From Nation to Nation: Examining Lewis and Clark’s Indian Collection

Expedition Map
Map of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The green and red solid lines represent the routes taken by the expedition on their westward (red) and eastward (green) journeys. Courtesy of the "Arts of Diplomacy," by Castle McLaughlin,

When Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, charged Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with leading a military expedition to explore the uncharted American West, he had political, economic, and scientific goals in mind. His initial aim was to discover the Northwest Passage, a fabled water route to the Pacific Ocean, in order to increase commerce. When, in the summer of 1803, France ceded the vast Louisiana Territory, the United States nearly doubled in size. France and other European powers, however, still controlled interior lands and trade with Indian peoples. As part of their mission, Lewis and Clark would have to assert new American territorial claims, discourage trade with Europeans, and cultivate relations with western Indian nations on behalf of the United States.

Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to map and describe the country and to collect specimens of the minerals, plants, and animals they encountered. His interest was both intellectual and pragmatic. Likewise, Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would gather information about Indian peoples that would inform national policy, facilitate trade with them, and contribute to knowledge.

The primary objective of Lewis and Clark with regard to Native peoples was to establish diplomatic relations on behalf of the new nation. This was a complex task, especially because of the cultural and linguistic differences between Euroamericans and tribal people. Some Indian leaders were adept politicians who had experience with Europeans; others had never met a non-Indian. All were enmeshed in complex trade and political networks. Some welcomed a potential alliance with the United States; others did not. Members of the Corps of Discovery understood few of the Native languages they encountered. To communicate, both the explorers and Indian people often relied on established rituals of frontier diplomacy, such as gift exchange, trading, and ceremonial pipe smoking. The pipe tomahawk that Lewis carried as an instrument of diplomacy was therefore as important as his compass and telescope.

Establishing contact with dozens of Indian communities proved key to the expedition's success. Traveling from one Indian nation to another, the Corps of Discovery journeyed up the Missouri River from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean and back in sixteen months. During their passage, Lewis and Clark inaugurated formal relationships between the fledgling United States and many western Indian nations. Through trade, the Indian people who received them also provided resources that were critical to the survival of the small party. The Native American objects that Lewis and Clark brought back—some of which survive in the Peabody collections—are a unique record of those initial encounters. 

The objects brought back by Lewis and Clark fall into four categories: diplomatic gifts, chiefly gifts, trade goods, and curiosities.

This exhibit is based upon the original exhibition and the book by Castle McLaughlin; it is edited with additional objects from the collection.