Document Type

Thesis - University Access Only

Award Date


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department / School



As the bicentennial of the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark expedition approaches, recent attention has focused on the field notes written by captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during the expedition. While popular treatments of the subject, like Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan's 1997 documentary The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, and historian Stephen Ambrose's 1996 study, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, examine the expedition as a heroic and patriotic feat of American exploration, little attention has been given to the status of the expedition field notes as documents justifying and promoting the imperial designs of the young American republic. Relying primarily upon the examples set forth by analysts of colonial discourse, such as Edward Said, Mary Louise Pratt, and David Spurr, I will examine the rhetoric of the Lewis and Clark field notes as well as Thomas Jefferson's "Instructions to Captain Lewis" regarding the expedition, which served as the formal impetus for the expedition and the expeditionary field notes. In The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism. Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration, David Spurr identifies twelve tropes that pervade the writings of imperial and colonial authorities, whether colonial administrators, journalists from Western countries, or travel writers from the West representing non-Western peoples and places. Using Spurr's paradigm, I will identify several of these tropes in Lewis and Clark’s writings about the peoples and places they encounter on the first leg of their trek to the Pacific. The field notes covering this portion of the journey- from near St. Louis to the great bend in the Missouri River north of Bismarck. North Dakota-offer a glimpse at the vast expanses of western land that Lewis and Clark, sharing Jefferson's world-view, mapped for eventual American colonization. Written during a time of intense international competition for land and natural resources in the trans-Missouri West, the Lewis and Clark journals exhibit many of Spurr's tropes of colonial discourse. Written also as documents to both justify the enormous acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and to guide Jefferson and subsequent American presidents in planning for the use of this vast area, the journals helped to justify increased American imperial designs throughout the continent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition shaped American perceptions of the trans-Missouri West and helped to establish American authority to inhabit and control this region.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Clark, William, 1770-1838 -- Diaries -- History and criticism
Lewis, Meriwether, 1774-1809 -- Diaries -- History and criticism
Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806)
Imperialism in literature
United States -- Territorial expansion



Number of Pages



South Dakota State University