A Great Transaction in Land
The people of the young Republic of the United States were greatly astonished, in the summer of 1803, to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of France, had sold to us the vast tract of land known as the country of Louisiana. The details of this purchase were arranged in Paris (on the part of the United States) by Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe. The French government was represented by Barbe-Marbois, Minister of the Public Treasury.
The price to be paid for this vast domain was fifteen million dollars. The area of the country ceded was reckoned to be more than one million square miles, greater than the total area of the United States, as the Republic then existed. Roughly described, the territory comprised all that part of the continent west of the Mississippi River, bounded on the north by the British possessions and on the west and south by dominions of Spain. This included the region in which now lie the States of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, parts of Colorado, Minnesota, the States of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, a part of Idaho, all of Montana and Territory of Oklahoma. At that time, the entire population of the region, exclusive of the Indian tribes that roamed over its trackless spaces, was barely ninety thousand persons, of whom forty thousand were negro slaves. The civilized inhabitants were principally French, or descendants of French, with a few Spanish, Germans, English, and Americans.
The purchase of this tremendous slice of territory could not be complete without an approval of the bargain by the United States Senate. Great opposition to this was immediately excited by people in various parts of the Union, especially in New England, where there was a very bitter feeling against the prime mover in this business,—Thomas Jefferson, then President of the United States. The scheme was ridiculed by persons who insisted that the region was not only wild and unexplored, but uninhabitable and worthless. They derided "The Jefferson Purchase," as they called it, as a useless piece of extravagance and folly; and, in addition to its being a foolish bargain, it was urged that President Jefferson had no right, under the constitution of the United States, to add any territory to the area of the Republic.
Nevertheless, a majority of the people were in favor of the purchase, and the bargain was duly approved by the United States Senate; that body, July 31, 1803, just three months after the execution of the treaty of cession, formally ratified the important agreement between the two governments. The dominion of the United States was now extended across the entire continent of North America, reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Territory of Oregon was already ours.
This momentous transfer took place one hundred years ago, when almost nothing was known of the region so summarily handed from the government of France to the government of the American Republic. Few white men had ever traversed those trackless plains, or scaled the frowning ranges of mountains that barred the way across the continent. There were living in the fastnesses of the mysterious interior of the Louisiana Purchase many tribes of Indians who had never looked in the face of the white man.
Nor was the Pacific shore of the country any better known to civilized man than was the region lying between that coast and the Big Muddy, or Missouri River. Spanish voyagers, in 1602, had sailed as far north as the harbors of San Diego and Monterey, in what is now California; and other explorers, of the same nationality, in 1775, extended their discoveries as far north as the fifty-eighth degree of latitude. Famous Captain Cook, the great navigator of the Pacific seas, in 1778, reached and entered Nootka Sound, and, leaving numerous harbors and bays unexplored, he pressed on and visited the shores of Alaska, then called Unalaska, and traced the coast as far north as Icy Cape. Cold weather drove him westward across the Pacific, and he spent the next winter at Owyhee, where, in February of the following year, he was killed by the natives.
All these explorers were looking for chances for fur-trading, which was at that time the chief industry of the Pacific coast. Curiously enough, they all passed by the mouth of the Columbia without observing that there was the entrance to one of the finest rivers on the American continent.
Indeed, Captain Vancouver, a British explorer, who has left his name on the most important island of the North Pacific coast, baffled by the deceptive appearances of the two capes that guard the way to a noble stream (Cape Disappointment and Cape Deception), passed them without a thought. But Captain Gray, sailing the good ship "Columbia," of Boston, who coasted those shores for more than two years, fully convinced that a strong current which he observed off those capes came from a river, made a determined effort; and on the 11th of May, 1792, he discovered and entered the great river that now bears the name of his ship. At last the key that was to open the mountain fastnesses of the heart of the continent had been found. The names of the capes christened by Vancouver and re-christened by Captain Gray have disappeared from our maps, but in the words of one of the numerous editors of the narrative of the exploring expedition of Lewis and Clark: "The name of the good ship `Columbia,' it is not hard to believe, will flow with the waters of the bold river as long as grass grows or water runs in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains."
It appears that the attention of President Jefferson had been early attracted to the vast, unexplored domain which his wise foresight was finally to add to the territory of the United States. While he was living in Paris, as the representative of the United States, in 1785-89, he made the acquaintance of John Ledyard, of Connecticut, the well-known explorer, who had then in mind a scheme for the establishment of a fur-trading post on the western coast of America. Mr. Jefferson proposed to Ledyard that the most feasible route to the coveted fur-bearing lands would be through the Russian possessions and downward somewhere near to the latitude of the then unknown sources of the Missouri River, entering the United States by that route. This scheme fell through on account of the obstacles thrown in Ledyard's way by the Russian Government. A few years later, in 1792, Jefferson, whose mind was apparently fixed on carrying out his project, proposed to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia that a subscription should be opened for the purpose of raising money "to engage some competent person to explore that region in the opposite direction (from the Pacific coast),— that is, by ascending the Missouri, crossing the Stony [Rocky] Mountains, and descending the nearest river to the Pacific." This was the hint from which originated the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark.
But the story-teller should not forget to mention that hardy and adventurous explorer, Jonathan Carver. This man, the son of a British officer, set out from Boston, in 1766, to explore the wilderness north of Albany and lying along the southern shore of the Great Lakes. He was absent two years and seven months, and in that time he collected a vast amount of useful and strange information, besides learning the language of the Indians among whom he lived. He conceived the bold plan of travelling up a branch of the Missouri (or "Messorie"), till, having discovered the source of the traditional "Oregon, or River of the West," on the western side of the lands that divide the continent, "he would have sailed down that river to the place where it is said to empty itself, near the Straits of Anian."
By the Straits of Anian, we are to suppose, were meant some part of Behring's Straits, separating Asia from the American continent. Carver's fertile imagination, stimulated by what he knew of the remote Northwest, pictured that wild region where, according to a modern poet, "rolls the Oregon and hears no sound save his own dashing." But Carver died without the sight; in his later years, he said of those who should follow his lead: "While their spirits are elated by their success, perhaps they may bestow some commendations and blessings on the person who first pointed out to them the way."