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Exploration and Expeditions of the West – Mapping the American West during the 19th century

Ian Harvey

At the turn of the 19th century, there was hardly any knowledge of what lay beyond the Mississippi River to the west. Patchy descriptions from fur traders and mountain men told of high mountain ranges and enormous prairies, but the geography between St. Louis, Missouri and the Pacific Ocean primarily remained a huge mystery.

A succession of exploratory expeditions, beginning with Lewis and Clark, began documenting the topography of the American West.

And as reports eventually circulated with descriptions of vast prairies, towering peaks, winding rivers, and potential riches, the desire to move westward spread amongst the people of the nation. And with the growing belief of Manifest Destiny, the expansion west would become a national obsession.

Following are just a few of the expeditions during the nineteenth century that explored the American West.

  • Lewis and Clark Expedition

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

The first and best known great expedition to explore the West was conducted by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Army Corps of Discovery from 1804 to 1806.

Lewis and Clark embarked from St. Louis, Missouri, traveled to the Pacific Coast and made the return journey. Their expedition was the idea of President Thomas Jefferson and was supposed to map out regions to help the American fur trade. But this Lewis and Clark expedition established that the continent could be traversed, thereby motivating others to explore the enormous unknown territories between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.

  • Zebulon Pike’s Puzzling Expedition

Portrait of American general and explorer Zebulon Pike.

Portrait of American general and explorer Zebulon Pike.

Zebulon Pike was a young U.S. Army officer, who led two expeditions into the West in the early 1800s. His first exploration ventured into what is present-day Minnesota, and then he headed further west toward what is present-day Colorado.

Pike’s second expedition is puzzling, even to this day, as it’s uncertain whether he was merely exploring or actively spying on Mexican forces that were based in what is now the American Southwest. Pike was placed under arrest by the Mexicans, held for a period but eventually let go.

Pike’s Peak in Colorado was named for Zebulon Pike, years after his expedition.

  • John Jacob Astor’s Settlement on the West Coast Named Astoria

John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor was the richest man in America during the first decade of the 19th century. During this time, he decided to expand his fur trading business all the way to the West Coast of North America.

Astor’s plan was very ambitious and involved establishing a trading post in present-day Oregon.

A settlement was established, and he called it Fort Astoria, but the War of 1812 derailed Astor’s business expansion plans. Fort Astoria was captured by the British and although it eventually reverted to American territory again, it failed as a business.

Astor’s plan did have one unexpected benefit, though, as fur traders, trekking eastward from the outpost discovered what would later be known as the Oregon Trail.

  • Robert Stuart: Pioneering the Oregon Trail
Robert Stuart, explorer.

Robert Stuart, explorer.

Arguably, the greatest contribution of John Jacob Astor’s western settlement, as mentioned above, was the discovery of the Oregon Trail.

Men from the outpost in Oregon, led by Robert Stuart, traveled eastward in 1812 during the summer. Stuart carried some mail and materials for Astor, who was based in New York City. The following year, they reached St. Louis and Stuart then proceeded onward to New York.

Stuart and his expedition party had discovered the most practical trail for crossing the great expanse of the West. However, the trail didn’t become commonly known until decades later, and it wasn’t until the 1840s that anyone, other than small groups of fur traders and mountain men, began to use it.

  • John C. Frémont’s Expeditions to the West

John C. Frémont

John C. Frémont

John C. Frémont led a succession of U.S. government expeditions to the American West between 1842 and 1854 and mapped extensive areas of the West, which resulted in an increased westward migration.

Frémont was a politically connected and controversial character who picked up the nickname ‘The Pathfinder,’ even though he voyaged routes that had already trail-blazed, About Education reported.

Read another story from us: The Moberly–Jourdain incident: In 1901, two female academics claimed to have experienced a timeslip into pre-revolutionary France

Arguably, Fremont’s greatest contribution to westward expansion was a published report based on his first two expeditions in the West. Frémont’s report, which contained invaluable maps, was issued by the U.S. Senate as a book. A publishing entrepreneur took much of the information in the book and published it as a helpful guidebook for emigrants wishing or longing to make the long overland excursion to Oregon or California.