Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The living, breathing natives who made Lewis and Clark."
If American history west of the Mississippi "begins" with Lewis and Clark, then Indian history and, by extension, the history of the United States seems pretty simple: "Indians owned the West, and then they lost it." But the story was never simple. People built societies, and societies changed over time. The people who survived dealt effectively with challenges from environment, drought, disease, population growth and decline, new and closed opportunities. They balanced tradition and innovation, weighed war and peace, and endured encounters with Indian, Spanish, French, British, and, eventually, American neighbors and newcomers.
Some communities collapsed, and some peoples "disappeared" to the extent that they amalgamated with other peoples and remade themselves. Nations like the Blackfeet, Lakotas, Osages and Comanches had established, were in the process of establishing, or were trying to hold onto impressive regional and interregional hegemonies. Other less powerful or less fortunately situated peoples like the Shoshones, Crows and Pawnees saw the coming of Americans as an opportunity rather than a harbinger of disaster. The fact that some of the people Lewis and Clark met had "never seen a white man" did not mean they had not seen change.
Lewis and Clark did not see an unchanging West; they saw "a snapshot of time and place." It was a landscape that had evolved over millions of years, and an environment that had been shaped by Indian and animal life for thousands of years. Crops, technologies, and rituals from Mesoamerica; flora and fauna, plagues, and peoples from Europe; and indigenous pioneers had all altered the West long before Lewis and Clark arrived.
By the time the explorers headed out from St. Louis, many of the people who had previously inhabited the West were gone. Some had died only a couple of years before, when another smallpox epidemic swept the Missouri Valley. Others had been gone for centuries, and places like Mesa Verde and Cahokia, an ancient city near the site of present-day St. Louis that had once bustled with activity, were long silent. In other places, Indian inhabitants remained where they had lived from time beyond memory; it was the Spanish, French and English, who had competed for their trade, their lands, their allegiance, or their souls, who had come and gone.
Long before it became a part of "America," the West was a land of combined races and cultures. Indians and Europeans who had lived together for generations produced mixed communities and people of mixed descent. Indian and European cultures produced a new Hispanic culture in the Southwest. Franco-Indian families and communities persisted in the Great Lakes, Louisiana and the Midwest. Multicultural individuals, many of them former captives, moved along intersecting Indian and European exchange networks and webs of kinship relations built by their experiences. In 1806, Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis described the settlers living on the banks of the Cane River near Natchitoches as a "… mixture of French, Spanish, Indian, and Negro blood."
Now came the Americans. The Osages remembered seeing them on the left bank of the Mississippi, "chopping trees and building and plowing and swearing." They had hair on their faces like French voyageurs, "and soon the Little Ones were calling them Heavy Eyebrows as well, but knowing them to be Long Knives."
Jefferson did little to allay Osage apprehensions. He told Osage and other delegates in Washington in 1806 that the United States had peaceful intentions, but "we are strong, we are numerous as the stars in the heaven, and we are all gun-men." As Lewis and Clark scholar James Ronda notes, the image of "an American nation armed and on the move" was not lost on the Indians. When Zebulon Pike and a party of Americans ascended the Mississippi in 1806, Indians went out of their way to avoid meeting them, having "the idea of our being a very vindictive, ferocious, and warlike people." Lewis and Clark brought the promise of a new power in the West. Indian people recognized the new power as more aggressive than its predecessors, but at the same time, they saw little to suggest that these newcomers would last any longer than the ones that had come and gone before.
But the changes would run deeper than that. Ronda notes that when Lewis and Clark arrived on the Pacific Coast in December 1805, they came at the wrong time and from the wrong direction as far as Native peoples were concerned — they were accustomed to trading with traders from the sea in the spring and fall. But Lewis and Clark "wanted to reshape the landscape of time," Ronda writes. "Days and months once measured in seasons and salmon runs were now to be calculated by calendars and journal entries."
Lewis and Clark reshaped time in other ways. By their feat, they created a new calendar: American history in the West unfolded after Lewis and Clark; anything that happened before was B.L.C. (before Lewis and Clark). Millennia became concentrated into one "pre-American" time frame, and with it a nation’s sense of its own ancient experiences became stunted or lost entirely. Did the people who inhabited Cahokia for 700 years think there would be a time when Cahokia no longer existed? Did the Anasazi and Hohokam who irrigated the deserts of the Southwest know that their systems and the way of life they supported would ultimately fail? Could the people who lived for thousands of years on buffalo or salmon ever have imagined that the source of their life could become polluted, or disappear entirely?
American expansion and occupation of the West occurred in the blink of an eye, historically speaking. In the late 19th century, buffalo were exterminated to make way for cattle, Indians were dispossessed to make way for ranchers and farmers. At the end of the 20th century, buffalo started returning, and the cattle industry struggled to survive. And farming communities on the Northern Plains experienced population decline, while Indian populations in reservation communities increased to reach precontact levels.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the American West has an economy and a way of life that depend on oil and water. But gauged against the long span of human history in the West, this way of life is still a baby — and the chances of it surviving infancy are not good. In the end, automobiles and oil may not be that different from horses and buffalo.
In 1997-’98, massive floods and snowstorms hit the American West. The Western United States had not been singled out for special treatment: All over the world, the climate anomaly known as El Niño disrupted weather patterns and caused chaos. In the wake of El Niño, scientists and historians gained new understanding of how the global weather system affects human societies and how short-term climate shifts have shaped history. After about 3000 B.C., people began living in more sedentary and concentrated farming societies. Populations grew, and they became more vulnerable to short-term climate changes such as El Niño. In 2180 B.C., for example, devastating droughts, triggered ultimately by interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean on the other side of the world, struck the Nile Valley and toppled the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt. Fifteen hundred years ago, the civilization of the Moche warrior-priests in northern Peru collapsed under the impact of droughts followed by torrential rains and flooding. A drought cycle gave the coup de gr^ace to a Mayan civilization that placed great stress on the fragile Central American lowlands. "The lesson," concludes archaeologist Brian Fagan, "is simple: The ultimate equation of history balances the needs of the population and the carrying capacity of the land. When carrying capacity is exceeded and technology or social engineering cannot restore the balance, all humanity can do is disperse — if there is the space to do so."
There is no American exceptionalism. Charting the creation and subsequent decline of both Cheyenne and settler society in 19th-century Colorado, historian Elliott West says simply: "Everything passes, … no one escapes." It’s a simple reminder of the human condition and a simple lesson from history. But it’s a lesson lost in American history if we look on Jamestown, Santa Fe, the American Revolution, and the Lewis and Clark expedition as opening chapters in a story of nation building and progress, a story that, because it is our story, we assume will be different from everybody else’s. It won’t. The cycles of history will continue as they always have, and, ultimately, the only truly exceptional thing about American history will be that it happened in America.
Colin Calloway is the author of One Vast Winter Count (University of Nebraska Press), from which this essay was taken. He is a professor of history and chair of the Native American Studies program at Dartmouth College.