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Our Lewis and Clark Journal – Day 3

June 11, 2013

Day 3: The Blue Ridge Mountains: Imagining the Louisiana Purchase


Stephen Ambrose was paraphrasing Henry Adams when he wrote that

When Thomas Jefferson took the Oath of Office as the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801, the nation contained 5,308,483 persons. Nearly one out of five was a Negro slave. Although the boundaries stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, from the Great Lakes nearly to the Gulf of Mexico (roughly a thousand miles by a thousand miles), only a relatively small area was occupied. Two-thirds of the people lived within fifty miles of tidewater. Only four roads crossed the Appalachian Mountains, one from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, another from the Potomac to the Monongahela River, a third through Virginia southwestward to Knoxville, Tennessee, and the fourth through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.

Adams is worth reading in the original. His prose is as expansive and gentle as the period he is writing about. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy and at least read the opening chapters.

Our family explored part of this (then) new frontier region a few years ago, driving from Niagara Falls, New York (and Canada) to Cleveland, Ohio; and again through Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to Elkins, West Virginia. We took a cabin in the mountains and spent our days hiking in the Monongahela National Forest (the photo below of August barefoot in Otter Creek, Monongahela, is from 2010). We then crossed the mountains and drove through Shenandoah National Forest, up through Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and then home again to NY. This (along with my childhood stomping ground of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois) was the early nineteenth century frontier.

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As part of our trip to visit the Presidential homes in Virginia, August hiked the Blue Ridge Mountains. Look how much he’s grown.


This region West of the  Appalachians contained perhaps 500 thousand settlers in 1804, among them some of my own family who headed West in 1790 to settle in Kentucky. There were no roads, only trails, and transportation was slow. Mail from the Mississippi to Washington or New York took at least six weeks.

West of Mississippi, the land was largely unmapped and unexplored. The territory had claims upon it by the French (from New Orleans), the British (from Canada), the Russians (from the North), the Spanish (from California and the West Coast), as well as the United States (from the East). By the time the Corps actually set out, the Louisiana Purchase had transferred much of the territory through which Lewis and Clark would travel to the very young United States.


On July 4, 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte of France sold the territory between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains to the United States for three cents and acre. With this single act the country doubled in size. Lewis was in Philadelphia at the time, purchasing provisions for the trip and studying medicine with Benjamin Rush and being tutored by members of the American Philosophical Society. What the Louisiana Purchase meant for Lewis was that he and Clark (for the most part) would not be traveling through foreign territory but exploring a possession of the United Stated government. In the words of Henry Adams, “it gave a new face to politics.” In the words of Jefferson, it  “lessened the apprehensions of interruption from other powers” and  “increased infinitely the interest we felt in the expedition.”

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Reading: Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, 1889-1891.

The INDEX of blogs from Our Lewis and Clark Journey can be found here.


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