Sweet, Civilized, and Sapped


The Forgotten Expedition, 1804-1805:The Louisiana Purchase Journals of Dunbar and Hunter

If professional historians have accomplished anything in the last generation, it has been to bring an environmental sensibility to the forefront of historical analysis. This has been fertile change. The lens through which Americans of historical importance viewed the landscape, not to mention the terms they used to describe what they saw, cuts to the core of human motivation far better than a boilerplate political speech or a rhetorically bloated declaration. When John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, promised to establish a “city on a hill” in the wilderness of eastern Massachusetts, or when the 19th-century pioneer Solon Robinson described the first Midwestern prairie he saw as “a mine of wealth,” or when Frederick Jackson Turner surmised the downfall of democracy based on the closing of the frontier, something fundamental about the American character crystallized. Figurehead historians will reliably churn out tomes on the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, and war, but a growing number of the profession’s archive rats have seized on the environment as the starting point for understanding American history in refreshingly earthy terms.

The Forgotten Expedition book jacket

This trend toward environmental history makes The Forgotten Expedition, 1804-1805 a well-timed addition to the ceaseless literature on the Louisiana Purchase. William Dunbar and George Hunter were the Louis and Clark of the South. At the behest of Thomas Jefferson, they undertook their “Grand Expedition” up the Ouachita River through Louisiana and into southern Arkansas to record the region’s flora, fauna, weather, geography, and the habits of its indigenous people. Their trip (which coincided with a severe cold snap) lasted a little over three months and culminated in the scientists’ welcome arrival at the “hot springs,” a place currently known as “the American spa.”

The journey was not epic, and journals do not always lend themselves to easy reading. Interminable descriptions of minerals and rock consistency, for example, are compounded by the fact that Hunter and Dunbar kept separate diaries, wrote about the same topics, and frequently copied snippets from each other. Reading them to grasp the historical narrative can be redundant. Nevertheless, perhaps for a reason the editors never intended, they’re worth plowing through. After all, when you consider that it’s possible today to stay at luxury hotels in Hot Springs, Arkansas, that pipe water from the springs into your marble bathtub, and then compare that fact with Dunbar and Hunter’s observation that only a few haggard cabins sat around the once-lonely springs, the pace of environmental change in the United States becomes an issue begging for explanation. These journals, if read properly, offer important clues as to why we as a nation have allowed the transition from cabin to luxury high-rise to happen as if the change was as natural and inexorable as the jet stream.

The environmental approach requires a little context. The earliest European migrants to North America—French, Dutch, Spanish, and English—marveled at the resources they encountered. Dense forests, rivers, and oceans teeming with fish, a landscape rich with embedded iron ore, woods crawling with game—all these factors made the Europeans collectively drool with greed. They also inspired a loaded question: Why hadn’t this cornucopia of wealth been exploited?

More than any kind of preconceived racial notions, this question shaped the European view that the Native Americans were hopeless savages deserving either coerced enlightenment or outright extermination. Europeans proceeded to denude the environment of its resources so thoroughly that over the course of a few generations, they removed almost 90 percent of the Northeast’s forest cover. Today, as a result of these efforts, there is not a single patch of old-growth forest in Connecticut. Salmon was once so abundant that settlers used it to fertilize crops. (When was the last time you’ve had wild New England salmon?) Beaver were hunted (for fur to line hats) so thoroughly in the 17th century that colonial mill owners had to start building man-made dams to replace the ones that the beaver once maintained. This litany of environmental degradation was the result of people making bad environmental decisions in the name of progress. They were decisions, moreover, integral to the development of American capitalism and, by extension, the development of American freedom.

Hunter and Dunbar quickly reveal how the exploitative approach to the North American environment, as well as the racial ideology supporting it, continued to infect the early republic. On November 11, 1804, Dunbar encountered a group of Creek and Washita Indians living along the Ouachita River. Here is what he said about them in his journal: “These people content themselves with making corn barely sufficient for making bread during the year; in this manner they always remain extremely poor; some few who have conquered their habits of indolence (which are always a consequence of the Indian mode of life) and addicted themselves to agriculture, live more comfortably and taste a little of the sweets of civilized life.” There’s a transcendent historical truth somewhere in here, and I wish the editors had done more in their perfunctory introduction to tease it out, but the gist of it has something to do with the instinctual association of “indolence” with failure to produce for an invisible market.

Granted, enjoying “the sweets of civilized life” sounds like a harmless enough goal. In reality, those sweets required an environmentally myopic vision that today is too often, and too easily, interpreted as rugged individualism. Dunbar and Hunter perhaps deservedly come off as a couple of backcountry badasses. They endure the elements, they kill their own food, they don’t complain, they confront the “savages” without hesitation. From the environmentalist perspective it’s clear that their interest in the natural world only extended to how it could serve their material needs. A tangle of grapevines suggested that the surrounding hills will “reward the labors of an expert Vigneron.” The proliferation of bears might have satiated the communal palette, but what really mattered was the bear’s oil, “which at New Orleans is always of ready sale.” Acorns did not inspire an appreciation of tremendous oak copses, or a common food source for Native Americans, but rather the telling observation that they were “fattening for hogs.” The “foliage of the hickory and the oak” elicited not comments on the region’s natural beauty, but solicitations for “the Naturalist who directs his researches to the discovery of new objects for the use of the Dyer.” The “white tenacious clay” along the banks was “fit for the potter’s ware.” Rocks were not even rocks, they’re future mill stones.

Am I making too much of the explorers’ tendency to see final products instead of natural formations? In light of Dunbar’s warning that “we must beware of presuming to set bounds to the power of nature,” Dunbar and Hunter’s keen perceptions seem to strike a sound chord of innovation rather than evoke the insidious specter of environmental exploitation. What’s critical to understand, though, is that Dunbar and Hunter are rapacious observers who work from the assumption that one does not produce for subsistence purposes, but rather for explicitly commercial intentions. The editors—who work as historians and museum directors—might have done more to bring out this motivation so deeply embedded in the journals. There is little doubt that, like the first settlers on the East Coast, these backcountry explorers were commercially minded men who were carefully packaging the landscape for Mr. Jefferson in a way that highlighted its great potential as a marketplace, not a wilderness. While striking Franklinesque poses of scientific inquiry, Dunbar and Hunter shared the mentality of a common land developer. In this sense, they foretell the future more than they shed light on the past.

Nowhere was their emerging capitalistic mindset more pronounced than in the explorers’ descriptions of the soil. “The superstratum,” writes Dunbar, “is of blackish brown color from 8 to 12 inches deep, lying upon a yellowish basis, the whole intermixed with some stone and gravel.” “The land appears rich,” agreed Hunter, a testament to “the work of ages.” Dunbar again: “The land here is of excellent quality, being a rich black mold to the depth of a foot, under which there is a friable loam of a brownish liver color.” Dunbar and Hunter had virtually nothing to say about the native grasses that not only grew in this soil, but kept it healthy. It’s what they envisioned doing with this rich soil that really mattered. The landscape, as Dunbar saw it, “will itself become good soil when broken up and exposed to the influences of the elements.” The fields of grass were not the basis for a diversified system of production that the Washita and Creeks had achieved, but rather places that “lie handsomely for cultivation.” Cultivation of what? Hunter had the answer, and it was a prophetic one: “The soil … is tolerably good for cotton, wheat, Corn, &cc.”

At the time, no one could have appreciated the import of this short, seemingly harmless list. Little could have known how dramatically the land west of the Mississippi would quickly be transformed once Hunter’s predictions of staple-crop cultivation came to fruition throughout the 19th century. Alas, western pioneers stripped much of the land that the explorers describe of its native grasses, and—as their forbears had done back east after removing old growth forests—replaced the grass with large stands of merchantable crops—mostly corn, wheat, and cotton, but also vegetables, sugar beets and other tubors, and expansive orchards. The rationale behind this transition responded, as it had in the previous century, to market forces. It was (or it was thought) more profitable for farmers to practice monocultural agriculture and ship massive loads of a single crop to urban markets than it was to practice diversified agriculture serving local needs. The lush natural grasses, given these imperatives, had to be either exploited or removed. For a time they were exploited—mostly to graze cattle. Soon this option was swamped by a market logic that rewarded removal. This meant the concentration of livestock into confined feedlots. Farmers pursuing this option eventually reasoned that it was cheaper and more efficient to fatten livestock with corn than to allow them free range across native prairie grass. Hence, the golden sheaves’ rise to prominence as the native grasses (comprising what one observer called “earth oceans”) retreated to the margins of cultivation. Around this transformation an agricultural philosophy that rewarded specialization over diversity, quantity over quality, and short-term gain over long-term ecological stability, fell into place. The philosophy is still with us today.

But its manifestations are luxury hotels in Arkansas with water from the hot springs piping through their tubes. Dunbar and Hunter would undoubtedly have appreciated such a tasty tidbit of the sweet and civilized life, especially after three hard months out in the frigid elements. How they would have felt about the hotel being the only thing capable of growing out of soil that’s been trampled and depleted by cattle and staple crops is another matter altogether. We can read these journals—as we have read the Lewis and Clark journals—for a gee-whiz peek into a time when “the sweets of civilized life” were few and far between. More productively, we can read them for a deeper understanding of the mentality sanctioning the environmental destruction that has made those sweets integral to a whacked-out notion of progress.

James E. McWilliams’s second book, Building the Bay Colony, comes out in the spring. He is currently working on a book about the history of insect control in the United States.