Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Map of North American Geopolitical Divisions - 1803:

In 1803 the United States included 17 States, including Ohio which was admitted to the Union in that year.  1803 was also the year in which the United States completed negotiating the sale of the Louisiana Territory from France, although the United States would not officially take possession of the territory until March 10, 1804.

France had previously ceded the territory to Spain in the 1760’s, to prevent the British from subverting the Indians in the territory, and thus taking control of the region.  Napoleon’s rise to power in France, lead to a renewal of French dreams of empire.  These dreams were not limited only to continental Europe, but also extended to North America.  Napoleon pressured the Spanish king, and secretly negotiated for the return of the Louisiana Territory to France.  By the time the negotiations were complete, Napoleon had realized that the costs of European wars were draining the French treasury and that global conquest was not a realistic goal. (Continued below Map)   

Thomas Jefferson having learned of the secret negotiations made it known that the United States was interested in acquiring New Orleans, primarily for the river access to the seaport for the interior states.  Jefferson was extremely concerned about having another imperial power along the border of the United States (with Britain already along the northern boundary and New Spain along the southern border).  He was also a proponent of the concept of Manifest Destiny, a view that the ultimately the United States would become a continent spanning nation. Napoleon, to his credit, recognized that although he held title to the territory, he had no ability to enforce it’s boundaries.  If the Americans came, he would be unable to prevent them even if he could get an army mobilized to Louisiana.  He is quoted as having said “Sixty million francs for an (French) occupation that will not perhaps last a day!”  He was also aware of what he was doing to Britain, a centuries long enemy of France: “The sale assures forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a rival who, sooner or later, will humble her pride.”   

The purchase was criticized severely by many in the United States at the time.  A Boston Federalist newspaper wrote about the purchase “… a great waste, a wilderness un-peopled with any beings at all: except wolves and wandering Indians. We are to give money of which we have too little for land of which we already have too much.”  

From a historical perspective this was a brilliant move by Thomas Jefferson. Henry Adams best expresses the optimism with which Jefferson pursued the purchase by writing “The annexation of Louisiana was an event so portentous as to defy measurement, it gave a new face to politics, and ranked in historical importance next to the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution ….but as a matter of diplomacy it was unparalleled, because it cost almost nothing.

The western and northern bounds of this territory were only vaguely known at best.  The best claim to this vast territory would be established by occupation. Jefferson quickly sent Lewis and Clark out on a survey mission to determine the resources, peoples, wildlife, rivers and geography of the territory.  

Even though the territory was now part of the United States, the ever suspicious Spanish authorities decided the purpose of the Lewis and Clarks expedition was for spying and they sent out several military expeditions to either turn back Lewis and Clark, or arrest them.  Fortunately these expeditions never got close enough that Lewis and Clark even heard about them.

In 1803 New Spain would include those parts of the continent west and south of the Louisiana Territory.  Old and New Mexico had numerous settlements, as did coastal California and its inland valleys.  The inland areas of New Spain were unsettled, undeveloped and only sparsely explored.  This portion of New Spain was valuable to Spain primarily as a wilderness buffer, separating the settled areas of New Spain from its rivals, Britain and the United States.   

The Russians would continue to occupy the Pacific coastal areas of what would become Alaska and Canada by scattered settlements, and by marine trader/hunters who were exploiting the fur resources of the area.  The Russians would not extend their influence south until 1812 when they established Fort Ross in what would become California.   The Russian settlements were extremely dependent on imported food.  It was hoped by the Russians that the settlement at Fort Ross would produce a surplus of food, particularly grain and meat which could be used at the settlements further north.  Fort Ross never produced up to expectations.  ventually the Russians came to an arrangement with the Hudson's Bay Company at Vancouver in which food supplies would be exchanged for trading and trapping access along the coastal regions of what would become British Columbia.  

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