Instruments of Exploration and Conquest

Figure 1

A Spanish Flag such as Lewis and Clark might have seen in western Indian villages

Flag with a red 'X' over a yellow background

Wikimedia Commons

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.

Flags 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.

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 (0,40,104), 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.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 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.