top of page

Civil Reconnaissance on the Frontier

By Shafi Saiduddin and Robert Schafer


Civil considerations are important and continue to be a significant aspect of all military operations in complex operating environments in multiple domains. Civil considerations are characteristic of having influence upon state and non-state actors, failing or failed states, economic conditions, growth, and development, and a host of other nuances within the civil component that can alter the stability of the operating environment quickly, thus creating conditions that, if not addressed, could escalate tensions among state and non-state actors or erode legitimacy in existing civil institutions, which may have amplifiable effects within other operating environments. Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations, states that “Commanders must understand these complex influences and be prepared to successfully engage the civil component within their operational areas.”[i] Yet, there is complexity within this statement and need to qualify its meaning by asking a two-part question central to this article: 1) how do we define successful engagements of the civil component and 2) how effective are these engagements to our grand strategy considering that we are competing for the attention of these civil components with other state and non-state actors in resource-scarce, non-linear international systems? To provide some clarity, the Corps of Discovery will be examined as a case study within the context of great power competition across the American Frontier, highlighting interactions with indigenous populations as well as with other strong, foreign influencers, such as Britain, France, and Spain.

The term Great Power Competition is often conceptualized today as large-scale combat operations against a nation-state with similar conventional capabilities. However, America has engaged in competition continuously since its founding using a variety of elements of national power, and frequently through non-lethal means. The Corps of Discovery, popularly known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, is an example of a non-lethal, overt approach that could be characterized as political warfare and bears some similarity to the type of Defense Support to Expeditionary Diplomacy conducted by modern Civil Affairs forces.

Using the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a case study, we discuss the importance of civil considerations in planning the expedition, navigating the political and trade relationships among the native tribes and interactions with other foreign powers, and how these considerations tie into force protection strategies that ultimately led to the expedition’s success. Thus, the purpose of this article is to articulate that civil considerations inform, affect, and influences successful operational outcomes as well as with other policies at the strategic level, even if direct consideration isn’t as obvious to the casual observer as it would be to the civil considerations expert. Furthermore, the terms competition and great power competition are not synonymous. The former implies utilizing all instruments of its national power to leverage state and non-state actors to achieve its foreign policy goals, whereas the latter refers to an era where empires and great states jockeyed for power, wealth, and influence against one another. It should also be noted that at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, America was not considered a great power, but rather an emerging power in a contested environment. In a departure from traditional accounts of the expedition we will not describe it chronologically, but rather focus on analyzing the actions of the expedition in terms of modern concepts of reconnaissance, engagement, civil information management, influence operations, force protection, and sustainment, and relate these concepts to current special operations forces working in complex environments.

19th Century Great Power Competition

In 1803, America’s newly acquired Louisiana territory was contested ground. The early years of the new republic were characterized by a complex great power competition dynamic that involved Britain, France, and Spain. On the frontier, this competition often took place through engagement and trade with the indigenous population. Without large military forces or extensive civilian settlements, the great powers could only control this territory through trade and alliances. Britain adeptly integrated non-military aspects of national power, leveraging private companies like the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company and Northwest Company to further British policy goals. The Spanish likewise conducted trade with native tribes but were more concerned about keeping the territory unoccupied as a buffer zone against American expansion.[ii]

Economic competition was critical to asserting sovereignty over the new territory. In President Jefferson’s instructions to Captain Meriwether Lewis. He wrote: “The fur trade would require knowledge of the Indian tribes.” Jefferson instructed Lewis to learn the names of their nations and their numbers, the extent of their possessions, their relations with other tribes, their languages, traditions, monuments their occupations—whether agriculture, hunting or war—the implements they used for these activities, their food, clothing and housing, the diseases prevalent among them and the remedies they used, their laws and customs and—last on the list but first in importance—“articles of commerce they may need or furnish & to what extent.” He continued "In all your intercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit.”[iii] In a task familiar to modern CA Soldiers who have ever been involved in providing medical services to indigenous populations, Jefferson instructed Lewis to “Carry with you some matter of the kine pox, inform those of them with whom you may be, of its efficacy as a preservative from the small pox; and instruct & encourage them in the use of it. This may be especially done wherever you may winter.”[iv] President Jefferson went on to instruct Captain Lewis to arrange for a few chiefs to travel to Washington to meet with him, clarifying the explicit diplomatic tasks of the expedition.

The emphasis on reconnaissance and engagement was evident in organizing, planning, and equipping the expedition. Avoiding violent conflict would be the key to the success of the expedition. President Jefferson selected his former secretary Captain Meriwether Lewis for his temperament, intellect, endurance, and familiarity with Jefferson’s objective of contesting foreign interests.[v] Lewis selected William Clark based in part on his experience in conducting negotiations with the Indian tribes of the Ohio frontier. Lewis envisioned Clark as an equal co-captain in a departure from traditional military command structures.[vi] Equipment included large quantities of trade goods intended as gifts to facilitate engagements. The explorers also brought tobacco which served a ceremonial function while conducting engagements. Smoked in ornate pipe tomahawks, this practice was well known among many different tribes and was a key to fostering peaceful encounters despite language and cultural barriers.

Reconnaissance and Engagement

The Louisiana Territory can easily be described as a complex non-linear environment. It was populated by a wide variety of native civilizations with complex trade relationships and power dynamics. Native nations had their own cycles of competition and conflict, conducting raids on other tribes but also reaching accommodation for the purposes of trade. Trade relationships were also facilitated by the presence of European traders. In the absence of official diplomatic representatives, traders played a substantial role in establishing relationships with native nations. These traders often lived among the tribes and served the interests of their companies, their home nations, and the tribes they lived with. Adding to the complexity, trading companies often employed members of competing European nations, for example, French traders working for British companies.[vii] This ambiguity of alliance and enmity between indigenous peoples and traders alike illustrated the nuanced complexity of the networks the Corps would encounter. Understanding these relationships required planning and focus. Engagements could not be taken lightly and were central to all aspects of the expedition.

The Corps encountered two extensive and very different trade systems during their travels: the Northern Missouri trade network, which covered areas from St. Louis to the Continental Divide; and the Pacific-Plateau trading system, which began west of the Divide and continued to the Pacific Ocean. In the Northern Missouri network wild game, animal skins, and horses were exchanged for corn and wheat, as well as manufactured goods from British and French trading outposts.[viii] In the Pacific-Plateau system dried salmon was transported down the Columbia River and exchanged for manufactured goods from western trade ships along the coast.[ix] These trade systems shaped the political dynamics of the tribes who participated in them as well as their relationships with European powers.

While the Corps prepared for their journey at Camp DuBois, north of St. Louis, they developed an initial picture of the tribal relationships that existed on the Upper Missouri. Through meetings with trappers and traders, they knew they would first encounter nomadic hunters such as the Sioux, and Assiniboin, and Hidatsa who traded with agricultural tribes such as the Arikara and Mandan. This trading network also extended much farther west where they would encounter Blackfeet, Shoshoni, Flathead, and Nez Perce.[x]

From their initial area study, the captains concluded that the Teton Sioux were obstacles to establishing U.S. trade on the Upper Missouri. The nomadic Sioux conducted trade with British-Canadian agents, leveraging these relationships to maintain a monopoly on trade with agricultural tribes like the Arikara. Corn and buffalo meat were the key commodities that were exchanged for western trade goods. The Teton Sioux also dominated the land surrounding the Missouri river and demanded tribute from traders heading north. Lewis and Clark concluded that shaping the environment favorably for U.S. economic interests would require undermining Sioux control of the territory through an alliance with the Arikara.[xi]

This assessment may have been accurate in its conclusion. However, it did not fully capture the complexity of the Northern Missouri Trade networks or the difficulty of contesting Sioux control. The Arikara held some animosity towards the Sioux but were reluctant to risk long-established trading relationships for unknown and untested trade agreements with the Americans.[xii] The Sioux viewed the expedition as a threat to their sovereignty on the Missouri. Engagements reflected this dynamic with the Arikara friendly but non-committal, and the Sioux openly hostile, pushing the boundaries of diplomacy.[xiii] Additionally, each major tribe had numerous sub-tribes and bands with their own objectives and agendas. These engagements illustrated the limitations of expeditionary diplomacy in producing immediate results.

The Pacific-Plateau system west of the Continental Divide posed a different set of challenges for the Corps. They lacked prior knowledge of this area and were on a tight timeline to reach the Pacific before winter set in, limiting the scope and depth of engagements. This system was dominated by Salish, Sahaptian, and Chinookan speakers, very different language families from the Upper Missouri. Cultural practices of the Pacific-Plateau tribes also caused tension.[xiv] Despite these factors, the Corps was able to identify the key elements of this trade system. Particularly notable was the amount and reach of western goods from the British and Spanish maritime trade networks.[xv]

The Pacific coast was also focal point for conflict. In the 1790s Britain and Spain came close to initiating armed conflict over rights to trade in an island village known as Nootka that both powers claimed as their own territory. Then-Secretary of State, Jefferson declined British overtures to intervene on their side. At that time America had no legitimate claims to the territory, but Jefferson realized the advantages of keeping Britain and Spain balanced against each other.[xvi]

Civil Information Management

The Corps kept meticulous records throughout the expedition, creating maps, recording weather, and cataloging plants and animals. They also created products specifically designed to illustrate civil considerations for future use by Indian agents and fur traders. During the winter of 1804-1805 at Ft. Madan in present-day North Dakota, Lewis and Clark completed their analytical product, the Estimate of the Eastern Indians. The Estimate was organized around 19 questions that narrowed down the broad guidance posed by Jefferson into a more practical analysis of human geography, compiling information on the over 50 tribes and bands they encountered in their travel up the Missouri.[xvii]

The captains used variations on four techniques to collect the information that made up the Estimate: interviews; collecting objects and artifacts; recording personal observations; and participating directly in hunts, games, or ceremonies.[xviii] Of these, the interviews provided the most accurate information. Clark was particularly interested in the political dynamics of Indian societies and documented how political power was organized, exercised, and passed down through generations. Analysis of trade networks was done in terms of the distribution of political power within the network and the potential for future trading relationships with American merchants.[xix]

Influence Operations

An implied task of the expedition was to proclaim American sovereignty over the territory. This was incorporated into every engagement, the captains had a scripted format they used for engagements that involved proclaiming sovereignty, distributing symbolic gifts such as flags and medals, and inviting native leaders to Washington to meet with President Jefferson.[xx] On their return journey, Chief Sheheke of the Mandan accepted this offer and returned with the explorers.[xxi]

A secondary theme involved advocating for peace between warring tribes. On the Northern Missouri, this was specifically directed towards building alliances against the Sioux. However, throughout the territory intertribal peace could support the advancement of American trade networks. Native nations saw these engagements as an opportunity for influence as well, with the Nez Perce attempting to negotiate for a long-term source of firearms to use against their enemies, the Blackfeet.[xxii]

The establishment of Fort Clatsop as their winter camp on the Pacific coast marked a significant change in influence operations. The Pacific coast itself was outside of recognized American territory and the explorers were in a gray zone in terms of diplomatic authorities. Lacking the standing to make this claim, engagements were focused on trading for food and supplies vice proclaiming sovereignty.[xxiii] When the explorers made their return journey, they returned to their prior diplomatic roles, attempting to build on the initial relationships made on their western journey.

Force Protection and Sustainment

Engagements could also serve a very tactical function and were essential to the survival of the Corps. The Corps was not large enough to prevail in armed confrontations. Negotiation and diplomacy were the keys to force protection and sustainment was also tied to engagements. The Corp’s trade goods served both to facilitate diplomacy and to trade for food. During their winter at Ft. Mandan in 1804, the expedition hired French fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau as a translator. Charbonneau brought his wife Sacagawea and their child on the expedition. This significantly changed the dynamic of the expedition, as Indian war parties did not include women and children, signaling that the expedition’s purpose was peaceful.[xxiv]

While one goal of the expedition was to identify a navigable water route to the Pacific, they had to prepare for the possibility that no such route existed. Crossing the Rocky Mountains would require horses purchased from native tribes. Through interviews with the Mandan and Hidatsa, the Shoshoni were identified as a potential source of horses, and meeting them became a top priority for the Corps. Sacagawea was a native Shoshoni speaker with knowledge of the terrain and tribe. This proved decisive in making contact with the Shoshoni. Sacagawea was recognized as a member of their tribe and her brother Cameahwait had become a chief. This instant rapport led to the purchase of horses and the provision of guides for the crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains.[xxv] The Shoshoni engagement was also significant in that the Shoshoni were the link between the two trade systems, making this relationship a key to future trade.

Great Power Reactions

The significance of the expedition was not lost on competing powers. The Spanish were concerned that American ambitions extended to all Spanish territories in the Americas, including contested possessions on the west coast. In 1804 the Spanish governor of New Mexico commissioned Pedro Vial, a French explorer in the service of Spain, to intercept the expedition and capture or kill the explorers. Vial set off in pursuit while the expedition was moving north on the lower Missouri, making it to within 100 miles of the expedition in what is now Nebraska before turning around due to unfamiliarity with the terrain.[xxvi] In the fall of 1805 Vial attempted a second foray north. This force was ambushed by Pawnees and forced to retreat.[xxvii] While unsuccessful, the Spanish response highlights both the strategic importance of the expedition and the high degree of physical and political risk faced by the explorers.

While the explorers were unaware of Vial’s force, they were cognizant of Spanish influence. Prior to their departure from St. Louis in 1804, they had to tread carefully around the presence of the Spanish lieutenant governor of the territory.[xxviii] In 1806 they returned to a St. Louis that was decidedly American soil, with the center of gravity for great power competition having shifted to New Orleans. The successful expedition helped to stifle domestic opposition to Jefferson’s purchase and the information provided by the explorers helped shape Jefferson’s strategy for western expansion and changed the dynamic of relations with Britain, France, and Spain.


The Louisiana Territory, if not actually a denied area for the fledgling U.S. Army, was certainly contested. Civil considerations influenced both the survival and success of the expedition. Understanding tribal relationships and trade networks and establishing diplomatic relations with the indigenous population were essential to the strategic mission of declaring sovereignty over the territory and contesting British, French, and Spanish ambitions. The importance of these activities was not lost on the Spanish who actively targeted the Corps.

Today, competition often takes place in neutral territory where options for military force are limited. Non-lethal activities, from humanitarian assistance to security cooperation, are often the most viable means available to assert influence. It should be emphasized the Corps of Discovery was an overt operation with scientific aspects of the expedition assisted by non-governmental organizations such as the American Philosophical Society.[xxix] Engaging with the civil component and developing a deep understanding of civil considerations is as relevant today as it was in 1803. While civilian agencies may have primary responsibility for diplomatic, information, and economic aspects of power, the military will often be called on to carry out the heavy lifting, particularly in contested spaces and austere locations. A deep understanding of civil considerations, particularly in terms of economic and political networks, can support both tactical and strategic objectives and set the conditions for future operations.

Authors Biographies

Lieutenant Colonel Shafi Saiduddin is a Civil Affairs officer currently serving as an instructor at the Joint Special Operations University. He has two decades of experience in Army Special Operations Forces, beginning with service in a Foreign Internal Defense/Unconventional Warfare (FID/UW) Civil Affairs battalion. He also served as an assistant instructor for the 3rd BN 1st Spe­cial Warfare Training Group and the Group S9 at the 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He deployed extensively in the CENTCOM, AFRICOM, EUCOM, and PACOM Theaters. In his civilian career, he previously served in law enforcement and the intelligence community and now owns a risk advisory and investigations firm.

Robert Schafer is a retired Civil Affairs Senior Non-Commissioned Officer who has over a decade of experience in governance and populace-centric network engagement and development activities in the CENTCOM and EUCOM Theaters. He is currently a Strategic Plans Analyst for the Center for Army Lessons Learned, where his portfolio focuses on how theater armies plan, conduct, and assess security force assistance activities in support of higher theater security cooperation plans. Mr. Schafer is also a managing editor for Eunomia Journal, a professional online defense journal that promotes dialogue in fields of civil affairs and civil military operations. Mr. Schafer holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Security Studies from National Defense University, as well as a Master of Education degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in International Relations from Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.

The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any of its components, including the Joint Special Operations University and the Center for Army Lessons Learned.

[i] Headquarters, U.S. Department of the Army. Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations. (Washington, D.C., April 17th, 2019), 1-2. [ii] Fenster, Julie, Jefferson's America: The President, The Purchase, And The Explorers Who Transformed A Nation. (New York: Broadway Books, 2016), 66-68. [iii] Ambrose, Stephen, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 94-95. [iv] Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 95. [v] Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 80-84. [vi] Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 46. [vii] Ronda, James, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 93-95. [viii] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 48-49. [ix] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 169-171. [x] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 10-12. [xi] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 48-49. [xii] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 48-49. [xiii] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 58-61. [xiv] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 172. [xv] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 176. [xvi] Fenster, Jefferson's America, 7-12. [xvii] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 124-126. [xviii] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 115-116. [xix] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 76. [xx] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 57-58. [xxi] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 247-250. [xxii] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 224-227. [xxiii] Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 192-195. [xxiv] Fenster, Jefferson's America, 239-240. [xxv] Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 276-277. [xxvi] Fenster, Jefferson's America, 171. [xxvii] Fenster, Jefferson's America, 279. [xxviii]Fenster, Jefferson's America, 120-122. [xxix] Fenster, Jefferson's America, 92.

1 comment

1 Comment

Dennis J. Cahill
Dennis J. Cahill
Mar 03, 2021

Shafi and Rob: Great analysis of the Corps of Discovery mission and its relevance to the civil affairs core competencies of today. Your article deftly makes the linkage between modern civil affairs operations and this well-known historical effort, particularly how important civil reconnaissance and civil engagement are in developing situational understanding in an area of operation during periods of competition. It makes me want to learn more about Lewis and Clark’s mission analysis process, the development of their information requirements, and how they determined and sought the best sources of information to develop their preliminary assessment at Camp DuBois. I find it fascinating that, even among the indigenous peoples of the time, the Corps encountered distinct populations, government institutions, and…

bottom of page