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The Jefferson peace medal was given to Indians to establish good relations during the journey. Click on the image to see the other side of the coin.

Establishing Indian Relations

Despite the fact that the United States was a young country at the time of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's journey west, its government already understood the power of politics.

Thomas Jefferson believed that the United States—including the American West—would be an "Empire of Liberty" in which all would be united as one people. He claimed to be patiently waiting for the day when the entire continent would be "speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws." Ideally, the Corps of Discovery would play a key role in achieving this ambition.

The young explorers of the Corps not only intended to build a peaceful and commercial relationship with the Indians, but they also wanted to establish a diplomacy involving negotiations and treaties. The negotiations, however, mainly involved the domestication of Indian tribes—treaties in which the natives agreed to stop fighting among one another and join forces with Americans. Ultimately, Jefferson wanted to establish friendly relations with the Indians so white settlers could continue to progress through Western lands.

Jefferson envisioned the Indians as noble savages—men conditioned by the harsh state of their environment—who could, with proper training, become fully functional U.S. citizens and farmers. Thus, he wanted Lewis and Clark to inform the Indians that their new "Great Father" urged them to not only participate in his system of commerce but also make peace with one another and with the white settlers.

When Jefferson needed funds from Congress to support the Lewis and Clark expedition, Levi Lincoln, his attorney general, suggested that the president use the image of the Indians as a marketing tool of sorts. With the New England clergy weighing on his mind (because of their influence in Congress), Lincoln advised presenting the expedition as a spiritual mission, an opportunity to encourage the savage Indians to embrace religion. Once the expedition gained approval, Jefferson included his ideas in his final instructions. He commanded Lewis to become educated on the Indian concept of religion, "as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize & instruct them."

The president also provided Lewis with instructions on how to represent the United States government. First, the Corps was supposed to inform the Indians of the young country's military and technological prowess by exhibiting objects of the industrial revolution, such as compasses and magnets. Then the explorers were to present the natives with gifts and trinkets—beads, tobacco, knives, mirrors, and other items. In addition to the gifts, the Indian chiefs were to receive a peace medal that featured Jefferson's portrait on one side and two hands joined in amity on the other. Following this exchange, Lewis and Clark were to deliver a written speech to the Indians, a portion of which read, "Children, the great chief of the Seventeen Great nations of America, impelled by his parental regard for his newly adopted children on the troubled waters, has sent us out to clear the road…and make it a road of peace."

In return for their commitment to the United States, the Indians would be a part of the profitable commerce established by the Americans. They could partake in the novel inventions of the industrial revolution, and then Lewis ensured that Jefferson would provide the natives with whatever they wanted upon the Corps' return home.

Lewis and Clark even resorted to threats as the means by which to achieve peace. For example, Lewis told the Oto Indians that they should obey his orders "lest by one false step you should bring upon your nation the displeasure of your great father, who could consume you as the fire consumes the grass of the plains." In short, if the Indians chose to rebel against the Corps' requests, Jefferson would see to it that no white man—ultimately those who traded with the Indians—would ever visit the Indian tribes again.

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