March, where did you go?
It literally blew by for me. Probably because I've been immersing myself in the research and writing of my next novel. For the rest of this year, whenever I write a blog myself, I'll be sharing insights into my next work. Entries may include places of interest surrounding the story I'm working on, or I might blog about a person, event, or even a concept pertaining to pertinent material. Hopefully they'll serve as thought- provoking tidbits on a subject I'm surrounded by, here at home in Virginia: American History.
This week, I'm sharing information on a person of great importance as a founding-father here in the US: Thomas Jefferson. Specifically, I want to spotlight Jefferson's vision for the West. I've been so intrigued by this man and the wealth of wisdom and knowledge he possessed. However, I'm also aware of his weaknesses.
Jefferson's illustrious list of accomplishments included having an active role in the House of Burgesses prior to the American Revolution. Once the rift opened between Great Britain and the American colonies, he served in the Continental Congress, and was the author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He served two terms as Governor of Virginia as the Revolution came to a close, was Secretary of State during Washington's presidency, Vice-President under John Adams, and became President himself beginning in 1801. He was surrounded by influential and enigmatic men of his time and he himself was a man of powerful intellect, wit, loved reading, music, and possessed a love of the natural world.
Stephen Ambrose, author of Undaunted Courage claims that Jefferson's passion for nature and his curiosity to explore the uncharted American West started as early as 1750. That would have made him an inquisitive seven-year old boy, first conceiving of the notion that unknown parts of North America warranted serious exploration. By the time he was President, however, the newly created, burgeoning US had expanded its frontiers from western Virginia and the Ohio Valley clear to the small but vital town of St. Louis along the Mississippi and very near the flows of the northwestward Missouri. In the early 19th century, claims to any lands south, west, or even north of St. Louis could have been contested. Spain declared for much of the southwestern areas as well as portions of the extreme southeast, France had their thumb on New Orleans and much of the land clear to St. Louis, along with northwestern Canada, and Great Britain was a prominent presence in what is now the Dakotas on up into central and western Canada. Pretty much, the landscape was a wild-card--EXCEPT to Native Americans, who had held ownership since pre-historic times. Although, most native nations didn't consider land a thing to be "owned". But that's another blog for another time!
Once Jefferson became President, he appointed one of his Virginia neighbors as his personal secretary. This young man's name was Meriwether Lewis and Jefferson became increasingly impressed with him as time went on. In 1803, Jefferson convinced Congress to authorize the purchase of an immense land mass previously owned by France. Napoleon was desperate to pay for his many battles all over Europe, and (according to Wikipedia) the US paid France approximately $15 million dollars for this allotment, which factored out to be only about $18--not per acre-- but per SQUARE MILE!!! In other words, the US got a steal of a deal!
Jefferson seized this opportunity, and turned to his secretary for help, appointing Meriwether Lewis to head up an expedition to seek a waterway clear to the Pacific coast. Nobody knew if one existed, but at last Jefferson had the means to find out. His goal was to promote peace throughout the native tribes, find a passage through to the Pacific--if one existed (which didn't happen), discover new species of flora and fauna, and pretty much make this exploration a declaration of sorts that this land was not to be British, French, or Spanish, but AMERICAN.
By 1804, Lewis had requested the aid of a friend from his former military years--William Clark--and together these two men formed the Lewis & Clark Expedition--the Corps of Discovery. Remarkably, they made it all the way to the Pacific without having to war with a single native tribe. Though they did face mistrust among many Native Americans they came across, along with some white men they encountered, as well as theft of their property, physical privations, and the loss of one expedition member (probably due to appendicitis), never had an expedition been as much of a success to determine the future of a country's geography and expansion as that of Lewis & Clark.
Yes, Jefferson was a man of his time, and I must also acknowledge his weaknesses. He owned slaves, and even fathered slave children. That was a depressing reality of 18th and 19th century America. In fact, lets be honest--slavery remains as one of mankind's most horrific tragedies of character. But that being said, Jefferson was also a renaissance man of vision and purpose, who wanted to give his new nation opportunity to open the West. Really, it would be the Native Americans who were bound to suffer in the next several chapters of the new land's story. But Native peoples also had powerful roles in the story of westward expansion, as did African Americans. Even a woman named Sacagawea (Bird Woman in her Shoshone language) helped guide Lewis and Clark to the Pacific.
I will end by stating that one man's vision--that of Thomas Jefferson--paved the way for the phenomenon of Western fever in America. Had it not been for his interest, foresight, and action at the right time, maps of America would probably look a lot different today.