A decade before Lewis and Clark, André Michaux wanted to explore the American continent. Spying for France gave him that chance. From Smithsonian Magazine.
Everyone knows the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But it wasn't the first expedition to explore the American West that Jefferson promoted or devised. And it wasn't the last. This week, Monticello guides Olivia Brown and Mikey Amos look as those other, often ill-fated explorations.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
Olivia Brown: Today, I'm joined by Monticello Guide Mikey Amos to talk not only about Thomas Jefferson's interest in Western exploration, but also some of the various expeditions that traveled into the interior of the North American continent.
Mikey Amos: From a very early age, Thomas Jefferson was exposed to the mysteries of what they often referred to as "the West." His father, Peter Jefferson, was a land surveyor and mapmaker for the British King, George II, surveying land that was either new to the British Empire or hopeful to eventually be part of it. Peter Jefferson was a founding member of the Loyal Company of Virginia in 1749, alongside Joshua Fry, James Maury, Thomas Walker, and Thomas Meriweather, Meriweather Lewis's grandfather. The purpose of the Loyal Company was to petition for grants of land west of the Allegheny Mountains and recruit settlers to move into it.
A few years later, Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry, a professor of mathematics at the College of William and Mary, completed the first map of Virginia from actual land surveys, called the Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia Containing the Whole Province of Maryland, or simply the Fry-Jefferson Map. Thomas Jefferson was eight years old when his father finished the map, and it would be the one he used as a basis for his own map in Notes on the State of Virginia from 1785, his only published book. In this same map, Jefferson included rivers beyond Virginia, like the Missouri, whose path had always been an interest of Loyal Company of Virginia and his father. This early exposure to land surveying and British imperial interest in western land territory clearly had an impact on a young Thomas Jefferson and continued to influence his later political life.
Olivia Brown: Indeed, while Jefferson is well-known for commissioning the Corps of Discovery, led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark, he did propose other Western Expeditions prior to 1803. In 1783, Jefferson approached George Rogers Clark, a military officer, politician, and surveyor, to lead an expedition to explore the West, if money could be raised for the prospect. Clark declined Jefferson's offer, but did in fact suggest that his younger brother, William Clark, be considered for something like this in the future.
Though George Rogers Clark declined Thomas Jefferson's suggestion to continue Western exploration, Jefferson did not abandon the idea. A few years later, while serving as the U.S. Minister to France, Jefferson supported a plan by an American Explorer named John Ledyard to cross Russia, board a ship to the West Coast of North America, and explore the continent from the Pacific eastward. Amazingly, Ledyard did cross most of Russia, but a mere 200 miles from Kamchatka, the peninsula at the Eastern end of the Russian Empire, he was arrested, accused of being a French spy, transported 4,000 miles all the way back to the Polish border, and charged not to set foot within Russian territory again.
Then in 1793, while serving as Secretary of State, Jefferson turned to his fellow members of the American Philosophical Society, an organization founded by Benjamin Franklin and based out of Philadelphia - an organization that was dedicated to furthering knowledge of the natural sciences. Jefferson was able to enlist support from Society members to sponsor French botanist Andre Michaux to travel through the interior of the North American continent. Michaux had been in the United States, collecting tree and plant specimens for French King Louis XVI for almost ten years, and was deeply interested and invested in the natural history of North America. When the French monarchy fell and Michaux's future employment became unclear, he worked with Jefferson and the American Philosophical Society to undertake the Western expedition. The Society's subscription agreement states that Michaux was "to explore the interior country of North America from the Missisipi along the Missouri, and Westwardly to the Pacific ocean, or in such other direction as shall be advised by the American Philosophical society, and on his return to communicate to that said society the information he shall have acquired of the geography of the said country, it's inhabitants, soil, climate, animals, vegetables, minerals and other circumstances of note." Some famous names in early American history signed the agreement and pledged funding, and it is the only known surviving document that bears the signatures of the first four American presidents together. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Edmond Charles Genet, France's Minister to the United States at the time, reminded Michaux of his duty to the French Republic, and ordered him to instead trek through Kentucky wilderness and deliver messages of a secret military mission... but that is a podcast for another time!
Mikey Amos: None of the proposed expeditions prior to Jefferson's presidency panned out the way he hoped. But as president, Jefferson had new resources at his disposal and commissioned a number of expeditions to finally realize his hopes, not only for Western expansion, but also for understanding the flora, fauna, and people of the North American continent.
The most famous of these is, of course, the Corps of Discovery, known more commonly as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which we'll be covering more in our next two podcasts and have covered in the past as well. There were two other expeditions, however, that get much less attention today.
Olivia Brown: In the summer of 1806, just before the return of the Corps of Discovery, Jefferson sent a second expedition into the new Louisiana Territory. Known as the Red River Expedition, a group of roughly 35 men led by surveyor Thomas Freeman and botanist Dr. Peter Custis, set off to document the flora and fauna of the Red River.
They explored the Southwest portion of the Louisiana Territory in what is modern-day Arkansas, and its borders with Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. The journey was intended to also survey the river itself and meet with Native Nations, like the Corps of Discovery did, but throughout their travels, they were pursued by a large force of Spanish troops. The Spanish were unhappy about what they saw as American territorial encroachment, and though a tense incident ensued, Captain Richard Sparks of the Red River Expedition's party, was able to get the vastly outnumbered Americans out of the situation without incident. The expedition itself was cut short, but the group did lay groundwork for what would become increasing American encroachment and control over the local Caddo and Alabama-Coushatta native tribes in the region.
Mikey Amos: A second expedition to explore this same area of the Arkansas and Red Rivers left from St. Louis, Missouri in 1806, this one led by Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike. Considered to be the protege of General James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory, Pike was chosen specifically for this expedition after having already had experience traveling and exploring parts of the Mississippi River a few years prior. Pike's expedition, a detachment of 20 soldiers he called a "Dam'd set of Rascals" passed through the present day states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. They escorted delegates from the Osage, Pawnee, and the Oto Native Nations who had been visiting with President Thomas Jefferson and were tasked with continuing to meet other tribes of native people and create diplomatic relations with them on behalf of the United States government.
Zebulon Pike's men were not equipped to handle the harsh winters of this region, however, and made several navigational errors as they tried to cross the Rocky Mountains. Eventually, the expedition accidentally made their way into territory claimed by Spain, and like the Red River Expedition, had run-ins with Spanish troops in the area. Pike and some of his men were eventually captured and led through New Mexico to the city of Santa Fe, and then through what was called New Spain into the modern-day Mexican state of Chihuahua. Though he was a captive, this travel provided Pike with more information about the land, the people living on it, and the Spanish strength in the area. In an effort to avoid further conflict or inciting war, the Spanish eventually escorted Pike and his men back to the border of the Louisiana Territory so they could return to their home country of the United States. The entire ordeal, as it turned out, had actually been orchestrated by Pike's mentor, General James Wilkinson, who turned out to be a double agent and Spanish spy... that is also a podcast for another time!
Olivia Brown: Ultimately, what can be said about Thomas Jefferson's interest in the Western territories of North America and his influence on United States territorial expansion? While his interest in what people sometimes just referred to as "the West" began from a young age, Thomas Jefferson eventually had a keen interest in learning specifically about the natural history, geography, and people of these regions. It took until his presidency for any significant expedition to get off the ground, and even so, some of the expeditions he commissioned were met with difficulties and were cut short. It is, however, due in part to Thomas Jefferson, that people around the world, over 200 years later, still know names like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.
Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.