In the year 1803 the United States bought from France the greater part of our country lying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. The area acquired contained nearly a million square miles. This "Louisiana Purchase" has been called an event " worthy to rank with the Declaration of Independence and the formation of the Constitution."
The price of the empire which we gained in 1803 was $15,000,000. This seems a large amount even in this day of the easy handling of millions, but the taxable wealth of the Louisiana territory to-day is more than four hundred times the purchase money. In whole or in part fourteen states and territories have been formed in the area which was bought, and there are over fifteen million people within its borders.
These are impressive facts and they invite questions as to what the Louisiana territory was and how we happened to secure it. The answers tell a curious story, full of happenings so strange that they have the quality of romance. In the sixteenth century the Spaniards, first of white men to penetrate Louisiana, might have occupied and perhaps have held it for at least two centuries and a half, but they were lured away by the gold and silver of Mexico and South America. Later there were disasters near home, and always there was their own incapacity in colonization.
Next came the French, descending from the north and holding Louisiana until their power on this continent was broken at the fall of Quebec in 1759. Four years later France ceded Louisiana to Spain. After our Revolution England yielded us a boundary on the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, and the thirty-first degree. She promised also the free navigation of the Mississippi. But this promise Spain, holding the riverís mouth, refused to sanction, and as American pioneers pressed westward across the Alleghenies and sought the natural route to a market afforded by the water ways, this refusal became a matter of supreme moment.
There followed a critical period in the history of the West. In 1790 the possibility of a war between England and Spain led Pitt to consider a seizure of New Orleans. A little later France, always regretting the loss of Louisiana, employed the French minister Genet to use the discontent of our frontiersmen as a means of wresting Louisiana and Florida from Spain. Later still Franceís efforts to regain Louisiana became successful under the powerful guidance of Napoleon. His plans were laid for occupation. They were checked by the negro revolt in San Domingo and the prospect of war with England.
Meantime the West was ablaze, and President Jefferson sent Monroe as commissioner to Paris to secure New Orleans and the Floridas and make clear the way to the sea. The instructions of Monroe and Livingston were limited to a strip of seacoast. But Napoleon changed his mind. He offered them the whole vast area of Louisiana, and thus suddenly and unexpectedly we acquired Louisiana from France even before possession had formally passed to France from Spain.
What was bought was for the most part a wilderness. How this wilderness was explored is told in the second part of this volume in an abridged version of the journals of Lewis and Clark, the classical explorers of the West.
This outline of the first great American expedition into the far West and across the continent is followed by sketches of the journeys of Pike, Colton, Hunt, Wyeth, Prince Maximilian of Wied, Bonneville, Fremont, and others, ó soldiers, traders, scientists, makers of the old trails, and pioneers of the greatest of river routes, the Missouri-Mississippi. This third division of the story naturally includes the American fur trade, as well as the trails and water routes of the West. These explorers, trappers, and traders made the early American history of Louisiana, but long before them were the eras of Spaniards like Coronado, and Frenchmen like Father Marquette, La Salle, and the Verendryes.
The waning of the fur tradeís supremacy toward the middle of the nineteenth century was followed by discoveries of mineral wealth, by the pressure of settlement, by railroad building, by the cattle industry, and by other factors in the earlier building of the West which are sketched in the fourth part of this narrative. With the later political organization and giant growth of the old Louisiana territory within comparatively recent years this history deals only in a summary of facts.
Since the purpose of this book is to afford a continuous and very simple narrative, it has not seemed necessary or wise to enter at length into the diplomatic and political history of the purchase of Louisiana. That story may be read in the first and second volumes of Henry Adamsís "History of the United States of America" and in McMasterís "History of the People of the United States." The French side of the history is emphasized in Dr. J. K. Hosmerís popular "History of the Louisiana Purchase." Many other references will be found throughout this volume.
There seems to be no single book which tells the story of the West succinctly and includes the work of the Spanish and French pioneers, and also accounts of the various phases of American exploration and of the typical figures and aspects of the Western formative periods. It is hoped that this volume, in spite of its modest character, may afford a certain comprehensiveness which will be of convenience and of value to students of the earlier history of the West between the Mississippi and the mountains.
I desire to express my sense of obligation to my friends, Professor John Bach McMaster and George Parker Winship, Esq., for their, kindness in reading portions of the proofs. I wish also to acknowledge the aid of Mr Percy Waller of the Lenox Library, New York, in reading the proofs and in preparing the index.
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman