, he told Congress that the United States could capture from England the lucrative fur trade with the Missouri River tribes and tribes clear to the Pacific Ocean.1 Then, when launching the expedition in June 1803, President Jefferson instructed Lewis to find the elusive Northwest Passage across the continent to use the route, in cooperation with Indian tribes, to greatly expand the American fur trade.2 Second, Jefferson wanted Lewis to establish commercial ties with the Indian nations in the Louisiana Territory.3 Third, Jefferson ordered Lewis and Clark to perform ethnographic studies of Indians and to gather information concerning tribal life, religion, territory, diplomatic relations and more.4 Finally, in January 1804, after the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson added a new instruction and ordered Lewis and Clark to extend the United States’ sovereignty over the tribes in the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.5 Consequently, Lewis and Clark were American economic and diplomatic representatives, spreading the news of the United States’ new role as the controlling government in the Territory after France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States.6 They also told tribes and foreigners that Jefferson was now the 'Great White Father' of all the Indian 'children' and that the United States was exercising its sovereignty over the Territory.7

The Expedition, or 'Corps of Discovery,' operated under a European legal principle called the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine rationalized the domination and outright conquest of indigenous, non-Christian, non-white populations because it provided that the first European country that 'discovered' new territory gained an interest in the natives’ property by becoming the sole entity eligible to buy their lands and the sole government that could deal diplomatically with the natives. Thus, indigenous peoples lost some of their real property and sovereign governmental rights without their knowledge or their consent to the 'discovering' nation. The doctrine recognized, however, that natives retained occupancy and use property rights in their lands.

In 1823, in Johnson v. McIntosh,8 the Supreme Court recognized that the Doctrine of Discovery was American law. Much earlier, however, President Jefferson demonstrated his understanding of discovery, and his agreement with the principle, when he wrote that after buying the Louisiana Territory the U.S. had become its sovereign but that the purchase had not diminished Indian occupancy rights because the United States still had to buy the remaining property rights of the 'native proprietors.'9 Jefferson also showed his understanding of discovery when he sent Lewis and Clark beyond the Louisiana Territory into the Pacific Northwest. Jefferson did so to strengthen the United States’ discovery claim to the Oregon Territory before the English perfected their own claim. Jefferson had American empire in mind for the Pacific Northwest and for the Louisiana Territory, and he would not let the English nor the Indian tribes stand in his way.

Lewis and Clark exercised American power and empire in the Louisiana Territory and helped establish American discovery claims to the Pacific Northwest. First, they distributed 'sovereignty tokens' consisting of American flags, military uniforms and Jefferson Peace Medals to important tribal chiefs. These 'gifts' conveyed significant messages of American sovereignty and tribal allegiance to the U.S. Second, they informed everyone that President Jefferson was now the 'Great White Father' of his Indian 'children.' Third, they organized visits of members of 26 tribes to Washington, D.C. to intimidate Indians with the immense size and power of the United States. Fourth, they tried to manipulate the political relationships of the tribes to facilitate American goals regarding hegemony and trade. Fifth, they pursued American commercial goals and consulted with tribes on the best locations for trading posts to bring tribes within the American economic sphere. They even promised to trade with tribes located outside the Louisiana Territory which demonstrates further the 'imperial' reach of the Expedition to areas that were then outside the United States. Finally, Lewis and Clark performed recognized rituals to advance America’s discovery claims by leaving rosters of their men and announcements of their presence at the Pacific Ocean with the Clatsop and Chinook Indians, and by branding and carving their names on trees.

The actions of Lewis and Clark show that, ultimately, the subjugation of Indian property and commercial rights were the primary objectives of the Expedition. The United States claimed its discovery sovereignty over the Louisiana Territory and made concrete plans to begin exercising that authority. The Expedition was part of Jefferson’s plan to assimilate Indians and their assets into American society, to remove the Indian tribes from America’s path to continental expansion, and to exterminate Indians and tribes if necessary to advance American empire.

Thus, Lewis and Clark opened the road to the domination of Indian tribes and to bringing them and their lands into the American empire. Indians lost valuable property and governmental rights and were ultimately subjected to official federal policies of forced removals, assimilation, the reservation system, and the termination of tribal governmental status.


1. 1 Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854 10-13 (Donald Jackson ed., 2d ed. 1978) (Jefferson’s Message to Congress, January 18, 1803).

2. Id. at 61-66 (Jefferson’s Instructions to Lewis, June 20, 1803).

3. Id.

4. Id.

5. Id. at 165-66 (Jefferson’s Instructions to Lewis, January 22, 1804).

6. 2 The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition 439 (Gary E. Moulton ed. 1986); id. volume 10 at 25 (Sgt. Patrick Gass recorded that the Indians 'appeared well pleased with the change of government'); 1 Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at 165, 203-08.

7. Id.

8. 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823).

9. 1 Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 422 (James D. Richardson, ed. 1897) (Jefferson wrote in a January 15, 1808 message to the Senate that Indians still held title to the Louisiana Purchase lands and the U.S. had to buy it 'from the native proprietors'); 1 Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at 165 (Jefferson Letter to Lewis, Jan. 22, 1804; 'Being now become sovereigns of the country, without however any diminution of the Indian rights of occupancy…').

© 2004 Robert J. Miller

Robert J. Miller, associate professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, is chief justice of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Court of Appeals and a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.

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