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]