Lewis & CLark, The Doctrine of Discovery,
and American Indians

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Lewis & Clark helped rob American Indians


Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sit high in the pantheon of American folk heroes. Even today, Lewis and Clark are viewed as brave adventurers who went where no one had gone before, exploring and conquering the wilderness for the betterment of America.

There is another way to view Lewis and Clark, however, which is nearer to the truth. Lewis and Clark were military officers serving American empire and manifest destiny and they were the vanguard of American policies that ultimately robbed the indigenous peoples of nearly everything they possessed.

Historian Bernard DeVoto stated, “The dispatch of the Lewis and Clark expedition was an act of imperial policy.” This imperialism was directed at the Indians who inhabited the Pacific Northwest and the Louisiana Territory.

The expedition was primarily concerned with Indian affairs. First, President Jefferson wanted to find a passage across the continent to greatly expand the American fur trade, in cooperation with tribes.

Second, Jefferson wanted to establish American trade with tribes.

Third, Jefferson ordered Lewis and Clark to gather information concerning tribal economies, diplomatic relations and more. Finally, Jefferson wanted to extend American sovereignty over the tribes. Thus, Lewis and Clark were American economic and diplomatic representatives spreading the news of the United States’ new role as the controlling sovereign government in the Louisiana Territory.

The expedition operated under a European legal principle called the doctrine of discovery. This legal principle rationalized the domination and outright conquest of indigenous, non-Christian, non-white populations because it provided that the first European country that “discovered” new territory gained an interest in the natives’ property and became the sole government eligible to buy their lands and the sole government that could deal diplomatically with the natives. Thus, indigenous peoples lost property and sovereign rights without their knowledge or their consent to the “discovering” nation.

Jefferson demonstrated his agreement with the doctrine when he wrote that after buying the Louisiana Territory, the United States had become its “sovereign” but that the purchase had not diminished Indian “occupancy rights” until the United States bought the land itself from the “native proprietors.” Jefferson also showed his understanding of the doctrine when he sent Lewis and Clark beyond the Louisiana Territory into the Pacific Northwest to strengthen the American discovery claim to the Oregon Territory. Jefferson obviously had American empire in mind for the Pacific Northwest and for the Louisiana Territory.

Thus, Lewis and Clark established American sovereignty in the Louisiana Territory and helped strengthen American discovery claim to the Pacific Northwest. First, they distributed “sovereignty tokens” of American flags, military uniforms and Jefferson medals to tribal chiefs. These gifts conveyed important messages of American sovereignty and tribal allegiance to the United States. Second, they informed everyone that Jefferson was now the “Great White Father” of his Indian “children.” Third, Lewis and Clark organized visits of members of 26 different tribes to Washington, D.C., which were intended to intimidate Indians with the power of the United States.

Fourth, they tried to manipulate the political relationships among the tribes to facilitate American commercial goals, and they consulted with tribes on trade issues designed to bring tribes within the American economic sphere. They even promised to trade with tribes located outside the Louisiana Territory, which demonstrates further the “imperial reach” of the expedition to areas that were then outside the United States. Finally, Lewis and Clark performed recognized rituals to advance America’s discovery claim to the Northwest by leaving written announcements of their presence at the Pacific Ocean with the Clatsop and Chinook Indians and by branding and carving their names on trees and affixing notices thereto.

The ultimate goal, then, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was the subjugation of Indian property and commercial rights. The expedition helped the United States claim its discovery sovereignty over the Louisiana Territory, institute concrete plans to begin exercising that authority and extended America’s claim to the Northwest. The expedition was a major part of Jefferson’s plan to assimilate Indians and their assets into American society, to remove the tribes from the path of American continental expansion and, if necessary, to exterminate the tribes to advance the American empire.

Lewis and Clark opened the road to the domination of Indian tribes in the Northwest and the Louisiana Territory and to bringing Indian lands into the American empire. As a consequence, Indians lost valuable property and governmental rights and were ultimately subjected to official federal policies of forced removals, assimilation, armed conflicts, the reservation system and the termination of tribal governments.

The cultural, religious, family and governmental oppression that Indian people have suffered since the expedition is well documented. American Indians have obviously suffered the detrimental effects of “American empire.”

© Copyright 2006 Robert J. Miller

        Robert J. Miller is an Associate Professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. He is the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and sits as a judge for other tribes. He is the author of Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny.

Further details about the book and other writings on the impact of Manifest Destiny on Native America can be found on Professor Miller's blog at http://lawlib.lclark.edu/blog/native_america/