Exploration and Explorers

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Following the first tentative probings of the continent from the early sixteenth through the middle of the eighteenth centuries, a second critical period of exploration in the United States began. Whereas the earliest phase of exploration was almost exclusively commercial in nature, this second phase, although maintaining a commercial thrust, was also related to imperial ambitions for territory and to the period of scientific awakening in Europe and North America that is known as the Enlightenment. During this exploratory phase, from 1754 to 1829, the grand game of imperialism, with explorers as the chief players, was completed over most of what is now the United States, leaving the bulk of that territory under firm American control. In addition, most regions of the present-day United States were brought to the light of Euro-American science, which began to understand the continent in ways very different from those of earlier periods. The first phase of exploration of what became the United States dealt with discovery or "finding"; the second phase involved the process of exploration or "understanding," as the traditions of Enlightenment science developed. By the end of the 1820s North America was no longer thought of as an Asian promontory; the Renaissance world-view had given way to an Enlightenment geographical conception based on detailed examination of both Atlantic and Pacific coastal regions and considerable penetrations of the continental interior.

Five groups of explorers were involved in scientific, geopolitical or imperial, and economic or commercial explorations in the United States. The Spanish operated primarily out of their settlements in northern Mexico and the Rio Grande valley. Russian explorers moved down the Pacific coast from their

fur-trading establishments in the Aleutians. French scientific explorers investigated the coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest, and other French explorers continued, as members of British or American fur trade ventures, to push south out of the St. Lawrence valley and west out of Louisiana (the western portion of the Mississippi drainage basin) even after the cession of Lower Canada to Great Britain and Louisiana to Spain in 1763. British naval explorers explored the Pacific Northwest and the colonial British probed westward from the Atlantic seaboard and south and west from trading posts in the western Great Lakes and Hudson Bay drainage basins. Finally, Americans at the time of the French and Indian War (1756–1763) and after the War for Independence began major explorations into the territories west of the Appalachians and, by 1804, west of the Mississippi.

spanish exploration, 1776–1821

The lands of northern New Spain, including the internal provinces of New Mexico and Texas, served as points of departure for two principal types of Spanish explorers: the pathfinders who marked trails and geographical features across regions previously unexplored; and the explorer-colonizers who conducted explorations as part of the process of establishing temporary or permanent settlements. Between the cession of Louisiana Territory to Spain at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 and the achievement of Mexican independence in 1821 (and thus the end of Spanish exploration in what is now the United States), both pathfinders, such as Franciscan friars Dominguez and Escalante and trader Pedro Vial, and explorer-colonizers, such as Franciscan missionary explorer Fray Francisco Garcés and Spanish army captain Juan Batista de Anza, were active in the territories that now make up the American Southwest.

The Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776–1777 took the friars north from the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico in search of a rumored city of bearded Indians and a northern route to California. They crossed the southern Rockies into the Great Basin (the first Europeans into that area) and probably fell just short of reaching Great Salt Lake before returning to the Rio Grande settlements. Pedro Vial was a trader employed by the government of New Spain to locate trading routes between Santa Fe and San Antonio, St. Louis, and New Orleans. Vial's several crossings of the southern Great Plains in the 1780s and 1790s provided the basis for the eventual opening of the Santa Fe Trail between that New Mexican city and St. Louis in 1821.

During the final phase of Spanish exploration, explorer-colonizers established the Old Spanish Trail linking the Rio Grande valley settlements of Santa Fe and Albuquerque with the Arizona mission settlements and the new mission-presidios along the California coast from San Diego north to San Francisco. The most prominent of the clerical explorers was Fray Francisco Garcés, who explored the Gila and Colorado River valleys in the mid-1770s and also joined Captain Juan Batista de Anza on Anza's pioneering explorations of the route from the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers across the Mojave Desert and Cajon Pass to the San Gabriel Mission near today's Los Angeles, a route now crossed by major interstate highways and the Union Pacific railroad. Other colonizing explorations in the Upper or Alta California coastal area aimed to establish the mission-fort settlements designed to protect Spanish territory from the possible encroachment of Russian fur traders moving down the Pacific coast from the north. Sergeant Jose Francisco de Ortega discovered San Francisco Bay in 1769, and Alferéz (Sublieutenant) Gabriel Moraga explored the entire Great Valley of California between 1806 and 1819, revealing much about the Sierra Nevada, the interior river valleys, and mountain passes across both the Sierras and the coastal ranges. After 1821 and Mexican independence, Spanish explorers were no longer active in the American Southwest. But they had laid the foundation for later explorations by the Americans and eventual United States control over the Southwest.

russian exploration, 1770–1812

Russian explorations in the United States were entirely commercially driven by the Russian fur trade, first established in the Aleutians in the 1770s. The southward push of the merchant fur traders (promyshlenniks) along the coast of Alaska and, by 1812, to northern California was simply an extension of the rapid Russian advance eastward across Siberia in search of sable fur. By the time these fur traders had reached the Aleutians, the seal and sea-otter trade had begun to develop and the pelts of marine mammals supplanted sable as the primary goals of the fur trade companies. Although their explorations of (mostly coastal) Alaska were significant, the Russian explorers were overextended, undersupplied, and undermanned by the time they had begun to penetrate as far south as Vancouver Island. And although Russian commercial explorers reached northern California and established Fort Ross in 1812, that venture was never economical. The Russians' chief contribution to North American exploration was in posing a potential imperial challenge that forced Spain to colonize California and Britain and France to pursue significant explorations of the Pacific Northwest in what is now the Washington and Oregon coastal region.

french exploration, 1754–1829

Like the Russian explorers, French explorers in this period were motivated almost entirely by the fur-trade and related concerns, such as the discovery of a water route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Even though official French exploration of the continental interior ceased with the French and Indian War, French coastal exploration in the Pacific Northwest, initially stimulated by the promise of riches in the sea-otter trade with China, was significant. But exploration along the Pacific Coast also was a part of the traditional French exploratory objective of linking the Atlantic and Pacific via a sea-level route: the illusory Northwest Passage. Finally, French exploration in the Pacific Northwest was important for the advancement of Enlightenment science. In 1785–1786 the navigator Jean François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, was commissioned to explore the Pacific Ocean and investigate whaling and fur prospects, search for a passage between Pacific and Atlantic, and establish French claims in the "northwestern parts" of North America. Accompanying La Pérouse were a number of civilian scientists, including a physicist and three naturalists. Although Captain James Cook's explorations in the Pacific Northwest a decade earlier were more important than those of La Pérouse, for scientific purposes his expedition's work provided the most solid investigations of the coastal regions of the Northwest before American explorers of the early nineteenth century.

british and anglo-american exploration, 1754–1792

British exploration of what is now the United States during this era was, like that of official French exploration, largely maritime and commercial but with overtones of imperial ambitions to match those of the Russians, Spanish, and French. This was particularly true along the Pacific Coast, where Captains James Cook in the 1770s and George Vancouver in the 1790s led some of the century's most important exploratory endeavors. They produced excellent maps of the coastal region of Washington and Oregon. Vancouver depicted the course of the Columbia River approximately 100 miles inland and provided representations of the great volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range. Cook demonstrated the limited likelihood of a sea-level strait connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, slowing down the British naval maritime search for the fabled Northwest Passage. Civilian scientists on both missions collected considerable amounts of scientific data, particularly ethnographic data and information on "natural history."

Other British exploration in the present-day United States was largely confined to the hunting expeditions of settlers into the woods and valleys to the west of their farmsteads and villages along the Atlantic seaboard. This "Anglo-American" exploration (to distinguish it from "American exploration" of the postrevolutionary era) was often only a brief prelude to settlement; explorers such as Dr. Thomas Walker and James Robertson in the 1750s, among the first to view the great interior river systems west of the Appalachians, were followed closely by settlers like Daniel Boone who opened up the Ohio-Tennessee-Cumberland region for American settlement. In many instances the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi were actually settled by frontier farmers before they were officially "explored"; one of the primary geographical tasks of the new American government was to sort out conflicting land claims over land that was already being farmed but had never been mapped by an explorer, official or otherwise. The objectives of Anglo-American exploration, like those of other exploratory groups, were to find marketable land for settlement, to collect animal skins and pelts, and to locate a passage to the Pacific and the wealth of the Orient. The first major American explorations after Independence had the same general goals.

american exploration, 1804–1829

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the goals, priorities, and results of exploration in what was becoming the continental United States underwent a dramatic shift. The imperial clash between the British, Spanish, and Americans for possession of North America was still very much a part of the business of exploration in 1800. But by 1807, continuing through 1829, commercial exploration—primarily by representatives of the fur trade in western North America—became the primary exploratory incentive. What could be termed "imperial exploration" at this time was carried out under the auspices of the government of the early Republic. America's epic exploratory endeavor, the expedition of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, had multiple goals: commercial, geopolitical, and scientific.

The primary objective of Lewis and Clark—as stated by Thomas Jefferson, the sponsor of their expedition—was to locate a water route to the Pacific via the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. In doing so, Jefferson hoped they would also open the newly acquired territory of Louisiana to American merchants and farmers, thereby consolidating the American hold on the western interior and eventually wresting the Columbia basin and Pacific Northwest away from the British. It was, after all, an American sea captain, Robert Gray in the ship Columbia out of Boston, who had first discovered the Columbia River in 1792, giving the young Republic at least some claim over the lands it drained. Although Lewis and Clark succeeded in negotiating the lengthy Missouri River to its source and thence down Pacific slope waters to the Columbia and the Pacific, they failed in their objective to locate a commercially feasible water route. But they did not fail in their goal of opening the trans-Mississippi region for American commerce. Within a year of their return to St. Louis, American fur trading posts were located in the remote western interior, as far as the junction of the Big Horn and Yellowstone Rivers in south-central Montana.

U.S. Army explorers, such as Zebulon Pike (in 1807–1808) and Stephen Long (in 1820), explored the central and southern Great Plains westward to the Colorado Rockies with the intent of defining the southern limits of the Louisiana Territory and the boundary between the United States and the interior provinces of New Spain. Civilian explorers Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis were commissioned by the government to ascend the Red River with much the same objective. All these explorers had some measure of success in collecting new geographical information on the southern portions of the Louisiana Territory (paralleling the contributions of Lewis and Clark in the territory's northern and western reaches). But it was the fur trade explorers between 1807 and 1829 who truly opened up the West for American exploitation.

If Lewis and Clark, Pike, and other government explorers were "diplomats in buckskin," then the members of the Rocky Mountain fur trade were "expectant capitalists." Profit-seeking rather than securing political claims to territory remained the chief goal of the fur-trade explorers. Fur-trade exploration began with John Colter, George Drouillard, and Andrew Henry, employees of Manuel Lisa's Missouri Fur Company. From 1807 to 1810 they began to clarify the relationships between the source regions of the Missouri, Snake, and Colorado Rivers as the result of their search to establish trade relationships with tribes of the northern Plains and Rockies. Lisa's men were followed by John Jacob Astor's grand scheme to establish Astoria, an American fur–trading post at the mouth of the Columbia. A westbound party of Astor's men, led by Wilson Price Hunt in 1810, and an eastbound party led by Robert Stuart in 1812, laid down almost the entire route that would, a few decades later, become the Oregon Trail.

After these promising beginnings came a ten-year hiatus resulting from the War of 1812 and Indian resistance to American traders on the upper Missouri. Then the Rocky Mountain fur trade emerged again, this time under the auspices of William Henry Ashley and his Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Although the members of the fur trade were active in western exploration until the conclusion of the fur-trade era in the early 1840s, it was the decade of the 1820s that represented the high-water mark of fur-trade exploration. Chief among the fur trade explorers was Jedediah Strong Smith, who, in less than a decade in the West, saw more territory than any explorer before or after him. Smith's journeys took him from the Missouri and Platte to the Snake and Columbia, south to Great Salt Lake, across the Great Basin to California, throughout California and north into Oregon and Washington, and into the lower Colorado River country and across the Great Basin back to Great Salt Lake. Smith's manuscript map was lost, but the geographical knowledge it contained was not. American maps in the 1830s clearly demonstrated the significance of the fur trade in contributing to American knowledge of the western interior. With that knowledge came political control, and with the Louisiana Territory firmly in American hands, the country was poised for the military expansion that followed.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Resistance to White Expansion; Cartography; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Expansion; French; French and Indian War, Consequences of; Frontier; Fur and Pelt Trade; Geography; Imperial Rivalry in the Americas; Lewis and Clark Expedition; Louisiana Purchase; Mississippi River; Natural History; Northwest; Spain; Trails to the West .


Allen, John Logan. Passage through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975. Reprinted as Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest. New York: Dover, 1991.

——. Jedediah Smith and the Mountain Men of the American West. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.

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

Cook, Warren. Flood Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific Northwest, 1543–1819. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973.

DeVoto, Bernard. The Course of Empire. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1952; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Goetzmann, William H. Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and Scientist in the Winning of the American West. New York: Knopf, 1966; New York: Norton, 1978.

——. New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Lavender, David. Land of Giants: The Drive to the Pacific Northwest, 1750–1950. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

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

John Logan Allen

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