Transcontinental Trek: Two Hundred Years Ago This Month, the Lewis and Clark Expedition Reached the Pacific Ocean, Having Trekked across What Is Now the United States

Article excerpt

Early American history was so full of epic events benefiting the American people that most citizens of the new nation thought Providence was guiding their destiny. It seemed impossible that, as colonists, the Americans would defeat the forces of the mighty British Empire. It seemed impossible that the former colonists would forge a union of independent states that would endure. It seemed impossible that the new nation would double her size with the stroke of a pen. Yet, all these things came to pass.

Thomas Jefferson was the one responsible for the dramatic increase in the size of the new nation through the purchase of nearly a million square miles of territory in the West. Jefferson had always been fascinated with the West. At the conclusion of the War for Independence, he tried to interest George Rogers Clark, famous for his exploits in the Old Northwest during the war, in leading an expedition to the Pacific. However, Clark was preoccupied at the time with putting his business affairs in order.

In 1786 Jefferson met the adventurer John Ledyard, an American who had sailed to the Pacific Northwest with Captain Cook. Ledyard convinced Jefferson that he could travel overland from Moscow to Siberia, cross the Bering Strait on a Russian otter-hunting ship, and then trek across the continent from the Pacific Coast to Philadelphia. Jefferson enthusiastically supported the bold wanderer. Ledyard made it as far as Siberia but was arrested there by Cossack police as a security threat.

Jefferson tried again in 1793. He got the American Philosophical Society to support an expedition led by the famous French explorer and botanist Andre Michaux that would cross the continent to the Pacific and back. No sooner was the expedition organized than it was revealed that Michaux was involved in revolutionary intrigue with Citizen Genet, the French minister to the United States. Genet attempted to rouse the American people to side with France in a war against Britain and even offered prizes for captured British ships. He was sent packing back to France, and the Michaux expedition collapsed.

Jefferson came into the presidency in March 1801 with his dreams of a grand expedition into the West unrealized. That was about to change. Within weeks of Jefferson's inauguration, Americans learned that Napoleon had induced Spain to cede the Louisiana Territory back to France.

Tensions quickly began to rise in the Western parts of the United States--in those days Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Farmers there sent their crops down the Ohio or other major rivers to the Mississippi and then down the great river to New Orleans. By the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain, Americans had the right to use the Mississippi freely and to deposit their goods at New Orleans for transshipment. With the Louisiana Territory reverting to France, all this now seemed in jeopardy.

The Grand Purchase

Being a great friend of the farmer, Jefferson took action. He instructed the U.S. minister to France, Robert Livingston, to approach the French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, and negotiate for the purchase of New Orleans. Jefferson also sent James Monroe to France to aid Livingston. Faced with an impending war against her old adversary, Britain, France was not only receptive but stunned Livingston by offering to sell all of the Louisiana Territory to the United States. Even though Livingston had no authority to purchase the whole of Louisiana, he quickly put his signature on a treaty that gave the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million and doubled the size of the United States.

Robert Livingston fully appreciated the significance of the Louisiana Purchase. As he was about to affix his signature to the treaty he said to James Monroe, "We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our whole lives.... From this day the United States take their place among the powers of the first rank. …