Exhibit marks trek as start of exploration in the West

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2004

TACOMA, Wash. The Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was only the beginning of U.S. Army exploration in the uncharted West.

Their 1803-06 journey applying Thomas Jefferson's standards for record-keeping, mapmaking and diplomatic contact set the pattern for an 80-year series of Army treks that helped open the emerging nation's final frontier.

Jefferson ''writes the Declaration of Independence, our national birth certificate ... and in a sense invents the American West'' with his exploration charter, said historian James Ronda during a recent tour of ''Beyond Lewis and Clark: The Army Explores the West.''

The exhibit, named for Ronda's latest book, is making its only stop in the West at the Washington State History Museum here, where it will remain through Oct. 31.

''We start with Lewis and Clark, but we don't stop there,'' Ronda said.

The exhibit covers expeditions led by Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, John Charles Fremont, Isaac Stevens, who became the state's first territorial governor, and others. It also features George Armstrong Custer, to show ''exploration has consequences,'' Ronda said. Custer's 1868 report of gold in the Black Hills helped set the stage for the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, Ronda said.

''By opening the West for some, those explorers and their journeys closed the West for others,'' noted Redmond J. Barnett, the museum's director of exhibits.

The exhibit includes the air rifle Lewis and Clark carried to impress Indian tribes, who had never seen a gun that operated without gunpowder.

''It's probably the most storied piece of equipment that Lewis and Clark had with them,'' said museum Director David Nicandri.

''It was intended as a piece of theater the Lewis and Clark Road Show. They were showing off their technology no smoke, no flash, no powder.''

''Part of this is a lure stop trading with the British, start trading with us,'' Ronda said.

Also on display is one of the silver Jefferson Peace Medals given to tribal leaders and others.

''For Lewis and Clark ... if you accepted it and put it around your neck, 'You're ours,''' Ronda said. ''But native people saw it in very different ways,'' as a sign of status or as a carrier of powerful and dangerous forces.

''When Lewis and his men killed two Piegan Blackfeet, they hung Peace Medals around their necks ... as Lewis said, 'So you will know who we are,''' Ronda said. ''So the Peace Medal becomes a calling card of empire. ... We're playing for keeps here.''

The exhibit includes bloodletting cups and other medical supplies, as well as brass compasses and other surveying tools.

''They take cutting-age scientific instruments with them ... the best of that generation's science,'' Ronda said.

While ''they look like rustic frontiersman ... they were able to transact complicated mathematics that few contemporary Americans would be able to replicate,'' Nicandri said.

Among beautiful sketches and lithographs by several artists is a drawing by the Lewis and Clark party of the Washington state coast north of the mouth of the Columbia.

''It's the first time this particular piece has been on the Pacific slope since the spring of 1806 when they drew it,'' Nicandri said.

Botanical samples including Mahonia aquifolium, Oregon grape look ''almost as fresh as when Lewis plucked them,'' Ronda said.

Near the end of the exhibit is an 1857 map drawn by Lt. G.K. Warren in Washington, D.C., using 45 different sources that outlines the West as we know it today.

''He took all the previous cartographic work, going all the way back to Lewis and Clark, and then as if with a jigsaw puzzle put all this together to make a master map ... (that) summarizes half a century of Army exploration work,'' Ronda said.

''It says a railroad is possible, exploitation of natural resources is possible, settlement is possible. This is the great summation on the eve of the Civil War,'' he added.

A related exhibit, ''Lewis and Clark Territory: Contemporary Artists Revisit Place, Race, and Memory'' at the Tacoma Art Museum next door, shows ''how artists are addressing all the issues that inform our day-to-day lives ... using the Lewis and Clark journals as a touchstone sort of as a lens to look at ourselves again,'' said curator Rock Hushka.

The exhibit includes paintings, baskets, glass works, an 8 1/2-foot tall, 105-foot long ''Ribbon'' of fir and photographs.

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