Jefferson’s Envoys to the West

Early in the spring of 1789, Captain Robert Gray was in Nootka Sound, anchored off the coast of what would later be named Vancouver Island as his men made repairs and waited to go ashore to trade with the natives for sea otter skins, when three Spanish warships arrived. Gray’s two ships were engaged in a round-the-world expedition authorized by President George Washington, but the Spanish authorities suspected that the arrival of the Lady Washington and the Columbia Rediviva was the first step in an effort by the newly United States of America to colonize the Pacific Coast. The Spanish commander grudgingly left the Americans alone and, over the next few weeks, seized three ships in the service of the British trader John Meares. The purpose of the Spanish expedition was to shut down British trade and assert Spain’s claim to the American coast, but its actions brought Spain and England to the brink of war. Captain Gray watched in fascination, correctly supposing that President Washington would be very interested in this “Sea Otter War” between Spain and Britain.

Following the China Circuit, Gray proceeded back to Boston, and upon his arrival on August 9, 1790 became the first American to circumnavigate the globe. A few short weeks later he was back on his ship, the Columbia Redeviva, and again headed for Oregon. In May of 1792, he discovered the elusive river of the west, which he named the Columbia after his ship. He barely beat British Captain Vancouver, who had sailed past the mouth of the river. Gray’s discovery gave the USA a basis for claiming Oregon.

Thomas Jefferson at this time was Washington’s Secretary of State. He already had to his credit authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the first Ambassadorship to France. He was also a student of natural history and advocate of Western exploration. In late 1783, Jefferson tried to get Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark to lead an overland expedition of exploration, but Clark declined. In Paris three years later, Jefferson listened to a plan by John Ledyard to go overland across Siberia, cross the Bering Strait to Alaska, and dogsled to the Atlantic Ocean. Jefferson assisted Ledyard in obtaining passports, but suspicious Russians stopped him in Siberia.

Jefferson excited French interest in America. Andre Michaux, a French botanist, began planning to explore North America. In 1792 he approached the American Philosophical Society for donations to fund a trek across the United States to the Pacific. He received $128.25, including $25 from President Washington and $12.50 each from Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

The amount was hardly enough, and the venture never happened. Michaux became caught up in an attempt to take away Spanish lands in America, an effort which even drew in George Rogers Clark. The project depended upon money owed to France by the U.S. government and died when President Washington refused to cooperate.

Since 1796, Napoleon had been demanding Louisiana from Spain. By 1800, Spain was finally willing to give it up. On October 1, 1800, the secret Treaty of Ildefonso transferred Louisiana to France in return for assurances that they would maintain a buffer between the United States and Mexico. The Spanish agreed to continue to administer the territory from New Orleans.

In 1802, the Spanish Intendant of New Orleans revoked the Americans’ right of deposit because of smuggling. The right of deposit allowed American traders to offload their barges into warehouses in New Orleans, where their cargo would await transfer to ocean-going vessels. Without the right of deposit, American trade through New Orleans was crippled because riverboats were stuck there, unable to unload and take on new cargo for the trip north. James Monroe was sent to join Robert Livingston in Paris to attempt to purchase New Orleans and the Floridas for up to $10 million.

At the same time, Jefferson was planning an exploration of Louisiana. Spain refused permission for an exploration across their territory, so Jefferson asked his private secretary Meriweather Lewis to lead a secret expedition into Louisiana to study the land and seek a river route to the Pacific. On January 18, 1803, a secret request for funds for an expedition to subdue Indians and prevent French infiltration was sent to Congress. A month later, the request for $2500 passed as a “commercial venture.” Lewis immediately started preparing by ordering supplies and learning the rudiments of scientific observation.

Then, in March of 1803, Napoleon shocked Jefferson by offering all of Louisiana to America and at the same time breaking his promise to Spain of maintaining a buffer between Mexico and the US. The 909,000 square miles of the Louisiana Territory — some 43,000 square miles larger than the US at that time — sold for $23,213,567.73, which worked out to about 4¢ an acre.

Lewis was in Pittsburgh supplying his expedition with scientific instruments, trade goods, medicine, ammunition, a rapid fire gun, and a 22-oar keelboat when he heard of the Louisiana Purchase. In June, 1803, Lewis offered joint command of the expedition to William Clark, younger brother of George Rogers Clark.

The rest is history. On May 14, 1804, Lewis and Clark left Camp Wood near St. Louis on a three-year journey. They wintered at Fort Clatsop at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805-06 and returned to St. Louis in late 1806, after the entire party had been given up for dead. Lewis and Clark provided a wealth of knowledge about the plains, mountains, and rivers to be crossed by the Oregon Trail, as well as information about many of the Indian tribes the overlanders would meet. They also cemented the American claim to Oregon begun by Robert Gray in 1792.