Opening the West

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Opening the West

As the British colonies on the eastern seaboard grew ever more crowded in the mid-1700s, colonists began to look westward, beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and imagine the incredible riches the continent had to offer. At first, only the hardiest souls wandered far from civilization into the unknown. The stories these early adventurers told—first of the thick forests of the Ohio Valley, and later of the mineral-rich mountains in California, Colorado, and Nevada; the grassy plains of Texas and the Oklahoma and Kansas territories; and the fertile Willamette Valley of the Oregon territory—thrilled and shocked the incredulous but curious easterners.

Early wars and land purchases legalized Americans' claim to the continent (see Chapter 1). But these wars did not open the West—individuals did. Acting alone or in small groups, brave individualists ventured into virgin territory to claim what seemed to be "free" land or to profit from the abundant wild game. Without governmental protections, these frontiersmen stood alone in the wilderness. To keep their claims in the trans-Appalachian area (the area of land that stretched west from the crest of the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River), early settlers fought almost constantly with Indians. "For the frontiersman who found his cabin in flames and his family mutilated, horror quickly hardened into a desire for vengeance. Backwoods morality teamed God and right against the 'redman,'" according to frontier historian Paul O'Neil in The Frontiersmen.

While these individuals' farms helped stake America's claim to the area between the crest of the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, the trappers who traipsed even farther west, through the wilderness beyond the Mississippi River did not. More permanent settlements were needed there to establish America's claim to the rest of the continent.

The fur trade

Fur trappers of the Far West accommodated the cultural differences between whites and Indians for the benefit of trade. Many allied themselves with Native Americans to learn more about the wilderness they roamed. Combing thousands of miles to collect animal pelts for trade, these independent trappers also gathered stories of the marvelous frontier. Their pelts and stories poured into the trading center of St. Louis and into the eastern states; the pelts became fashionable hats, and the traders' stories thrilled the easterners, helping to create a national desire to see the West.

As profitable as the fur trade became, however, trappers did not provide America with a stable presence in the Far West; only settlements could secure that. Families needed to be persuaded to cross the Mississippi River in search of homes. Towns needed to be built. So ultimately, Americans needed to discover what every square mile of their country had to offer and promote the best places for settlement. First, explorers blazed trails across the continent, and then the U.S. Army sent engineers to explore the boundaries of the country. After the Civil War (1861–65), the "Great Surveys" detailed the mysteries of the interior. These excursions provided maps of the continent and prompted many to flock westward and settle all worthy territory. Pulled by stories and guided by maps, America fulfilled what many called its manifest destiny: to settle the continent from coast to coast.

Claiming the land

The rapid population growth in the American colonies during the 1700s motivated colonists to move west. American farmers felt that they needed at least one hundred acres to support a family. As lands were divided and dispersed among growing families, and as the fertility of the soil declined after more than a century of use, it became increasingly difficult to support a family on an eastern farm. It only made sense to the colonists that they take possession of the fertile land in the Ohio Valley (an expansive area west of the Appalachians that includes part or all of the present-day states of West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as the far western parts of Pennsylvania and New York).

The settling of the trans-Appalachian area began slowly. Limited numbers of settlers moved into the areas around Fort Duquesne (pronounced doo-KAYNE; now named Fort Pitt) after 1760 and Scotch-Irish farmers from North Carolina moved into eastern Tennessee around 1771. The settlers of the trans-Appalachian area were hardy backwoodsmen who braved the wilderness to carve out settlements and claim new land for the young country. Without maps or support from their government, these men cleared the land for their family farms and stood alone against Indians defending their claims to the land. The American settlers had only their own strength and skill with a flintlock rifle or an ax for protection.

Men like Daniel Boone and James Harrod ventured into the uncharted forests across the Appalachian Mountains to ready the area for settlement in the 1760s and 1770s. Although these men were interested in settling the frontier, they did not want to replicate life in the East. Boone scorned the settled towns of the east and preferred not to live "within 100 miles of a d——d Yankee," noted Paul O'Neil in The Frontiersmen. After years of hunting in and exploring the rich forests of Kentucky, Boone cut the first road over the Cumberland Gap (a natural passage through the region west of the Appalachians) to found Boonesborough in Kentucky in 1775. Judge Richard Henderson had employed Boone to lead a group to settle the millions of acres in central Kentucky that Henderson had purchased from some Cherokee Indians.

Little by little, others followed, using the same tools and steely determination to settle the fertile valleys between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Many of those who settled the area during this time were the first whites to do so, for while British and French fur traders had roamed the woods for years, they had not established permanent settlements. And all these settlers ignored the Proclamation of 1763, which had declared the Appalachian Mountains the western boundary of the colonies due to ongoing conflicts with the Native American population in the region beyond the Appalachians.

Life on this new frontier was hard. After carving their farms out of the thickly forested valleys, settlers had to defend their new homes against attack. Early on, Indians opposed Americans encroaching on their land and allied themselves with French or British trappers. Indians would burn the crops and cabins and attack the settlers. Until the War of 1812 (1812–14) established the Mississippi River as the new western border of the United States, Indian raids were, in the words of O'Neil, "as much a part of border life as hunting or planting corn."

Discovering the land's riches: Lewis and Clark

With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the United States acquired from France more than 800,000 acres of land, stretching from west of the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains (see Chapter 1), doubling the size of the United States. Americans had been busily settling the Near West and began to wonder about the land across the Mississippi. Intrigued by the notes of British fur trader and explorer Alexander Mackenzie (c. 1755–1820), the first white man to cross the Rocky Mountains, President Thomas Jefferson engaged Captains Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) to seek out the Northwest Passage, a direct water route to the Pacific Ocean, which many hoped would facilitate profitable trading with other countries. Lewis and Clark welcomed the president's request, even though they would be on land claimed by the British once they crossed the Rockies. Not only were they enthusiastic, but the two good friends were also up to the task. The twenty-nine-year-old Lewis and the thirty-three-year-old Clark were both well-trained military men and well versed in woods-manship and Indian matters.

Lewis and Clark assembled a group of explorers called the "Corps of Discovery," which included fourteen soldiers, nine Kentuckians, two French river men, a slave named York, and Lewis's pet Newfoundland dog, Seaman. On May 14, 1804, twenty-two oarsmen rowed a square-sailed keelboat (a shallow riverboat used for hauling freight) up the Missouri River near St. Louis, along with two groups of six and seven men in two pirogues, or canoes. Two hunters with horses patrolled the banks of the river for game. Along the way the Corps also added a number of interpreters who spoke various Indian languages.

Meeting different cultures

Clark recorded every twist and turn of the river and commented on significant geological features along their route. Lewis tried to befriend the more than fifty Indian tribes they encountered, bestowing gifts upon the chiefs and relating stories of the powerful United States and the "Great Father" Jefferson (President Thomas Jefferson) in Washington, D.C., who would welcome visits from chiefs and send gifts to tribes who remained peaceful. At these meetings, the Corps would put on a show to entertain the tribes: the soldiers would march in full uniform, and Lewis would fire a gun. As entertaining as the Corps' show was, Seaman the dog and the black slave, York, proved tremendously interesting to the Indians as well. Indians were fascinated with the "unpainted man-with-the-black-skin," calling him "Big Medicine."

Just as the Indians were fascinated with the Corps, the Corps too found the Native Americans interesting. Never before had the Corps seen people who strapped planks to babies' heads to flatten their foreheads; nor had they seen people whose noses were pierced with shells. Lewis recorded every detail of each meeting, describing how each tribe reacted to his speech about the United States and detailing various Indian ceremonies, daily routines, and tribal organization. The Corps' initial discoveries were sent back to St. Louis on a keelboat on April 7, 1805. This trove of information included Clark's chart of the fifty different tribes they had encountered; a dictionary of the Mandan tribe's language; a map of the Missouri River; live animals, including magpies, a prairie dog, and a sharp-tailed grouse; the skins and skeletons of other animals unknown in the East; a variety of plant specimens; and a container of mice and insects. In addition, forty-five Native Americans accepted voyage on the boat bound for the Great Father. As the boat left, Lewis and Clark continued westward with their Corps, which now numbered thirty-one and included Indian interpreter Sacajawea and her two-month-old son (see box on p. 28-29).

The expedition made its way to the head of the Missouri River in Montana and, with Sacajawea acting as an interpreter to the Shoshone (pronounced shuh-SHOW-nee) tribe, was pointed in the direction of the "great or stinking lake," which Lewis recorded as the Shoshones' term for the ocean, according to the Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Late in 1805, the group saw Indians wearing sailors' clothes and knew they couldn't be far from the ocean. In fact, they were on the Colombia River in present-day Oregon. In mid-November they reached the Pacific coast in what is now northwestern Oregon. Though they had reached their destination, the party was unenthusiastic about spending the winter at Fort Clatsop, which consisted of two rows of hastily constructed log cabins. The Corps suffered pesky fleas, spoiled fish for food, rain every day but twelve, mildewed clothing, and neighboring Indians stealing their supplies. Unwilling to wait longer for the ship Jefferson had promised would take them home around Cape Horn, on the southernmost tip of South America, the expedition started for home on March 23, 1806.

Dividing the party

When the Corps reached Travelers' Rest Creek, near present-day Lolo, Montana, Lewis and Clark split their party in two so they could explore even more of the West on their way home. Lewis's party of nine braved swarms of mosquitoes to explore the Marias River. Clark divided his group of twenty-two, sending one group down the Missouri River and the other, including himself, overland to the Yellowstone River, where they would then paddle downriver to the Missouri.

Lewis's party met with Blackfeet Indians, who did not respond well to Lewis's speech. The Blackfeet were not interested in ruining their business connections with the Canadians to trade with the Americans. But more detrimental to the meeting was Lewis's acknowledgment of his friendship with the Nez Percé and Shoshone tribes, which were enemies of the Blackfeet. At night, Blackfeet warriors turned the explorers' guns on them, and in the struggle the Lewis party killed two Blackfeet warriors—the only time members of the expedition killed Indians. To avoid reprisal, Lewis and his party rode their horses more than 120 miles in twenty-four hours to escape Blackfeet territory. Luckily, when they arrived at the Missouri River, the Corps boats were waiting for them. Three days later, Lewis's party caught up with Clark, who had led the others downriver to hunt and to escape the mosquitoes.

Returning to civilization

By September 23, 1806, the Corps had finished its journey. All the explorers except Sergeant Charles Floyd, who had become ill and died near present-day Sioux City, Iowa, arrived in St. Louis two years, four months, and ten days after leaving. The journey had taken so long that the well-wishers who had sent them off were astonished to see them return, having heard rumors that the Corps had been slaughtered by Indians or enslaved by the Spanish. Nevertheless the explorers had returned with news of a "practical route" across the country that would afford "immense advantages to the fur trade" because "the Missouri and all its branches ... abound more in beaver and common otter than any streams on earth," according to Lewis's letter to the president upon his return.

Sacajawea (also Sacagawea, Sakakawea)

For years, historians scoured American history looking for instances of genuine Indian and American cooperation. Sacajawea's aid to the Lewis and Clark expedition had, for many years, seemed one of the best examples. Though she played a relatively minor role in the expedition, she was among the first Indian women, if not the first, to play any part in helping white expansion.

Born around 1788 in the Shoshone tribe, Sacajawea was captured by the Hidatsa tribe of North Dakota when she was twelve. Mountain man and fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau, who had lived with the Hidatsa for several years, bought Sacajawea from the Hidatsa in about 1804 to be his wife. Lewis and Clark met Charbonneau in the Mandan villages at the bend of the Missouri River in Dakota country in 1805 and hired him as an interpreter. Before the Corps of Discovery left the Mandan, Sacajawea gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste, who was nicknamed "Pomp." The seventeen-year-old Sacajawea carried her son on her back in a cradle board all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Not long after leaving the Mandan village, Lewis and Clark discovered Charbonneau was a fine cook but a terrible guide. While steering a pirogue along the Missouri River, Charbonneau, who could not swim and was, according to Lewis, "perhaps the most timid waterman in the world," nearly lost "almost every article indispensably necessary to ... insure the success of the enterprise in which, we are now launched," according to Along the Trail with Lewis and Clark. A gust of wind caught the sail and tipped the boat until it filled to within an inch of the top. Charbonneau lost his wits and proved unable to manage the situation. Luckily, Private Pierre Cruzatte and Sacajawea remained calm. Lewis remarked that their "resolution and fortitude" saved the cargo.

Sacajawea also proved better able to guide and interpret for the Corps than her husband did. She gathered healthful vegetation from the forests to improve the expedition's menu and could speak with the Shoshone tribes they would soon encounter. The first band of Indians the expedition met was led by a chief named Cameahwait, who turned out to be Sacajawea's brother. Their joyous reunion made it possible for the Corps to trade for horses and other supplies needed to cross the Rocky Mountains.

When the expedition returned to the Mandan villages on the way back to St. Louis, Sacajawea and Charbonneau left the Corps. In 1809, Sacajawea and Charbonneau visited Clark in St. Louis and left their son behind to be educated. There are conflicting accounts as to what happened to Sacajawea after her visit with Clark. One version states that she died of fever in 1812. Another suggests that she remained in St. Louis for a time, went to live with the Comanche tribe, and eventually rejoined her relatives on the Wind River Reservation of Wyoming, where she died of natural causes in April 1884.

Lewis and Clark had established the commercial value of the new territory rather than the suitability of the land for settlement as the earlier backwoodsmen had done. Their report made it clear that abundant game could enrich the young country, and Americans jumped at the chance. Trappers swarmed into the West.

The inhabited West

The explorers who ventured across the Mississippi did not find the land unsettled or unclaimed, as many of the backwoodsmen had found the trans-Appalachian region. (Though native peoples lived on much of this land, Americans didn't consider the Indian lands settled.) Unlike the area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, the Far West and the Southwest (parts of present-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) had been claimed and settled by the Spanish. Spain had claimed all of present-day New Mexico in 1598, and in 1769 Spanish missionaries arrived on the California coast and set out to convert the more than three hundred thousand indigenous peoples, whom they called Diggers, to Christianity. In an attempt to extend their empire farther north into California, the Spanish began building missions (religious settlements), pueblos (villages), and presidios (forts), beginning in San Diego and extending northward all the way to San Francisco Bay. By the turn of the century, they had gathered nearly the entire population of California Indians south of San Francisco Bay into their missions. But life in the missions destroyed the Indians' lives and culture. Forced to labor in the missions, the baptized Indians were essentially slaves, and to make matters worse, they were not immune to many of the Spaniards' diseases. By 1817, 90 percent of the mission Indians had died from disease and abuse.

Some of the first U.S. expeditions across the Mississippi River were intended to establish trade with the Spanish. In 1806, Army Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779–1813) led fifteen men from St. Louis to explore the southern border of the Louisiana Territory. Instead of finding the headwaters of the Arkansas or Red River, as he had hoped to, Pike encountered many Indian villages and Spanish settlements in New Mexico. He was quite impressed by a mountain peak looming high above the flat plains of present-day Colorado, which would later bear his name, but ultimately he was unable to ascend its peak and declared that no human could. (Fourteen years later, three men did attain the summit of Pikes Peak.)

When Pike returned with news of the affluent Spanish settlements, many American traders flocked into the Southwest. Although the Spaniards forbade foreigners from trading in Spanish territories and threw early traders into jail, the Mexicans, who took control of the area in 1821, proved better trading partners. And by 1824, the United States sent a federal survey team to map out and clear what would become the Santa Fe Trail, which would open the Southwest to thousands of wagons carrying settlers as well as traders.

Mexican independence also benefited American traders in California. When Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, it gained the California territory. And in 1834, when the Mexican government ended the dominance of the Spanish missions, it granted large tracts of land to the Californios, descendants of the original Spanish settlers. These ranchos were tended by the first cowboys, called vaqueros. Wealthy Californio Mariano Vallejo remembered the days when he and his peers dominated California society (quoted by Gradalupe Vallejo in Century Magazine): "We were the pioneers of the Pacific coast, building towns and Missions while General [George] Washington was carrying on the War of the Revolution. We often talk together of the days when a few hundred large Spanish ranches and Mission tracts occupied the whole country from the Pacific to the San Joaquin." The Californios organized great ranching empires and became rich selling cowhides to Russian, English, French, and American traders who stopped at California ports. The Californios traded the hides for manufactured goods, bright cloth, jewelry, tobacco, furniture, and a wealth of other goods that they could not produce themselves. The influence of the Californios declined, however, when the United States claimed California and the other southwestern territories following the Mexican-American War in 1848.

Founding Astoria

After 1807, the promise of abundant furs in the West was the main reason Euro-Americans ventured across the Mississippi. Merchants were also lured west in search of a convenient trade route to China and India. Four years after Lewis and Clark returned and detailed their trip to the Pacific, John Jacob Astor (1763–1848), one of the wealthiest Americans of his time, formed the Pacific Fur Company with the encouragement of Thomas Jefferson. He hoped to open a line of trading posts between Missouri and the Oregon Country. The main outpost, to be called Fort Astoria, was on the Oregon coast, at the mouth of the Columbia River. This outpost would funnel goods from the inland areas across the Pacific and provide a center for international maritime trade. In addition, Astor hoped his post would "carry the American population across the Rocky Mountains and spread it along the shores of the Pacific," according to W. Irving in Astoria. In 1810 Astor sent thirty-three men by sea from New York to the mouth of the Columbia and sixty-four trappers and guides overland, to found Fort Astoria.

In March 1811, the Tonquin, captained by former naval officer Jonathan Thorn, landed in Oregon. Thorn proved to be a reckless leader, losing seven men while attempting a landing in rough seas and leaving fewer than half his men to build the new fort while he and the other half ventured north to trade with the Indians. After Thorn lost his temper and struck a Salish Indian chief while trying to make a deal, the tribe killed him in retaliation the next day, along with many of his crew. One of his wounded men lit the ship's cache of gunpowder and accidentally blew the Tonquin to pieces. The remainder of the party forged ahead with plans for the fort.

Seven months passed before the first of the overland party made it to the fort. Unaccustomed to the trials of the wilderness, many of the party had died en route. Only forty-five of the original sixty-four made it to Fort Astoria. In 1813, a supply ship brought reinforcements to the fort, and it seemed as if the venture would succeed. But the Americans and the British were in the midst of the War of 1812 (1812–14) and hostilities between them had reached a high point. Captain William Black landed and purchased the fort for the British, renaming it Fort George in October 1813. The Treaty of Ghent, signed twelve months later at the end of the War of 1812, reinstated the fort as an American outpost. Although the fort was a disaster in business terms and brought death to sixty-five of the men who tried to found it, Fort Astoria helped legitimize America's claim to the Pacific coast, setting the stage for future American settlement of the area.

Trappers map the West

Although it had existed in the trans-Mississippi West for almost two decades, the American fur trade truly began to flourish in the 1820s. Trappers who combed the area related the geography of the West, and slowly a map of the region emerged via word of mouth. The trappers told of mountain vistas, geysers, and lakes of salt. They described buffalo skulls scattered across the plains and fights with grizzly bears. But many would lament, as Jim Bridger (1804–1881) did, that "They said I was the d——dest liar ever lived. That's what a man gets for telling the truth," according to Bil Gilbert in The Trailblazers. Though the trappers' stories often fell upon disbelieving ears, their tales circulated through the civilized East and fueled a wave of interest in settling the West.

Trade in Santa Fe, in present-day New Mexico, opened to Americans in 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain. In 1823 Edwin James and Stephen Long published the details of their expeditions in the Rocky Mountains, which increased American interest in the area. Trappers gathered at the annual Rendezvous near the common borders of present-day Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah (see box on p. 36) to sell their pelts and obtain supplies for the coming year. Pelts were shipped overseas on trading vessels or carried overland or on rivers to eastern markets. By the 1830s, however, overtrapping of beaver and changes in fashion put the fur trade in jeopardy. Heavy competition over the next twenty years made the American fur trade unprofitable by the 1840s. Unable to find many beavers to trap, trappers established farms or general trading posts in the Rocky Mountains they had come to know so well. One of the most famous trappers was Jim Bridger, who established a ranch in southwest Wyoming that catered to settlers making their way west.

Though the era of mountain men had come to an end, their work would usher in the next great era of emigration. The keen sense of the continent the mountain men had gained while combing the country for fur proved invaluable to later explorers, who hired the mountain men as guides in their search for viable travel routes for settlers.

By the 1840s, Americans, feeling the impact of increased European immigration, began to look on the trans-Mississippi region not as a vast wealth-building resource for those willing to risk their lives but as a potential home in which to raise American families. As early as the 1830s, artists and scientists had portrayed and detailed the natural wonders of the continent, and by the 1840s political movements began to use these pictures and scientific discoveries to further expansionist goals of claiming the entire continent for the United States. Notions of manifest destiny, the idea that Americans were preordained to inhabit the continent from coast to coast, fueled what amounted to a holy war or crusade toward the Pacific Ocean.

Topographical engineers

While the mountain men trapped and explored the unknown regions of the continent for profit, the United States Army formed the Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838 to look at the land with an eye toward settlement. The thirty-six officers who made up this group were the best the military had to offer, having graduated at the top of their classes at the West Point military academy. The Corps of Engineers made maps and surveys of the frontier from the 1840s to the 1860s. The Corps marked the 49th parallel as the boundary between Canada and Oregon and in 1849, after the Mexican-American War, established the boundary between Mexico and the United States, which ran fifteen hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.

The Mountain Man Rendezvous

The annual Rendezvous was the most significant social and business event of the American fur trade during the 1820s and 1830s. Each summer in late June or early July, Rocky Mountain fur trappers and their Indian allies met with the trading companies in order to purchase supplies and exchange a year's worth of pelts. The furtrading companies, including the two largest, the American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, would send a supply train from St. Louis loaded with clothing, ammunition, traps, sugar, coffee, flour, and anything else a trapper might need. Trappers would be lucky to bring in eight hundred dollars' worth of pelts to trade for essential supplies. The annual Rendezvous was usually held near the common borders of present-day Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.

The Rendezvous was the only time trappers could be found in a group—most of their time was spent combing the rivers and mountains alone or in small bands. By the time a mountain man reached the Rendezvous, he might have traveled more than three thousand miles in search of pelts. Tired of their year-long isolation, trappers made the Rendezvous a raucous celebration of surviving the year's hardships and danger. The mountain men challenged each other to wrestling and shooting matches, horse racing, and even eating contests. They drank, gambled, fought, exchanged tall tales, and bartered for wives.

When the fur-trading industry declined in the 1840s, the Rendezvous ended. Having befriended the Indians and adopted many of their customs, many fur trappers continued to live in the mountains rather than returning to civilization. Some of the most famous, including Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Tom Fitzpatrick, and Jedediah Smith, acted as guides to the explorers and settlers of the West.

The Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was instrumental in opening the West for settlement. Leading expeditions into the frontier, the corps helped determine which parts of the frontier were best for settlement. Of all the engineers, John Charles Frémont (1813–1890) became by far the most famous. Known as "the Pathfinder," Frémont led five expeditions into the West between 1842 and 1854. Though Frémont was not a skilled explorer—he often needed help staying on others' paths and found few new routes himself—he was a masterful promoter of the West. A charismatic speaker and glamorous figure, Frémont influenced many Americans' decision to go west.

John Frémont, promoter of the West

Unlike the other engineers, Frémont did not attend West Point; instead, he was appointed to the corps as a civilian by a powerful friend named Joel Poinsett (1779–1851), the secretary of war under President Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) who helped set up the corps. Given the title of second lieutenant, Frémont worked under the extremely gifted surveyor Joseph Nicollet. A few years later, Frémont married Jessie Benton (1824–1902), the daughter of expansionist Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782–1858) of Missouri. Benton pushed through an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars for a survey of the Oregon Trail; Frémont would lead the survey, but he was guided by the famous mountain man Kit Carson (1809–1868).

In addition to the routine drawing of maps and descriptions of the land, Frémont, as instructed by Benton, set out to romanticize the West and make western travel appealing to those east of the Mississippi. Benton and others who promoted the idea of manifest destiny reasoned that the mountain men, who were often regarded as outcasts, were not enough to support American claims to the continent. Their concerns about ownership of the continent were understandable: Mexico owned the Southwest outright, and the United States and Britain jointly owned the Oregon Country. Supporters of manifest destiny pushed for the more "civilized" settlement of the Far West and tried to appeal to farmers, ranchers, storekeepers, preachers, and miners, people who would give the American government a reason to spend money on roads and forts in the West and to support the United States's claim to the area. Frémont's accounts of his adventures—such as climbing high mountains and navigating white-water rapids—enticed many to venture into the Far West.

One of Frémont's most memorable stories was of a mountain summit, recalled in his Report of the Exploring Expedition to trhe Rocky Mountains:

Here, on the summit, where the stillness was absolute, unbroken by any sound, and thus the solitude complete, we thought ourselves beyond the region of animated life; but while we were sitting on the rock, a solitary bee (bromus, the bumble bee) came winging his flight from the eastern valley, and lit on the knee of one of the men. It was a strange place, the icy rock and the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains, for a lover of warm sunshine and flowers; and we pleased ourselves with the idea that he was the first of his species to cross the mountain barrier, a solitary pioneer to foretell the advance of civilization.

Frémont combined his romanticized adventures with practical advice on food and shelter and supply lists for the emigrants wishing to make the journey. His report of his expedition would usher in an era of unprecedented interest in settling the trans-Mississippi region.

Despite Frémont's enthusiasm, his was not the only account of the expedition. His topographer, Charles Preuss, wrote an account of the same mountain ascent that was less glamorous: "The hike was disagreeable all around. No supper, no breakfast, little or no sleep—who can enjoy climbing a mountain under these circumstances? Moreover, all the men, with perhaps two exceptions, would have much preferred to stay in camp. What possible interest do these fellows have in such an undertaking?" according to Bil Gilbert in The Trailblazers. Indeed, twenty years before Frémont's expedition, Major Stephen H. Long had dubbed the Great Plains the "Great Desert," and Long and most of the other travelers to the region declared it "wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course, uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence," as quoted in The Trailblazers. Long went on to assert that the Plains would "serve as a barrier to prevent too great an extension of our population westward." But Frémont's account of the Plains could not have been more different. Frémont noted that the region "reminds us of cultivated gardens and civilization." In the end, Frémont proved quite able to persuade others to his view, and legislators were so taken with his report in 1843 that Congress ordered the distribution of ten thousand copies. And in the early 1840s, thousands of wagon trains assembled to journey west.

Hearing of profitable trade with the Mexicans, John Bidwell started out for California with the first of the Oregon Trail wagon trains. Religious leader Brigham Young (1801–1877) and the twelve thousand Mormons who followed him read Frémont's and others' reports of the West to locate the perfect spot for their religious refuge (present-day Salt Lake City). Missionaries (proponents of a religion who travel into unexplored territories to try to convert indigenous peoples to the missionaries' religion) organized to save the souls of the numerous native peoples on the frontier, a trend that ended quickly after the brutal massacre of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman at their Oregon mission (see Chapter 10).

Mapping the inland territories

By the end of the Civil War (1861–65) the army had defined the boundaries of the continent and detailed its natural assets. The army had consolidated its survey findings on one map drawn to scale 1:3,000,000 by Lieutenant Gouverneur Kemble Warren (1830–1882), but much of the inland territory had yet to be mapped. People were naturally curious about these unmapped portions of the country, and the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres of land to anyone able to settle and work it, created a need for these areas to be explored to find good places for settlement.

The fifteen years following the Civil War became known as the period of the "Great Surveys." Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, Clarence King, John Wesley Powell, and the army's Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler led most of the surveys. Exploring what would become Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, and New Mexico and some of Montana, Idaho, and Oregon, these men and their crews detailed the region's geologic structure and assessed its mineral deposits, navigated its rivers, and described wildlife and vegetation, providing instruction for the best use of the land. Written without the grand exaggerations and misleading romantic tales used by Frémont, these surveys scientifically recorded the abundance and vastness of the nation and were enhanced by the new technology of photography (photographers often accompanied the surveyors on their treks). By 1879 these surveys would complete the work started by Lewis and Clark in 1804. Surveyor Hayden noted that the goal was to "lay before the public such full, accurate and reliable information as will bring from the older states the capital, skill, and enterprise necessary to develop the great natural resources," according to Gilbert's The Trailblazers. Leaving nothing to the imagination, the Great Surveys would create the foundation for the settlement of the West.

For More Information


Wishart, David J. The Fur Trade of the American West: 1807–1840. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Web sites

"The Adventures of Daniel Boone, Formerly a Hunter; Containing a Narrative of the Wars of Kentucky." Archiving Early America: Historic Documents from Eighteenth Century America. [Online] (accessed April 5, 2000).

"The Journals of Lewis and Clark." American Studies @ The University of Virginia: Hypertexts. [Online] (accessed April 5, 2000).

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