Start now on that farthest western way,
which does not pause at the Mississippi
or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a
worn-out China or Japan, but leads on
direct a tangent to this sphere, summer
and winter, day and night, sun down,
moon down. and at last earth down too

--HENRY DAVID THOREAU, Walden ( 1854)


A Highway to the Pacific:
Thomas Jefferson and the Far West

Although Jefferson, as we have seen, believed that all North America would eventually be peopled by descendants of the original English colonists, this prospect belonged to a remote and rather dim future. His immediate attitude toward the Far West was in some respects like that of the British authorities toward the Ohio Valley before the Revolution: he thought of it as a area to be occupied by fur traders rather than farmers. He does not seem to have felt that his devout agrarianism was applicable to the area beyond the Mississippi. A certain instinct for order, and perhaps also the attacks of his Federalist opponents, led him to suggest at the time of the Louisiana Purchase that the right bank of tile river should be turned into an Indian reservation for at least fifty years. Emigrants should be forbidden to cross the river "until we shall have filled up all the vacant country on this side." 1

Nevertheless, Jefferson was clearly the intellectual father of the American advance to the Pacific. Early in his career he began collecting materials relating to the vast hinterland which he believed to be included within the original grant to the colony of Virginia. During his five years of diplomatic service in Paris, from 1784 to 1789, as he wrote later, he formed 'a pretty full collection of the English, French and Spanish authors, on the subject of Louisiana.'2 Not content with buying books and compiling notes, he began a long series of efforts to bring about actual exploration of the trans-Mississippi area. In Paris he


worked out a plan whereby the Connecticut traveler John Ledyard was to go eastward through Siberia to the Pacific Northwest and thence overland across North America to Virginia, but the venture was frustrated by the Empress Catherine. Back in America as Secretary of State in Washington's cabinet, Jefferson arranged for the French scientist Andre Michaux to explore the Pacific Northwest under the auspices of the American Philosophical Society. This plan likewise failed when Michaux became involved in the filibustering intrigues of the French ambassador Genet.3

After Jefferson's inauguration as President in 1801 he was at last in a position to carry out the projected exploration of the Far West by sending Meriwether Lewis and William Clark up the Missouri and over the Rocky Mountains to the mouth of the Columbia. The ostensible purpose of the expedition was the one mentioned by Jefferson when he sought permission from Madrid for Lewis and Clark to enter Spanish territory: it was a scientific enterprise. But a responsible statesman was not likely to forget that geographical knowledge was a necessary preliminary to economic penetration and eventual political domination. Scientific knowledge was to be sought for the sake of the fur trade. The North West Company of Montreal was expanding westward across Canada; Alexander Mackenzie had reached the Pacific in 1793. British fur traders were already established far down into present Minnesota and the Dakotas. Indeed, as Lewis and Clark found when they wintered from 1804 to 1805 at the Mandan Villages near present Bismarck, North Dakota, the British were in undisturbed control of the fur trade of the upper Missouri.

American trappers had to be encouraged to move into this area as an offset to the British, whose strong economic position might easily lead to the extension of their sovereignty over most of the trans-Mississippi.4 The best means of inducing American fur companies to enter the area was to make it profitable for them, and this in turn meant finding a better trade route than the British could command. Jefferson pointed out to Congress that the Canadian route along the line of lakes and rivers from Montreal to the Rocky Mountains "could bear no competition


with that of the Missouri," which was shorter, offered a continuous water route without portages, and might possibly lead to the Pacific with only a short land carriage over the mountains.5

The concrete plans outlined in this famous message to Con- gress proved unworkable when brought to the test of practice. The prospect of an advance up the Missouri to the area where American fur traders might come to grips with the British faded when the hostility of the Blackfoot Indians effectively closed the waterway. And the effort to find a commercial route over the Continental Divide and down the Columbia to the Pacific failed because of difficulties of terrain. Even Meriwether Lewis was forced to admit that 340 miles of land carriage, 140 miles of it "over tremendious [sic ] mountains which for 60 miles are covered with eternal snows," would be necessary along the most practicable communication across the continent by way of the Missouri and the Columbia.6

But these practical difficulties were of minor consequence beside Jefferson's continental breadth of vision. The importance of the Lewis and Clark expedition lay on the level of imagination: it was drama, it was the enactment of a myth that embodied the future. It gave tangible substance to what had been merely an idea, and established the image of a highway across the continent so firmly in the minds of Americans that repeated failures could not shake it. John Jacob Astor's ambitious plan of establishing trade between the Columbia Valley and the Orient from a base at Astoria was upset by the British navy, which captured the fort during the War of 1812 and supervised a virtually forced sale of the property to the North West Company. But the American fur traders were determined to penetrate the northern Rockies and in the 1820's William Ashley and Jedediah Smith developed an overland route through the Platte Valley and over South Pass.7 For the next two decades British and American trappers struggled for economic domination of the Northwest. In this context the Americans were worsted once again. After all, they were fighting the greatest mercantile empire in the world. In the Hudson's Bay Company, which had absorbed the North West Company in 1821, they had an adversary enjoying the advantage of vigorous governmental support as well as the practical experi-


ence of more than two centuries of British chartered trading companies. As long as the contest for Oregon remained in the stage of imperial rivalry based on the fur trade, the British proved impregnable.

On the other hand, the discovery of the overland route that became the Oregon Trail had an ultimate consequence of far greater moment than the fur trade. In the late 1830's and early 1840's widespread economic distress in the Mississippi Valley led Westerners to look longingly at the free land and the supposedly better markets of Oregon. When the frontier farmer learned that he could take his family all the way to the Pacific with no more equipment than his rifle, his wagon, and his livestock, his new energies were thrown into the contest against Britain in the Northwest.8 Within five years after the first significant migration of American settlers to the Willamette Valley the mercantilist colossus of the Hudson's Bay Company gave up and quit. The Treaty of 1846, establishing the boundary where it now is, at the forty-ninth parallel, merely records officially the fact that the American agricultural frontier had been pushed out to Oregon.

Back to Table of Contents| Chapter 2
AS@UVA Hypertexts