Way We Were: How we understand the settlement of the American West
Park City Museum
Few historical figures have been as revered in the collective American imagination as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. After purchasing the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803, Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore this new acquisition for the purposes of learning about its flora, fauna, and geography, and how it might serve the United States. The duo and their crew, dubbed the Corps of Discovery, set out on their expedition in May 1804 and returned in September 1806.
Although the Corps of Discovery never set foot in what became the state of Utah, as the land was still firmly under Spanish control during the years of the expedition, Lewis and Clark’s journey has still captured Parkites’ imaginations. In a brief interview with the Park Record in 1956, Marsac Elementary School fifth-grader Allan Leon Mair reported that his class was studying the history of the Western United States. He found it “very interesting to learn how we got our land, especially who got it for us and how,” citing Lewis and Clark as two of the critical figures in that endeavor.
The lessons Mair and his Marsac classmates were taught about Lewis and Clark reflected broader trends in elementary education that centered stories of frontier heroism. By the same token, they ignored other more complicated, and decidedly less triumphant, aspects of the journey and its consequences.
For example, Mair did not mention that Lewis and Clark’s impact went beyond opening the West to expansion. It also facilitated first contact between many tribes and the United States Federal Government, with devastating consequences; according to Ben Sherman, Chairman of the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance and member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, “Not a single tribe escaped some kind of relocation or confinement or some kind of misery dealt at the hands of the federal government.”
Omissions like this speak to what public educators in Utah, and likely the United States more broadly, considered important to children’s historical education in the 1950s. Twenty-first century interpretations of the Lewis and Clark expedition, however, pay significantly more attention to its impact on indigenous peoples, demonstrating a new view of what is considered important to understanding this particular chapter in United States history. In so doing, Native American voices take on new significance after a long, forced silence. Interpretations like these create a fuller, more nuanced picture of Lewis and Clark’s journey and its consequences.
To learn more about our contemporary understandings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, don’t miss Dorian DeMaio’s upcoming lecture at the Park City Museum’s Education and Collections Center, located at 2079 Sidewinder Drive, on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 5 p.m.
Retired Park City resident and pilot, DeMaio, enjoys flying his airplane to historical places in the American West. For the past decade, he has traveled along the Lewis and Clark Trail and will bring the Corps of Discovery to life in pictures and words in this can’t-miss presentation.
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