From the Teton Sioux to the Russians

“Confidential. Gentlemen of the Senate and of the House of Representatives: The River Missouri and the Indians inhabiting it are not as well known as is desirable. An intelligent officer with 10 or 12 chosen men might explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean. The appropriation of $2,500 would cover the undertaking.”

— President Thomas Jefferson, January 18th, 1803.

When Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark up the Missouri, he expected them to find the elusive Northwest Passage. They thought that they could follow the river to its source, and one day’s portage would take them to the Western Ocean. Of course, the Rockies were much broader and more rugged then they could have imagined, and that Northwest Passage never really materialized.

Lewis and Clark

Two hundred and four years later, a Northwest Passage is finally emerging. Except it’s not up the Missouri River. It’s thousands of miles North in the Arctic Ocean, where a water route on top of the continent is opening up as the polar ice thaws. National Geographic had a great satellite image of it to accompany its September article on the Northwest Passage.

Northwest Passage

According to TIME, the trip from New York City to Tokyo via the Panama Canal is 11,300 miles, but via the Northwest Passage it’s only 8,700 miles. And the 13,000 mile journey from London to Tokyo via the Suez Canal is cut to only 8,100 miles via the Northwest Passage.

One interesting item is that when Lewis and Clark went up-river, they encountered many friendly Indian tribes but one hostile nation, the Teton Sioux. The Sioux, led by chiefs Buffalo Medicine, Black Buffalo and the Partisan, didn’t appreciate the Corps of Discovery laying claim to their river.

Today, the United States has mostly friendly neighbors in the Arctic. But again, we have to face one nation led by a warlike chief: Vladimir Putin’s Russia.


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