North American Exploration - Vol. 3

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

15 / Exploring the American West in the Age of Jefferson

JAMES P. RONDA

Early in 1793 the American Philosophical Society engaged French naturalist Andre Michaux to undertake a journey "Westwardly to the Pacific."1 Later that same year Thomas Jefferson drafted instructions for the prospective explorer--instructions that portrayed a West both mysterious and remote. The future president imagined a land where mammoths still thundered and herds of llamas roamed free. Jefferson's West was laced with interlocking rivers and low mountains easily portaged. A few years later he conjured up a landscape dotted by volcanoes and by mountains of salt. Thirty years later, much of the mystery and a good deal of the fantasy had vanished--or so it seemed to readers scanning Niles' Weekly Register for 23 November 1822. Reprinting press clippings from St. Louis, Niles' Weekly informed its subscribers: "It is very possible that the citizens of St. Louis on the Mississippi may eat fresh salmon from the waters of the Columbia! for distance seems annihilated by science and the spirit of adventure."2

Although that claim carried more than its share of brash nationalism, it also touched a profound truth. Between the 1790s and the 1820s, the American West was both battleground and prize in an epic clash involving Russians, Spaniards, Americans, Canadians, and native peoples. The results of that confrontation were often sealed in treaties and agreements negotiated by diplomats far from any western region. But behind every polite proposal or negotiating ploy were the journeys and struggles of explorers. Men like Alexander Mackenzie, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Zebulon Montgomery Pike were, in William Goetzmann's felicitous phrase, "diplomats in buckskin."3 Explorers were part of a swirl of nations, the great rage for imperial sway that had dominated America since the Age of Columbus.

Historians have long used the intellectual shorthand "the Age of-----" to set off one era from another. This chapter uses the tag line "Age of Jefferson" to encompass the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Jeffer

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