Most American citizens are familiar with stories of successful explorations on the early American frontier. Stories of Lewis and Clark and Christopher Columbus are not only written about in history books, but also are passed down from generation to generation as inspirational tales of bravery and courage. What remains unquestioned is how and why these stories continue to pervade the mindsets of Americans and influence American culture today.
“Thinking about somebody being a pioneer fits into the values of an individualistic, entrepreneurial culture,” said Jeffrey Pasley, associate professor in MU’s history department. “(But) we apply these words to apply luster to activities that have relatively little to do with blazing a trail across a country that’s never been mapped.”
Pasley said Americans should be careful about what they consider to be historical successes because a lot of the notions about the frontier have come from popular culture, rather than actual historical facts.
In fact, in terms of its major goals, the Lewis and Clark expedition was a failure, said Peter Kastor, assistant professor of history and American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis. The expedition did not locate a northwest passage and did not establish federal sovereignty over American Indians, which were its two original goals.
“Historical successes and failures affect the way culture takes form, but that’s not a uniquely American thing,” Kastor said. “I have yet to study a culture that doesn’t see its past with rose-colored glasses.”
Pasley said he believes Americans do tend to have an overly confident attitude, as is evident by examining U.S. relations with other countries.
“We like to think that America is uniquely exempt from the problems the rest of the world has faced,” he said. “(Other countries) refer to us as cowboys. We conquered our continent and then have gone out in the rest of the world with unthinking, overconfident, self-righteous attitudes.”
One of the things American frontier experience has taught, Pasley said, is to get used to the idea of rapid and large-scale developmental growth. Chicago, which was a fairly small city when originally inhabited, quickly grew to be a thriving metropolis today.
“It’s stunning how quickly Americans can throw things up,” he said. “We have been told that things are going to get bigger and better really fast.”
The ideas of exploration, discovery and pioneering are fundamental to Americans’ image of the country, Pasley said.
“The whole sort of rhetorical device of referring to our conquest of the North American continent as exploration or pioneering turns it into something that is consistent with our view of ourselves,” he said. “It’s from telling the stories of our past that we really fill in the blanks about who we think we are.”
Kastor said all nations tend to rewrite or rethink their own histories in order to enable them to take pride in their past, and America is no exception. There is, however, an overriding similarity in the ways Americans have continued to define themselves throughout history.
“A set of political principles have been at the very core of the way Americans define themselves today, a century ago and two centuries ago,” he said. “A lot of it is related to a commitment to our federal Constitution.”
Today, the intersection of politics with race and religion helps to determine who can claim to really be American.
“The real question Lewis and Clark raised in the expedition was: How big can a nation be?” he said. “How much internal difference can one nation accommodate before it ceases to be one nation?”
Although America’s concept of itself might be an overly positive one, Larry McClure, educational liason for the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration, said he thinks there are many good lessons today’s Americans can take away from early expeditions such as that of Lewis and Clark.
“I think it’s inspired everyone as they look at their own situation today because they can see many parallels,” McClure said. “It’s an example of leadership.”
McClure attempts to assist teachers and schools in educating students about the Lewis and Clark expedition and helping them make connections to today’s world.
“(Their journey) is a reminder that we’re all part of an evolutionary process,” he said. “Kids of today are the Lewis and Clark of the future. (The expedition) teaches them to be open to new ideas, wise users of resources and good record keepers.”
Pasley warns that Americans must be careful in thinking about and educating about early pioneering because many of the inspirational success stories regularly came at a cost to certain other individuals and groups of the past.
“I do think that it’s people’s will to think that things are going to get better, even if it’s against the evidence,” he said. “I think Americans do have a very strong will to think we have to be successful.”