Western Exploration

views updated


WESTERN EXPLORATION. Beginning with the first voyage of Columbus in 1492, the exploration of North America was a central component of the larger global contest between Europe's great imperial powers. Each sought to "discover" and thus claim the exclusive right to colonize vast geographic areas, using the wealth gained from the New World to enhance their economies in Europe and to monopolize global trade networks. Because the western half of North America was a vast borderland between several imperial concerns, the region that became the American West was an arena of particular contestation. Commencing with the arrival of Spanish conquistadores in the 1540s and continuing through nearly three centuries of French, British, and even Russian efforts to gain exclusive access to the peoples and resources of the region, western exploration reflected the shifting diplomatic and commercial concerns of these imperial rivals. They in turn shaped the nineteenth-century exploratory efforts of the United States, which sought to expand the territorial reach of the American government and assess the commercial potential of the region.

Spanish Exploration in the Southwest

Spanish interest in the lands north of Mexico followed the rapid conquests of the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan empires. Hoping to find equally wealthy civilizations, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado set out in 1540 to conquer the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola. After crossing present-day Arizona, he traveled toward northwestern New Mexico, where he invaded the Zuni pueblos, which he believed were the Seven Cities. He soon left, disappointed by the lack of gold or silver among these people. Some of Coronado's lieutenants explored westward to the Colorado River, which they viewed from the rim of the Grand Canyon, and then moved eastward to the pueblos of the Upper Rio Grande. The following summer, hoping still to find cities of gold, Coronado headed northeast toward the central Great Plains, where he expected to find a wealthy city called Quivira. After reaching the villages of the Wichita Indians in central Kansas, he ended his quest and returned to Mexico.

Coronado's search for Quivira was intended to bring him to the mythic Straits of Anián, the supposed Northwest Passage across the continent connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, a goal that also inspired the voyage of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo along the California coast in 1542. While Cabrillo's expedition failed to find the straits, it did establish the northern boundary of the Spanish empire in the Americas at the present-day California-Oregon border. Cabrillo's rudimentary charts also identified areas along the coast that subsequently were used by the famed Manila Galleons from 1565 to 1815.

Except for a few expeditions in the service of colonization efforts in the Rio Grande valley or mapping potential landfalls for the Manila Galleons, the Spanish largely ceased both overland and maritime explorations of their northern frontiers until the eighteenth century. Notable exceptions included Sebastián Vizcaíno's exploration of the Pacific Coast in 1602, again in search of the fabled Straits of Anián, and Don Juan de Oñate's exploration of the central Great Plains in 1601 and the lower Colorado River in 1604–1605. Spanish administrators did not express a renewed interest in northern exploration until the 1760s and 1770s, and then only to stave off threats from Russian, French, and English designs in western North America. Beginning with a joint land and sea expedition led by Father Junípero Serra and Gaspar de Portolá in 1769, which led to the discovery of San Francisco Bay that year, Spain rapidly established important military and religious settlements along the California coast at San Diego (1769), Monterey (1770), and San Francisco (1776). The explorations of Juan Bautista de Anza and Father Francisco Garcés in the same era established land routes between these settlements and older colonies in present-day Arizona and New Mexico.

The French on the Great Plains

In an effort to expand France's vast fur-trading empire, a number of French traders pushed westward onto the Great Plains in the first half of the eighteenth century. Unlike the Spanish, these explorers did not attempt to establish permanent communities but instead focused on mapping navigable waterways, identifying potential Native trading partners, and searching for a route to the Pacific Ocean. From 1714 to 1718, Etienne de Véniard de Bourgmont traveled up the Missouri River as far as the Cheyenne River in present-day South Dakota, producing detailed information on the geography of the region and its inhabitants and securing a small fortune in peltry. These efforts were matched from 1739 to 1741, when the brothers Pierre and Paul Mallet traveled up the southern branch of the Platte River then down to Santa Fe. The Mallets were quickly forced to leave this Spanish outpost, and they returned to New Orleans by way of the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers. Between 1738 and 1743, Pierre de la Vérendrye and his two sons made repeated explorations

westward from Lake Superior to the upper Missouri River in present-day North Dakota and even as far as the Black Hills. While none of these explorers managed to find a route across the continent or to establish a serious challenge to Spanish trade in the Southwest, their travels did cement France's claims to the vast territory of Louisiana. Likewise, information they gathered provided the basis for various editions of Claude Delisle and Guillame Delisle's Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi (1718), the most important map of central North America until the end of the century.

The English in the Pacific Northwest

Following the end of the Seven Years' War (known as the French and Indian War among the colonists) in 1763, Great Britain assumed control of New France and the North American fur trade. English exploration of the continent's interior mirrored French objectives but mostly took place in the Canadian West. Some expeditions took in areas below the forty-ninth parallel, however, including David Thompson's remarkable efforts on behalf of the North West Company. In 1797–1798, Thompson completed a circuit that took him from western Lake Superior along the border established between the United States and British Canada in 1792 and down to the Mandan villages on the Missouri River. For the next several years, Thompson intermittently explored and established posts on the plains and mountains of present-day Alberta, then in 1807 he crossed the Rocky Mountains and discovered the source of the Columbia River. Over the next two years, he traveled south into present-day Idaho, Montana, and Washington, where he established trading posts and carefully mapped river courses, Native villages, and mountain ranges. He returned to the region in 1811 and explored down the Columbia River from Kettle Falls in northeastern Washington to the Pacific Ocean. Two years later, Thompson began work on his cartographic masterpiece, the massive Map of the North-West Territory of the Province of Canada from Actual Survey during the Years 1792–1812.

Thompson's efforts were augmented in subsequent years by traders who worked for the North West Company and its rival the Hudson's Bay Company, which eventually merged with the former in 1821. Most notable were the explorations of Donald McKenzie and Peter Skene Ogden, who together mapped vast portions of the interior Northwest from the Columbia River to the Gulf of California. From 1818 to 1821, McKenzie trapped and explored along the Snake River for the North West Company from the river's confluence with the Columbia to its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains. These efforts initiated the fur-trapping expeditions known as the Snake River brigades and described a significant portion of what became the Oregon Trail. Ogden made six separate expeditions between 1824 and 1830 on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company, in part to stave off American commercial interests in the Pacific Northwest as well as to extend British interests farther south. Toward these two ends, from 1824 to 1830, Ogden explored nearly the entire region drained by the Snake River, most of the current state of Oregon south to Klamath Lake, a large portion of the Great Basin from the Great Salt Lake to the western reaches of the Humboldt River, and south from the Great Salt Lake to the Gulf of California then back north through California's Central Valley to the Columbia River.

Before embarking on these explorations of the interior West, the British used their maritime strength to survey the coast and assess Spanish and Russian colonization efforts. Sir Francis Drake sailed up the California coast in 1578 during his two-year circumnavigation of the globe. But the English did not return in earnest until Captain James Cook cruised the coast from present-day Oregon to southeastern Alaska in 1778 in another fruitless effort to discover a Northwest Passage. After Cook's death in Hawaii that winter, his ship, the Endeavour, returned to the area to engage Russian fur traders along the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Strait. George Vancouver sailed to the Northwest Coast in 1792 to search for the now doubted Northwest Passage but more importantly to assess the lucrative trade in sea otter pelts then carried on by the Russians and Spanish. His voyage brought him along the coastlines of present-day Oregon and Washington, one hundred miles up the Columbia River, through Puget Sound, and up the Inland Passage to southeast Alaska. Vancouver was a remarkable cartographer who, along with the later efforts of men like Thompson, McKenzie, and Ogden, established the British in the Northwest and filled in one of the last unmapped portions of North America.

The Spanish, French, and Russians on the Northwest Coast

The English were not alone in their explorations of the Northwest. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Spanish accelerated maritime exploration, including the voyages of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (1779), Estéban Martinez (1788), Alejandro Malaspina (1791), and Juan Martinez (1793). While most of these concentrated on assessing the sea otter trade around Vancouver Island and the Gulf of Alaska and finding the still hoped for Northwest Passage, Juan Martinez gave careful attention to the coast between San Francisco and the Columbia River. The French navigator Jean-François de Galaup, comte de la Pérouse, also briefly covered much of this area in the summer of 1786, but the region was best known to Russian explorers. Beginning with the voyages of Vitus Bering and Aleksey Chirikov in 1741, the Russians made more than one hundred commercial voyages along the Gulf of Alaska over the next six decades. By 1812, under the auspices of the Russian-American Company, Russian traders and explorers had pushed as far south as Fort Ross on the California coast near Bodega Bay, which they occupied until 1841.

The United States and Nation Building

Even before he organized the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–1806, Thomas Jefferson had long expressed an interest in westward exploration in the competitive terms defined by European imperial interests. The "purposes of commerce," as he instructed Meriwether Lewis, dictated the establishment of a strong American presence in the fur trade, the search for a water route across the continent, the assessment of imperial rivals in the Far West, and reports on the agricultural potential of Indian lands. Jefferson had privately sponsored two failed efforts to explore the West before the 1803 Louisiana Purchase allowed him to organize the first official U.S. exploration party under the command of Lewis and William Clark. Extending up the entire length of the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains, and eventually to the mouth of the Columbia River, the expedition proved that no easy water route existed across North America but otherwise achieved all of Jefferson's goals. The expedition also established American claims to the Columbia River, which had first been discovered by the Boston fur trader Robert Gray in May 1792, some five months before one of Vancouver's ships sailed up the river. Jefferson also organized two other exploring parties. The expedition under Zebulon Pike crossed the central Plains to the Colorado Rockies in 1806–1807 and took in the southern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase, and the expedition of Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis up the Red River in 1806 was short-lived.

In the ensuing decades, American exploration of the West was largely undertaken by fur trade expeditions. These included Jedediah Smith's journey from Salt Lake to southern California and back in 1826–1827, Joseph Walker's 1833 trek across the Sierra Nevadas, and the various adventures of Jim Bridger and Benjamin L. E. de Bonneville in the central and northern Rockies. The United States did mount an official scientific expedition of significance during the fur trade era, namely Stephen Long's exploration of the central Plains and the front range of the Rocky Mountains in 1820.

In 1838, the U.S. Army established a separate Corps of Topographical Engineers, which moved U.S. exploration away from older concerns with imperial rivals in the fur trade into the realm of conquest and nation building. Corps engineers explored much of the Southwest before and during the Mexican War, and John C. Frémont's reports found a wide audience among Americans eager to acquire new lands on the West Coast. The close of the Mexican War also led to an extensive boundary survey from the mouth of the Rio Grande to San Diego, California, in 1848–1855. In the mid-1850s, the most significant exploration of the American West involved the transcontinental railroad surveys (1853–1854), which reconnoitered four potential routes across the United States, roughly along the forty-fifth, thirty-eighth, thirty-fifth, and thirty-second parallels of latitude.

Immediately following the Civil War, most military explorations were conducted in the context of the Plains Indian wars, such as George Custer's expedition to the Black Hills in 1874. Farther west, Ferdinand V. Hayden, Clarence King, and John Wesley Powell conducted extensive scientific surveys of the western mountains and deserts. Focused on locating water and mineral sources on public lands, their work soon led to the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 1879. Combining the offices of several government survey operations, the USGS completed the task of mapping the West by the end of the nineteenth century.


Allen, John Logan, ed. North American Exploration. 3 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Brebner, John Bartlet. The Explorers of North America, 1492– 1806. London: A. C. Black, 1933.

Goetzmann, William H. Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West. New York: Knopf, 1966.

Meinig, D. W. The Shaping of America. Vol. 1. Atlantic America, 1492–1800. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

———. The Shaping of America. Vol. 2. Continental America, 1800–1867. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Mark DavidSpence

See alsoCabeza de Vaca Expeditions ; Colorado River Explorations ; Conquistadores ; Cook, James, Explorations of ; Coronado Expeditions ; Exploration of America, Early ; Explorations and Expeditions: British, French, Russian, Spanish, U.S. ; Frémont Explorations ; Geological Survey, U.S. ; Geophysical Explorations ; Great Plains ; Lewis and Clark Expedition ; Northwest Passage ; Oñate Explorations and Settlements ; Pike, Zebulon, Expeditions of ; Vancouver Explorations andvol. 9:An Expedition to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah ; Message on the Lewis and Clark Expedition ; The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition .

About this article

Western Exploration

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Western Exploration