The Louisiana Purchase

Today's selection -- from History of the American Frontier by Frederic L. Paxson. Jefferson's possible motivations behind the Lewis and Clark expedition.  

“With the ratification of the Louisiana Purchase the frontier had little special concern. It wanted the territory and felt none of the constitutional qualms that had distressed Jefferson. The Federalists of New England were tin-own into the opposition and the minority, and now experienced fears of executive usurpation and constitutional violation that they would have scoffed at when in office. They fought in vain the ratification of the treaty, and the appropriation of the funds to pay for Louisiana. Over their objections the transaction was consummated, and Congress passed as well the necessary laws to authorize an American government at New Orleans in place of that of Spain and France. 

“The actual transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France had not taken place, and France never took the trouble to set up a colonial establishment. Late in the fall of 1803, France took a formal possession of Louisiana at New Orleans, and delivered it at once, December 20, 1803, to the agents of the United States, James Wilkinson and William C. C. Claiborne. The upper portion of the province was transferred in the spring of 1804 to Meriwether Lewis, whose presence at St. Louis was in connection with a scheme of Jefferson's for the investigation of Louisiana. 

“Within a few days of the nomination of James Monroe as minister to France, Jefferson sent a secret message to Congress asking authority for a venture whose meaning and propriety were then and still remain uncertain. He asked for an appropriation to pay the cost of a reconnaissance of the Missouri Valley. Since this was French territory and he had no idea of its purchase as yet, the enterprise looks like an encroachment upon the rights of a country with which the United States was at peace. He planned to make the investigation with a detachment of the United States army, under military discipline. If his motive was not science alone, but possible preparation for a war of seizure, there was a special reason for his desire to keep the matter secret. Before the money was ready and the men were found, the consummation of the purchase removed all question of the reasonableness of the exploration; but it cannot yet be stated with certainty the part which it played in American policy at the moment of its proposal. 

‘It is quite possible that Jefferson's motive may have been entirely scientific. His was an active mind and he found time to explore the whole field of scientific attainment as well as the intricacies of politics. His friends found him alert to new ideas, and those who had business with him more than once complained that they could not detach him from his speculations — or hold him to the exclusive consideration of one of these. In his work with the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, he found exercise for this side of his activities. As early as the Revolution he recorded a hope that it might be possible to send an expedition up the Mississippi and the Missouri and lift their topography and resources from the limbo of conjecture to a state of fact. As President, he could control resources that made this possible. Congress found the money in 1803; Jefferson found a leader for the party in a young friend, Meriwether Lewis; and Lewis selected as his second in command the brother of the conqueror of the Illinois country, William Clark. 

Route of expedition with modern borders

“The expedition of Lewis and Clark was organized in the summer of 1803, under instructions from the President dated June 20. It was to ascend the Missouri to its source, cross the continental divide, and descend the Columbia River to its mouth. It was to search for a route across the continent, and while doing this was to observe and record the lay of the land, the races of Indians that resided there, and the animal and vegetable resources. Trappers had long hunted over much of the region in question, and the Jesuit fathers had carried the influence of France to many of the tribes, but there was no description of Louisiana that could be relied upon for accurate information. Every member of the party was ordered to keep a record of the trip, was provided with notebooks and a waterproof cover for his papers, and was directed to keep his journal by him at all times. If there had been as much care taken to procure men trained to know the meaning of what they saw as there was to procure a record and keep it safe, the expedition might have added much to the store of facts. But the men enrolled were sturdy products of the frontier, whose literary habits were untrained. They were able to live in the remote wilderness, but none of them was a scientist in thought or disposition. There was not even a professional physician among them, and no formal preparation was made for dealing with the miscellaneous Indian tribes who might block their way. The party was heavily armed and stocked with trading goods; but when Lewis wanted to converse with the Indians, he was forced to rely upon his mulatto body servant, who by chance spoke French. This servant translated the message to Charbonneau, one of the French guides, who could render it into the dialect he used in talking to his Indian wife, Sacajawea. She in turn translated it again into whatever tongue was necessary as the party met tribe after tribe along their way. She was a squaw of western origin who had been handed east among the tribes as a prisoner of war, and had taken on linguistic training as she came. With three translations between himself and the Indian chiefs, Lewis could not hope for intimate or accurate converse. 

“The enlisted men of the expedition were picked up where they could be found, according to their fitness for a prolonged trip. They mobilized at Pittsburgh and followed the river route past the new State of Ohio, and the older Kentucky, until they reached the Illinois shore, opposite St. Louis. Here they stayed for the winter of 1803-1804, because the Spanish officers at St. Louis would not honor their passports and were not instructed to give up the province. In March, Lewis was made the agent to receive the transfer, and on May 14, 1804, he led his band of thirty-two across the Mississippi and up the Missouri. They advanced in three small boats, ten miles or less a day, rowing, poling, towing, and pulling on ropes that they fastened to the shore. Their hunting parties marched with them, along the banks, shooting fresh meat and observing the country. When Lewis went ashore, Clark stayed with the boats. They found the Indians numerous, and generally friendly. Often hungry and always bored with their unlimited diet of meat, the Indians were greedy for sugar, molasses, coffee, and whiskey. They were willing petty thieves, but as yet they had little reason to be hostile to the whites; and the diseases occasioned by contact between the races were not yet serious. 

“After six months of laborious ascent, the expedition reached the village of the Mandan Sioux, where the Northern Pacific Railroad now crosses the Missouri; and here it went into winter quarters for 1804-1805. In the five months spent among the Mandan, the nature of the fur trade was forced upon their attention. The only resource the Indian had with which to enrich his life was fur. The traders who bought his pelts, paid low prices for them in blankets, ammunition, guns, and household tools, and maintained headquarters without regard to nationality. Lewis found English traders on the Upper Missouri, and saw the profits of the traffic passing to the Hudson's Bay Company or its rivals at Montreal. 

“The summer of 1805 carried the expedition from the Missouri to the Pacific. When they crossed the divide they left anything that could be called Louisiana behind them and entered a region where the scanty claims of foreign powers were divided among Russia, Spain, England, and the United States. They spent the next winter in a fort which they built at the mouth of the Columbia River, and in September, 1806, were back again at St. Louis. 

“The results of the Lewis and Clark expedition were not commensurate with the effort or the success that attended it. In a geographic way it greatly enlarged our knowledge of America. It made new and original contacts with many tribes of Indians. It provided descriptions, had any one cared to read them, of the Missouri and Columbia valleys. But it was many years before a fair compilation of the journals was prepared, and the century was nearly gone before the first critical edition appeared. Patrick Gass, one of the soldier-diarists, published his journal at Pittsburgh in 1807, in a small edition. Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia began to edit them in 1811, but the war with England was a distraction, and his work did not appear until 1814. Before the party arrived back at St. Louis the world had so changed that, whatever the original idea of Jefferson may have been, it was no longer a vital thing. If he feared the necessity to seize Louisiana, and was preparing a military survey, the ease with which the transfer had been accomplished destroyed it. No power contested the purchase, though Spain showed an irritation at being defrauded by Napoleon. If he hoped to make great scientific discoveries, the journals must have disappointed him for they contained nothing startling. By 1807 there was danger of war with England. After that date the United States was being drawn step by step into the meshes of European politics, and Jefferson had little leisure to play the man of science. Not until after 1815 was the time ripe for a profitable interest in the transMississippi; and then the legend was already in formation to which the remarks of Lewis and Clark gave credence: — that, after all, the country beyond the Missouri River was not fit for white habitation or use."