Jefferson’s America, Julie M. Fenster. New York: Crown, 2016.
Summary: An account of how Jefferson used the efforts of four teams of men comprising less than a hundred total to establish America’s hold on the lands west of the Mississippi River.
Most of us, if we remember anything of early U. S. History remember the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the explorations, up the Missouri and to the Pacific coast, of Lewis and Clark. What I didn’t realize was that while we had purchased these lands from France for $15 million, our grasp of these was tenuous, especially because of the ambitions of Spain to hold the lands west of the Mississippi. I did not realize that there were four teams of explorers and that the success of their efforts played a key role in staving off the ambitions of Spain as well as confirming the wisdom of Jefferson’s bold move in acquiring these lands. Julie M. Fenster’s account of these explorers and their expeditions showed how four teams of men with a combined total of about one hundred men, plus Sacajawea, in the case of Lewis and Clark, fended off the challenges of the Federalists and the ambitions of Spain.
The book begins with America in the 1790’s and into Jefferson’s administration, as the country sought to get on its feet, occupy the Northwest Territory, and stay out of conflicts with the superpowers of Spain, France, and Great Britain. Soon, with westward settlement, Americans were on the banks of the Mississippi. West of this was mostly land claimed by the Spanish, and the native peoples who held it first. Louisiana, and New Orleans were the place where the tension was greatest, as Americans sought to ship goods through this port, held by Spain, and then through complicated maneuvers, yielded to France, from whom Jefferson acquired the land in 1803. In truth, Spain had not given up its ambitions for the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and certainly was the dominant power in Texas and the lands to the south and west. Add to this that the purchase never decisively determined the western borders of these lands.
Jefferson faced opposition from Federalists who questioned Jefferson’s constitutional power to acquire these lands, and the wisdom of an acquisition that might lead to greater international confrontation over lands of unknown worth. This book shows how four teams of explorers led by Lewis and Clark (the Missouri), Hunter and Dunbar (the Red, Black, and Ouachita Rivers), Zebulon Pike (the upper Mississippi), and Freeman and Custis (the Red River) both asserted the presence of the United States in these newly claimed lands, and furnished, through journals and materials sent back to Washington, incontrovertible evidence of the riches of these lands. Fenster follows each expedition, including the trials faced in contending with various river conditions, negotiations with Indian tribes, the reaching of the Pacific by Lewis and Clark, and the climactic confrontation between Freeman and Custis and their forty troops with over a thousand Spanish on the Red River. Here is her description of this last:
“Viana [the Spanish commander] started by warning Freeman that if the expedition continued, his orders were to open fire.
Freeman replied, ‘The object of my expedition was, to explore the river to its source, under the instructions of the President of the U.S.’ He request the objections in writing, but Viana refused, giving his word of honor instead. Freeman had done his duty.
The juncture had been reached at which Freeman’s control over the situation would vanish with one more move, one more word. He agreed to leave the following day. Before turning to leave, however, he thought Viana said something in Spanish to one of his men about placing his soldiers on what had become the American side of the river. Freeman told his interpreter ‘that if a Spanish guard was placed near us they should be fired upon.’ He was offering battle to a force vastly superior. A moment went by and then Viana abandoned the idea. Freeman had done what a hundred diplomats failed to do. Spain and America had a border, and it was the Red River” (p. 342).
Fenster skillfully reproduces the vast tapestry of American exploration. She weaves in figures like General James Wilkinson, a slippery character who probably acted as a double agent on many occasions, and Aaron Burr, whose plots in the southwest eventually led to Jefferson’s unsuccessful prosecution of him. She helps us understand the personal character of the explorers including the struggle with depression Lewis faced whenever he wasn’t exploring, ending in his apparent suicide en route to Washington, though this never could be definitively proven. She portrays the drivenness of Zebulon Pike, who nearly lost his feet in the exploration of the upper Mississippi, and who later pressed on in a failed attempt that nearly cost him and his men their lives to reach the peak that bears his name. As a modern historian, Fenster also observes both the exploitation of and lack of understanding of the native peoples these explorers encountered in their journeys.
Most of all, she shows the decisive role these explorers played in confirming the United States’ hold on these lands, vindicating a president who saw the opportunity offered him even though he did not have the military to sustain a fight against France or Spain at the time. Through the reports of these explorers, the way was paved for a new wave of westward settlement, and an often besieged President was confirmed in the wisdom of his bold act and these men would ever after be known as “Jefferson’s men.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.