Digital History

Westward Expansion

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Digital History ID 3253



Before the 19th century, mystery shrouded the Far West. Mapmakers knew very little about the shape, size, or topography of the land west of the Mississippi River. French, British, and Spanish trappers, traders, and missionaries had traveled the Upper and Lower Missouri River and the British and Spanish had explored the Pacific coast, but most of western North America was an unknown.

The first wave of exploration was touched off on July 5, 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson appointed his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark to explore the Missouri and Columbia rivers as far as the Pacific. As a politician interested in the rapid settlement and commercial development of the West, Jefferson wanted Lewis and Clark to establish American claims to the region west of the Rocky Mountains, gather information about furs and minerals in the region, and identify sites for trading posts and settlements. As a scientist, the President also instructed the expedition to collect information covering the diversity of life in the West, ranging from climate, geology, and plant growth to fossils of extinct animals and Indian religions, laws, and customs.

In 1806, the year that Lewis and Clark returned from their 8,000 mile expedition, a young Army lieutenant named Zebulon Montgomery Pike left St. Louis to explore the southern border of the Louisiana Territory, just as Lewis and Clark had explored the territory's northern portion. Traveling along the Arkansas River, Pike saw the towering peak that bears his name. He and his party then traveled into Spanish territory along the Rio Grande and Red Rivers. Pike's description of the wealth of Santa Fe brought American traders to the region.

Pike's report of his expedition, published in 1810, helped to create one of the most influential myths about the Great Plains: that this region was nothing more than a "Great American Desert," a treeless and waterless land of dust storms and starvation.

This image of the West as a region of savages, wild beasts, and deserts received added support from another government-sponsored expedition, led by Major Stephen H. Long in 1820. Long's report described the West as "wholly unfit for cultivation, and...uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence." This report helped retard western settlement for a generation.

The view of the West as a dry, barren wasteland was not fully offset until the 1840s when another government-sponsored explorer, John C. Fremont, mapped much of the territory between the Mississippi Valley and the Pacific Ocean. His glowing descriptions of the West as a paradise of plenty captivated the imagination of many Midwestern families who, by the 1840s, were eager for new lands to settle.

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