Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark

Thematic View

While Jefferson served as a Burgess, Virginia's colonial government endeavored to make sense of the new restrictions foisted upon them by British authorities via the Proclamation of 1763. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix seemingly settled the particulars of the boundary that so infuriated land hungry colonists. However, continued consternation over the exact location of that line led to subsequent treaties that took place in late 1768 at Hard Labor, South Carolina, and in 1770 at Lochaber, South Carolina. Although the Crown restricted western settlement, it did afford the colonies greater control over trade with the various Indian tribes west of the mountains. To that end, commissioners from Virginia and several other colonies convened a conference to consider a plan for regulating that valuable commerce. Settlement west of the Appalachians, like trade, continued apace as squatters occupied prime land beyond the Proclamation Line. Moreover, speculative Virginians, like George Washington (1732-1799), showed little sign of accepting the permanency of the boundary and made plans to claim vast tracts of land once the ban was lifted. Although he had inherited his father's share of the Loyal Company, Jefferson steered clear of active speculation in the western lands (Jackson 1976; Jackson 1981, 12).

Continued controversy over colonial encroachments by speculators and settlers into Indian lands provoked a combination of Ohio River Indian tribes to attack Virginia and Pennsylvania settlements. This conflict became known as Lord Dunmore's War (1774-1775). British victory in that contest forced the southern tribes of the Ohio valley to relinquish their lands to colonial authorities. Tensions in the relationship between Parliament and the thirteen seaboard colonies eroded the bonds that held the colonies to the mother country. These stress points were evident in a host of controversies including growing hostilities along the Proclamation Line boundary. Jefferson deployed his intellect and pen in favor of the American cause, first as a delegate from Virginia to the First and Second Continental Congresses and then as a key member of the committee of five assigned the task of constructing a declaration of independence from Great Britain. The resulting document includes among the many charges leveled against George III as reasons for the separation a reference to the Crown's ban on western expansion.

During the Revolution, Virginia's western lands became a theatre for war and a promise to her veterans. Delegates to the 1776 state constitutional convention established a new regime that moved quickly to extend control over at least a portion of Virginia's western lands. The Revolutionary War governorships of Patrick Henry (1776-78, 1784) and Thomas Jefferson (1779-1781) took advantage of this improved access to Trans-Appalachia, sending forces under George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) of Kentucky (formerly of Albemarle County) on repeated expeditions into the Ohio and Mississippi River region to rest control from the British. Colonel Clark led successful campaigns against British posts at Vincennes and Kaskaskia, towns inhabited by French-Canadians along the Illinois River, to secure the Illinois country for Virginia. Clark's victories fueled enthusiasm for managing, settling, and administering Virginia's western lands and necessitated a reconsideration and reassessment of the vast territory. Once secured, migration west became a flood and Virginia's western county of Kentucky, organized in 1776, filled rapidly.

Legislation of 1778 addressed this surge of interest. Ambitious lawmakers created the county of Illinois to minister to the needs of the habitants who pledged their allegiance to Virginia after Clark's successful campaign. In the fall of 1779, as Jefferson took his place as Virginia's governor, lawmakers made arrangements to guarantee for veterans the bounty lands promised for service by closing them to other settlers. Additionally, soldiers who reenlisted with George Rogers Clark's corps for the defense of the Illinois posts received additional grants in that farthest of Virginia's counties. However, the vision of settling the frontier with Virginia's veterans never materialized in the manner intended by the wartime legislation. During this period, in addition to line surveys of Thomas Walker and Daniel Smith, Jefferson authorized Walker, Smith, and Clark to survey a town site and construct a fort at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (Fraser 1983).

Following the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson served the national government in various positions from 1783 to 1789. In late 1783 he went to Princeton and then Annapolis as a Virginia delegate in the Confederation government, and in 1784, Jefferson was appointed a Minister Plenipotentiary to France, and then served as Minister to the King of France from 1785-1789. His experiences in these roles drove home to him the threatening geopolitical neighborhood within which America existed. In addition to political independence, the 1783 Treaty of Paris resulted in the transference of the enormous territory bounded by the 1763 Proclamation Line and the Mississippi River to the United States. The West would now be opened to settlement if the national government could secure it from the Indians, whose right to the land in question the British never observed in their transaction with the United States, and defend it against Spanish or British encroachments. The Confederation Congress also had to contend with competing state claims to the territory. After accepting Virginia's 1784 cession of a significant portion of the land north and west of the Ohio River, Congress made provisions for its survey, sale, and settlement.

The General Assembly addressed the practical issues of dealing with Virginia's unappropriated western lands. Legislation adopted in the spring of 1779 instituted a land office for distributing unsettled and unclaimed territory, although abuses led to rampant speculation and control of great tracts of land by a few wealthy men. Additional legislation nullified previously agreed to private purchases of Indian lands under Virginia jurisdiction, claiming for the Commonwealth exclusive right of preemption from the Indians. To protect their various maneuvers from being interfered with by the claims of other states, the legislature directed a committee of men including Jefferson to give a definitive defense of Virginia's claim to land north and west of the Ohio River. In conflict with the holdings alleged by New York, North Carolina, and Connecticut, Virginia's enormous western tract held a place at the center of an ongoing Congressional imbroglio over the future of the region. Landless states like Maryland insisted that the states with claims should cede them to the national Congress for the creation of a public domain. Landed states eventually committed to this policy. The subsequent cessions from New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Connecticut formed a national domain that would be sold to settle the wartime debt accrued by Congress. The public lands, according to Congressional legislation, would also be used to satisfy the land warrants issued in lieu of specie as payment for soldiers of the Continental Line. Unfortunately for the soldiers who served, the benefit never materialized due to conflicts over land titles in the region, Indian hostilities along the frontier, and the actions of speculators who purchased large quantities of warrants from desperate veterans at unconscionably low prices in the hope of achieving large profits in future land deals. Jefferson especially feared the corrosive effect of speculation on the success of the American experiment and the republican principles fought for in the war.

For newly independent Americans the trans-Mississippi west remained an undiscovered and potentially threatening country. Spanish control of the Mississippi and the port of New Orleans troubled many who hoped to prosper commercially from settlements in the trans-Appalachian west. The river was their natural highway for trade and its possession by a potentially hostile foreign power created significant anxiety. Furthermore, many in the east feared many western settlers would feel little compunction about abandoning their American citizenship for that of Spain if properly induced. Concerned with these issues, Jefferson accumulated information on Spanish settlements and the geography of the western Mississippi Valley. Indeed, in the decades since his youth Jefferson had accumulated as much data as was available about the geography and people of North America and would continue to do so until the journey of Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery.

Jefferson returned to America in late 1789 and reluctantly accepted a position in George Washington's cabinet as the nation's first Secretary of State in 1790. After paying a great deal of attention to North American geography as an academic pursuit from his residence in France, he was now thrown into the subject as a matter of international diplomacy and national security in Philadelphia. As Secretary of State he received intelligence on western issues that compromised the stability and security of the Union. From his many contacts with frontier officials and personal correspondents he also gained valuable knowledge of the Northwest Territory's natural history which fired his curiosity and interest to gather more information on the interior.

In late 1793, Jefferson once again withdrew from public service and retreated to Monticello, having resigned his position as Secretary of State, and in the waning years of the eighteenth century he grew increasingly discouraged by the direction in which the Federalists were taking the country. By 1800 Jefferson had developed a deep-seated anxiety over the many threats, both foreign and domestic, to the spirit of liberty and the ideals of republicanism he treasured. To provide for the future security and success of the American experiment he looked evermore intently to the latent potential of the West.

Jefferson's return to private life did not signal a withdrawal from public interests. Indeed, he concerned himself deeply with the constant tension inherent to America's tenuous position among the family of nations. The dramatic events of the French Revolution, for instance, created stresses in the West as well as in the Atlantic to which Jefferson paid very close attention. Intrigues along the Mississippi River, the continued presence of British troops in Northwest Territory forts, fears of Indian hostilities in the region, and rumblings of disunion over Federalist policies prevented Jefferson from achieving the peaceful life he planned for himself upon retiring to Monticello. Drawn away from Monticello and back into public service, Jefferson was elected Vice President of the United States and served under President John Adams (1797-1801), and was elected President of the United States in 1801 by the House of Representatives, reelected in 1804 and served as the Chief Executive from 1801-1809.