Lewis and Clark Weren't the Only Explorers to Map the American Frontier

Victory by the United States in the Revolutionary War didn't mark the end of its problems with European conquest of North America. As Julie M. Fenster describes in Jefferson's America, her remarkable history of the exploration of the American frontier, without proper mapping and settlement, the Louisiana Purchase was little more than a few words on paper, the territory ripe to be plucked away, part and parcel, by Spain, France, and England.

"The French," writes Fenster, "sold Louisiana and intentionally left the detail of drawing boundaries to the new owners." She later writes that the Spanish, who had a significant military and administrative presence in the western frontier, "had come to the sensible conclusion that without money or soldiers or people in abundance, a territory can't be controlled. It can only be held, and rather gently ... Exploration could assert control, because accurate information was another basis of power."

The Louisiana Purchase was France's idea. With the French and British on the cusp of war, Napoleon didn't dare attempt to hold a North American front in addition to the European theatre. He knew that the British would invade from Canada at the first opportunity. Moreover, France's grip on its North American holdings was tenuous at best, the U.S. Congress making things worse with its increasing disposition in favor of an armed seizure of New Orleans. The whole continent was just more trouble than it was worth, and so the French government offered to sell its territory for a song.

Jefferson jumped at the opportunity and, as he later wrote, "by a reasonable and peaceable process, we have obtained in 4. months what would have cost us 7. years of war, 100,000 human lives, 100 millions of additional debt."

For Jefferson, it was about more than territory and political intrigue. While holding the offices of the vice presidency and later the presidency, he also ran the American Philosophical Society, one of the first science institutions in the United States. The frontier presented a bonanza of unknown flora, fauna, ecosystems, and geology, and it was Jefferson's personal obsession to have the frontier thoroughly mapped and studied.

Such exploration would be no small task either physically or intellectually. In his own words, he sought in his ideal explorer "a person who to courage, prudence, habits & health adapted to the woods, & some familiarity with the Indian character, joins a perfect knowledge of botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy." Though he doubted such men existed in America, a blizzard of correspondence issued by his own hand would turn up a few explorers up to the task. These explorers were sometimes called "Jefferson's Men," and they managed the seemingly impossible: the exploration, mapping, and surveying of the west. Here are seven explorers of the American frontier, and how they did it.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark were tasked by Jefferson to explore the Louisiana territory and map a route across the western half of North America. They were to satisfy Jefferson's hopes for information on flora and fauna, and to establish trade with the American Indians they encountered along the way. Moreover, they were to assert American sovereignty over the areas explored—in other words, to let everyone they encountered know that this land was our land. There and back, the expedition lasted just under two-and-a-half years. The journey started out in Wood River, Illinois, and ended at the mouth of the Columbia River in present-day Washington State.

The return trip, which lasted six months, saw the group split so as to more efficiently explore even more territory, which included Yellowstone and the Continental Divide. The expedition ended on September 23, 1806. This expedition is notable for the inclusion of Sacajawea, whose contributions involved some work as a guide, but far more significantly, as a multilingual ambassador to tribes encountered along the way.


William Dunbar / Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fenster describes George Hunter as an "animated tourist," who "delighted in everything from the howl of wolves in the distance to the sight of another vessel on the river." He was "a good frontiersman and always a resilient one." He was also a chemist of some repute, which fit Jefferson's bill for someone able to truly study the land. William Dunbar, meanwhile, was a wealthy trader whose loyalties were ever in motion. Spanish, French, American—it was all the same to him. He just wanted to be out there. He had a love of, and talent for, science, and word of this reached the vice president of the United States and president of the American Philosophical Society. In Fenster's words, Jefferson "initiated correspondence, capturing Dunbar as though he were a bird formerly believed extinct."

While Lewis and Clark explored the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase, Dunbar and Hunter, soon brought together, were charged with the Ouachita River, an "alligator-infested, lumber-clogged river in the parched Southwest." The expedition brought them to the hot springs of Arkansas. Ultimately, the men completed a geologic and zoological study of the land along the river, as well as a chemical analysis of the hot springs.


In 1806, Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis embarked on an exploration of the Red River. Freeman was a highly accomplished surveyor who had completed the highly contentious survey of what would be the nation's capital on the Potomac, and later helped survey the 31st Parallel separating U.S. and Spanish territory in the Southeast. (A present-day map of the United States will reveal a straight line dividing part of Louisiana from Mississippi, and Florida from Alabama. That is the 31st Parallel. His work in D.C. and in establishing the borders of southern states has stood the test of time.) Custis brought to the expedition his expertise as a naturalist and a physician-in-training.

The men traveled from Natchez, Mississippi to present-day New Boston, in northeast Texas. Along the way, they encountered "almost impenetrable Swamps & Lakes for more than 100 miles," according to Custis. In Texas, they encountered Spanish soldiers who had been tipped off about their expedition, and were made to turn back. Still, the scientific observations gathered from the 600-mile stretch of frontier proved invaluable to Jefferson, who now knew the land to be worthy of settlement. It also established warm relations with native tribes along the way, and the fallout from the Spanish confrontation would force Spain to allow American expeditions along its Red River holdings.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Zebulon Pike first joined the Army at the age of 15, and 12 years later would be placed in charge of an expedition that would cross the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Pike was, according to Fenster, "born supremely, even mythologically, confident in his sense of mission." The expedition wasn't an easy one. After crossing present-day Kansas, they arrived at the Rockies in time for winter and with but a single layer of cotton clothing.

"They had no coats," writes Fenster, "Or even socks." When trying to make their way and accurately ascertain where they were, Pike led a group of men to a "blue-tinted mountain" where they might look down and survey the terrain. What seemed a one-day hike turned into four, and even then the mountain "now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended." Fenster describes the mountain as having been "apparently on wheels," seeming always to be those 15 miles away. Pike eventually turned around, the mountain being "the only thing on earth that ever made him give up."

The ensuing winter was unkind to the explorers, bringing frostbite, illness, near-starvation, and subzero temperatures. Still, his men believed in Pike and his indomitable spirit, and they survived; they eventually reached the Rio Grande in Spanish territory, where they were rescued (and captured) by the Spanish. Pike and his men were brought to Mexico, and later escorted to the Louisiana border at Natchitoches. The blue-tinted mountain was, of course, what is now called Pike's Peak.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.


Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.


Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.


Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.


In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.


A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.


Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.


For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)


While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.


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