CRM Journal

Media Review

The Ethnography of Lewis and Clark: Native American Objects and the American Quest for Commerce and Science

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University; accessed May 29, 2003, and January 13, 2004.


2004 marks the bicentennial commemoration of the westward journey of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the members of the Corps of North West Discovery. To commemorate this event, Harvard University's Peabody Museum offers an online ethnographic account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Ethnography of Lewis and Clark: Native American Objects and the American Quest for Commerce and Science website focuses extensively on material artifacts gathered during the journey and provides a "valuable lens through which to investigate the history of early ethnographic collecting, display, and museum building in the United States." It complements the Peabody's exhibit, From Nation to Nation: Examining Lewis and Clark's Indian Collection.

The website presents comprehensive documentation of the expedition from its origins in 1803 to the 2004 commemoration. Co-authored by Rubie S. Watson and Castle McLaughlin, the site's Introduction provides a concise summary of the expedition's mission and a brief historiography of the journey itself. It also provides insights into methodological resources, such as field journals, vocabulary lists, direct observations, direct questioning, and illustrations. In addition, the Introduction highlights material artifacts, such as hide clothing, woven hats, bows, and arrows; and the wealth of cultural traditions investigated during the expedition, such as technology, tribal political organization, ceremonial smoking, food preparation, economic organization, and gender roles.

The Objects section is exceptional in its rich details and presentation. Twelve items from the Peabody's Lewis and Clark collection are featured, each with at least one image and a short narrative. Each narrative frames the featured object by describing its origins and cultural significance. The narratives address cultural practices such as gift exchanges, flood plain horticulture, and military battles. Detailed views of the objects allow for a greater appreciation of the objects' rich colors and textures. Quotes and illustrations from the expedition's field journals provide contemporary ethnographic data.

The site's Map section helps the viewer visualize the routes between Missouri and Washington. The Resources section provides links to other sites on Lewis and Clark, such as films, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and a list of suggested reading and references.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition website is easy to navigate and user-friendly. It offers high-quality, high-resolution images for many of the objects featured at a click of the mouse. The site's technical accessibility and straight-forward language appeals to a broad audience—from travelers wishing to learn more about the expedition's route to students and their parents, educators, scholars, and cultural preservationists.

Lewis and Clark presented the ethnographic objects collected either directly to President Thomas Jefferson, who authorized the expedition, or to the Charles Wilson Peale Museum in Philadelphia, which is the oldest public museum in the United States and was the national repository prior to the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. Jefferson exhibited some his objects in his "Indian Hall" at Monticello and transferred others to the Peale Museum. Upon Jefferson's death, the rest of his items were sent to the Peale. By 1899, 1,400 of these valuable ethnographic resources made their way from the Peale Museum to the Peabody Museum.

Through a creative and scholarly blending of text and visual representations, the website provides insight into an awe-inspiring expedition to the northwestern United States.

Tracy R. Rone
Emory University