Friday, May 20, 2016

Jefferson's explorers

Every expedition with which Jefferson was associated threw sacrifice far, far down the route in the interest of introducing two parts of a country to each other. The men who made it through answered the question of how much the new lands were worth. Americans had no better way to tell the people of the West that they agreed than to raise Jefferson's explorers to the level of heroes.
Julie M. Fenster, Jefferson's America

Thomas Jefferson took an interest in the vast territory beyond the Mississippi River when he was secretary of state under President George Washington. The secretary of state deals with foreign affairs, and at that time the American West belonged to foreign powers, mostly Spain, but France and England both had interests there, too. Jefferson sought to expand American interests in the West without getting involved in a war.

As president a few years later, he saw exploration as a way of expanding influence into the West, The European countries were simply too far away and too preoccupied with their struggles against each other to take much interest in what was actually in the West. So Jefferson decided to explore the West even before the Louisiana Purchase gave the United States so much of it. These explorations are the topic of Julie M. Fenster's fine new book Jefferson's America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation.

Today we remember Lewis and Clark, but they were not the only explorers dispatched by Jefferson. While Meriwether Lewis and William Clark followed the Missouri River to the northwest and then ultimately went over the mountains to the Pacific Ocean, Zebulon Pike looked for the source of the Mississippi, William Dunbar and George Hunter explored the Ouachita River, and Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis followed the Red River for as far as they could before being stopped by Spanish soldiers ordered to keep the Americans out of Texas.

If Lewis and Clark get most of the attention today, early in the 19th century the Red River expedition was considered the most important by far, Fenster writes. It was the one most likely to start a war, as well as the one furthest south, and it was the south, near the vital port of New Orleans, that was at the time most crucial to America's survival.

Pike's adventures make the most interesting reading in Fenster's book, for he had far more nerve than sense and constantly put his own life and the lives of his men in jeopardy. He, for example, kept looking for the source of the Mississippi in midwinter when more rational explorers would have huddled up somewhere warm and waited for spring.

The Jefferson strategy, using exploration as a weapon of war, as Fenster puts it, worked. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, neither buyer nor seller knew what it entailed, neither the actual borders nor what the territory contained. The expeditions went far in answering those questions. They gave Americans greater interest in this vast territory, leading to settlements, which did more than anything to establish American claims even on territory that was not part of the purchase.

Rival politicians criticized the purchase at the time, but history soon proved Jefferson to be a visionary who made all the right moves.

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