By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
One of the most indestructible myths about Native America involves the West. And what images does the mind conjure? Often times its teepees, bison, and equestrian warriors bedecked in feathers or cowboys, cattle, and wagon trains. But whose West is this? It’s John Wayne’s West, Bonanza’s West or the West of Dances with Wolves. In other words, it’s the West in the colonial imagination.
The West in Popular Imagination
The Great Plains is the region most people probably have in mind when they think of the West. Just saying those words seems to cue a soundtrack—sometimes romantic, epic, and sweeping; at others jangly, spirited, and adventurous.
But, is this the correct picture? If not, then let’s burst the myth. Let’s explore its formation in the colonial imagination during the early 19th century through Lewis and Clark’s so-called voyage of discovery.
Learn more about how the West was shaped by centuries of myth-making.
Great Plains or Wild West?
Lakota author Luther Standing Bear captured this alternative perspective when he wrote in his 1933 work Land of the Spotted Eagle:
We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and the winding streams with tangled growth, as wild. Only to the white man was nature a wilderness and only to him was the land infested with wild animals and savage people. To us it was tame.
The Plains was no unchanging place, no pristine wilderness inhabited by static peoples waiting for history to happen. Instead, it was a region that had seen profound environmental, demographic, and cultural transformations long before Lewis and Clark showed up. And yet, the westward sojourn of Lewis and Clark holds a special place among the many origin myths about the making of America.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition of the Great Plains
Following on the heels of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803—which transferred to the United States France’s claim to some 800,000 square miles of Native ground between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains—President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark to make what non-Native Americans considered unknown known.
Lewis and Clark were to prepare the way, according to this perspective, for a savage land to be incorporated into a civilized nation. They were to bring a static place into history.
In case you think this is hyperbole, recall that Lewis and Clark’s imperial vanguard—soldiers, civilians, and one slave among them—was literally called the Corps of Discovery. And discovering is exactly what they believed they were doing, as they set out from St. Louis in May 1804—onboard a keelboat and canoes—and followed the Missouri River to Mandan villages, near what is today Bismarck, North Dakota. They traveled across the Bitterroot Mountains, all the way to the Pacific Coast in 1805, and then back again to St. Louis, in 1806.
The ‘Discovery’ of Lewis and Clark
Lewis and Clark took a lot of notes. They defined, described, collected, and named. They mapped places and boundaries, trade routes and resources, terrain and climate. They drew pictures of Indian people, technology, and material culture, as well as plants and animals. They collected flora and fauna, botanical, zoological, and ethnological specimens, and even Native vocabularies. But what did Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery really see?
Through an ethnocentric lens, the Corps of Discovery saw what they considered to be backward peoples inhabiting an untamed and unchanging wilderness that the United States believed itself destined to possess. Indeed, common rituals involved in Lewis and Clark’s encounters with Indians involved the giving of peace medals, proclamations that the land now belonged to the United States, and assertions that President Thomas Jefferson would be henceforth their father. All of these actions were, of course, rituals of possession.
Learn more about the Cherokee nation and the Trail of Tears.
The Great Plains Region
Taken as a whole, the Plains extend from the Upper Mississippi River Valley to the Rocky Mountains and from the Saskatchewan River to the Rio Grande. Within it are both the Prairie Plains to the east and the High Plains to the west. The Prairie Plains includes the tall grass prairie on either side of the Mississippi River Valley and along the Missouri River. It can be contrasted with the more arid shortgrass prairies of the High Plains.
The High Plains extends from approximately the 100th meridian—which cuts from the Dakotas to Texas—and from there westward to the Rocky Mountains. This region experiences much lower rainfall than does the Prairie.
Newcomers in the 18th Century
Over the course of the 18th century, the Spanish established missions, settlements, and slave raiding and trading networks through the Southwest and California. The French had forts, trading posts, and population centers along the Mississippi River Valley and the Gulf of Mexico. The English had moved into the northern interior above the Great Lakes and also engaged in trade along the Pacific Coast. And later still the Russians established a presence in the Gulf of Alaska.
It might seem that these newcomers were too far away to have any impact on the Plains. But that isn’t the case.
The vast indigenous trade networks that already extended across much of Native America meant that reverberations were felt far beyond the immediate sites of contact. Everything from metal tools and woven cloth to alcohol and captives traveled along these very old trade networks and were incorporated into American Indians’ lives.
Thus, contact with Europe in the 18th century contributed to irrevocable changes in the lives of the Natives of the Great Plains—and this was long before Lewis and Clark and their imagined discovery of the West.
Common Questions about the Native Lands of the Great Plains and the ‘West’ Myth
Following on the heels of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark to explore the Great Plains region.
The Great Plains extend from the Upper Mississippi River Valley to the Rocky Mountains and from the Saskatchewan River to the Rio Grande.
Over the course of the 18th century, the Spanish, French, English, and even Russians established trade networks with the Great Plains.