Republican Nationalism
The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Volume I, Chapter 8


The Lewis and Clark expedition is a window on both the American character and the natural environment in the early Republic. By following Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their westward journey across prairies and mountains to the Pacific, we see the grandeur of the early American wilderness. The expedition can also be seen as an indication of the apparently limitless horizons lying before the American people during their first century of independence.


In 1803, the year of the Louisiana Purchase, the United States was a strong, confident nation with a population of 6 million. Americans were building canals, bridges, factories, and highways and experimenting with steamboats and gaslamps. Along the Atlantic seaboard the wilderness had long since vanished, and the land was familiar, lived upon, subdued.

But there was another America, totally unknown to the people of the East. When Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, tens of thousands of Native Americans living within the boundaries of the future United States had never seen a white man. In reality, America was not one country but many. Its nations included Mandans, Sioux, Shoshones, and Nez Percé, as well as the polyglot population of Europeans and African. Few easterners had traveled among the western Indians or seen the Rockies. The United States was bordered by a mystery.