past exhibitions

Lewis & Clark: Rivers, Edens, Empires

November 14, 2004 - January 9, 2005

Rivers, Edens, Empires presented a century of exploration that features the expedition of the Corps of Discovery as the culminating moment in the quest to connect North America by means of a waterway passage. Like so many other exploration stories, the Lewis and Clark journey was shaped by the search for navigable rivers, inspired by the quest for Edens, and driven by competition for empire. Not only was the exhibition rich in Lewis and Clark related material, it also held impressive collections of other important expeditions including those led by Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, Charles Wilkes, and John Frémont.

Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America brought together dozens of disparate understandings of place. Examples of maps that illustrate different geographic perspectives included the exhibit’s opening map by British cartographer John Mitchell. Published in 1755 on the eve of the French and Indian War, Mitchell’s map failed to acknowledge the French claims in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, as defined by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). Instead, he showed individual English colonial claims extending west over the Alleghenies to the western margin of the map. A note found near the edge of the map illustrated the prevailing belief in the geographical concept of continental symmetry: “Missouri River is reckoned to run Westward to the Mountains of New Mexico, as far as the Ohio does eastward.” Over and over again, European explorers were to find that North America is not symmetrical—the gentle, rolling Allegheny Mountains of the East were not echoed by the formidable Rocky Mountains.

The second section of the exhibition featured a striking comparison between a map originally drawn by William Clark and a portion of a map drawn by Mandan Indian Sitting Rabbit of the same geographic area. Sitting Rabbit (I Ki Ha Wa He, also known as Little Owl) had been asked to create a map of the Missouri River from the South Dakota-North Dakota Boundary to the mouth of Yellowstone River by an official at the North Dakota Historical Society in 1906. Although he used a Missouri River Commission map as a base, Sitting Rabbit recorded a traditional Indian perspective of the river’s geography, especially noting former Mandan village sites with earthen lodges in a pictographic map more than twenty-eight feet in length.