The famous 1804-1806 “Lewis and Clark Expedition” represented the first giant step of American exploration of the globe. The territory between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean may have belonged largely to the United States, but no American knew what was out there. Most of North America was effectively as foreign to the United States as was the rest of the world.
American atlases and maps of the first half of the nineteenth century tended to divide North America into pieces. There was the United States, but “British America,” “Spanish America,” and “Russian America” were accorded delineated spaces on maps. Native American nations were noted on maps, too, but only within spaces delineated as the sovereign territory of empires — like the United States. Long after Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Northwest shore, the federal government continued to dispatch scientific expeditions to fill in knowledge of “interior” territory such as the upper Mississippi River valley. Like maps, scientific expeditions issued sovereign claims more than they represented grounded realities.
Forgotten to history, Jeremiah Reynolds worked doggedly for years to stimulate global ambitions in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s: to look beyond the vast North American continent, to the even vaster Pacific Ocean. He urged American scientific knowledge to catch up to the global scope of American commercial activity — American whaling ships already littered the Pacific — so that the United States might turn itself into a world power on a par with Britain and France. After years of dithering, the federal government finally sponsored the United States Exploring Expedition, a squadron of six ships that in 1838 embarked on a four-year circumnavigation of the globe. The expedition announced the United States as a global force to indigenous peoples around the world, and to its imperial rivals stationed around that world.
Though excluded from scientific expedition he had long promoted, Reynolds lived to see the federal government sponsor a burgeoning number of scientific expeditions in the 1840s and 1850s: to the north Pacific, the “Holy Land,” the postwar boundary with Mexico, the Amazon River valley, and the Antarctic and Arctic antipodes. Just like the forerunner “Lewis and Clark Expedition,” these expeditions blended diplomatic negotiation, military intimidation, commercial investigation, and scientific research. Science was not pure.
The leaders of such expeditions would increasingly be presented to the American reading public as a new breed of national hero prying open the continental as well as the global future of the United States. American authors writing on every possible topic — whether diplomatic, commercial, religious, or scientific — incessantly surged ahead of present circumstances to trumpet the country’s future prospects. The United States was taken as ever in the act of becoming its future destiny. The future was now, and not yet, at the same time.
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Zebulon Montgomery Pike. An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi, and Through the Western Parts of Louisiana, to the Sources of the Arkansaw, Kans, La Platte, and Pierre Jaun, Rivers.... Philadelphia: C. and A. Conrad and Co...., Printer, 1810.In exploring the terrain immediately west of newly purchased Louisiana in 1806 and 1807, Pike’s expedition strayed into Spanish territory whereupon Pike was taken into custody.
Patrick Gass. A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery, Under the Command of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clarke of the Army of the United States, From the Mouth of the River Missouri Through the Interior Parts of North America to the Pacific Ocean, During the Years 1804, 1805 and 1806. Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1812.Publishing the first account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Gass anticipated a near future in which the North American west would be settled faster than the east had been.
Henry R. Schoolcraft. Travels in the Central Portions of the Mississippi Valley: Comprising Observations on its Mineral Geography, Internal Resources, and Aboriginal Population. New-York: Collins and Hannay; J. and J. Harper, Printers, 1825.Schoolcraft investigated the Native American inhabitants and the economic potential of the northern Mississippi Valley, while refuting British criticism of American land negotiations.
Jeremiah N. Reynolds. Address, on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas.... New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836.Just as colonial Americans had “tamed the howling wilderness,” so it was now to be the mission of national Americans to explore “unknown oceans,” argued Reynolds.
Charles Wilkes. Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845.Wilkes’s instructions were to “extend the empire of commerce and science” while showing “courtesy and kindness towards the natives” wherever encountered in the Pacific world.
William Francis Lynch. Narrative of the United States’ Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1849.Surprised to meet a South Carolinian operating an experimental cotton plantation in Turkey, Lynch imagined that Turkey could become a place to send freed American slaves.
John S. Jenkins. United States Exploring Expeditions. Auburn: Alden, Beardsley and Co.; Rochester: Wanzer, Beardsley and Co., 1852.By 1852 Jenkins was able to celebrate a growing number of scientific expeditions that the United States government had dispatched to almost every corner of the globe, sometimes veering into punitive actions.
John Russell Bartlett. Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, Connected with the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission, During the Years 1850, ‘51, ‘52, and ‘53. New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1854.After surveying the new postwar boundary line between the United States and Mexico, Bartlett marveled at San Francisco becoming a global city almost overnight in the early 1850s.
William Lewis Herndon and Lardner Gibbon. Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon: Made Under the Direction of the Navy Department. Washington DC: Robert Armstrong, Public Printer, 1854.Herndon and Gibbon were sent the Amazon valley to investigate “undeveloped commercial resources”; any scientific work was meant to be “merely incidental.”
Matthew C. Perry. Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan.... Washington DC: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1856.Perry boasted that it was the United States, and not any European imperial power, which managed to coerce Japan to enter “into the circle of commercial nations.”
Elisha Kent Kane. Arctic Explorations: The Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, 1853, ‘54, ‘55. Philadelphia: Childs and Peterson; …Cincinnati: Applegate and Co., 1857.If so many other American explorers had encounters with supposed “savages,” Kane had his own dramatic encounters with perilous icebergs in the Arctic Ocean.
Samuel M. Smucker. The Life of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, and of other Distinguished American Explorers: Containing Narratives of their Researches and Adventures in Remote and Interesting Portions of the Globe. Philadelphia: G.G. Evans, 1860.Smucker listed national heroes in the order of their necessary appearance: first military heroes and statesmen, then artists and engineers, and finally scientists and missionaries.