early american natural history

Defending Early American Identity: Observation over Theory


Wilson and Westward Expansion


As the colonies became a developing American nation, Americans began to see a natural history of America as one of the great national projects.


The most famous explorers of America's natural landscape, as well as its flora and fauna, were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who in their 1804  expedition explored the territories west of the Mississippi River.  Lewis collected sketches of many of the animals the two encountered on their expedition.  However, Lewis and Clark were known primarily for their survey of the land (creating new maps of the region) and their interactions with various Native American cultures throughout their travels.  The exploration of the animals, birds and plants of the expedition was often left up to others.


While Lewis and Clark were tasked in Jefferson's appeal to the Congress with finding trade routes and establishing better trade relations with Indian tribes, Jefferson's letter of instructions to Lewis also asked about "objects worthy of notice" such as:


     the animals of the country generally, & especially those

     not known in the U.S.  the remains & accounts of any which

     may be deemed rare or extinct;

     the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly

     metals, limestone, pit coal & saltpetre;

     salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last

     & such circumstances as may indicate their character;

     volcanic appearances;

     climate as characterized by the thermometer, by the

     proportion of rainy, cloudy  & clear days, by lightening, hail,

     snow, ice, by the access & recess of frost, by the winds,

     prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular

     plants put forth or lose their flowers, or leaf, times of

     appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects. 1



The gathering of natural history information about the Louisiana Territory was as much a part of manifest destiny as was the hope for trade.  It can even be argued that Jefferson's interest in the natural flora and fauna of the region is a key indicator of his desire for the area to be settled as well as held for trade purposes.  Discovery of natural resources and environment went hand in hand with settlement.  The project of moving westward was part of the exploration of, to some degree exploitation of, and settlement prospects for the natural resources (vegetable, animal, and mineral) of the Louisiana Territory.


To aid in this gathering of information on the natural sciences, Lewis was sent to learn natural history, particularly map making, geology and botany before setting off on his journey. 2  As he did so, he would have encountered the fact that most natural history books circulating in the united states before 1800 were copies of English or French books. 3  Few original American books on American land, plants, animals, or native peoples existed.


Alexander Wilson (1776-1813) was a pioneer in this area.  He created both the text and illustrations for his book American Ornithology and chose to have his book printed in the United States instead of in England or France.  In fact, he advertised to his readers that the materials used to create the volumes were sourced in the United States. 4  This type of pride in American production communicated that Americans were able as a new nation to compete with the production capacity of the Old World, and distinguished the new nation from its previous colonial status.  Colonies were sources of raw materials. Nations produced finished goods. Books were one of these goods.


The degree to which the project of natural history and of early manifest destiny were intertwined can be seen in one of Alexander Wilson's illustrations for his American Ornithology. The image of the magpie was drawn from a specimen brought back by Meriwether Lewis’s travels in the Louisiana Territory.  Many of Lewis' specimens were deposited in the Peale Museum in Philadelphia or given over to the care of the Philosophical Society. 5  This magpie was accessed at the Peale Museum.  The illustration presents a farm house and field with farmers at work on the distant horizon, something that could not yet be seen in the natural terrain of the Louisiana Purchase.  The faint image of the house speaks to the westward expansion ideals of Thomas Jefferson.  Wilson wrote in the preface to one later volume of “that happy period”

When the population of this immense western Republic will have diffused itself over every acre of ground fit for the comfortable habitation of man— when farms, villages, towns and glittering cities, thick as the stars in an winter’s evening, overspread the face of our beloved country, and every hill, valley and stream has its favorite name, its native flocks and rural inhabitants; then, not a warbler shall flit through our thickets but its name, its notes and habits will be familiar to all; repeated in their sayings, and celebrated in their village songs. 6

Wilson, as an ornithologist in early America looked forward to the time when the habitat of the birds he examined would be invaded by settlers, a very different point of view from our contemporary concerns about shrinking habitats for all types of species of the Louisiana Territory.


Suggested Activities:

Compare the image of the Magpie above in Wilson's drawing to the photograph of the Lunar Landing in 1969.  In discussion ask what similar messages are conveyed by these image? In what ways was the Space Race similar to Manifest Destiny? Could it be argued that the Space Race is a type of American expansionism?  Are there  other contemporary examples of American expansionism and images promoting these which come to mind?



1. Thomas Jefferson,  "Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis," The Jefferson Monticello, accessed June 25, 2014. http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/jeffersons-instructions-to-meriwether-lewis

2. Ibid.

3. Ann Shelby Blum,  Picturing Nature American Nineteenth Century Zoological Illustration, (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1993), 18.

3. Ibid., 45

4. Ibid., 45

5. Jefferson, "Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis."

6. Alexander Wilson  and George Ord (vols 8 & 9),  American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of the Birds of the United States: Illustrated with Plates, Engraved and Colored from Original Drawings Taken from Nature, volume 5  (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1808-14), viii.


Arkansas Frameworks

Strand: Early United States

Content Standard 1: Students shall examine the causes and effects of migration patterns in the early history of North America. (EUS.1.AH.9)Explain how the concept of Manifest Destiny led to westward expansion: Louisiana Purchase

Content Standard 3: Students shall investigate the causes and effects of war in the early history of the United States.

(EUS.3.AH.1) Analyze the causes and effects of the American Revolution: political, social, economic, geographic



This site  was created through a fellowship from the William Reese Company

and completed through the  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Library