1801 - Jefferson looks west

Samuel Lewis' 1805 map of Louisiana (Library of Congress)

      In a letter to the governor of Virginia, President Jefferson wrote: "However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern, if not southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms and by similar laws."

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       Thomas Jefferson, a man who never traveled more than 20 miles west of his home, Monticello, in Virginia, was among the first to dream of moving the national borders to the Pacific Ocean.

      In part, the impetus to empire and exploration came from the fact that no one really knew what was out there, and no one was more curious than Thomas Jefferson.  It is sometimes said that Europe invented the Enlightenment and the United States installed it on the Lockean tabula rasa of the West.  Like many of his ideas, Jefferson, the historical figure, is a paradox.  He had an expansive imagination but a very limited knowledge of the West.  He never travelled over the Appalachian Mountains, so perhaps experiencing it in his imagination set his mind free from the sobering considerations that confronted the explorer.  He was free to conceive of the unimaginable in an open landscape, with nothing to loose and everything to gain from his wanderings.

         Jefferson may have been intentionally crafty and evasive in public about the Louisiana Purchase, but he intended for Lewis and Clark to make it very clear to the tribes they met that they met along the way that they were now residents of the United States and that the Great White Fathers fully intended to control trade in the West.  In truth, Lewis and Clark were poorly prepared to negotiate the complex political network of trade and blood-alliances that had evolved on the plains over the course of many centuries.  What Lewis saw was the "unsteady movements and tottering fortunes" of Indian people as measured through the eyes of someone shaped by the gentrified upper class lifestyle of colonial Virginia, so it is not an accident that the these first attempts to bring Indians into the fold were generally unsuccessful.

          To say Americans discovered the southwest is presumptuous.  When the first American explorers set out in the nineteenth century from St. Louis, bound for Santa Fe and Taos, they were venturing into a region that had been the scene of extraordinary feats of discovery by Spaniards for nearly three hundred years. Creaking and clanking in their suits of metal, Spanish conquistadores and their ferociously devout Jesuit missionaries had criss-crossed the region from the Texas coast to the San Joaquin Valley and the coastal plain of southern California.  Garcia Lopez de Cardenas was the first European to behold the Grand Canyon, almost three hundred years before an American citizen would venture into its forbidding canyons.

       By 1776, American colonists had barely ventured past the ridge back of the Appalachian Mountains, but the Spanish knew about the seemingly endless grasslands first traversed by Coronado two hundred years and fifty years earlier.   In 1809, based on information compiled from the notes and journals of Spanish explorers, the great naturalist Alexander Von Humbolt published his monumental map entitled 'Map of New Spain,' detailing the southern coastline from Florida to the Baja.

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