Skip to main content

Exploration and Discovery


European exploration and discovery was transformed during the eighteenth century by what Mary Louise Pratt calls "the knowledge-building project of natural history" (p. 24). A foundation stone of this project was the botanical classificatory system of the Swedish naturalist Carl Linne (Linnaeus), which offered a comprehensive method of arranging all plant species in the world. Equipped with such tools and motivated by a sense of "planetary consciousness," the international scientific expedition "became one of Europe's proudest instruments of expansion" (p. 23). Expeditions such as those of James Cook, George Vancouver, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, and Jean François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, included scientific specialists with instructions to gather information of all kinds. Despite an emphasis on international science, it was well understood that marine mapping, the development of navigational tools and techniques, and botanical, zoological, and ethno-graphic research served to signal, support, and extend the power of the sponsoring states.


With these eighteenth-century expeditions as models, President Thomas Jefferson conceived the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–1806) that traversed the continent between St. Louis and the mouth of the Columbia River. Jefferson's copious instructions echoed those that had guided late-eighteenth-century maritime explorers, imposing on men traveling in small boats, on horseback, and on foot many of the data-gathering ambitions previously sustained by fleets of sailing vessels. This expedition coincided with the Louisiana Purchase, and while it expressed Jefferson's engagement with international science, it also was motivated by the strategic concerns of a new, expanding nation in competition with the imperial designs of Britain, France, Spain, and Russia. As early as 1786, Jefferson wrote that the United States "must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North and South, is to be peopled" (p. 218). While the British explorers Cook and Vancouver mapped the Pacific coast of North America and British and Canadian fur traders were the first to cross the continent and establish operations on the Pacific, American military exploring expeditions tended to have broader aims, keeping in mind the general public interests of a young, growing country.

Up to the early 1840s, when American settlers began crossing the continent to Oregon and California, exploration was concentrated east of the Rockies and focused on the rivalries with the Spanish in northern Mexico and the British in Canada. The fur trade was an immediate motivator of reconnaissance, particularly around the Great Lakes. Lieutenant Zebulon Pike (1779–1813) led two expeditions intended to familiarize Americans with the frontiers of Louisiana and to assert U.S. sovereignty. In 1805 Pike explored the headwaters of the Mississippi in present-day Minnesota. In 1806 he ventured into the Southwest, ascending the Arkansas River into the Rocky Mountains in the region of Pike's Peak and the headwaters of the Platte. Pike's reconnaissance of both the Mississippi and the southwestern regions was mostly focused on the immediate strategic interests of the United States, but he also gathered much important geographical information, and his privately published Report (1810) had lasting influence on American ideas about the Far West. In particular, according to William H. Goetzmann, he described the region as extremely dry and not suitable for farming; he argued that an easy land passage existed between the Colorado River and California; and he publicized the idea that Santa Fe and northern Mexico afforded many opportunities for trade (pp. 51–52).

Major Stephen Long's (1784–1864) expedition of 1819 ascended the Platte River into the Rockies in the area of Pike's Peak. Long's assessment of the conditions of the high western plains echoed Pike's view that they were not fit for farming, and Long has been blamed for perpetrating the idea of the "Great American Desert." Goetzmann argues, however, that in retrospect Long's assessment of the situation was probably a just one, given the technology of the time (p. 62). Long's greatest contribution is his map of 1821, which was one of a handful that formed the basis of western cartography until the systematic surveys undertaken after the Civil War. His expedition was the first to include civilian scientists, whose data gathering was perhaps parodied in the figure of Dr. Obed Battius in James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1827). Cooper's novel also includes a young military man whose self-conscious representation of U.S. interests in the western territories recalls some of the poses struck by Meriwether Lewis and Zebulon Pike in their reports.


In addition to official expeditions led by army officers, opportunities for trade with northern Mexico, focused on Santa Fe and the fur trade generally, stimulated individuals to investigate the Southwest as well as the central Rocky Mountains. The Personal Narrative (1831) of James Ohio Pattie (1804?–1850) recounts his own and his father Sylvestre Pattie's travels as far north as the Yellowstone, as far south as the Gulf of California, and as far west as San Diego, where James Ohio was imprisoned by the Mexican administration. His amazing story was dictated to Timothy Flint of Cincinnati, an editor and novelist credited with authoring the first "western" and generally with pioneering the West as a subject of fiction and social history. Washington Irving (1783–1859), perhaps the most esteemed American writer of the 1830s, also took on the Far West as a subject in the later part of his literary career. A Tour on the Prairies (1835) recounts his own excursion with a corps of Arkansas Rangers. Astoria (1836) is a history of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837) is an account of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Salt Lake area based on Benjamin Bonneville's journals. Zenas Leonard and Joseph Walker, employees of Bonneville, investigated the area of the Great Salt Lake before they crossed the Sierra into California, returning via what came to be known as Walker's Pass, a future emigrant route. In his Narrative (1839) Leonard surveys the "vast waste of territory" in the Far West and contemplates "its settlement and civilization" by citizens of the United States. Writers and editors such as Flint and Irving played their part in creating a discourse of the Far West in the popular press. The emigrant wagon trains and then the California gold rush of 1849 would prompt a surge of personal narrative accounts, many finding their way into newspaper and book form.


In the early nineteenth century U.S. elected officials were generally reluctant to use public funds for the promotion of science. But the westward flow of emigrants in the 1840s prompted increased sponsorship of exploring expeditions by the American government, and the military figures leading these expeditions played a complex role representing the interests of a country in the process of more than doubling its territory through westward expansion. The ultimate such figure in this period was the dashing John Charles Frémont (1813–1890), who lead expeditions to the Rocky Mountains and to Oregon and California and whose published reports (1842, 1845) presented to thousands of readers a model of heroic American action in the West. Frémont's expeditions are not credited with much original geographical information but rather with systematizing and publicizing the routes to Oregon and California and with articulating a vision of opportunity in those territories. Frémont's heroic persona, at least partly the creation of his wife and editor, Jessie Benton Frémont, is intelligent and romantic, a climber of mountains with a soul that expands on the summit. In addition to inspiring followers, his published reports served as practical guidebooks during the later 1840s. Goetzmann sums him up as "a representative figure of this time whose posture has perhaps more to tell us about the 1840s and 1850s than do his actual achievements" (p. 252).

Upon arriving at the mouth of the Columbia in 1843, Frémont linked his expedition with that of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798–1877), the ambitious leader of the United States Exploring Expedition, which between 1838 and 1842 charted the coasts of Antarctica and large areas of the south and central Pacific ocean. In 1841 Wilkes and his party arrived at the mouth of the Columbia, whence they conducted explorations of the coast as far north as Puget Sound as well as sending parties inland along the Willamette Valley and into California as far as San Francisco. Frémont wrote that he and Wilkes presented "a connected exploration from the Mississippi to the Pacific" (p. 562), and both men shared a vision that a great American state would emerge on the Pacific coast.

The Wilkes expedition is a story unto itself. The first government-sponsored marine exploration had a long gestation in disputes over whether the government ought to be financing such a thing at all, complicated by jurisdictional infighting as the navy resisted the influence and presence of civilian scientific specialists. The expedition was in part an attempt to reduce the dependence of U.S. seafarers on mainly British marine charts. As Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1872) explained, "Forty years after the adoption of our national Constitution the United States were, for all maritime and scientific knowledge, wholly dependent on foreign governments" (p. 60). Whaling, sealing, and trading interests all condemned the lack of American initiative in the realm of systematic navigational aids. Cultural nationalists professed shame that the United States "stood in humiliating contrast with the whole scientific world," to quote the same Harper's article (p. 60). When the expedition departed in 1838, there was an international competition to discover what lay behind the barriers of ice that previous navigators such as James Cook had encountered as they sailed to the extreme south. The expedition succeeded in mapping a portion of the Antarctic coast, but it was the quantities of plant, animal, mineral, and ethnological materials that secured the expedition's popular and scientific success. When the expedition returned, there was initially no facility in any way adequate even to house the extensive collections, let alone catalog or display them. Eventually the expedition's collections came together with the bequest of James Smithson, and a national museum, the Smithsonian Institution, was created. The narrative account of the expeditions (1845), in five volumes written by Wilkes, is burdened with much irrelevant information, and although it sold relatively well and went through more that ten editions, it never captured the American imagination as Frémont's narratives did. That said, it influenced the sea novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, the latter deriving, among other information, the lineaments of his South Sea character Queequeg, who, according to William Stanton, was "modeled on the New Zealand chief Kotowatowa" (p. 310). The greatest legacy of the Wilkes expedition may have been the realization of the value of scientific exploration to the country as a whole, an understanding that led to vastly increased expenditures on exploration in subsequent decades.


The Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, founded in 1813 and reorganized in 1838, was the platform for much of the official exploration of the West up to the Civil War. Long and Frémont were officers in the corps, as were many other explorers of the territory acquired from Mexico in 1848 and of Oregon, officially annexed in 1846. Mapping of the territory was the corps's primary responsibility, along with assessing economic and scientific features. Such work was later handled by various U.S. Geological Surveys, which themselves became a bureau under that name in 1879, as well as by state-funded enterprises such as the important Geological Survey of California. Information gathered by the army and the later civilian geological surveys informed and fueled the debates that accompanied westward expansion. Following settlement of the boundary with Mexico and then of the Oregon boundary to the north, the demand for accurate geographical and economic information increased, while the western territories became what Goetzmann has called a "vast natural laboratory" for scientists (p. 303).

During the Mexican-American War, William H. Emory (1811–1887), lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers, accompanied General Stephen Watts Kearny on his march from Santa Fe to San Diego. Emory's report, along with his original map of the Southwest, offered a detailed firsthand view of New Mexico and Arizona. A scientist and a curious man, Emory describes country that is "different from scenery in the States," with "singular" geological formations, an unusually limpid atmosphere, and oasis-like river valleys surrounded by forbidding desert pans (pp. 37, 39). As travelers in the Southwest would do increasingly, Emory resorts to new geological theories in order to account for what he sees, noting the visible strata and hypothesizing "some denuding process" that removes softer rocks. Emory was also a pioneer of southwestern archeology, describing and speculating upon the ancient Pecos ruins and the Casas Grandes along the Gila River. The War Department printed ten thousand copies of Emory's report, the size of the printing indicating the extensive interest in this area as well as asserting that the country acquired in the war was valuable and worth the fight.

Subsequently the Topographical Engineers were employed on railroad surveys and also in relation to the "Mormon War" of 1857, when an expedition led by Joseph Ives and including the geologist John Newberry was "the first party in recorded history to explore the floor of the Grand Canyon" (Goetzmann, p. 308). The vast chasm of the Grand Canyon, exposing thousands of feet of layered rock, offered a kind of map of geological time. Newberry and the geologists who followed after 1860 turned to new theories of geomorphology in order to account for such natural spectacles by means of processes acting over millions of years (volcanism, uplifting, glaciation, erosion). John Wesley Powell's (1834–1902) Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (1875) is both a travelogue and a course in geology. Powell describes the boat trip down the Colorado River and the towering walls above, interspersing explanations as to the origins of the landforms they followed. Clarence King's (1842–1901) Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), an account of the valleys and high peaks of the Sierra, also explains the geological history of each awe-inspiring sight. Powell and King, both dashing figures, displace the military man of the Frémont Reports with the glamorous and brilliant scientist-adventurer. King's Mountaineering springs from his participation in the Geological Survey of California under the direction of Josiah Dwight Whitney. Also emerging from this survey were Whitney's Geology (1865), Whitney's Yosemite Book (1868), and William H. Brewer's posthumously published (1930) Up and Down California in 1860–1864. King's greatest scientific publications, however, are the series of volumes based on the expeditions of the Fortieth Parallel Survey (1867–1869). King's Systematic Geology (1878) presents a comprehensive account of the western cordillera and the Great Basin, spanning all the major geological periods in order to offer a systematic understanding of the landscape and resources of the West in terms of the latest scientific theories and techniques.

There was considerable public interest in what these scientists were doing in the West. In addition to his popular book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, King published photographs in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (Goetzmann, p. 440 n. 5) as well as articles there and in Bret Harte's Overland Monthly (Goetzmann, p. 445 n. 5). Powell published articles and engravings in Scribner's Magazine. By 1870 photography was portable enough to be part of western surveys, contributing greatly both to scientific reporting and public involvement. Timothy O'sullivan was the photographer on the Fortieth Parallel Survey and on the Wheeler surveys of 1871, 1872, and 1873. The War Department published Photographs Showing Landscapes, Geological, and Other Features, of Portions of the Western Territory of the United States (1875), consisting of images by O'Sullivan and William Bell. A notable heir to these nineteenth-century scientist-writers is the literary journalist John McPhee, whose monumental Annals of the Former World (1998) extends the fortieth parallel to the Atlantic coast and then follows it westward with modern geologists playing the role of King and his contemporaries.


The occasion for the first U.S. explorations of the Arctic region was the disappearance in 1845 of the British explorer Sir John Franklin with his two ships, Erebus and Terror. The British Admiralty offered a £20,000 reward for Franklin's rescue, and Lady Franklin appealed to President Zachary Taylor for help. Between 1850 and 1873 American expeditions led by Edwin De Haven, Elisha Kent Kane, Isaac Hayes, and Charles Francis Hall set out to find Franklin, in the process mapping the area and gathering various kinds of scientific data. American, British, Russian, and Danish expeditions all worked toward determining whether a feasible Northwest Passage existed, whether there was an unfrozen "Polar Sea," and whether there was an Arctic landmass corresponding to that discovered at the southern pole.

The De Haven expedition retraced the route of the Franklin expedition, spending the winter of 1850–1851 trapped in the moving ice sheets of Lancaster Sound, north of Baffin Island, and sailing for home in August 1851. Elisha Kane (1820–1857), the surgeon on this voyage, organized his own expedition, which sailed in May 1853. Kane explored the western coast of Greenland, sighting a large body of open water that he construed as the polar sea but which proved to be a basin succeeded by the long Kennedy Channel. Kane's astronomical and magnetic observations were much praised. Kane was also a vivid writer, and his Arctic Explorations (1856) was popular. Isaac Hayes (1832–1881), himself a member of the Kane expedition, continued work in northern Greenland and in the strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. From a vantage point on the coast of Grinnell Land, Hayes too thought he saw the open polar sea. The belief, though untrue, provided the title for his account of the venture, The Open Polar Sea: A Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery towards the North Pole (1867). Prior to his own expedition, Hayes wrote An Arctic Boat Journey (1860), capitalizing on the public interest in Arctic exploration to sustain himself as he tried to raise funds for the next voyage.

Charles Francis Hall (1821–1871) led three expeditions between 1860 and 1871. The first two, focused on discovering the fate of the Franklin expedition, turned up many items from the Franklin ship as well as evidence that there were no survivors. Hall's most notable contribution to Arctic exploration and knowledge, however, was his learning to rely on Inuit guides and technology for a series of overland treks. Hall learned some of the Inuit language, and he established long-term relationships with a number of individuals whose knowledge and active assistance enabled his journeys. This aspect of the ventures captured the public imagination, as is evidenced in the title of his own account, Life with the Esquimaux (1864), and in the featuring of his two Inuit companions, Ebierbing and Tookoolito, at P. T. Barnum's American Museum in New York and on Hall's own lecture tours. The third expedition, in a steam-powered naval tug, Polaris, attempted to extend the explorations of Kane and Hayes along the west coast of Greenland, looking for access to the "Polar Sea." After Hall, interest in the Arctic continued to grow among geographers, scientists, and the general public, culminating in Robert Edwin Peary's twenty years of work, first exploring Greenland and subsequently trekking to the North Pole, where he arrived in 1908.

The publication of Alexander von Humboldt's (1769–1859) massive Personal Narrative (1814–1829), the account of his travels and researches in South America, stimulated many great scientists of the next generation, including Charles Darwin. After 1840 the Amazon Basin became a focus of scientific and commercial interest, the latter spurred by the invention of vulcanization, the process whereby natural latex became the useful product rubber. The two most significant U.S. expeditions to South America at mid-century were the U.S. Naval Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere in 1849–1852 led by James Melville Gilliss (1811–1865), and the expedition to the Amazon in 1851–1852 led by William Lewis Herndon (1813–1857). The main purpose of the Gilliss expedition was to measure the distance of the earth from the sun by observing the motions of the planet Venus simultaneously from the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. Regrettably, though Gilliss completed his observations in Chile, the complementary ones were neglected in the United States, and so the main scientific purpose was not achieved. Nonetheless Gilliss reported on the geography and economy of Chile in what seems to have been a disinterested spirit (Harrison, p. 186). Herndon's expedition was the most important and widely followed U.S. expedition to South America in the nineteenth century. Herndon descended the length of the Amazon River, after crossing from Lima to the headwaters. According to John P. Harrison, there are many indications that the promoters of this venture had in mind the transplantation of slave agriculture from its threatened practice in the southern United States (pp. 187–190). Whatever the strategic purposes, Herndon traveled for almost a year, covering almost four thousand miles by foot, mule, canoe, and small boat, and his narrative took its place among popular books by the fellow American William Edwards and the Englishman Henry Walter Bates in stimulating scientific and commercial interest in the Amazon. Demand for Herndon's Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon (1853) was such that the navy authorized the printing of thirty thousand copies.

In the nineteenth century the figure of the explorer embodied the ambitions of a growing country along with western faith in scientific and technological progress. Horizons beckoned to the west, north, and south. The popular currency of the heroic explorer is perhaps glimpsed in the objections of a skeptical dissident, Henry David Thoreau, who, though he was himself an avid reader of travel books, advised his compatriots that the meaning of the Wilkes expedition to the South Sea was that "there are continents and seas in the moral world . . . yet unexplored," and that one ought to "obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself" (pp. 301, 302).

See alsoNature; Science; Travel Writing


Primary Works

Emory, William H. Lieutenant Emory Reports: A Reprint ofW. H. Emory's Notes of a Military Reconnaissance. Introduction and notes by Ross Calvin. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1951.

Frémont, John Charles. The Expeditions of John CharlesFrémont. Vol. 1, Travels from 1838 to 1844. Edited by Donald Jackson and Mary Lee Spence. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine 44 (December 1871 to May 1872). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Other Writings. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

Secondary Works

Caswell, John Edwards. Arctic Frontiers: United StatesExplorations in the Far North. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.

Goetzman, William H. Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West. 1966. Austin: Texas Historical Association, 2000.

Greenfield, Bruce. Narrating Discovery: The RomanticExplorer in American Literature, 1790–1855. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Harrison, John P. "Science and Politics: Origins and Objectives of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Government Expeditions to Latin America." Hispanic American Historical Review 35 (May 1955): 175–202.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 9. Edited by Julian P. Boyd. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing andTransculturation. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Stanton, William. The Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Bruce Greenfield

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Exploration and Discovery." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . 21 May. 2019 <>.

"Exploration and Discovery." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . (May 21, 2019).

"Exploration and Discovery." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Retrieved May 21, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.