Monday, August 19, 2002

Lewis and Clark - America's lamest heroes goes the link to the story in Slate. The writer David Plotz goes over many reasons why they're overrated. Englishmen (namely George Vancouver and Alexander Mackenzie) had already explored the northwest Pacific coast years earlier. Exploration of the West was inevitable. People that came later (like John Fremont) were more heroic in their exploits. The Lewis and Clark route was the worst way across (The Bitterroots are a particularly inhospitable region.) the US.

Now I wouldn't be mentioning these unless there were a few holes in the arguments. When we look at Fremont's trek, it was in the southwest, which belonged to Spain at the time of Lewis and Clark. President Jefferson didn't exactly have a guarantee that the land that became Colorado through California was ever going to be part of the U.S., so he sent Lewis and Clark across the land that was legally ours. So it wasn't that the route they took across in 1805 was the most efficient - it was just about the only way across the Rockies that was within the U.S. boundaries. These circumstances that were true in the first decade of the 19th century take care of three of the reasons claimed for Lewis and Clark's irrelevance: Fremont's trek was across the wide swath of land ceded by Mexico in that war; exploration may have been inevitable, but it had to be across U.S. land; the 'worst route' was the only route at the time.

From these circumstances, one can see the thought processes of U.S. leaders of the time: That this route was terrible - is there a better way through that Spanish land down there? That is Lewis and Clark's failure to find a good crossing in U.S. land led to a desire for other land. Well, Spain helped things along by inviting Stephen F. Austin's group to settle in Texas, then Spain left everyone behind by getting out of the continent altogether. With a weaker opponent than Spain in Mexico, the U.S. started itching to acquire more land through war - the whole 'manifest destiny' to expand to the Pacific started, and the northern part of Mexico went to the U.S. Enter John Fremont, and so on and so on. As for the northwest, the U.S wanted to fight for everything on the west side of the Rockies all the way up to Alaska, but that would have meant another war with the British. So the compromise was the part that Lewis and Clark explored (Oregon Territory) went to the U.S. and the part that Mackenzie explored (British Columbia) went to Britain, with the border at the 49th parallel.

Success must be the only thing to some historians. Plotz and others don't quite understand that you can learn from failure. We here at GeekPol try all the time things at work that might fail. It doesn't make that work totally irrelevant. Trial and error is actually important. So it was back then.

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