Thursday, 8 February 2018

The West

The frontier

By the Peace of Paris (1783) the United States gained a vast territory in the West that was either empty or occupied by the Indians, the French or the Spaniards. In anticipation of the acquisition of new territory Congress had passed the Land Ordinance and the North-West Ordinance, and by the turn of the century a great change was taking place in the American mentality. The United States still looked east to the Atlantic economy, but increasingly more and more Americans were making their way westwards in search of land. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century the race to the Rockies had begun. 

The frontier has defined America and the stories of individual frontiersmen are written into its history.

Daniel Boone (1734-1820)

Daniel Boone, by
Chester Harding (1820)
Boone grew up in a large Quaker farming family on the Pennsylvania frontier. As a boy he mastered the long rifledeveloped for the frontiersmen by German gunsmiths. In the hands of an experienced user it could shoot up to 300 yards. From the Shawnee tribe he learned woodcraft and became a hunter. When his family quarrelled with the Quakers, they moved in 1750 to the Yadkin river in North Carolina. But Boone was unable to settle there. In the 1750s he took part in Braddock’s disastrous attack on Fort Duquesne (see earlier post) and was part of the party that founded its replacement, Fort Pitt, in 1758. 

Although he tried to settle down with his family, he longed to explore the west. In 1769, guided by an old frontier pedlar, he and his party found the Cumberland Gap, the route through the Appalachians and hacked out a way through the forest into Kentucky.

 Kentucky – from the Cherokee word for ‘Great Meadow’ – was an area of fertile soils and abundant forests teeming with buffalo, deer and wild territory.  Boone was unknowingly pioneering a trial that would be called Boone’s Trace or the Wilderness Road, which more than 300,000 settlers would use over the next twenty-five years. In 1773 he led the first group of settlers across the gap. Two years later he and thirty woodsmen travelled the Wilderness Road until they reached the banks of the Kentucky River and founded the fort and village of Boonesborough (near what is now Lexington, Ky). They became the first British colonists in Kentucky and were followed by a steady stream, mostly of ‘Scotch-Irish'. The settlers introduced commodity agriculture to the area, growing tobacco, corn, and hemp. But their way of life was far from peaceful as they were engaged in constant conflict with the Shawnee Indians, who were fighting to retain their hunting grounds. In this they were aided by the British who saw them as allies in their war with the colonies. 

Boone’s colourful career saw him for a while a prisoner of the Indians, and later facing a court-martial. He was not popular with his fellow settlers, who, rightly, saw him as not truly one of themselves. The agricultural life did not really suit him, as he had fallen in love with the wilderness.  

In 1792 Kentucky became the fifteenth state of the Union. But by this time Boone was itching to go further west. In 1799 he left Kentucky in a dugout canoe and settled in Spanish territory, and became one of the founders of Missouri. By the time of his death in 1820 he had become a legend in Europe as well as America.

The Louisiana Purchase

The vast territory of Louisiana was originally claimed by Spain but subsequently settled by the French, who established the colony as part of New France. Following French defeat in the Seven Years' War, Spain gained control of the territory. In the hope of re-establishing an empire in North America, Napoleonic France took the territory in 1800. This alarmed Thomas Jefferson who wrote, 
‘The day that France takes possession of New Orleans, we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.’  
But France was not in a position to confront the Americans over Louisiana. In 1803 it was confronted with a slave revolt in Haiti and the resumption of the war with Britain. It needed money rather than territory in in a treaty of 30 April France sold Louisiana to the US for $11 million. For the complexities of some of the boundaries, see here.

This hugely significant purchase was controversial at the time as many argued that in agreeing to the purchase President Jefferson was acting unconstitutionally.  But the Senate ratified the treaty by an overwhelming vote of 26 to 6, and on 20 December 1803 the United States took possession of Louisiana. 

The Louisiana Purchase, 1803

This was one of the defining moments in the history of the United States. It eliminated the French from North America and roughly doubled the size of the trans-Appalachian American empire.  It began to seem certain that the United States would one day stretch west to the Pacific. 

The Lewis and Clark expedition

Lewis and Clark
Immediately after the purchase, Jefferson asked Congress for $2,500 to map the far Northwest, beyond the Mississippi. When Congress approved he sent out an expedition of US army volunteers commanded by Captain Merriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark.  Their remit was to explore the new territory and its wildlife, to establish trade with the Indians, and to find if possible a good route to the Pacific. Jefferson also wanted to establish a claim to the Pacific North West before the British, Spaniards, and Russians were able to occupy the territory. 

Their journey began in St Louis and lasted from May 1804 to September 1806. 

They wintered at Fort Mandan in what was to become North Dakota. In August they crossed the Continental Divide at the Lemhi Pass. As Lewis wrote:  
‘We proceeded to the top of the dividing ridge from which I discovered immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered in snow.’ 
 They crossed over a ‘large and plain Indian road’. This was the first time that white men had seen present-day Idaho.

The Lemhi Pass
In dugout canoes they descended the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific in November 1805. On their return to St Louis they were greeted with gunfire salutes and cheering crowds.

By 1845 the West had been criss-crossed countless times.

Andrew Jackson: the president from the frontier

The frontier was changing and so where the frontiersmen. Daniel Boone represented the first wave, Andrew 
The Great Appalachians Valley
Jackson (1767-1835) the second. His family were ‘Scotch-Irish’, his parents being immigrants from Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim. Like Boone they found their way down the Great Appalachians Valley.

 Jackson was born in the as yet unsurveyed border between North and South Carolina. He himself claimed to be from South Carolina but this claim is disputed. Thanks to his more prosperous relations, he was able to rise. He crossed the Cumberland Gap and headed west along the newly opened road to Nashvillethat had been founded in 1779.  In Nashville he practised the law and when the Cumberland region was admitted to the Union as the state of Tennessee in 1796, he served as its first representative in Congress. He turned himself into a soldier by serving in the militia and in the War of 1812 against Britain proved himself a successful general. His men named him ‘Old Hickory’ after the toughest wood they knew and this became his nickname for the rest of his life. To the Creek Indians, however, he was ‘Sharp Knife’ because of the harsh peace treaty that stripped them of half their lands. His most celebrated military action was his defence of New Orleans against the British in January 1815 (ironically, two weeks after the peace treaty that ended the war). 

Jackson in 1824
He was elected president in 1828 on a wave of enthusiasm. 

As president Jackson initiated the policy of Indian removal in his Indian Removal Act of 1830. Chief Justice John Marshall upheld the tribes’ claims in two important cases, but state officials and the President defied him. It is claimed that Jackson said; 
‘Mr Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.’ 
Following the Act members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations were removed from their ancestral homelands in the south eastern U.S. to an area west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Around 2,000-6,000 of the 16, 543 relocated Cherokee died. The removal of the Choctaws in 1831 has been designated the Trail of Tears.

Jackson’s image as the rough man of the frontier was at odds with the reality. Unlike Boone he was a settler rather than a restless explorer, a land speculator and a capitalist rather than a backwoodsman. It was people like Jackson who brought slavery to the newly opened territories of the southwest. 

The Mormons

Mormonism can be seen as a characteristic frontier movement. Its founder,  Joseph Smith (1801-44), came originally from a poor family in Vermont, but his family finally settled in the village of Palmyra, New York. In 1820 he had a vision and ten years later he founded his own church, which soon numbered thousands, mainly farmers from New England. He led his movement west into Missouri and Illinois. In late 1839 they settled in Commerce, Illinois, which they renamed Nauvoo

Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois

In 1844 dissidents accused Smith of practising polygamy. He was attached by a lynch mob and he and his brother were shot. The movement was then taken over by Brigham Young (1801-77). 

Young then embarked on an epic journey of 16,000 Mormons to the Far West, an expensive and dangerous undertaking. On 4 February 1846 the first emigrants began to cross the Mississippi in their covered wagons.  Towards the end of the year they founded a settlement near the site of what became Omaha Nebraska, on the western bank of the Missouri.  When the winter was over they joined the Oregon Trail and crossed the Great Plains and the Wyoming desert. They crossed the continental divide by South Pass and reached the Salt Lake in July 1847. 

By the winter of 1848 Salt Lake City was taking shape with a population of 5,000 and more coming, including immigrants from England and Wales.  By 1869 some 80,000 Mormons had settled in Utah. 

Manifest Destiny

In 1845 the newspaper editor John O’Sullivan coined the term ‘manifest destiny’ to describe the mission of the Americans to expand throughout the continent. 

‘Our manifest destiny is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.’  
The term was open to interpretation and not all Americans subscribed to it, but the ideology of continentalism was used to justify the annexation of Oregon, Texas and later California. It was a providential belief in the American mission not merely to colonise but also to spread the values of republican democracy. It was a development of the seventeenth century picture of America as the city set on a hill.

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