The Free Soil issue. Kansas and Nebraska. Distribution of public lands. Louisiana in the Civil War. A glance at later development. Political and economic consequence of the old Louisiana Purchase.

The purchase of Louisiana was opposed by the New England Federalists. Half a century later their descendants were laboring to secure a result which would mean a political alliance with upper Louisiana. In the long struggle between the slaveholding and the free states the part of the Louisiana territory was one of supreme consequence.

By the act known as the Missouri Compromise, passed in 1820, Missouri was admitted into the Union as a slave state, but it was provided that there was to be no slavery in any portion of the Louisiana territory north of latitude 36° 30’ except in the state of Missouri. But by the middle of the century the westward movement of settlement reopened an issue which for a time had remained comparatively quiescent. In 1853, under the administration of President Pierce, it became clear that a new territory should be organized west of Iowa and Missouri, which would be within the Purchase. The North had believed the question of the extension of slavery into the Purchase settled by the Missouri Compromise. The South was fresh from the defeat of the "Wilmot Proviso," a bill forbidding slavery within the territory acquired from Mexico, and the representatives of the South were stimulated by the profits of slave labor on new land.1 They were unwilling to see slave labor definitely excluded, but it was a senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas, who introduced a bill providing for the admission of two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and repealing the restriction upon slavery contained in the Missouri Compromise. Douglas argued that the Compromise had been superseded by the legislation of 1850, passed primarily with reference to the territory acquired from Texas, which declared a policy of " non-intervention"; that is, that new territories should be admitted without any regulation regarding slavery. In other words, they were to decide the question for themselves; and this idea, which was termed "popular"—and later "squatter"— "sovereignty," was embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of May, 1854.

Out of this sprang a bitter struggle for control. It was a question on either side of the greater number of settlers. In Massachusetts, where men were not content with protests, there was organized an Emigrant Aid Society, and there were similar leagues in other northern states. The antislavery men strained every nerve to send settlers of their own party to Kansas, and with the coming of open strife the shipment of Bibles and rifles became a watchword of the times. Proslavery emigrants were sent from the South, and the Southern cause was aided from Missouri. The first election in 1854 was gained by the proslavery men. There followed the period of anarchy and civil war which made the name of "Bleeding Kansas" known throughout the land. But by 1858 the free-state men were in control, although Southern influence in Congress made it impossible for a time to gain admission as a state with a constitution forbidding slavery.2 Nebraska, lying farther removed from the slave states, and rendered less important for a time by the preoccupation of settlers with the territory to her east, escaped the battle for free soil in upper Louisiana of which Kansas bore the shock.

This was but one of a series of events which stimulated the occupation of upper Louisiana. The California gold seekers, and others who rushed to Pike’s Peak in the fifties to find disaster instead of treasure, had passed by farming lands which were to enrich future owners by producing the food of America and of foreign lands. With convalescence from the California gold fever came appreciation of the farming lands of the middle West. While the battle for Kansas was in progress, a tide of immigration was sweeping into Iowa, which was presently felt in Nebraska and in Kansas as well. A telegraph line was built at Leavenworth in 1858, and two years more brought the opening of the first railroad in Kansas. To the north the development of Minnesota brought about her admission as a state in 1858. On the eastward, at least, upper Louisiana was developing its definite and permanent organization.

The vital importance of control of the Mississippi, which the history of the Louisiana Purchase illustrates so constantly, was shown again in the Civil War. Of the states formed within the Louisiana Purchase, Louisiana and Arkansas seceded from the Union. Missouri for a time seemed doubtful. Her decision influenced large issues not only from the size of the state and its position on the border, but also from Missouri’s control of the Mississippi. Captain Lyon’s seizure of Camp Jackson at St. Louis in 1861 represented an initiative action against secession which exerted an immediate effect. This was the first step in a struggle for Missouri which resulted in securing this strategical vantage point for the Union. It was in this struggle that Fremont, the "Pathfinder," proved himself more resolute as an explorer than as a soldier. After the earlier border warfare in Missouri and Kentucky came the great campaigns for control of the Mississippi and its tributaries, including Farragut’s capture of New Orleans and a wonderful chapter of military and naval operations on the Mississippi and its tributaries. All this culminated in the surrender of Vicksburg to Grant on July 4, 1863, an event which ranks with Gettysburg as a turning point in the development of the war. The "great river" was returned to the control of the Federal government. The Confederacy was divided and its left flank turned. In President Lincoln’s words, "the Father of Waters rolled unvexed to the sea."3

If the Civil War checked the process of permanent organization for a time, yet its close and the release of great armies of men to peaceful labors quickened immeasurably the development of the West. North and South met within the confines of upper Louisiana. Less picturesque than this reunion of veterans on the prairies but of large practical consequence was the increase of immigration from Europe which followed the ending of the war. To all possible settlers there were held out the tempting inducements offered by readily acquired land.

The history of negotiations with the original occupants of Louisiana, the Indians,4 and their subsequent treatment, is too often a history of mistakes and worse. A peculiarly difficult question was presented by the character of the buffalo-hunting Indians of the plains, who included Comanches and Lipans in Texas and Indian Territory, and Pawnees, Kiowas, Cheyennes, and the great Sioux tribe on the north. There were the Blackfeet and Crows west of the Sioux, and in Colorado were the Utes. These were the chief tribes of many with whom the government made treaties for the alienation of the lands which they had occupied, and for their retirement to reservations, in order that the wild country might be opened to settlement.

Whether or not the paternalism of the government was wise in its disposition of the public lands, its course stimulated the development of the Louisiana Purchase. By the Preemption Act of 1841 any genuine settler could take up one hundred and sixty acres of public land and make his payments, on long time and easy terms, at a rate fixed in 1862 at one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre. The railroad land-grant system had its origin in 1835. The transcontinental roads received vast tracts of land along their lines. Over one hundred and fifty million acres were given to railroads between 1850 and 1870. The Union and the Central Pacific received twenty-five million acres, the Northern Pacific forty-seven million, and other roads obtained large amounts. So far as the government is concerned, the public domain has represented a loss; as regards the quickening of settlement and development and actual benefit to settlers, this disposition of public lands, with all its faults and flagrant abuses, has had certain practical advantages.5

In the case of the first transcontinental lines the railroad was pushed ahead of settlement. It was not a case of a demand for a railroad business due to increasing population, but an advance across long stretches of unoccupied country. Under ordinary circumstances it would have been wiser to advance the road step by step with the advance of population and of business; but in the case of the Union Pacific there was a necessity for a complete overland route. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fé aimed at the mining business of Colorado, and, when checked at the Royal Gorge after an actual war with the Denver and Rio Grande, it turned southward through New Mexico, seeking a slowly realized outlet to the Pacific. The Northern Pacific, after a long and eventful struggle, was pushed through to Oregon in 1883, although at its opening it ran through long stretches of unoccupied country. For many of the transcontinental roads, granting the desirability of building them when they were built, the paternalism involved in land grants was a necessity. But there are features of this railroad building and of the government’s distribution of the public domain which are creditable to neither side. All that can be said is, that, in spite of dishonesty, blundering, and waste, certain practical benefits have been realized and the settlement of the country has been accelerated. The part which the steamboat bore in opening and enriching the central valley of the West has been surpassed by the influence of the railroad in the development of the interior of the Louisiana Purchase — a development which without the railroad would have been impossible.

As to the later and comparatively recent history of the states formed within the Louisiana Purchase, the statistics provided in an appendix speak with a certain eloquence of their own. This narrative aims only to present a story of purchase and exploration, and the earlier phases of a domain less obviously a unit than the "Old Northwest" but peculiarly impressive and picturesque.

The history of Louisiana is crowded with possibilities fateful for the United States. In the struggle over the treaty of 1783, in which Spain and France were concerned as well as England, the United States refused to be confined to the eastern seaboard and secured an expansion to the Mississippi. Had the proposed restriction been enforced, it has been argued that a foreign power holding the whole middle West might have strengthened itself and alienated the American pioneers already beyond the Alleghenies, and have established a great colonial empire like that cherished by Talleyrand in his dreams. In the critical period of Louisiana after the Revolution there were possibilities of war with Spain and France and entanglements with England. It is profitless, perhaps, to consider past possibilities, and yet their consideration helps to measure the real significance of history.

The purchase closed a long contest for ascendency in the valley of the Mississippi. With the purchase the balance of power in the Western Hemisphere began to incline toward the United States. The acquisitions of Florida, Texas, California, Porto Rico and the Philippines, and presumably Hawaii as well, are termed by Professor F. J. Turner the corollaries of the Louisiana Purchase. "The Monrow Doctrine," to quote his words, "would not have been possible except for the Louisiana Purchase. It was the logical outcome of that acquisition. Having taken her decisive stride across the Mississippi, the United States enlarged the horizon of her views and marched steadily forward to the possession of the Pacific Ocean. From this event dates the rise of the United States into the position of a world power."6

On the economic side the acquisition of Louisiana meant first the ownership of a great system of water ways, whose control furnished the key that opened the interior of this continent. What that transportation was to the pioneer settlers west of the Alleghenies, to the fur traders of the interior, to the merchants of New Orleans and St. Louis, and to the development of the upper country, has been suggested in the course of this narrative.

The mineral resources of the purchase, ranging from the coal and iron of Missouri to the gold of Idaho, are indicated by statistics given elsewhere. It was the irony of fate that the Spaniards, whose keen scent for treasure was so richly rewarded in Peru, in Mexico, and even within our own borders, should have left Colorado practically unexploited and Montana unexplored.

An even more important part which Louisiana has assumed is that of the granary of the world.7 The phrase is large but not uncalled for. The vaguely described "American desert" of the middle of the nineteenth century has shrunk into narrower limits year by year with the pressure of settlement. The tilling of new lands has been accompanied by a palpable increase in rainfall, and the influence of irrigation, yet in an imperfect stage, has gained more and more land from a desert which is no longer feared. The present consequence of the wheat and corn of the Louisiana Purchase cannot be easily exaggerated. These cereals represent a question not only of food but of finance. Their success or failure is vital to great railroads and steamship companies, and influences the stock markets of the world. In other days cotton ruled as king, but the scepter has passed to the grain of the Louisiana Purchase.

Out of the productiveness of the Louisiana Purchase has grown an independence of mind as of estate. The lean years of subservience to Eastern capital have passed. The crumbling stock markets of 1903 found the West at first comparatively unconcerned, save for the effect upon the market for wheat, and occupied with its crops, its irrigation companies, and its development of local industries fostered by the money of its own people. The meeting of the Irrigation Congress, the influence of the Interstate Mississippi improvement and Levee Association, the ways of expending national funds in the irrigation of desert lands, the possibilities of shipping southward by the Mississippi instead of eastward, and a thousand practical domestic subjects have maintained their interest in spite of Eastern absorption in the stock market. Years of bad crops may lie in the future, but the centennial year of the Louisiana Purchase has brought the development of an independence which can never wholly disappear.

Of greater consequence than richness of production is the effect of any great national undertaking upon the character of a people. In the acquisition of the vast plains, great rivers, and lofty mountains of Louisiana, there lay an influence more subtle than that of mere space and size. It was an expansion of our country which meant a larger character and broader outlook for its men. Whatever vagaries may have harbored temporarily in Louisiana in the past, its influence has supplied a manhood and a love of soil and country which crown the long, strange history woven through the centuries since the first coming of the Spaniard.

1The influence of the cotton gin in cheapening production and the large returns from cotton raising by slave labor were obviously important political factors throughout this long struggle, and yet in the long run slavery was more expensive than freedom — a fact generally conceded now.
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2 It is unnecessary to give references to the voluminous literature of the slavery question which is readily accessible. For the part which concerns this history, however, the reader will find it useful to consult "Kansas," by Leverett W. Spring, a volume in the American Commonwealth Series.
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3 This mere suggestion of the political and military consequence of the Mississippi in the Civil War, which is all that is possible in this history, may very well turn the attention of readers to "The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War," by John Fiske. Snead’s " The Fight for Missouri" is, of course, more local in its interest.
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4 One view of our treatment of the Indians is presented in Mrs. Helen Hunt Jackson’s" A Century of Dishonor." A comparatively brief study, largely from an ethnological point of view, is afforded in the late Major J. W. Powell’s discussion of the subject contained in " The United States of America," edited by Professor N. S. Shaler. For an understanding of the Indian on the personal side, there is no better popular work than "The Story of the Indian" by Mr. George Bird Grinnell.
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5Donaldson’s "Public Domain" may be consulted. There is a considerable literature dealing with the public lands, which has been increased of late years by such events as the opening of Oklahoma and Indian Territory, and the increased interest in national parks and forest preserves in the West.
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6Professor Turner's idea has an eloquence of its own, but with all deference to one whom every student of American history holds in high respect, it might be argued that there is a distinction between contiguous and practically inseparable Louisiana and the distant Phillippins. A full recognition of the United States as a world power was apparently not brought home to European diplomats until the Spanish war.
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7Kansas leads the wheat-growing states with an acreage increased in forty years from 185,379 acres to 5,355,638. The production amounted to 82,488,655 bushels in 1900, while the second state, Minnesota, raised 51,509,252. In 1901 Kansas surpassed her own record with a yield of 99,079,304 bushels.
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Appendix 1

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© 2001, Lynn Waterman