Europeans had been searching for an easy passage to the Far East since the fall of Constantinople in 1453 cut off their supply of spices. Columbus, and soon many others, realized that the East could be reached by sailing west, but they found an inconvenient continent—America—barring the way. It was not long before a search began for a way around, or perhaps even through, this land. Although George Vancouver’s epic survey of the Northwest Coast in 1792–1794 would finally put to rest the notion of a Northwest Passage in temperate latitudes, men still felt sure that there must be a river route to the Pacific—if only they could find it.
When French explorers began probing the Great Plains at the beginning of the eighteenth century, they heard tantalizing tales from the Indians, stories of long rivers and not-too-distant seas always just over the horizon. Certainly there were great rivers and large lakes —even a salt lake—and it was an effortless leap of the mind to interpret the native stories as what an explorer wanted to hear, an easy westward path.
One of the earliest and most enduring stories was that of a long and straight river flowing from the center of the continent to the western ocean, the River of the West. This concept had the benefit of some base in reality, in that there was a long river flowing to the west, the Columbia. And myths with an element of truth are often quite tenacious, for they are harder to disprove.
The first apparent documentation of the River of the West was the account of Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan (or La Hontan). His book, Nouveaux voyages…dans l’Amérique septentrionale… [New Voyages in North America], published in 1703, was an account of an expedition he said he had made down a mysterious, westward-flowing river that was a tributary of the Upper Mississippi. Quite how it could be westward-flowing was not made clear. This he called the Rivière Longue, or Long River. Lahontan did leave from Fort Michilimackinac (in the strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan) in September 1688 and wandered around for the next eight months or so. It was during this period that he claimed to have found his Long River. It seems clear now that Lahontan’s work was a mixture of fact, fiction, misinterpretation of native reports, exaggeration, and just plain lies, but nevertheless, no one knew this at the time, and his book was enormously influential.
His book went through a number of editions in several languages. On his map, the geography east of the Mississippi is reasonably accurate. To the west, the map is largely fabricated. Lahontan may perhaps have heard Indian reports of a west bank tributary of the Mississippi, even of a misplaced Missouri River, yet that river is also shown on the map. And he may have been told of the Snake or the Columbia, true westward-flowing rivers, but on the other side of the mountain barrier of the Rockies. But Lahontan claimed to have journeyed down his long river and illustrated it in considerable detail.
The idea that there was another great river west of the Missouri did not seem unreasonable, and the Long River began to show up on maps as fact. As historian Bernard De Voto wrote in his 1952 classic The Course of Empire, “the Long River was art but it ministered to desire.” Explorers and their sponsors alike wanted this river and were able to overlook a few inconsistencies to believe it. Other nations incorporated the fiction into their maps. It appeared, for example, in Daniel Coxe’s map showing his claim to the territory of Carolana, originally granted by Charles II in 1629 and published in his book A description of the English province of Carolana in 1722.
Forty years after Lahontan’s supposed expedition, another French explorer, Pierre Gaultier de la Varennes et de La Vérendrye, and his sons were searching for a River of the West along the Assiniboine River, now in Manitoba, Canada. He was acting in part on a map that had been drawn for him by the Cree Auchagach, which showed that the string of lakes and rivers from Lake Superior through Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg continued to a western sea. La Vérendrye showed the sea on his maps as Mer Inconnuë —Unknown Sea. He did not find his easy way west, but his sons roamed the plains of what is today South Dakota, burying a lead plate claiming the land for Louis XV, which was found in 1913. But that is all the La Vérendryes left; in a complete reversal of the Lahontan situation, no book was written and accounts are derived only from their reports to the French government.
Later, a book that was completely fictitious contributed to the illusion. This was the Histoire de la Louisiane… of Le Page du Pratz, published in 1758, although Dumont de Montigny appropriated the story in his 1753 Mémoires historiques sur la Louisiane. Du Pratz had been with Jean-Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville at the founding of New Orleans in 1718 and had lived in Louisiana for sixteen years. He thought he would have a little fun with history. He invented a character named Moncacht-Apé, one of whose improbable adventures took him down a large and long river, this time called La Belle Rivière, the Beautiful River, towards the Pacific. Supposedly close to the ocean, Moncacht-Apé learned that white men regularly skirmished with the natives, and he even took part in one such incident. Again, at the time no one could tell fact from this fiction, and the book reinforced the idea that such a river did exist, flowing to the west. After all, it seemed so reasonable.
So reasonable in fact that it is still believed by some today. As an author who has written at length on Alexander Mackenzie, the first explorer to cross the continent to the Pacific (in 1793), I have been challenged several times by readers insisting that Moncacht-Apé, not Mackenzie, was the first. I then have had to explain the difference between documented historical fact and fiction.
The next episode in the River of the West story was also influential because of a book. In 1766, Robert Rogers, an army captain who was keen on finding a Northwest Passage by land or by sea sent Jonathan Carver to explore the “uncharted western territories.”
Carver traveled only as far west as the Minnesota River, a tributary of the Upper Mississippi, but he wrote a book, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North-America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768, which was another major bestseller, going through no less than thirty editions in several languages. The book contained two maps. One, of the western Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi drainage basin, showed at its western end a little lake with a river leading west, with the notation Heads of Origan. The other, a general map of North America, showed this river labeled first as Mantons R. and then as River of the West. It flowed to the Pacific through a channel Discovered by Aguilar and was connected to the strait Discovered by Juan de Fuca. Here, then, was an incipient indication of the Columbia River. But, of course, Carver depicted the river flowing from the longitude of Lake Winnipeg, halfway across the continent. It sprang from the region in which rivers flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, and Hudson Bay also arose, again conforming to expectations and contradicting fact.
Geographical experts by the end of the eighteenth century thought that the continent was terrestrially symmetrical, with an interior “height of land” somewhere in the west from which the major rivers of the continent fanned out to flow to each of its shores. The discovery, in 1792, of the Columbia River by Robert Gray in his ship Columbia Rediviva—from whence the river derived its name—merely lent credence to this idea; here was where the westward-flowing River of the West entered the Pacific. Thus the idea was that the Columbia, the Mississippi, the St. Lawrence, and the Nelson Rivers flowed from a central point, with head-waters within thirty miles of each other. Alexander Mackenzie’s 1793 first crossing of North America (north of Mexico) did not detract from this theory because he traveled north of where the height of land was supposed to be.
The transcontinental journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1804 to 1806 finally put an end to the common height-of-land concept. Following the longest of the Long Rivers, the Missouri, to its source, they found no easy route west and in place of a modest “height of land” they found the Rocky Mountains, which tried their resources to cross. But cross they did, finding on the other side what they had searched for, a westward-flowing river. Here was not a River of the West, but the Columbia. Lewis and Clark’s book, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. Performed during the years 1804–5–6, published after much delay in 1814, is probably the most famous and the most sought after exploration book of all.