The Frontier Advances and the Louisiana Purchase
the beginning of the 19th century, the American frontier was
approximately along the Mississippi River, which bisects the
continental United States north-to-south from just west of the
Great Lakes to the delta near New Orleans.
St. Louis, Missouri
was the largest town on the frontier, the gateway for travel
westward, and a principal trading center for Mississippi River
traffic and inland commerce.
The new nation began to exercise some power
in domestic and foreign affairs. The British had been driven out
of the East after the American Revolutionary War but remained in
Canada and threatened to expand into the Northwest.
had left the Ohio Valley but still owned the Louisiana Territory
from the Mississippi River west to the Rockies, including the
strategic port of New Orleans. Spain's dominion (New Spain)
included Florida and the territories from present-day Texas to
California along the southern tier and up to what later would be
Utah and Colorado.
With a stroke of the pen, Thomas Jefferson,
the third president of the United States (elected in 1800), more
than doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana
Purchase of 1803 which acquired land France had acquired from
Spain just three years earlier. Napoleon Bonaparte had begun to
consider it a liability, since the slave rebellion in Haiti and
tropical disease undermined his Caribbean adventures. Robert R.
Livingston, American ambassador to France, negotiated the sale
with French foreign minister Talleyrand, who stated, "You have
made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make
the most of it".
The price was $15 million (about $0.04 per
acre), including the cost of settling all claims against France
by American citizens. The purchase was controversial. Many of
the Federalist Party, the dominant political party in New
England, thought that the territory was "a vast wilderness world
which will... prove worse than useless to us" and spread the
population across an ungovernable land, weakening federal power
to the detriment of New England and the Northeast.
But the Jeffersonians thought the territory would help maintain their
vision of the ideal republican society, based on agricultural
commerce, governed lightly and promoting self-reliance and
Jefferson quickly ordered exploration and
documentation of the vast territory. He charged Lewis and Clark
to lead an expedition, starting in 1804, to "explore the
Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its
course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean;
whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may
offer the most direct and practicable communication across the
continent for the purposes of commerce". Jefferson also
instructed the expedition to study the region's native tribes
(including their morals, language, and culture), weather, soil,
rivers, commercial trading, animal and plant life.
The principal commercial goal was to find an
efficient route to connect American goods and natural resources
with Asian markets, and perhaps to find a means of blocking the
growth of British fur trading companies into the Oregon Country.
Asian merchants were already buying sea otter pelts from Pacific
coast traders for Chinese customers. An expansion of inland fur
trading was also anticipated. With news spreading of the
expedition's findings, entrepreneurs like John Jacob Astor
immediately seized the opportunity and expanded fur trading
operations into the Pacific Northwest. Astor's "Fort Astoria"
(later Fort George), at the mouth of the Columbia River, became
the first permanent white settlement in that area.
during the War of 1812, the rival North West Company (a
British-Canadian company) bought the camp from Astor's agents as
they feared the British would destroy an American camp. For a
while, Astor's fur business suffered. But he rebounded by 1820,
took over independent traders to create a powerful monopoly, and
left the business as a multi-millionaire in 1834, reinvesting
his money in Manhattan real estate.