Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America
Sections: Prologue | Before Lewis & Clark | Lewis & Clark | After Lewis & Clark

Beyond the Allegheny Mountains

Fish and birdThomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark were all culturally and intellectually Virginians. As the leading figures in what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition, they were steeped in a colonial legacy that optimistically looked westward in anticipation of exploiting the treasures of an Eden that lay beyond the Allegheny Mountains. In the earliest stages of Chesapeake tidewater settlement, Virginia, like other colonies, had an imperial mentality and vision that encompassed the entire breadth of the continent. During the last half of the eighteenth century Virginia's leaders, as well as those in other colonies, began to consider more practical means to reach Eden beyond the mountains. Virginians, including Jefferson and George Washington, believed that by building canals and improving navigation on the colony's major rivers—the James and the Potomac—they could defeat similar schemes that centered on the Hudson River and New York City. And at its grandest, the Virginia imperial vision also reached out to the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers. Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia confidently declared that such rivers could extend the reach of an American empire beyond the mountains, perhaps even to the western sea.

The Pacific Beyond the Alleghenies

Originally published in 1651 by John Farrer, a representative of the Virginia Company, this 1667 edition was issued by Farrer's daughter, Virginia. It perpetuates the notion that the Pacific Ocean lay just across the Allegheny Mountains—separated by a narrow strip of land that could be traveled in only "ten days marche." At this time, the actual distance between the two oceans was unknown, but the intention was to link Sir Francis Drake's 1577 landing in New Albion (Point Reyes, California) with the recently settled Virginia colony, thereby substantiating British claims to the breadth of the continent.

John Farrer (1590-1657). A Mapp of Virginia Discovered to ye Hills. Domina Virginia Farrer, [London: 1667]. Hand-colored engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (7)

Fry and Jefferson Map of Virginia

Drawn by surveyors Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson, this map was the pre-eminent cartographic representation of Virginia during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. The map was commissioned by the Board of Trade in 1748 in order to determine the extent of Virginia's western settlement and possible French encroachment on English claims. It is the first reasonably accurate map of the colony to show the various ranges of the Allegheny Mountains and the potential connections of the James and Potomac Rivers with the westward flowing tributaries of the Ohio.

Joshua Fry (1700-1754) and Peter Jefferson (1708-1757). A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia Containing the Whole Province of Maryland with Part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. London, [1755]. Hand-colored engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (8)

Indian Map of Ohio River Valley

Attributed to a Native American named "Chegeree" and an anonymous English official, this map and accompanying notes portray the extent of French forces and troop strengths in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys at the outset of the French and Indian War. Such information, outlining the French presence in the region, was vital to English forces as the two European powers fought for control of the North American interior.

Land Speculation in the Ohio River Valley

George Washington became an active land speculator, acquiring more than 20,000 acres of land in the Ohio Valley, beyond the Allegheny Mountains. Like many other Virginians, he wanted to capitalize on trade flowing from the Ohio River Valley by routing it through the Tidewater region of Virginia. Shown here is a survey for 2,314 acres of land patented in 1771 by George Washington. The property contained over five miles of valuable contiguous Ohio River frontage currently located in Washington's Bottom, West Virginia.

William Crawford (1732-1782). “Plat of a Survey of 2,314 acres of Land Being the First Large Bottom below the Little Kanawha,” 1771. Manuscript map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (8B)

Mitchell's Map of British North America

John Mitchell's 1755 map was published on the eve of the French and Indian War, yet the French claims in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, as defined by the Treaty of Utrecht (1714), were not recognized. Instead, the colorist showed individual English colonial claims extending west over the Alleghenies to the western margin of the map. A note found near the northwestern edge of the map illustrates the contemporary geographical concept of continental symmetry: "Missouri River is reckoned to run Westward to the Mountains of New Mexico, as far as the Ohio does eastward."

John Mitchell (1711-1768). A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America . . . . London: 1755. Hand-colored engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (6)

Compass and Chain

Instruments used by colonial surveyors as well as nineteenth-century explorers include the surveyor's compass for measuring direction and the Gunter chain for measuring distance. Philadelphian Benjamin Rittenhouse and his brother David were well known for making the most accurate surveying compasses, like the one displayed here, during the colonial period. The Gunter chain, introduced in 1620 by English mathematician and astronomer Edmund Gunter introduced a surveyor's chain with 100 links, measuring 66 feet (or 4 poles). With this design, one square chain equals 484 square yards, ten square chains equal an acre, and eighty chains equal a mile.

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  • Benjamin Rittenhouse (1740-1825). Surveyor's compass with case, ca. 1885-1796. Wood and brass. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Washington, D.C. (9A)

  • Gunter chain. [belonged to John Johnson (1771-1841), Surveyor General of Vermont]. Steel and brass. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Washington, D.C. (9B)

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The Spanish Entrada into the Southwest

Spanish exploration and settlement in the present-day American Southwest can be traced back to the early sixteenth century. By the last half of the eighteenth century Spanish soldiers and missionaries had made their way as far as San Antonio, Santa Fe, Tucson, and San Francisco. Several expeditions, including those of Father Eusebio Kino, José de Urrútia and Nicolás de Lafora, and Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, had explored large parts of the southwest. However, the geography of this region remained virtually unknown outside the Spanish empire, since the maps and accounts of Spanish exploration remained in manuscript and were not published. Not until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the noted German geographer Alexander von Humboldt visited Mexico City and was given access to the Spanish archives, did this information become more widely available. Although von Humboldt's map of Mexico was not published until 1811, he did visit Washington, D.C., in 1804, and shared his preliminary findings with President Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. Knowing that such geographic knowledge would be useful in determining the boundaries of the new Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson and Gallatin were keenly interested in von Humboldt's depiction of the Spanish empire in the southwest.

Discover!

Escalante Expedition Diary

Copied by a lieutenant of the Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers, this volume includes the diary of the expedition conducted by the Franciscan priests Silvestre Veléz de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez. It records their route that started out from Sante Fe on July 29, 1776, making a circuit through what is now Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. The diary describes geographic features and mentions passing the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in Colorado.

Silvestre Veléz de Escalante, copied by José Cortés "Memorias Sobre las Provincis del Norte de Nueva Espana," [Notes on the Provinces of the North of New Spain], ca.1799. Manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (11)

Seeking Information on the Southwest

President Jefferson sought information on the territory west of the Mississippi River from a wide variety of sources. When Baron Alexander von Humboldt visited Washington in 1804, after his South American tour, Jefferson took the opportunity to gather information about the newly acquired Louisiana territory. In this note to von Humboldt, Jefferson was particularly interested in the population "of white, red, or black people."

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), June 9, 1804. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (15)

A Cartographic Myth Dispelled

Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian-born Jesuit missionary, explored the area around Tucson from 1687 to 1701, traveling as far as the mouth of the Colorado River. He proved that California was not an island, a myth that had endured for almost a century. Although his cartographic findings first appeared in 1705, a slightly later version of his map was published in a German missionary periodical on display here. This map shows the Gila River flowing into the Colorado directly above its mouth and extensive settlements in northern New Spain.

Eusebio Kino (1644-1711). "Via Terrestis in California . . . Anno 1698 ad annum 1701" in Der Neue Welt-Bott . . . . Vol. 1, pt. 2. Augspurg und Grätz: 1726-1758. Engraved map. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (9D)

Spanish Military Survey of Southwest Borderlands

This detailed map of the Internal Provinces of New Spain (northern Mexico and southwestern United States) reflects the Spanish government's concern during the second half of the eighteenth century about frontier defenses, especially in response to American Indian attacks and the potential movement of European enemies into the region. The 1766-1768 survey involved a two-year, 6,000 mile trek extending from the Gulf of California to the Red River in Louisiana. Since this map was never published, British Americans were not aware of the extent of geographical and ethnological information known about the Spanish frontier.

José de Urrútia (1728-1800) and Nicolás la Fora (b. ca. 1730). “Mapa, que comprende la Frontera, de los Dominios del Rey, en la America Septentrionale,” [Madrid]: 1769. Manuscript map in 4 sheets. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (10)

Escalante Reaches the Rockies

A party of ten, led by Franciscan Fathers Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante departed Santa Fe in late July 1776, and returned to that location on January 2, 1777, as part of a failed effort to link Santa Fe with the new Spanish settlements along the Pacific Coast. The expedition did obtain substantially more knowledge of the regions north, northwest, and west of Santa Fe than any previous party, penetrating further into the unknown central Rockies. The manuscript map displayed above, made by expedition cartographer Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, reveals Spain's northernmost efforts to explore the interior of western North America.

Bernando de Miera y Pacheco. “Plano Geografico de los Descumbrimientos . . . .” 1778. Manuscript map. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven (12)

Map of the Escalante Expedition

Although maps from the Escalante expedition were never published, multiple manuscript copies were prepared and circulated throughout New Spain. The 1777 copy shown here covers only the Colorado, Utah, and Arizona portion of the expedition. A 1778 version, prepared by cartographer Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, provides a fuller reference to the area covered by this ambitious expedition. It is reported that von Humboldt reviewed these manuscript maps as he prepared his atlas of New Spain. It is also probable that Miera and Escalante used LaFora and Urrútia's 1769 map in planning their 1776-1777 expedition.

Von Humboldt's Atlas of Mexico

Baron Alexander von Humboldt, a highly esteemed geographer and man of science, visited Mexico in 1803. In the process of preparing his atlas on Mexico, he received current information on the northern regions of Spain's holdings in what is now the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico. Von Humboldt's general map of Mexico brought knowledge of the geographic relationship of the emerging United States with the American Southwest to a broad reading public. Zebulon Pike may have had access to von Humboldt's work during the German cartographer's visit to Washington in 1804.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). “Carte du Mexique . . .” in Atlas Géographique et Physique du Royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne. Paris: F. Schoell, 1811. Engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (14)

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Exploration of the Missouri River

For nearly 150 years, beginning in the early seventeenth century until the middle of the eighteenth century, France claimed a major portion of North America extending in an arc from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to New Orleans. Working with Indians to exploit the fur trade, the French explored and mapped much of the continent's interior east of the Rocky Mountains, focusing on the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, and the lower Mississippi. Although the French lost this territory to the British following the French and Indian War in 1763, small, scattered French settlements persisted along these major water routes. For the Lewis and Clark expedition no western settlement was more important than the French settlement of St. Louis. Just becoming the “Gateway to the West,” St. Louis was home to traders, merchants, and boatmen who knew the Missouri as far up as present-day North Dakota. Their everyday knowledge of the river proved invaluable as the American expedition made its way west. And it was in St. Louis where the American explorers benefited from the maps and exploration experiences of men like the Scottish trader James Mackay and the Welsh adventurer John Thomas Evans.

“Notes on Indian Tribes”

During the course of several ventures up the Missouri River as far as the Mandans in the 1780s and 1790s, James Mackay, a Scottish trader and explorer sponsored by the Spanish government, and his assistant, John Thomas Evans, a Welshman, had accumulated vital information about the tribes of the Missouri River valley and even planned their own venture to the Pacific Ocean. While at Camp Dubois in Illinois during the winter of 1803-1804, Lewis and Clark acquired some of this knowledge through talking with Mackay and examining the trader's notes, journal extracts, and maps.

James Mackay (ca. 1759-1822). “Notes on Indian Tribes,”1796-1804. Manuscript document. Courtesy of Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis (16)

Nicollet's Copy of the Mackay/Evans Map

The influence of the 1797 Mackay-Evans map of the Missouri River is underscored by this apparent copy by Joseph Nicollet, who mapped the upper Mississippi River and the adjacent region west to the Missouri River from 1836-1840. This small, incomplete copy traces the Missouri River from the Great Detour (near present-day Chamberlain, South Dakota) to River LaBombe (possibly Cannonball River south of Bismarck, North Dakota). While few landmarks were labeled, the course of the river and the location of selected islands and Indian villages correspond closely to the Mackay-Evans delineation.

Joseph N. Nicollet (1786-1843) after James Mackay and John Evans (d.1798). [Map of the Missouri River from 44th to 47th degrees of latitude], ca. 1839. Manuscript map. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (17)

The Missouri-Mississippi Rivers

Most likely prepared for the Lewis and Clark expedition on the eve of its departure from St. Louis, this map was part of a collection accumulated by William Clark. Although place names are in French, its Spanish origins are implied by the dramatic, albeit conjectural, bend of the Missouri River towards the south into modern-day New Mexico. The map locates the Missouri's headwaters near Santa Fe presumably in an attempt to validate the Spanish notion that northern Mexico was embraced by both the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. The mid-course of the Missouri River is based on the latest contemporary information obtained from explorer-traders James MacKay and John Evans.

Mackay-Evans Map of the Missouri River

Although several copies of this detailed and influential manuscript map were made, only this copy survives. It was drafted for the use of Lewis and Clark and carried by them on the first leg of their journey up the Missouri River. Based on surveys up to the Mandan-Hidatsa villages by explorer-trader James Mackay with the assistance of John Evans, the map is recognized as a milestone in Great Plains cartography since it was the first to employ extensive astronomical observations and compass readings. It furnished Lewis and Clark with the most detailed cartographic representation of the lower and middle courses of the Missouri River before they reached the area.

James Mackay (1759-1822) with the assistance of John Evans (1770-1799). [Map of Missouri River and Vicinity from St. Charles to the Mandan Villages of North Dakota], 1797-98. Manuscript map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (19)

St. Louis - Gateway to the Missouri

Although French General Victor Collot traveled through the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys in 1796, his two-volume account was not published until 1826. During his inspection tour, Collot observed the topography, resources, and people of these American and Spanish-held lands, which he illustrated with regional maps, town plans, and views in an accompanying atlas. His plan of St. Louis displayed the town's military fortifications, which he found sadly lacking. But the image also reveals the town emerging as the gateway for the fledgling Missouri River fur trade.

Georges Henri Victor Collot (1752-1805). “Plan of St. Lewis with the Project of an Intrenched Camp French” in Voyage dans l'Amérique Septentrionale. Page 2. Paris: A. Bertrad, 1826. Engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (19A)

“The Missouri is in fact the principal river”

As early as 1785 in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson asserted “The Missouri is in fact the principal river, contributing more to the common stream than does the Mississippi, even after its junction with the Illinois.” Jefferson's intense interest in the Missouri River eventually led to his dispatching the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri to search for the water route to the Pacific. This edition of Jefferson's only published book is the first published in the United States. It raced through nineteen editions in five countries before Jefferson's death.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Notes on the State of Virginia. Page 2. Philadelphia: Pritchard and Hall, 1788. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (22)

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British Passage to the Pacific

The last part of the North American coastline to be explored and mapped by Europeans was the northern portion extending from the Pacific Northwest around Alaska and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Much of the energy for such explorations came from the persistent search for a northwest passage, the elusive water route from Atlantic to Pacific. During the last half of the eighteenth century, the Russian fur traders and imperial officials began to take an interest in Alaska while the British focused on the regions of Hudson's Bay, the Arctic Ocean, and the Pacific Northwest. The new geographic knowledge of interior North America provided by the fur trading activities of the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company, the coastal explorations of Spanish and British navigators including James Cook and George Vancouver, and the transcontinental trek of Alexander Mackenzie were incorporated into the 1802 map of North America published by the noted British geographer Aaron Arrowsmith. This map and its depiction of British discoveries in the northwestern portion of the continent were among the materials that proved crucial to Jefferson in defining the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Vancouver's Chart of the Pacific Northwest

This chart records the explorations of British Naval Captain George Vancouver along the Pacific Northwest Coast and into the entrance of the Columbia River, as far as present-day Portland, in the early 1790s. Vancouver was directed by the British government to collect information about the fur trade and search for a possible northwest passage. Using Vancouver's charts, Aaron Arrowsmith recorded this information on his 1802 map of North America. Meriwether Lewis also studied and traced Vancouver's chart of the Columbia reinforcing Jefferson's notion about a potential link between the Columbia and Missouri Rivers.

George Vancouver (1758-1798). “A Chart Shewing Part of the Coast of N. W America . . .” from A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World. London: 1798. Engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (63)

British Misconceptions of Western Geography

Massachusetts-born Jonathan Carver, one of the first English colonists to venture west beyond the upper Mississippi River, explored several northern tributaries of the Mississippi, attempting to find a river passage to the west coast. His map of North America depicts the hypothetical “River of the West,” promoting the misconception that the Pacific could be reached directly from the Mississippi River. The map also demonstrates Carver's belief in the concept of a “pyramidal height-of land” in the western interior, from which the continent's principal rivers.

Jonathan Carver (1710-1780). “A New Map of North America, from the Latest Discoveries . . .” from Travels through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years 1766, 1767, 1768. London: C. Dilly, 1781. Engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (28A)

Carver's Narrative

Carver's account of his geographical discoveries and observations about various Indian tribes stimulated widespread interest in seeking a passage to the Pacific. His Travels through the Interior Parts of North America was published in London in 1778 and became an instant best seller, issued in more than thirty editions and translated into several languages. While Carver's account was heavily re-written and sometimes exaggerated, scholars now recognize its ethnographic and geographic importance.

Jonathan Carver (1710-1780). “A Man and Woman of the Naudowessie” in Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7. London: C. Dilly, 1781. Hand-colored engraving. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (28)

Captain Cook and Nootka Sound

Sailing under the British flag with the intention of locating the western gateway to the fabled Northwest Passage, Captain James Cook devoted his third and final voyage to exploring the Pacific Basin and the northwest coast of North America from Oregon to Alaska. His account of the voyage included illustrations like this view of the native “habitations” of Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island in present-day British Columbia. Like expeditions to follow, Cook was instructed to observe the flora, fauna, and geology he encountered and “. . .to describe them as minutely, and to make as accurate drawings of them, as you can . . .”

S. Smith, after John Webber. "A View of the Habitations in Nootka Sound" in James Cook (1728-1779). A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean . . .performed under the direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore . . .1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5. London: W. Strahan, 1784. Engraving. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (24)

“A Canoe of Nootka Sound”

Joseph Ingraham was a trader and an explorer who commanded the brigantine Hope on a trading venture from Boston to the northwest coast of North America and China in 1790-1792. The venture was a commercial failure, but Ingraham chronicled the journey, by way of South America's Cape Horn, in a four-volume journal that includes written descriptions of native peoples, local flora and fauna, as well as numerous illustrations. He writes in his journal, “I shall likewise present a drawing of a canoe of Nootka Sound,” which is shown above.

Joseph Ingraham (1762-1800). “A Canoe of Nootka Sound.”. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5. Journal with watercolor drawings, 1790-1792. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (24A)

Map of Western North America

Peter Pond, an American fur trader from Connecticut working for the British North West Company, drew on first-hand experience and information gathered from Indians to create an influential image of the northwestern portion of North America. Reflecting the geographic wisdom of the time, he sketched the Rocky Mountains as a single, narrow range close to the Pacific Ocean and suggested that the headwaters of the Missouri River might be close to the source of a western river in the country of the Flathead Indians. Much of Pond's concept of western geography was conjectural, but it nonetheless guided future voyages of western discovery.

Peter Pond (1740-1807). “A Map Shewing the Communication of the Lakes and the Rivers between Lake Superior and Slave Lake in North America” from Gentleman's Magazine, March 1790. Engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (23)

First Transcontinental Travel Account

In 1793 North West Company trader Alexander Mackenzie became the first European explorer to cross the American continent north of Mexico, following a route through northern Canada. His published journal includes several Indian vocabularies as well as an early history of the fur trade. It was reprinted in twenty-six editions in four languages. After reading Voyages from Montreal in the summer of 1802, Thomas Jefferson accelerated plans for what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition. P. Conde's frontispiece engraving is based on the only known authentic portrait of Mackenzie.

Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820). Voyages from Montreal: on the river St. Laurence, through the continent of North America to the frozen and Pacific Oceans. . . . Page 2 - Page 3. London: Printed for T. Cadell. . .:by R. Noble, 1801. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (26)

Indian Map of the Missouri Headwaters

Peter Fidler, a surveyor, explorer, and cartographer for the Hudson's Bay Company, drew this highly stylized map in 1801 from one provided to him by Ac ko mok ki, a Blackfeet Indian chief. This Indian map illustrates the headwaters of the Missouri and Saskatchewan River systems flowing eastward from the Rocky Mountains. It provided the best depiction of the area at that time for advancing fur trappers. Fidler's copy of Ac ko mok ki's map was forwarded to the Hudson's Bay Company in London, where Aaron Arrowsmith incorporated selected elements into the 1802 edition of his North American map.

Peter Fidler (1769-1822) after Ac ko mok ki “An Indian Map of the Different Tribes, that Inhabit the East and West Side of the Rocky Mountains . . .” 1801. Manuscript map. Courtesy of Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba (25)

1802 Map of North America

Aaron Arrowsmith's 1802 map was the most current and accurate cartographic representation of the American West available to Lewis on the eve of the journey. Lewis studied this edition closely during the summer of 1803 and even carried a copy on the first leg of the expedition. Among Arrowsmith's sources were Indian maps, reports and manuscript maps from the British fur trade, and British Navy exploration reports and charts of the Pacific Coast. But various elements in the map reinforced Jefferson's misconceptions of western geography, among these were depictions of the Rocky Mountains as a single long chain and the headwaters of the upper Missouri River at the eastern edge of the Rockies, suggesting those mountains were readily portaged.

Aaron Arrowsmith (1750-1823). A Map Exhibiting All the New Discoveries in the Interior Parts of North America . . . London: 1802. Hand-colored, engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (27)

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Louisiana Purchase

Following the French and Indian War (1754-1763), France lost its possessions in North America. Spain acquired the former French territory of Louisiana (French lands west of the Mississippi) and New Orleans. Britain added the St. Lawrence Valley, along with the lands north of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi, to its well-established Atlantic empire. At the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783, the new United States gained not only the British territory that constituted the original thirteen colonies but also the lands west of the Alleghenies, with the Mississippi River serving as the new nation's western boundary.

For American farmers intent on selling their produce down the Mississippi River, New Orleans was a port of vast importance. New Orleans remained under Spanish control, but American merchants did have the right of free passage on the Mississippi River and the use of the port without paying heavy customs duties. However, free navigation on the river was threatened when Napoleon secretly regained control of New Orleans and the lands west of the Mississippi. In an attempt to secure access to New Orleans, Thomas Jefferson directed Robert R. Livingston, U. S. Minister to France, and American diplomat James Monroe to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas for $10,000,000. Surprisingly, Napoleon not only agreed to sell New Orleans but also offered all of Louisiana for $15,000,000. The Americans quickly accepted the deal, thereby doubling the size of the nation.

Boundary between British and Spanish Territories

This British military map illustrates the Mississippi River as the boundary separating the Spanish and English empires in North America, by terms of the 1763 treaty ending the French and Indian War. Spanish lands are shaded blue, and the British are shown in yellow. By the treaty, Great Britain gained the right to navigate the river, thus providing it with an opportunity to exploit the Mississippi Valley fur trade, although the river's major port New Orleans was under Spanish control. Following the American Revolution, the United States acquired these British lands, except for the Floridas, and the right of free navigation on the Mississippi.

The Purchase of Louisiana

In his letter to James Madison, James Monroe, U.S. special envoy, explains why he and Robert R. Livingston, America's minister to France, were obliged to purchase "the whole" of Louisiana. Monroe and Livingston later quarreled over who deserved credit for the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory. Monroe complained to Madison in this letter that the “most difficult vexations and embarrassing part of my labors has been with my associate.” Monroe's role in the acquisition propelled him into contention for the presidency in 1808.

James Monroe(1758-1831) to James Madison (1749-1836), May 14, 1803. Manuscript letter. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7 - Page 8 - Page 9 - Page 10. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (29)

Treaty with France to Acquire Louisiana

After the Revolutionary War, the U.S. acquired British lands up to the Mississippi River. But the Spanish, who obtained the lands west of the Mississippi from France, barred American access to the river and the port of New Orleans. Only in 1795, by the Pinckney Treaty, did Spain allow American farmers and merchants the right to deposit and export goods on the Mississippi. This arrangement was jeopardized by France's secret acquisition of Louisiana. On learning that Napoleon, threatened by wars in Haiti and elsewhere, might sell Louisiana, Jefferson sent his emissaries to France to conclude the purchase. Above is James Monroe's copy of the treaty he negotiated for the United States.

Treaty between the United States and France, April 29, 1803. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7 - Page 8 - Page 9. Manuscript document.
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (30)

First Post-Purchase Account of Louisiana

President Jefferson sought detailed information from knowledgeable men living in Louisiana regarding its geography, population, settlements, government, laws, and trade, in an effort to expedite Congress's ratification of the treaty of the Louisiana Purchase. He presented a compilation of their responses to Congress in November 1803 that included valuable information from John Sibley (1757-1837)—a Massachusetts-born physician and Indian language expert, residing in Natchitoches, Louisiana. This first reporting included extensive facts and useful charts, as well as some myth and rumor, that stimulated a public thirst for knowledge about the newly acquired land.

[Thomas Jefferson]. An Account of Louisiana, being an Abstract of Documents, in the Offices of the Departments of State, and of the Treasury. Washington: 1803. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (33)

First Published Map of Louisiana Purchase

Prepared in 1804 for inclusion in a general reference atlas by London publisher Aaron Arrowsmith, this map, more than any other, embodied how Jefferson and his contemporaries envisioned the West. River systems promised a quick passage across the continent and the single ridge of the Rockies proved no barrier to that passage. The central mission of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—“to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean”—was based on the geographic conceptions made visible in this map.

Samuel Lewis (ca.1753-1822). “Louisiana” in Aaron Arrowsmith, New and Elegant General Atlas. Philadelphia: 1804. Engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (34)

Transferring Power in Louisiana

James Wilkinson, ranking general in the U. S. Army and charged by President Jefferson to oversee the military aspects of the new territory of Louisiana, issued these General Orders on December 20, 1803, for the formal transfer of power over Louisiana. After the United States acquired Louisiana from France, the transfer of control occurred without any serious incidents. This was remarkable since many Spanish and French officers had overlapping authority, and there were many conflicting territorial claims.

James Wilkinson (1757-1825). Orderly Book, December 20, 1803. Page 2. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (32)

Louisiana Purchase Treaty published in the press

On July 4, 1803, the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser carried the first official public announcement that France had sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The Intelligencer was published in Washington, D.C., by Samuel Harrison Smith (1772-1845), a political ally of President Thomas Jefferson. It was considered the "official" newspaper of Jefferson's administration and the Jeffersonian Republican political party.

Monday July 4—Official National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, Washington, D.C. : July 4, 1803. Newspaper. Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (31)

Lampooning Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson's plan in 1805 to build on the Louisiana Purchase by buying West Florida from Spain is lampooned here by cartoonist James Akin. Induced by the sting of the hornet Napoleon, Jefferson vomits gold coins before a dancing Spanish representative holding maps of East and West Florida and carrying French Minister Talleyrand's instructions in his pocket. By the end of the War of 1812, the U.S. had gained possession of most of West Florida. The remainder of West Florida and East Florida were acquired by Treaty in 1819 during James Monroe's administration.

James Akin. “The PRAIRIE DOG Sickened at the Sting of the HORNET or a Diplomatic Puppet exhibiting his Deceptions,” Newburyport, Massachusetts. ca. 1806. Etching with watercolor. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (35)

“We received the treaty from Paris”

Although Meriwether Lewis already knew of the purchase of Louisiana, he received this written confirmation from President Jefferson while in Pittsburgh securing supplies and equipment for the western journey ahead. Of more interest to Lewis was the inclusion of British Lieutenant Broughton's description of the location of “the source of the Missouri . . . in the Stony mountains” and his calculations on the short distance between Mount Hood in Oregon and the range of the Stony Mountains.

Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), July 15, 1803. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (37)

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