Mapping the West


  • David K. Allison, Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs, National Museum of American History
  • Mark Hirsch, Historian, National Museum of the American Indian

The Land Traveler Compass, made and signed by Thomas Whitney of Philadelphia. It was carried by Captain Clark on the Lewis & Clark Expedition to the Pacific Coast, 1803-1806. The expedition was ordered by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.

Purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France was Thomas Jefferson’s boldest action as President, and among his most consequential. To explore the new land, he sent an exploration team headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The principal goal of the Lewis and Clark expedition was determining whether there was a water passage from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean through the vast territory the nation had acquired from France. They failed to find this passageway. However they succeeded in providing a wealth of new geographical and scientific data about the territory, its flora and fauna, and the Native tribes who inhabited it.

Curators David K. Allison and Mark Hirsch will summarize the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, putting special emphasis on some of the important findings of the “Corps of Discovery Expedition.” They will discuss not only the perspectives of President Jefferson and the men on the discovery team, but also how the expedition appeared to — and ultimately affected — the tribal people who inhabited the West. They will display artifacts in the Smithsonian collection that relate to the expedition and assess Lewis and Clark’s significance in the broader context of American history.

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