Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America

Lewis and Clark On April 7, 1805—the day the Lewis and Clark expedition left Fort Mandan for points west—Meriwether Lewis entered an intriguing, revealing note in his journal. Surveying the expedition's collection of canoes and pirogues, Lewis wrote: “This little fleet altho' not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus and Captain Cook were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs.” At that moment Lewis had a sense of history—the history of geographic exploration and his own place in the story. As Columbus had sailed the Atlantic and Cook charted the Pacific, Lewis now imagined he would represent the exploration of the American West. Like so many other exploration stories, the Lewis and Clark journey was shaped by the search for navigable rivers, inspired by the quest for Edens, and driven by competition for empire. Thomas Jefferson was motivated by these aspirations when he drafted instructions for his explorers, sending them up the Missouri River in search of a passage to the Pacific. Writing to William Dunbar just a month after Lewis and Clark left Fort Mandan, Jefferson emphasized the importance of rivers in his plan for western exploration and national expansion. “We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this great country.” River highways could take Americans into an Eden, Jefferson's vision of the West as a garden of the world. And those same rivers might be nature's outlines and borders for empire. Future generations would, so the president told his friend, “fill up the canvas we begin.” Rivers flowed into Edens, and Edens would become empires.

The course of geographic revelation was never simple, never in a straight line. Ancient ideas and cherished illusions persisted as explorers and cartographers struggled to make new knowledge fit old frameworks. Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America presents that struggle in a century of exploration, starting in the mid-eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century. The exhibition draws on the Library's rich collections of exploration material to feature the trek of the Corps of Discovery as a culmination in the quest to connect the East and the West by means of a waterway passage. The exhibition's epilogue focuses on the transcontinental railroad, which replaced the search for a direct water route with a “river of steel.”

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