Jefferson’s America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation by Julie M. Fenster
Crown, 2016. Hardcover, 368 pages.
Jefferson’s America is the story of the Louisiana Purchase and its earliest exploration. While history textbooks lead one to believe that acquisition went off without a hitch and that Lewis and Clark were the only to explore it, those textbooks are wrong. The Louisiana Territory changed hands multiple times in just a few short years. Spain was not happy when they returned the land to France and France promised Spain to never let it go. However, negotiations were underway to sell the reclaimed land to the new United States. The Louisiana Purchase caused tensions both at home and abroad. Spain wanted to regain the territory at all costs. Congress was not happy the purchase was made when all they wanted was a treaty granting access to the Mississippi River. Nor was Congress happy that the borders of the new territory were undefined. This led to a great deal of politicking for Thomas Jefferson.
To help establish a claim to the new land and settle disputes, Jefferson pushed for immediate exploration of the new land. His idea was that if the land was explored, borders could be drawn, those living in the new lands would learn of the new leadership, and that the exploration would be a “peaceful; conquest” of the new area. To this end, he wanted the route of the Missouri and Red Rivers traced to the source. Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis to head the Corps of Discovery to follow the Missouri and then travel on to the Pacific. It was Lewis who asked for William Clark to co-lead. Further south in modern Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, Jefferson wanted the Red River explored to help determine the boundary with New Spain’s Texas (Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis). Others explored the Ouachita River (William Dunbar and George Hunter) and traced the source of the Mississippi (Zebulon Pike). In each case, routes would be mapped and scientific exploration would occur. The results of these missions would bolster the need to see the Louisiana Purchase as the right choice at home and establish the United States dominance of the region to the other world power.
The book serves to provide mini-biographies of each person involved and serves to illustrate the dangers of exploring an untamed land. In the latter case, it was not a cakewalk. There was constant danger from the landscape, wildlife, and other inhabitants of the land (and not just the Native Americans). And Spain did everything in its power to try to stop the exploration. Jefferson’s America focuses on a few short years of exploration, 1803-1806, but there is quite a bit to learn about those years.
While this book was very informative, it started out very slowly. It took me over a hundred pages before the text started to flow (after all the background history of the region and the details about the Purchase). The best aspect of this book is that it covers more than just Lewis and Clark, which is really all K-12 schools focus on when discussing the Louisiana Purchase. Before reading Jefferson’s America, I did not know that there were explorations concurrent to Lewis and Clark’s. Nor did I know about all the political intrigue and near war with Spain. It was also surprising to hear that Jefferson lost political support over the Louisiana Purchase.
Did you know about the other explorers of the discussed era? Or about the tensions with Spain? Or do you know of another book on these topics?
P.S. To my fellow America’s, I thought this book would be perfect for an Independence Day book review as it celebrates many of helped to expand our nation!
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.