Out of the Past
History Lessons


The Mackay and Evans Expedition

If Spain had fared better in its 1796 war with Great Britain, or if Napoleon's fortunes hadn't soured in 1803, the team of Mackay and Evans might be celebrated today instead of Lewis and Clark.

Like the Mercury astronauts who rode rockets into space in the 1960s following in the wake of test pilots like Chuck Yeager who had braved the edges of the atmosphere months earlier, the 1804-6 Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark followed a course previously blazed by James Mackay and John Evans.

The first 700 miles of Lewis and Clark's journey, in fact, was made following a detailed map of the Upper Missouri River surveyed by the 25-year-old Evans. And much of the Corp's knowledge of Indian tribes and their customs came from Mackay, the most widely traveled and experienced fur trader in America at the time.

"The eyewitness maps made by Mackay and Evans provided the Corps of Discovery with extraordinarily precise ‘road maps' of the geography that they would cover for the first full year of their expedition, for these charts accurately showed the course of the Missouri and every significant tributary of the river as far as the Mandan villages," writes historian W. Raymond Wood in "Prologue to Lewis & Clark: The Mackay and Evans Expedition". 

"The journal narratives by Mackay and Evans provided supplementary data for Lewis and Clark, not the least of which were details on some of the Indian tribes they would meet en route."

Like Lewis and Clark, the mission of the Mackay and Evans expedition was to explore the Missouri River system and find a route to the Pacific Coast. They were likewise instructed to map and gather information about the unexplored region and its peoples. But unlike the explorers who would follow them, Mackay and Evans were employed by the Spanish government, which owned the Louisiana territory at that time, and their mission was also to establish trading posts among the Indians and keep British fur traders away.

The Mackay and Evans Expedition, which began in 1795, was expected to last for six years. But within two years the explorers were back where they started from, in St. Louis, their mission cut short by their employer. Spanish Upper Louisiana was soon to be acquired by France and then, three years later, by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

"Lewis and Clark were dispatched to the Pacific; their explorations became national news, and they were transformed into national heroes," Wood explains. "The accomplishments of Mackay and Evans were nearly forgotten as the fame of the American explorers gripped the new nation." 

Lewis and Clark went much farther and accomplished far more that Mackay and Evans, of course, but they were also well supported by a government that had purchased and was determined to hold on to the territories they explored.

For a time, Mackay and Evans were famous. Almost everyone in St. Louis and across much of the American interior knew of them and their groundbreaking expedition. Their maps and journals were praised and utilized by many, including William Clark of the Corps of Discovery.

Today, the trailblazing expedition of 1795-97 is rarely mentioned or acknowledged. Only in the exquisite maps they published, the place names they established and in the footnotes of historians do the names Mackay and Evans still emerge from out of the past.

Prologue to Lewis and Clark
The Mackay and EvansExpedition 
by Raymond W. Wood
University of Oklahoma Press, 2002

Before Lewis & Clark: Documents Ilustrating the  History of the Missouri, 1785-1804 edited by A.P. Nasatir
University of Oklahoma Press, 2002

"Lewis and Clark were but the ones who fulfilled the dreams of the French and Spanish fur traders and explorers who had spread out over the vast Trans-Mississippi area and had reached the mountains and had perhaps even traveled beyond them before the turn of the eighteenth century," writes Abraham Nasatir in the introduction to his landmark documentary history.

Originally published in 1952 in two thick volumes, Nasatir gathered and carefully annotated 239 mostly forgotten and unpublished documents on this earliest years of Missouri River exploration. He combined these with an introductory narrative that covers the years of French and Spanish rule just prior to the Louisiana Purchase.

"Early explorations of this important region by Spanish, French, and English adventurers, soldiers, fur traders, and missionaries form one of the most fascinating and least known chapters of our country's history." Nasatir explains.

This new edition of Nasatir's work, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, packs the narrative and all the documents into a single paperback volume and includes fold-out reproductions of five  maps of the Missouri River dating from 1728 to 1802. 

This Far-Off Wild Land
This Far-Off Wild Land

The Upper Missouri Letters of Andrew Dawson
by Lesley Wischmann and Andrew Erskine Dawson
The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2013

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