Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. — George Orwell

Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden




Opening Up the Great West

The great wilderness that stretched, a mystery of far-sweeping plain and mountain, river and mighty woodland, to the west of the broad Mississippi, always held a fascination for the mind of Thomas Jefferson. Great unknown forests that roared in the wind sweeping inland from the rolling Pacific; wide spaces of prairie, dotted with grazing herds of bison and covered with the soft waves of the wild grasses; great rivers that thundered through deep chasms, the like of which the white man had never yet seen; all these were there waiting for the explorer and the pioneer.

President Jefferson made up his mind that an expedition should be sent to discover the wonders that he believed must exist in that broad land; to study its tribes of Indians, its animals, its plants, its rocks, and to journey onward even to the shores of the great Pacific.

The men he chose to command this bold party were Meriwether Lewis, his own secretary, the son of an old friend of Albemarle County, and William Clarke, brother of that famous George Rogers Clarke, whose brave work during the Revolution had saved the western frontier from the English and Indians.

A year was spent by these men in study and preparation before they went out into the wilderness to be gone over two years. What they saw and did makes a book in itself: wild tribes; high, rocky peaks; dangerous mountain passes; great rivers; the mighty, surging Pacific itself. From the wilds they brought back specimens to enrich the collections of the East.

But more than the exploration of this golden land was accomplished while Thomas Jefferson sat in the president's chair. Through his efforts and those of his agents the whole territory itself, from the Mississippi to the giant Rockies, was bought from France. France had claimed Louisiana because of the exploration of the Mississippi; had ceded it to Spain; and, in turn, was to receive it again. Our present state of Louisiana is but a very small part of this great region.

A great deal of trouble was caused at times by the threats of the Spaniards at New Orleans to stop our use of the Mississippi River for carrying to the outside world the produce of the great valley region along its eastern bank. This produce could be marketed at New Orleans, or sent from there across the ocean to other markets.

In the days when there were no railroads stretching their shining length across every country and ending in a network in every city, the use of the river as a highway was necessary to the welfare and growth of the settlements west of the Alleghanies.

When the news came to the United States that Spain had given up this region to France, the president felt that the time had come when at least the Island of New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi should belong to us. We could no longer endure the danger of having it closed to our people and their trade. At once we began trying to buy New Orleans.

Napoleon Bonaparte, the great general, was then at the head of the French government, and to him we had to apply. But it seemed that he had other plans. He had decided that France should send out colonists and soldiers to Louisiana which, he believed, would grow into a great and valuable colony of France. He had even chosen the ships to carry the soldiers and colonists across; had appointed the officers and the first governor of the colony-to-be, and had made up his mind to send three thousand troops.

Livingston, our representative in Paris, did his best to have these plans given up, but it seemed to him at last that he could do no more. He finally gave up hope and wrote home advising our government to "fortify Natchez and strengthen all the upper posts," on the Mississippi, for he believed that the time would surely come when we should have war on our hands over New Orleans.

The people of Kentucky, to whom the Mississippi River was the great highway to the world beyond, were aflame with excitement. The news of the French expedition preparing to sail for Louisiana only added fuel to the fire of their anger. Threats of rebellion and warfare were heard everywhere along the frontier. Even the largest cities of the East were full of unrest and turmoil.

President Jefferson was working in his own way. In fact, he had been busy for a long time, but the public did not know how hard he and his agents had been at work to buy at least the mouth of the river. Things seemed to be reaching a crisis. Then he despatched a letter to his friend James Monroe.

"I shall to-morrow nominate you to the Senate for an extraordinary mission to France," he wrote him. "Work night and day to arrange your affairs."

Meanwhile, another threatening war cloud had begun to darken the sky between France and England. The ambition of Napoleon was turned toward invasion of the "tight little isle." England, on the other hand, was determined to crush him if he tried it. Neither country wished the other to have the rich territory of Louisiana. England preferred that we should have it and, if France tried to keep it, the English navy could cut it off from all trade across the Atlantic.

But what France needed most was money. War is expensive, and the French had been making war and paying soldiers for a long time. Louisiana would not be sending money over to France until many years of expense and the slow growth of colonies could produce it to send. If sold now, it would at once bring the funds to fight England. Then, too, there was always the danger of England's seizing the colony.

Thinking of these and many other things, Napoleon Bonaparte all at once changed his mind and decided to turn Louisiana, not into a French colony, but into hard gold that 'night be spent now.

"The English have taken from France Canada, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the richest portions of Asia," he said. "They shall not have the Mississippi, which they covet. I have not a moment to lose in putting it out of their reach!"

James Monroe had scarcely arrived in Paris before the bargaining began. As each side was so eager, it did not take very long to make terms. To the great surprise of Livingston, not only New Orleans was for sale, but the whole of the vast Mississippi Valley to the west of the great stream and as far as the towering mountains that shut it from Spanish country, in the far West.

This whole region was bought for fifteen millions of dollars. It was the purchase of a territory that was to add thirteen stars to our flag and make the United States one of the great countries of the world.