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Table of Contents

Explorations of the West
Sam Dalsheimer

Caitlin Goss
Nick Schradle
David Sena

Representations of
Native Americans

Richard Dybas
Amanda Leong
Cynthia Robertson

The Western Railroads
Ronni Toledo
Kayt Fitzmorris
Jon Ingram
David Halperin

The California
Gold Rush

Jordan Helle
Adam Lawrence
Marisa Pulcrano
Patrick Ryan

California as Western Destination/ Mediterranean Boosterism
Maddy Kiefer
Danielle Mantooth
Molly Nelson
Stefanie Ramsay

Other Online Exhibits


The exploration texts of Lewis and Clark, John C. Fremont, and Charles Wilkes demonstrate a large array of American sentiments of the early 19th century towards the frontier. In these texts there is an increasing audacity in tone as the explorers grow more confident with the lay of the land.[more]

This confidence is indicative of the United States’ growing comfort with the western territories and its changing values as seen through the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. All four expeditions were sponsored by the United States government with very strict goals of cataloging the landscape and wildlife (the natives also being part of the “wildlife”) and how to best manipulate them. The language of these narratives is scientific and analytical on all accounts but especially towards Native Americans. What started as a gentle yet patronizing interest by Lewis and Clark turned into scorn and distrust in Fremont and finally transformed into Wilkes’ near blatant racism towards the natives and espousal of white superiority. Also distinguishing these texts is the fact that they were all written by military men. Their training and propensity to evaluate situations based on fulfilling the United States government’s expectations not only make for highly professionalized documents but also indicate a martial attitude towards the domination of a land and its people.

Portrait of Charles
Narrative of The United States Exploring Expedition:

During the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842

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- Sam Dalsheimer

"Charles Wilkes: The Most Intrepid Man of All Time"
The United States Naval officer, Charles Wilkes was tapped by the U.S. government in 1836 to lead a large group of scientists, artists and linguists, to explore coastlines, islands, and the general periphery of the United States territory.  His officially penned documentation, the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, is an expansive text (much like the frontier) covered in five volumes each, each reaching over five hundred pages.  Wilkes and his men journeyed from Virginia, circumnavigating South America, and eventually reached Fiji, Hawaii, Vancouver, Oregon, California, and numerous South East Asian islands.

The illustrations in every volume are exquisite.  The depictions of craters and volcanoes in Hawaii are particularly mesmerizing.  When in Oregon, Wilkes expounds on the “primeval forest of pines in the rear of Astoria,” noting the largest tree to have a circumference of thirty-nine feet six inches; a camera lucida drawing by one of their many artists, J. Drayton, gives an impressive sense of the scale of these towering pines.[1]

Throughout the narrative Wilkes employs a very methodical and scientific approach to writing.  This of course fits well when cataloging the flora, fauna, and geography, but he carries the same tone when describing the native population.  Even at his most pro-Indian, Wilkes uses dehumanizing, technical words.  He describes their native pilots, Ramsey and his brother George, as “good specimens of Flathead Indians;” furthermore, he was “pleased at having the opportunity” to include sketches of them,[2] much like the drawings of plant life that litter the rest of the document.

There are times when Wilkes’ racism is shockingly blunt.  At one point he describes the “vicious propensities” of the indigenous population in Astoria:

Both sexes are equally filthy, and I am inclined to believe will continue so; for their habits are inveterate, and from all the accounts I could gather from different sources, there is reason to believe that they have not improved or been benefited by their constant intercourse with the whites, except in very few cases. It is indeed probable that the whole race will be extinguished ere long, even if no pestilential disease should come among them to sweep them off in a single season. [3]

This is admittedly one of the more extreme examples of racism in the text, but it is intriguing nonetheless, especially when analyzed via postcolonial theory. Wilkes engages in Orientalist discourse by analyzing the natives, “not as citizens, or even people, but as problems to be solved or confined or as the colonial powers openly coveted their territory–taken over."[4] Of particular note is his interpretation of miscegenation, which plainly acknowledges a belief that whiteness would bring some sort of “improvement” to the lives of natives.

Regardless of the inherent racism in the text, Charles Wilkes’ writes with a professionalism that many original source accounts lack.  In particular, the attention to detail is impressive for such a massive endeavor.  If we ignore the fact that Wilkes considers Indian aid as some auxiliary effort to the expedition much of the time, we can see that indigenous groups were incredibly helpful–at times essential–in making the travels possible; within every few pages, trade with Indians is mentioned.  Wilkes’ rhetorical choices—in depicting the indigenous population—further legitimize the continued colonization of the American landscape in the mid-nineteenth century.

[2] Ibid., 115.

[3] Ibid., 116.

[4] Edward Said, “Orientalism,” in Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod & Rise B. Axelrod. “Postcolonialism.” Chapter draft from A Theory Toolkit (W.W. Norton, forthcoming), 3.

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Title page from
                                              "Expedition of Lewis
                                              and Clark Vol. 2"
History of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the
sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, Performed during the years 1804-5-6

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- Caitlin Goss

"Lewis and Clark Explore the West"
The exploration of the west is a hefty topic and one that can be theorized in many  ays from the ideologies of Frederick Jackson Turner’s rugged frontierism[1] to William Cronan’s metropole[2] of tight cities surrounded by concentric circles of lesser developed outer ring villages, expanding outward to the frontier. But to gain insight into the western expansion from the perspective of pioneering Americans, it is best to turn the yellowed pages of a primary text, in this case, that of the History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark. This text provides a first person narrative of the westward travels of Lewis and Clark and presents vivid descriptions of the environment and of the natives they encounter. Because the expedition was assigned by the United States government as a sort of exploratory mission, Lewis’ writing presents a professionalized and analytical perspective on the environment and the natives that inhabit it. From the illustrative narration of their encounters with the natives, Lewis and Clark seem to have been a part of what Richard White refers to as  “the middle ground”[3] of the west, interacting with the Native Americans in a way that allowed for the exchange of goods and friendly hospitality. For example, Lewis narrates an occasion in which their group was visited by several natives upon which he recalls, “we received them kindly, smoked with them, and gave them a piece of tobacco to smoke with their tribe…our two chiefs had gone on in order to apprise the tribes of our approach and of our friendly dispositions towards them"[4]. The explorers were cordial and welcoming in cases such as this, practicing the traditional signs of peace and friendship between themselves and the Natives.

During their travels, Lewis narrates their encounters with the Indians, which are seemingly friendly and helpful interactions. Upon meeting a tribe, for example, the Lewis and Clark group would honor the native chiefs with presents and would follow the practice of smoking with the group as a sign of friendship. Lewis described the natives with much detail and described to great extent the differences between each tribe they came into contact with in regards to physical countenance and dress and the set up of their villages. This is an important note in regards to the outlook of Lewis on the natives. The natives were not lumped into the broad category of wild ‘savages’ but were instead studied in regards to appearance, language, health, diet, and culture perhaps in a more scientific and analytical way than that of other explorers who had different intentions in their travels. This may indicate a sort of interest in the natives that other frontiersman may not have had. Lewis’ narrative of his expedition offers the perspective of the Captains in regards to the frontier and the movement west and the exploration of both the environment and the people and cultures within it.

[1] Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Report of the American Historical Association for 1893. Pgs. 199-227 (AHA, 1893)

[2] Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis. (W.W. Norton and Company, 1999).

[3] White, Richard. The Middle Ground (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[4] Lewis, Meriwether, William Clark, Paul Allen, and Thomas Jefferson. 1814. History of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.: Performed during the years 1804-5-6. By order of the government of the United States. (Philadelphia: Published by Bradford and Inskeep, and Abm. H. Inskeep.) 10.

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Pyramid Lake (p. 216)
                                              from "The Exploring
                                              Expedition to the Rocky
                                              Mountains in the Year
                                              1842, and to Oregon in the
                                              Years 1843-1844"
Report of the exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the years 1843-44

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                                                info on this source

- Nick Schradle

In the mid-1840s, the United States Congress sponsored the first of several expeditions into the largely unexplored interior of the United States. John C. Frémont's Report of the exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the years 1843-44 details two of these expeditions. The first expedition commenced in 1842—following a western course that would later be known as the iconic Oregon Trail—but stopped at the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains. The second expedition, which lasted from 1843-1844, followed the same route but continued into Oregon territory, then circled Southward through the Sierra Nevada into California.

Frémont's report consists of daily journal entries which recounted the day's occurrences and also recorded data such as temperature, topography, soil composition, geographic coordinates, flora and fauna, and various other information. A number of detailed illustrations, mostly of impressive landscapes, sporadically accompany journal entries. At the end of either expedition's account are extensive appendices cataloging and expanding on the data recorded in Frémont's daily entries.

Surprisingly, the majority of the men in either of Frémont's expeditions were French-Canadian “voyageurs.” The fact that this introduced an unnecessary language complication to the expeditions is at first puzzling. However, it is likely that these men had valuable practical experience with the frontier in general and the interior of the country in particular—perhaps from years spent trapping. However, the extent of the expeditions' collective wisdom was at times questionable. The expedition of 1843-44 attempted to cross the snow-bound Sierra Nevada in the dead of winter—despite clear warnings from local Natives to avoid such an undertaking—and nearly starved to death.

At the time of these expeditions, the land west and south of the Rocky Mountains was still Mexican territory. However, no concern with or even recognition of this apparent (government sponsored) incursion appears in Frémont's accounts. By the mid-century, the territorial ambitions of the United States accelerated along with the ascension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny in American culture. Frémont was a harbinger of this
powerful urge to expand westward, an urge that would lead to war with Mexico only a few years after the expeditions' conclusion.

Frémont's encounters with, and attitudes toward, Native Americans on the “frontier” is also tragically indicative of events and attitudes to follow in the Indian Wars of the mid-to-late 19th century. The expeditions' encounters with Natives were almost always tense, and usually balanced on the edge of violence.

The gradual colonization of the Eastern seaboard by Euro-Americans began in the 16th century, immediately impinging upon the settlements of Native Americans. Initially, a “middle ground” developed between Natives and Euro-Americans that had necessitated a degree of cultural toleration and political respect between the two groups (see The Middle Ground by Richard White). However, this gradually dissolved under the consistent pressure exerted by settlers on the resources and land around Native settlements. This pressure had dire consequences—disease and warfare amongst Native groups and between Natives and settlers inevitably decimated Native populations and displaced Native groups out of territory familiar to them. By the mid 19th century, existing populations of Native Americans also faced considerable organized discrimination from the United States Government. Most notably, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 gave President Andrew Jackson the authority to forcibly remove large populations of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Choctaw Natives from the Deep South and confine them to relatively small territory in present day Oklahoma.

The volatile nature of the encounters between Native groups and Frémont’s expeditions was directly related to the Natives’ displacement and conflict with both settlers and those in the employ of the U.S. Government in the preceding decades. Frémont, however, does not display cognizance of this fact or sensitivity to the culture or situation of Native Americans. Incredibly, only one man, and not Natives, were killed in conflict with Native groups over the course of either expedition. If at any point violence had broken out on a larger scale, Frémont and his men were at a considerable numerical disadvantage and risked annihilation. It is no surprise that, despite the ostensibly scientific aims of the expedition, the company carted an unwieldy Howitzer canon over the thousands of miles of rough terrain. Tragically, Frémont’s expedition marked the beginning of the U.S. Government’s increasingly militant expeditions into the interior of the country. These forays would eventually escalate into the Indian Wars of the mid to late 19th century, in which U.S. Army systematically killed thousands of Native Americans.


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Fold-out expedition
                                              map drawn by William
                                              Clark, 1806 in
                                              "Expedition of Lewis
                                              and Clark Vol. 2"

History of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clarke,
to the sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. Performed during the years 1804-5-6. By order of the government of the United States  Vol I

- David Sena
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"Orientals in America"
Lewis and Clark in their seminal 1804 expedition found themselves in the unique position of being a stranger in a land that now-Americans had known about as part of a continent that they had lived on for more than 200 years.  Being one of the last episodes of “first contact” between Native Americans and a Western power (in the form of the new United States), many of the same tendencies towards “orientalism” that had been present in earlier contact zones of the 16th and 17th centuries occurred one more time in a way that subtly persuaded many to heed what had for years been a siren call from the West.  

Meriwether Lewis particularly as the expedition’s “scribe” had a great interest in conveying the ebullient grandeur of the land near the Missouri River and its resources in what he often described as a “near paradise” (Lewis, 78) full of great “abundance with fish, game and tree of all sorts” (Lewis, 78) that stood in sharp contrast to the settled and more stale cityscapes which he came from.  Even when the expedition was rough and survival was not always guaranteed, Lewis was obsessed with meticulously and mechanically describing every aspect of his environment in an effort to try to understand all of its inner workings, frequently commenting on its “amazing” peculiarities (all throughout but here Lewis, 98).  This fascination with a new place of such perceived magnificence and treatment of it from the perspective of a detached and omniscient observer engaging in empirical study typifies one early way in which Americans began to take a sort of ownership of the new frontier.  In believing in their ability to understand a new landscape and its mysteries, the land can thus be controlled and demonstrated as being tamable.  These attitudes also represent a voyeurism that instantly whets the appetite of any prospective pioneer looking to engage with a land of many fruits and eccentricities and also planted the seeds of later imperialism. 

Such mindsets even applied to real human beings as Lewis demonstrates through the expedition’s dealings with Native Americans in a manner that severely though subtly dehumanizes them (though that was not necessarily their conscious reckoning).  As enthralled as he is with the natural landscape, he is just as captivated by the “exotic nature” of Native Americans (Lewis, 20).  He particularly sexualizes Native American women, taking great lengths in detailing the way they dress and how immodest they are when it comes to wearing revealing clothing.  He notes how the natives at one village were all riddled with venereal disease, indicative to him of an erotic and loosely irresponsible people.  All Native Americans he describes as being intrigued by seemingly insignificant and cheaply-made bronze works like kettles and blue beads which Lewis and Clark were able to exchange for needed food and supplies.  Both parties thought they had got the better deal from the other.  Although he does not explicitly state it, Native Americans seem to Lewis like children who engage in these “queer behaviors” because they simply do not know any better way.  This orientalizing of an entire race makes it very easy to cast Native Americans as not only undeveloped human beings but also attracts even more sentiment towards settlement of the West in an effort to observe and possibly even engage in such arousing and strange activities independent of government or constraining society.  Lewis certainly felt he was being impartial and frank, but his underlying attitudes colored his perspective and provided the foundation for how the United States viewed the frontier as a place both worth conquering and easy to conquer. 

Featured map: This copy of a hand-drawn map by expedition co-leader William Clark, as objective as it appears to be, nevertheless hints at some of Clark's personal biases regarding the land.  From a top-down perspective, Clark intricately details scores of natural landmarks and river routes giving the land an overwhelmingly abundant feel.  Yet from a left-right perspective the land is scaled to seem far more compact with the Pacific appearing to be a much shorter distance from Missouri than as seen through modern maps.  The Rocky Mountains themselves appear to be an afterthought.  Perhaps Clark intended to depict a land full of resources that is nonetheless relatively easy to traverse and quick to travel through, a tempting combination for prospective settlers.               

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 About this Project / Acknowledgements

Occidental College's "American Frontier" Research Seminar was developed by
Dr. Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History.

The library project is developed in collaboration with the Special Collections Department:
Dale Ann Stieber, Special Collections Librarian
with student staff
Henry Boule and Claire Lem and
Laila Tootoonchi and Anahid Yahjian.

Title Image: Thomas Moran, "Nearing Camp, Evening on the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming, 1882," from http://www.boltonmuseums.org.uk/collections/art/paintings_prints_and_drawings/oil/nearing_camp_moran

Page last edited on 03/12/2013.
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