Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
HomeSite MapSearch
Westward Expansion
Biography of America logo
Re-Mapping History Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

Page 1234

Imagemap: link to IRC Credits


[Picture of academic discussion group]

Miller: 1800 was an exciting year for the country. We'd established our independence; we have a new president, Thomas Jefferson; and we have an unexplored, largely, and unknown frontier, on the west of the Appalachians. America had been an ever-expanding nation, but we were still largely a seacoast nation hugging the coast. What was out there, Steven, beyond those mountains?

Ambrose: As you say, the roads were hugging the coastline. And there was almost no settlement out west of the Appalachian Mountains. So it was unknown territory, and completely wide open. And who did it belong to was up for some kind of grabs. I mean, we had signed a peace treaty with Great Britain that made it a part of the United States, but the Brits kept keeping their forts down there on the part of the land that was supposed to belong to the United States, but it wasn't quite clear yet whose it was. And the Spanish are still on the other side of the Mississippi River, very much so, in Texas and California and elsewhere out West.

Miller: How was the Louisiana Purchase, 1803, how was that received by the country?

Ambrose: With deliriums of joy. Everybody was--it was such a bargain. And to get it without having to go to war. What people were afraid of was we were going to have to fight Napoleon to get control of New Orleans, and you had to have control of New Orleans if you were going to make anything out of Kentucky and Tennessee and Illinois and all of the Northwest territory.

Miller: Steve, everybody knows the Lewis and Clark expedition. What's the real importance of that expedition?

[Picture of Lewis ]

Ambrose: Well, Thomas Jefferson, who purchased Louisiana and sent Lewis and Clark out, had an idea that had never occurred to anyone else before, and had never been done anywhere before. And that was that we're going to establish an 'empire of liberty' that's going to stretch from sea to shining sea. And when we start bringing in Kentucky and Tennessee and Illinois and Ohio into the Union, they're going to come in as equal states. They're going to have all the same rights and privileges as New Hampshire, or Virginia, or New York, or the original 13 colonies. And, we're going to go across the Mississippi with that, and, we're going to go all the way to the West Coast with it. And when he sent Lewis and Clark out, it wasn't just that they explored up the Missouri River and brought back the first description of what's out there in that Louisiana Purchase. They crossed the mountains, and they went into the great northwestern empire of Oregon and Washington and Idaho. And they brought that area into the United States at a time when Jefferson had this idea -- we're going to have this 'empire of liberty,' it's going to go the whole way.

[Picture of Clark ]

Miller: Now, did Jefferson, or Lewis and Clark, or the three of them together, have discussions about how this untracked wilderness was going to be peopled? Here we are, before the steamboat...

Ambrose: Jefferson thought it would take 100 generations.

Miller: Yeah, exactly.

Ambrose: That's right. It's before steamboats. The steamboat, when Lewis and Clark came back, nothing moved any faster than it had when they left. And George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, or Andrew Jackson couldn't move any place any faster than Napoleon could or Caesar.

Miller: No telegraph, nothing.

Ambrose: You couldn't move ideas, you couldn't move mail. As fast as a horse could run--that's the fastest that anything could move.

Maier: But did anybody have any idea how much there was west of those mountains? Did anybody have any idea the size of the continent? I mean they...

Ambrose: Well yes, they did, because the mouth of the Columbia had been discovered, and so they knew how far everything stretched. They didn't know what was there. They didn't know what the Rocky Mountains were like. They thought they were going to be like the Appalachian mountains. Well, the Rocky Mountains are a little bit bigger than that--it's like 160 miles of Rocky Mountains out there, and way, way bigger than anything in the eastern part of the United States. But they knew that there was a lot of wealth out there on that Columbia River, there were a lot of Indians living out there, there was a lot of furs out there, there was a big country out there, that, and this gets us back to this 'empire of liberty'...

Miller: Isn't it interesting, though, how many times the country was discovered? I mean, De Soto so-called "discovers" the Mississippi River. Marquette and Joliet discover the Mississippi River. LaSalle goes to the mouth of the Mississippi. Now here are the French, in the late 17th Century. They have a vision of empire almost like the Louisiana Purchase--it's going to run north to south, from Quebec and Montreal, all the way down to the Gulf. What was the real importance of New Orleans?

Ambrose: It was the only outlet to the world's markets.

Miller: On the Mississippi.

Ambrose: You couldn't move the corn or the wheat or other products, you couldn't move them over the mountains. You could put them on a boat and bring them down the Mississippi River. But as long as the Spanish controlled New Orleans, and then the French immediately after -- they got it from the Spanish -- you don't have an outlet. And Jefferson had originally thought he was going to just be buying New Orleans. But Napoleon said to hell with it, the whole thing. "I mean, we can't hold it anyway. What are we going to do with Missouri, what are we going to do with the Dakotas, what are we going to do with Montana, what are we going to do with Arkansas?" There wasn't anything the French could do with it. Sell the whole damn thing. And he did.

Miller: Yeah. But at the same time, there are people beginning to pour into the Ohio valley, right Pauline?

[Picture of Professor Maier]

Maier: Right. And the one exception to the unoccupied character, the Trans-Appalachian west--rather big exception very important to the story--Kentucky and Tennessee. People start pouring in there in the 1780s. And it's amazing, actually, when you think of the size of the migration. There may be 10,000 people in Kentucky in 1780, and they go up to 110,000 a decade later. I mean, it's more than the whole migration of the 17th Century. It's a massive movement of population.

Miller: This is largely a migration pattern out of Pennsylvania, through West Virginia, Virginia, down into the Carolinas, across the line, into the mountains.

Maier: Exactly. And, to some extent from--well, the Davis family comes from Georgia.

Miller: Jefferson Davis.

Maier: Jefferson Davis, right.

Miller: And the Lincoln family's a Kentucky family.

Maier: Absolutely.

Miller: And there's Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, born within a year of each other, in the same state, Kentucky. One family, Lincoln's father opposed to slavery, migrates out to Indiana. And the other family, a small slaveholding family, migrates out to Mississippi, near Vicksburg.

Ambrose: And they were born, as you say, within a year of each other, at a time when there were steamboats. Fulton had invented the steamboat--well, when they were kids, Fulton had invented the steamboat and you could go upriver for the first time without having to paddle your way upriver. No railroads.

Miller: Without railroads, how was the west settled? What are the primary technologies that allow this settlement to take place, given the absolutely abysmal road systems?

Maier: It's onto the Mississippi. And it's -- the world was made up of bodies of water interrupted by land, and that continued to be true. It had been true historically.

[Picture of a Conestoga Wagon]

Miller: That's a wonderful way of putting it. I mean, that whole west -- people have this image of everybody just pouring out of there in Conestoga wagons or on foot, and don't appreciate, I think, the magnificent waterway systems that we had, and how many settlers went west in these waterways.

Ambrose: And went west on the waterways, and shipped their produce to market on the waterways, and the waterways were the key to everything. The Ohio comes down, the Missouri comes down, all these...

Miller: Right smack in the middle of the continent.

Ambrose: ...The Cumberland, and the Tennessee, and the Illinois, and they all come together in the Mississippi and flow down to New Orleans. And the whole of the continent is one transportation system.

Miller: Right. Right. Canals... we...

[Picture of the Erie Canal ]

Maier: Canals, absolutely critical. I was thinking, how important was the southern market to the west, to the upper reaches of the river, to the Northwest Territory? Which is, of course, where, after the 1780s and 1790s, a good many immigrants were going, from New England particularly. We know that the only way they could sell their products was down the river, and a great amount was shipped to New Orleans. But it wasn't consumed in the South. Some of it was, but the greater part of it was re-exported out of New Orleans, to Europe and to the Northeast. So you had to go all the way down and then all the way up again. So the canals made all the difference in the world. And I think, ultimately, they had some political significance. You didn't see the effect right away. 1825, the Erie Canal is completed. It really took another two decades, until all these ancillary canals are built in Ohio. And then you saw a massive change of the direction of western trade, not south but east and north, and the railroads just consolidated that. And it's the Northeast that is a real customer, because they're moving increasingly toward industrialization, to a more specialized economy, and they have a food deficit. So the West feeds the Northeast.

Miller: There had always been the theory that it was the railroads that first connected the two, but it's actually the southern driving canals actually turn the other way and went out there like that.

Maier: Yeah. But it's a relatively short period, really, the canal era. It might have done the trick. But perfectly in keeping with this idea that water is how you travel.

Miller: Water's the key. Look at Fulton. I mean the steamboat, obviously, had enormous impact on the southern development, didn't it?

[Picture of a steamboat]

Ambrose: Sure, very much so. The ability to be able to go upstream. Before the steamboat, if you made ten miles a day going upstream, that was a hell of a good day.

Maier: It was what, with poles?

Miller: Six mile current, six mile per hour current, that Mississippi River.

Ambrose: Right. Go out and try it today in a canoe, and you'll find out in a hurry what it meant to go upstream, and only muscle power to do it with. Or you could get horses on land to draw the things along, but the turns in the river and other things made that very, very difficult. It was a lot easier on the canal to use horses to pull barges along the canal, because they were straight.

Miller: They'd send sailboats ahead of some of these keel boats. The sailboat would wrap a rope around a tree, and then they'll pull themselves upriver, like this!

Maier: Yeah. No, this was not a viable system!

Miller: To see a boat going upriver.

Ambrose: Oh boy. A whole new world. And it was.

Page 1234


© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy