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Their story remains one of the seminal narratives of the American experience, as stirring as it is familiar: Two hundred years ago this month, on commission from President Thomas Jefferson, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out with a 31-man Corps of Discovery from a river encampment just outside of St. Louis. Their mission: to travel up the Missouri River in search of a navigable route to the Pacific, bolstering along the way America's claim to a virgin wilderness called Louisiana.
For a time feared lost, Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis 28 months later. They were instantly hailed as heroes, conquerors of an unknown land. The accolades were richly deserved. But was it really the case, as best-selling historian Steven Ambrose memorably wrote, that "not since Columbus and Cook had there been so much that was new"? And did they really, as a Time magazine special edition put it: "Brave the unknown waters of the Missouri to chart America's future"?
Not exactly, says W. Raymond Wood, an emeritus professor of anthropology at MU.
Ray Wood has spent much of his 40-year academic career documenting the legacy of Native Americans who lived in, and the dozens of early explorers, trappers and traders who ventured through, the vast Missouri River watershed. His latest book, Prologue to Lewis and Clark: The Mackay and Evans Expedition (University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), describes an important but mostly forgotten 1795-97 journey by two men from the latter group, James Mackay and John Thomas Evans, both British-born agents of the Spanish crown.
According to Wood, Ambrose was hardly alone in over-selling the novelty of Lewis and Clark's push to the Pacific. "Unless you really pay attention to history," he says, "you'd never know these early explorers even existed. I was listening to a program a year or two ago in which a prominent Eastern historian began by saying, 'When Lewis and Clark set off up the unexplored Missouri River. …' I just cringed. Lewis and Clark were carrying maps for the first full year of their expedition."
Those maps, Wood goes on to say, were drawn by Mackay, by then a prominent resident of St. Charles. On January 10, 1803, Mackay even stopped by the Corps' Illinois staging post to chat with Clark.
Though Wood discounts it, some historians believe Jefferson used a set of detailed instructions from Mackay and Evans' journey to compose his orders to Lewis and Clark. One of them, Laurie Winn Carlson, is an historian from Cheney, Wash. Her new book, Seduced By the West: Jefferson's America and the Lure of the Land Beyond the Mississippi (Ivan R. Dee, 2003), describes America's early efforts to win control of Western lands. "It's my claim that [Jefferson] did, in fact, supply Lewis with Mackay material. Certainly Dr. Wood has delved deeper into the topic of Mackay than I did, but in my research that's what I've found," she says.
Regardless of exactly what Jefferson knew and when he knew it, all agree that America's third president would have been acutely aware of Spain's most famous living explorer, James Mackay.