|Topical summary: Keys to national identities – A Spanish flag – Early American flags – The 17-star flag – The Corps' inventory – Great Seal of the U.S. – Signals and signatures – Naval ensigns and pennants|
Instruments of exploration and conquest
lags are keys to their owners' identities–essentially non-verbal enshrinements of historical verities and mystical secrets. Their emblematic shapes and colors transcend literal references and imbue the surrounding space–place, vicinity, or region–with a specific civil or religious authority. During the long era of geographical exploration and discovery by land and sea that began in Europe in the early fifteenth century, the mere hoisting of a banner on a flagstaff was sufficient to claim ownership of a land and its natural resources, as well as to summon the allegiance of all of its inhabitants to a new ruler or government. Of course, a flag's symbolism had to be explained to the people's leaders, and that was an important part of an explorer's job.
Figure 1A Spanish Flag
such as Lewis and Clark might have seen
in western Indian villages
At the close of the 18th century, this flag bearing the Cross of St. Andrew was the Spanish military flag, as well as the flag of Spain's overseas territories. With its bold, simple but unique icon, it bore the authority of more than four centuries of Spanish national tradition. In 1796, Auguste Chouteau, a prominent trader on the lower Missouri, delivered five of them to the Company of the Upper Missouri in behalf of the territorial government, to be given to the Little Osage, Kansas, Oto, Omaha and Ponca Indian tribes.1 More complex designs, including portions of the royal coat of arms of Charles III, who ruled Spain from 1759 until 1788, might also have been seen along the Missouri by Lewis and Clark.
Globally, the Age of Exploration was well past its zenith by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The next step was to take precise measurements with which discoveries and ownerships could be documented and published in reports and maps. In North American exploration the overriding desire was to find and map the legendary waterway through the continent, which Thomas Jefferson was convinced would consist of an interlocking of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, separated at their headwaters by a short portage. If there really was a transcontinental waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and if it were viable for large boats, it would provide the fastest and cheapest imaginable route between the major markets of Europe and those of the Orient. Moreover, the discovery would endow the nation with unlimited opportunities by launching it into the orbit of global power and influence.
The flags of England, France, Spain, and latterly Russia, had already been committed to that mission for several decades, but it was Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery, who wakened their countrymen from that long, apocryphal dream. A key item in Lewis's long list of needs for the journey would have been a large supply of American flags, to be flown on their boats, over their camps, and at their council sites. Unfortunately, known records of the enterprise contain no details about the flags they carried, nor any clear indication of how many they carried of each of three sizes.
That void may be a consequence of the fact that from the Revolution until the middle of the 19th century, the flag now known worldwide by its stars and stripes (Figure5) was not yet recognized as a symbol of the United States as a whole. Indeed, the full power of the American flag as the sacred symbol of our "civil religion"2 grew but slowly during the first century-and-a-half following the Revolution, and in some respects is still evolving. It was nearly mid-century before Francis Scott Key's stirring song began to be thought of in some quarters as potentially our national theme song, and it would be another 123 years before it officially became our national anthem.
As to the flag itself, after the congressional legislation of 1818, which declared that a star was to be added for each new state on the Fourth of July following its admittance, no further changes in design were made until 1912, when President Howard Taft, by Executive Order, adopted general proportional ratios and a standard arrangement of stars, but the specifics were delayed by many more years. The choice of shades of red, white and blue, for example, was subjective until 1934, and the policy was updated in 1981 by the General Services Administration, which assigned definitive RGB values to dark red (191,10,48), white (255,255,255), and navy blue (040,104), although that prescription applies only to flags made by or for the United States Government. A step toward a code of etiquette for the display and treatment of the flag was taken in 1923, but another nineteen years elapsed before the first Federal Flag Code (Public Law 829; Chapter 806) was enacted in 1942. It recognized the existence of the Pledge of Allegiance, which had been introduced (by the Reverend Francis Bellamy, a socialist!) into the public schools beginning in 1892; the words "under God" were added in 1954, at the height of the Cold War with Russia. Section 176-j of the Code as amended by Congress on July 7, 1976, states that "The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing." With that declaration, the apotheosis of the American flag would seem to be virtually complete.
Early American flags
This was the first American flag, designed specifically as a Navy jack by Christopher Gadsden, the Congressional delegate from South Carolina.
Anyone could read its message: When pieced together into a living organism, the colonies could come alive like the deadly reptile found only in America, the Eastern diamondback rattler.
The colors and design, especially the British Union in the canton, reflected the prevailing sentiment in the Second Continental Congress that a majority of the delegates still hoped for reconciliation with the mother country.
The two white crosses in the British Union represented the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The thirteen alternating red and white stripes stood for the thirteen colonies of New England and the southern Atlantic Coast.
The Flag Act of June 14, 1777, retained the thirteen alternating red and white stripes of the Grand Union Flag, but replaced the British Union symbol in the blue canton with thirteen white stars–"a new Constellation." The arrangement of stars, and the proportion of the canton to the field of stripes was still unspecified.
This design, first known as the "Marine Flag," was used for seventeen years without revision, to identify ships of the Navy, and American merchant ships after the Navy was disbanded.
The so-called "Continental Colors," authorized by the Flag Act of 1794, consisted of fifteen red and white stripes, with a blue canton containing fifteen white five-pointed stars or mullets arranged in unspecified patterns. The number of points on the stars was still a matter of choice.
Together they accounted for the thirteen original Colonies plus the two states that had recently been admitted to the Union, Vermont in 1791 and Kentucky in 1792. But change was a vital element in the nation's destiny, and its flag would have to follow.
During the twenty-four-year interval between the Flag Act of 1794 and the one of 1818, five more states were admitted: Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Mississippi. Congress added the first two in 1796 and 1803, respectively, whereupon a number of unauthorized 17-star/17-stripe flags were manufactured, including some by order of government agencies. In December of 1803, for example, the commander at Fort Dearborn, a new garrison on the site of the future city of Chicago, Illinois, sent an order to the Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia, for "Five Flags of about 9 feet by 6 with the Eagle, 17 stars by 17 stripes made of buntin,"4 for use by the Indian Department. Presumably "the eagle" referred to the central element of the Great Seal, which would have been painted in oils on the blue canton, with 17 stars either placed around the eagle, or else in the circle of dark-bordered clouds and golden sunlight (Figure 6).
Flag of peace: the Corps' inventory
Although the Continental Colors carried the authority of Congressional approval, it lacked the popular appeal and utility that some other formats held. The symbol that held the deepest meaning and inspiration for Americans was the figure of George Washington, "The Father of Our Country" and Americans' "late fellow citizen" whose "unclouded brightness of . . . Glory will illuminate future ages."
But the favored symbol of America was the powerful, independent and imposing bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, or "white-headed sea-bird").5 It was not strictly an American icon, but during the Federalist Era it was the most conspicuous wild creature to be seen on the banks of the major watercourses that were the preferred travel routes between the Atlantic Coast and the Mississippi River.
Between 1776 and 1782, three successive Congressional committees worked on a design for a Great Seal of the United States. The third of the three proposals was the first to include an eagle. But it was Charles Thompson, the Secretary of Congress and the creator of the final design based on the committees' recommendations, who made the bald eagle the dominant symbol. His design was approved by the Congress of the Confederation on June 20, 1782. In Thompson's "armorial device" the eagle, together with its heraldic appurtenances, reflected "the beliefs and values that the Founding Fathers attached to the new nation and wished to pass on to their descendants."6 On the eagle's breast is an escutcheon, or shield, containing thirteen alternating red and white vertical stripes called Pieces, which represent the thirteen original states. The Pieces are bound together at their upper ends by the blue bar or Chief, which represents the Congress.
In its left talon the eagle clutches a bundle of thirteen arrows signifying strength in unity, and preparedness for war. Its right talon grasps an olive branch with 13 leaves.7 The eagle's head is turned to its right, indicating a positive desire for peace. It clenches in its beak a scroll bearing the Latin motto E pluribus unum–"From many, one." Above its head, in the 1782 version of the Seal, is a Crest consisting of the "new constellation" of thirteen silver five-pointed stars shine through a circle of dark-rimmed clouds. Through the clouds a Glory of golden sunlight shines upon the rising eagle.
Several vexillologists, citing the docuent mentioned above, have speculated that Lewis and Clark might have carried some "Indian presentation flags" with seventeen stripes, plus the Great Seal in the canton with seventeen stars either surrounding the eagle or inside the Glory.8 If the explorers did carry any flags featuring the Great Seal, they could have used them as illustrations from which to spin a rich story of the origins and ideals of the United States of America. The image of an eagle would certainly have held an immediate appeal for Plains Indians. However, before the expedition got very far up the Missouri the captains might have been embarrassed to discover that the natives were not impressed, since the bald eagle, which was the only species known to inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard, was not the bird that Indians west of the Mississippi regarded most highly. Their totem was the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos, "eagle of gold"). The depiction of the bald eagle might have conveyed the wrong message, and word would have gotten around. But the known records of the expedition contain no mention of any such reactions from the Indians, either in the journalists' words or in the transcripts of Indian remarks to the captains. Nor is there to be found any hint of a flag containing the bald eagle, nor any references to the pictographic stories inherent in the Great Seal.
In their speeches to Indian leaders Lewis and Clark repeatedly referred to the "Seventeen great Nations of America" that were symbolized by the flags they presented. Indians certainly could count, and there is no evidence that any of the recipients complained of a discrepancy between the number of "nations" and the number of stars. Therefore we may reasonably surmise that Lewis and Clark carried 17-star/17-stripe flags, but that the principal elements of the Great Seal were not to be seen on any of them.
No one knows how many flags the Corps of Discovery carried, or what their dimensions were. It is clear, however, that they had at least one large company banner–judging from their thirteen references to "our flag" or "the large flag"–which they hoisted in lieu of a garrison flag over their major camps and council sites. At each of the Indian councils the captains typically used sails from one or more of their boats to erect a bower or awning, and a wind-screen, and flew their large flag nearby.
When a journalist informs us that the large flag was "hoisted on a pole" or "on a high flag Staff," we may wonder how high the pole was, for that might roughly suggest the dimensions of the flag: The higher pole the larger the flag, or vice versa. Alexander Henry, who established a fort in Mand One of the setting poles they carried to assist in propelling the barge, the pirogues and the canoes, would have made the handiest flagpole. According to Lewis, those poles were seldom more than 25 feet long, which would have allowed a flag with hoist and fly dimensions totaling about 20 feet – say, 8 by 12 feet, maximum.9 Two ties at the hoist would have made a halyard unnecessary.
At the captains' council with five Yankton Sioux headmen in late August of 1804, One of the five chiefs of the Yankton Sioux headmen from the scorching late-August sun. But one of the chiefs, Arcawecharchi, or Half Man, assumed that this was the flag the white men were giving his people. With the assistance of one of the interpreters, Clark transcribed the chief's expression of thanks: "I am glad my Grand father10 . . . has given us a flag large and handsom the Shade of which we can Sit under." If Half Man was speaking literally, he leaves us wondering how many men his "we" included. Finally, on March 16, 1806, a week before leaving Fort Clatsop, Lewis described their plight regarding trade goods: A few of handfuls of small items, six blue robes and one red one, a few "old cloaths" trimmed with ribbon, and "five robes made of our large flag."11 If each of those robes was 6 by 5, or 30 square feet, their large flag would have to have been 10 by 15 feet, or 150 square feet, in order to produce five scarves or shawls somewhat shy of the proportions of a robe (Figure 7). Could their large flag have been the seventeen-stripe banner of "6 yards hoist by 12 yards fly" (18 by 36 feet) that the Philadelphia seamstress Ann Hoskins spec'd in an undated memo believed to belong to the 1802-1812 period? Perhaps so, but it would have required a flagstaff reaching at least 54 feet into the air, and securing the pole in the ground to withstand the force of gusty prairie winds on such a large flag would have been a challenging, time-consuming task.12
Sauk and Fox Indians
by Carl Bodmer (1809-1893)13
Bodmer has pictured these Indians wrapped in their robes or capes. Some or the tribes they had met were taller than others, but a cloak 6 feet by 5 feet would have fit anyone, more or less. If the Corps' "large flag" measured only 45 square feet, those "robes" could have been no larger than scarves or small shawls. We are left with another apparently unanswerable question.
The Corps also carried an unknown number of smaller flags of at least three different sizes, including the "19 small flaggs" that Lewis sent from St. Louis to Clark at Camp Dubois early in May of 1804. They may have been manufactured from the $33-worth of "flagg stuf" that Lewis secured from governor of Indiana Territory, William Harrison, at Vincennes on the Wabash River.14 The captains distributed them to recognized Indian leaders and to chiefs whom they chose or "made," as tokens of peace and personal friendship, and to represent a bond of union with neighboring tribes and the United States of America. By the time the expedition left Fort Mandan, their inventory of Indian gifts and other supplies on hand at Fort Mandan showed only three of the "2d Sise," and three of the "3d Sise." If the order of sizes used in descriptions of their peace medals applies here as well, the "3d Sise" flags would have been the smallest, but they must have had more than three in reserve. Journal entries indicate that they gave out at least twenty-seven American flags, not including the small ones the captains carried during their respective explorations of the Yellowstone and the upper Marias Rivers in July of 1806, in case they encountered the Crows and the Blackfeet.
They also spent a few small flags on food and other necessities on their homeward journey. For example, by the time he got back among the Nez Perce in May of 1806, he decided he needed a better mount than he had been riding, so he persuaded Chief Wearkoomt (Flint Necklace; or, "the bighorn Cheif") to trade horses with him, and paid a premium of a small flag, with which the Indian was "much gratifyed."
Signals and signatures
In addition to the various American flags, the Corps used two other kinds. Clark's entry for August 11, 1804, tells us that morning he and Lewis, with ten of their men, climbed to the summit of the bluff overlooking the Missouri where Black Bird, an Omaha chief, had been burried 4 years before. On his grave, a mound of earth about twelve feet in diameter and six feet high, they erected an eight-foot pole on which they hoisted a white flage bound with red Blue & white." Its pure white expanse respectfully acknowledged that Black Bird had been a peace-loving chief, while its tricolored edging discreetly stated that his grave, and the homeland of his people, were now on American soil.
On the thirteenth, according to Private Whitehouse's journal, they "Sent a Serjt. & 4 Men with a white flagg, to the [Omaha] Village to invite them to Come to a treaty, but the[y] found no Indians at the Village."
They also carried one or more red flags. Late in September, as the climax of their crucial encounter with the Teton15 Sioux approached, the captains dispatched a messenger to the Sioux with an explanation of "the Cause of our hoisting the red flag undr. the white, if they were for peace Stay at home & do as we had Derected them, if the[y] were for war [or] were Deturmined to Stop us we were ready to defend our Selves." Three days later, on September 31, "the Indians assembled on S. Shore hoisted a white flag. we then took down our red flag. directly after they hoisted another. We then took them to be our friends." Apparently the captains' diplomacy had succeeded. For the present, at least, the crisis was over.
Naval ensigns and pennants
The expedition was mostly water-born; its commanders consistently referred to their journey as a voyage. Upon their departure from Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, Lewis proudly referred to their six dugout canoes and two pirogues as "this little fleet." Historically, a senior officer in command of a detached corps or squadron was entitled to fly a pennant from his command ship16–either a long, slender three-cornered flag (called a burgee) such as the one the expedition flew (Figure 8), or else a broad swallow-tailed white flag. In either case the iconic fields were arranged to fit in the "hoist" or flagstaff end.
There was at least one more flag of exceptional importance to the expedition–their naval ensign (Figure 8).18 In the U.S. Army, beginning with the Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802, the term ensign denoted a junior infantry officer next below a second lieutenant. By then the Gadsden flag had long been out of date and therefore inappropriate.
Consistent with naval law and practice, from the beginning of the expedition the captains ordered the men in charge of both pirogues to fly the American flag. As they ascended the Missouri above the Great Falls, harboring premature expectations of meeting Sacagawea's people any day, and even seeing evidence that unidentified Indians were nearby, perhaps watching them, on 23 July 1805 Lewis "ordered the canoes to hoist their small flags in order that should the indians see us they might discover that we were not Indians, nor their enemies." Furthermore, American naval tradition dictated (up until 1912) that flags on small boats were to be of the 13-star, 13-stripe design established by the Flag Act of 1777 (Figure 4). On August 6, 1804, Clark noted that the red pirogue had "lost her Colours" in a severe thunderstorm. How many ensigns they had with them is not known, but if they had no replacement, the captains might have considered the loss potentially serious, for the absence of "colours" might have signified that the boat was out of commission, which would have made it fair game for fresh-water thieves or pirates who could assume that its crewmen were prepared to surrender.19 The captains might not have expected Indian observers to think of this, but experienced British or Spanish boatmen might have taken the sign seriously.
The Corps met many other boats on the lower Missouri, both going and coming. On 14 September, 1806, nine days from the end of their journey, the captains' scraggly little fleet of five dugouts led by the white pirogue were pulling hard to stay ahead of the current, their firelocks primed and all hands on the lookout for the piratical Kansa Indians. In mid-afternoon they met three large boats – "Keel Boats," Sgt. Ordway called them – out of St. Louis, bound for the Yanktons and the Omahas to trade for furs. "We . . . Spread our flags," Ordway reported, whereupon "they Sailed up to us and halted with us a Short time."
1. Baron de Carondelet, Governor of Spanish Louisiana, to Zenon Trudeau, Lieutenant Governor of Spanish Louisiana, May 11, 1796; Trudeau to Carondelet, May 22, 1796. A. P. Nasatir, Before Lewis and Clark: Documents illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785-1804, Bison Book Edition, 2 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 2:426, 430. The Cross of Burgundy still flies as a historical symbol over San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico, and at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida.2. Ellis M. West, "A proposed neutral definition of civil religion," Journal of Church & State, 22:1 (Winter, 1980), 39.
3. In Noah Webster's first dictionary, the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806, "flag" and "colors" were synonyms, while "colors" was separately defined as "a banner, flag, streamer, victory, honor."
4. Letters Received, Coxe-Irvine (circa 1797-1842), Record Group 92, Box 47, National Archives; it is cited in Grace Rogers Cooper, Thirteen-Star Flags: Keys to Identification (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973), 16.
"Buntin" (also buntine, or bunting) denoted a thin but strong worsted wool fabric, which was especially suitable for flags. Because bunting was more cheaply produced in England, it was imported into the U.S. until 1865. It was manufactured in strips of red, white, and blue in various widths, which were sewed together in the proper order and length. Stars, often made of light-weight muslin, were stitched onto the blue canton of the Continental Colors. The eagle, if used instead of stars, could have been embroidered, appliqued, or painted on the blue canton in oils. Today, bunting refers to any collection of flags, banners, pennants, etc., that are strung together for decorative purposes. Scot M. Guenter, The American Flag, 1777-1924: Cultural Shifts from Creation to Codification (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990), 89-91.
5. Guenter, p. 39. Benjamin Franklin, who was a member of the first committee, proposed that the wild turkey was more suitable as a symbol of peace.
6. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, The Great Seal of the United States, p. 7. A pdf of this 18-page history of the Seal may be downloaded free of charge from http://www.usa.gov/About/Great_Seal.shtml (retrieved 11 May 2009).
7. According to the Old Testament (Genesis 8:6-12), in order to learn whether the flood had receded or not, Noah twice launched a dove from the Ark. The first time it returned, exhausted, without any sign of having found land. The second time, it brought back an olive leaf, which proved that the floodwaters had receded, and green mountain tops were again exposed. Later, the olive branch became a popular ancient Greek symbol of peace, safety and good will. In the current version of the Seal, the olive branch bears thirteen olives, obviously signifying the thirteen original colonies.
8. Heinz Tschachler, "Sacred Emblems of Attachment: The Lewis & Clark Expedition, American Nationalism, and the Colonization of the West," Raven: A Journal of Vexillology (Trenton, New Jersey: North American Vexillological Association), Vol. 12 (2005), 77-78.
9. By act of Congress on July 7, 1976, Chapter 10 of the United States Code, Section 176 (b), reads: "The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise." No such rule existed in the time of the Expedition, but we may assume that the captains would have expected their flag to fly freely aloft.
10. Half Man's reference to the "Grand father" may have been his actual words or the interpreter's choice, or Clark's. In any case, the Dakotas proved they knew what the white soldiers expected to hear. Indeed, in this instance, the experienced Oto-Missouri diplomats outdid their foreign counterparts with the appropriate counter-address, responding at least thirty times, according to Clark's transcript, with "My Father."
11. In those days it was perfectly acceptable to cut up a flag. The first law to specify guidelines for more respectful treatment of the American flag was passed in 1917, but without any penalties for non-compliance.
12. Letters Received, Coxe-Irvine (circa 1797-1842), Record Group 92, Box 47, National Archives. Cited in Grace Rogers Cooper, Thirteen-Star Flags; Keys to Identification (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973), 15. If the wind were blowing strong enough in the right direction, that flag could be seen, if not recognized, from nearly nine miles away on a flat prairie, which would have been suitable for a permanent fort or trading post, but might seem excessive in the context of an Indian village. In October of 1800 Alexander Henry's carpenter cut an "Oak stick of 55 ft. for a flag-staff" for his Park River post. Elliott Coues, New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest. The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry . . . and of David Thompson, 3 vols. (New York: F. P. Harper, 1897), 1:124.
13. From Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-34 (London: Ackerman & Co, 1843), Vignette 10. A vignette is a borderless picture in which the image shades off irregularly into the color of the paper.
14. Jackson, Letters, 1:177. Those nineteen flags may have comprised the $33-worth of "flagg stuf" referred to in the memorandum dated February 25, 1804. Moulton, Journals, 2:182. According to Cooper (note 4 above, p. 14), "stuff" would have meant fabric.
15. The ethnonym Teton (tee-tahn) was a transliteration of a Dakotan (Siouan) word meaning "plains." It bears no connection with its homonym, the common western placename Teton – French for "breast" – as in "Grand Teton," the highest peak (13,770 feet) in the Teton Range of mountains in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Nor does it denote the Teton Buttes (4452 ft), nor Teton Peak (8399 ft) at the headwaters of the river itself now known as the Teton, which Clark named the Tanzey. William Bright, "A Glossary of Native American Toponyms and Ethnonyms from the Lewis and Clark Journals," Names, Vol. 52, No. 3 (September 2004), 163-237, s.v. "Teton."
16. W. H. Smyth, The Sailor's Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms (Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1867), s.v. "pennant."
17. The receipt is in the Consolidated Correspondence File 1794-1915, Office of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92, Box 304, National Archives. Cited in Grace Rogers Cooper, Thirteen-Star Flags: Keys to Identification (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973), 15.
18. Hugh F. Rankin, "The Naval Flag of the American Revolution," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 11, No. 3 (July 1954), 340-353. Historically, the ensign had been the official bearer of the regimental flag. Upon being assigned to command the expedition to take the Mandan chief Sheheke and his family home from the U.S., Nathaniel Pryor received a commission as an ensign in the infantry.
19. Smyth, s.v. "Ack-men."
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