Missouri and the Opening
of the American West
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Missouri stood between a line of Anglo American population advancing westward and what we today call the American West. West of the great bend of the Missouri River (95th meridian) lay a vast area of land still largely unknown and unchartered. Part of this land fell within the Louisiana Purchase, but a greater portion still belonged to Spain's overseas empire. Composed of a variety of physiographic regions, the American West begins with the Great Plains, extending north to the Canadian border, south to the Rio Grande, and continues west across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The Great Plains stretch treeless and dry to the very foot of the Rocky Mountains. For years Americans viewed it as the Great American Desert, a land fit for "savages" and "misfits" and unworthy of the enterprise of American settlers. Down its western side, the Rocky Mountains spread from Canada into northern New Mexico. Pioneers on their way to the "promised land" of Oregon or the "get rich quick" gold fields of California found the "backbone of the continent" a towering obstacle to overcome. Beyond the mountains are river plateaus, mesas, basins, deserts, more mountains, canyons, forests, and grasslands. Not too distant from the Sierra Nevada in California looms the Pacific Ocean. The American West offered challenge, adventure, and opportunity to those who would explore and conquer it.
Little was known of this land before 1800 except its vastness. Long before he made the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson had expressed considerable interest in learning more about this great expanse. When he became President, Jefferson persuaded Congress to