Settling the Mountains

About half a century has elapsed since the idea of possessing and settling the Rocky Mountain region began to develop in the minds of the American people. Before that time it existed only as a speculative belief of farsighted men, or a daring hope of adventurous ones. We then owned but little of our present western territory. On the south and west our boundary was the present eastern border of Texas, with the line of the ” Panhandle ” carried north to the Arkansas River, thence up the Arkansas and the continental divide to parallel forty-two of north latitude, and west on it to the Pacific. We have since acquired on that side all of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah, the greater portion of Colorado, and parts of Wyoming, Kansas, and Indian Territory. On the north our line was wholly unsettled west of the summit of the Rockies – we claiming as far north as the Russian possessions, and England claiming as far south as California, but both offering to take less. Meantime the disputed territory was under a joint occupancy by the traders of both countries.

The causes which operated on the public mind in regard to occupying this mountain region were various, though they afterwards blended to a certain extent. First may be mentioned the Texas agitation. Large numbers of Americans had settled in Texas, under grants of the various Mexican governments, but they did not revolutionize with the facility of the natives, and the two races did not harmonize. In 1833 the Americans, who numbered over 20,000, determined to separate from the State of Coahuila, of which they formed a part, and seek admission as a separate State into the Mexican republic. This did not meet with favor when submitted to Santa Anna, then President, and he managed to put the Texans off until he had an opportunity, between insurrections, to throw his troops into their country. Open hostilities followed in 1835 and 1836, and in the latter year Texas declared and virtually established her independence. The State became a bone of contention in our politics at the first, and remained one until the dissolution of the Whig party. There was a feeling of friendliness to the struggling Texans which was naturally strongest in the South and West, whence chiefly they had emigrated, but when the real political motives in the controversy are reached, all feelings and all interests are found to be subordinated to one consideration – the extension of slave territory. The South wanted “the Lone Star admitted to the galaxy of her sister States,” and broadly threatened secession if the desire were not gratified. It was claimed that Texas was needed to preserve the equilibrium north and south of Mason and Dixon’s line. With the South this consideration outweighed every other. Martin Van Buren, who had until then been the popular candidate for nomination, ventured, shortly before the Democratic convention, to write a public letter in which he took a position against annexation. The South abandoned him at once, and was strong enough to defeat him in the convention. The Whigs took the position that any intervention on our part against Mexico was an outrage on a sister republic; that Houston and his followers had gone to Texas to stir up a rebellion; and that the whole affair was “the consummation of the perfidious treason of Aaron Burr.” It is true that Tyler extended the offer of annexation to Texas, which was accepted, but it was after his veto of the bank bill had caused the desertion of his party and the resignation of his cabinet, excepting Webster. The position of the Whigs was unfortunate for them, as it forced them to oppose the brilliantly successful Mexican war, to object to the occupation of New Mexico and California, and to advocate compromise with England in the Oregon matter. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, having no legitimate reason to offer for the acquisition of slave territory only, drifted into the advocacy of the acquisition of territory in general, a position naturally attractive to the American people, and which soon became very popular.

A second instrumentality in moulding public sentiment was the Santa Fe trade. This had been carried on for a number of years in a desultory and generally unsuccessful way. There had even been one or two traders, though of small importance, who reached Santa Fe before the expedition of Lieutenant Pike. This officer was sent up the Arkansas River in 1806 with instructions to penetrate to the sources of the Red River, for which those of the Canadian fork were then mistaken, lie missed both but reached the Rio Grande and prepared to winter there, supposing it to be the Red River. Being only seventy or eighty miles from the northern Mexican settlements, his presence was soon discovered and a force was sent to remove him. On being informed that he was in Mexican territory, and that an escort had been sent to convoy his men and baggage out of the country, he consented to leave, it being agreed that they should go by way of Santa Fé. Arrived there, however, the governor sent Pike and his men to the commandant general at Chihuahua, who seized moat of his papers and returned the party to the United States by way of San Antonio de Bexar. Their glowing reports of the country excited general attention, and in 1812 a considerable party of traders started across the plains, following the directions given by Lieutenant Pike. They reached Santa Fe just in tune to get the benefit of a revolution in favor of the royalists. Their goods were confiscated; they were seized as spies, and imprisoned in the calabooses of Chihuahua. At the end of nine years the Mexican republicans, under Iturbide, regained the ascendancy, and the luckless traders were released. Two of them returned home in 1821, and two small expeditions were sent out in the same year, both of which were successful. The trade was a very profitable one, as ail other New Mexican supplies were brought in by way of Vera Cruz, at such enormous expense that common calicoes sold for two and three dollars per yard. These expeditions were therefore kept up from year to year, notwithstanding the hardship and peril, though on a rather small scale and with varying success, until the year 1831. In that year Independence, Missouri, became the starting place for the Santa Fe trains, and the trade began to assume greater proportions. In 1822 the goods sent out amounted to $15,000, and the men employed were fifteen, besides the sixty proprietors. In 1831 the goods exported were valued at $250,000. There were eighty owners and three hundred men employed. In 1843 the trade had come under the control of thirty proprietors, who sent out half a million dollars’ worth of goods and employed four hundred men. These caravans moved across the plains in military order, usually four wagons abreast. They were escorted by troops on only two occasions prior to 1843.

The published narratives of the traders afforded the principal information concerning the regions traversed, and their prosperity demonstrated that the mountain country was by no means worthless.

The fur trade of the Northwest was a large factor in the determination of our boundaries. The fur traders, French, English, and American, were ever the pioneers in the North. Id British America Frobisher established a trailing post on Lake Athabasca in 1778. In 1789 Mackenzie followed down the river bearing his name to the Arctic, and in 1793 he gained the Pacific overland. On his recommendation there followed a union of the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay companies in the occupancy of the explored country, which continued until their consolidation in 1821. In 1805 the Northwest Company sent one Laroque with an expedition to occupy the Columbia country, but he did not cross the mountains. After the Louisiana purchase, in 1803, the United States sent out the Lewis and Clarke expedition to explore the new territory, which was then almost unknown. They returned in 1806, and their reports quickly begot an active interest in the fur trade with this region. In 1808 the American Fur Company was organized, with head quarters at St. Louis. They established posts on the sources of the Mississippi and Missouri, and Major Henry, one of their agents, established Post Henry on the Lewis River, the first trading post located by white men in the Columbia basin. In 1810 Astor started his overland expedition from St. Louis to Oregon. The establishment of Astoria, its terrible misfortunes and final disgraceful sale and surrender by Mr. Astor’s Canadian associates, need only be referred to here. Their publication in Irving’s “Astoria” in 1836 had a widespread effect in the formation of public opinion, not so much by acquainting the people with the country as by arousing the national prejudice against England. This last has always been a potent factor in our affairs, and was never more so than at this time. It was known that England desired to have Texas remain independent and without slavery. It was currently believed that she was planning to obtain California. A Southern congressman did .not much misrepresent the American feeling when he said, “It were worth twenty years’ war to prevent California falling into the hands of the English.”

The British flag floated over Astoria, then called St. George, until 1818. In that year there was a nominal surrender of the country, and the American flag was once more raised, but Astoria remained in the possession of the consolidated “Honorable Hudson’s Bay Fur Company” until 1845. At the time of its final surrender by the British it had become a formidable stockade fort, 250 feet by 150, with two bastions, and walls twelve feet high. It was garrisoned by sixty-five men, and by way of armament had two 18ponnders, six 6-poundere, four 4-pound carronades, two 6-pound coehorns, and seven swivels. By the agreement of 1818 there was to be a joint occupation for ten years of ”any country that may be claimed by either party on the Northwestern coast of America, westward of the Stony Mountains;” and this agreement was extended indefinitely in 1827, with the privilege of termination at any time by either party on one year’s notice. The occupation that resulted was practically the occupation of the British fur companies, for the Americans did not succeed in permanently establishing a trading post in the whole Columbia country. When one was set up, the British companies quickly ruined its trade by setting up a rival and underselling. They were even successful in causing the failure of trading expeditions such as Pilcher’s and Capt. Bonneville’s.

In 1832 a novel expedition for Oregon left Cambridge, under N. J. Wyeth. There were twenty two of them, all equipped for an ideal frontier life. They wore uniforms, and had prepared themselves for the hardships of Western life by camping out for ten days on an island in Boston Harbor. In company with a party of experienced trappers, led by William Sublette, they reached the headwaters of the Snake River and established Fort Hall. The Hudson’s Bay Company soon after established Fort Boise and ruined their trade. In 1839 Mr. Wyeth, who had returned home a less romantic but wiser person, announced the truth that “the United States as a nation are unknown west of the mountains.” But while the British companies succeeded in monopolizing the fur trade of the Columbia country, the Americans were pushing up to its borders. In 1823 Ashley had his men on Green River and the Sweetwater. In 1821 he established a trading post in the Great Salt Lake basin, to which he conveyed a six pound cannon in 1826, and wagons two years later. The return of $180,000 worth of furs by Ashley’s company in a single year aroused great interest in the trade, and caused the organization of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which carried its trade through all California. Private enterprise reached out into every corner of the wilderness. Posts were established all along the foothills – Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas, St. Train’s on the South Platte, Laramie on the North Platte, Union, Clark, Berthold, and others on the Missouri. In 1834: John Jacob Astor sold his interest in the American Fur Company to Pierre Chouteau, Jr., of St. Louis, and his associates. The company known as P. Chouteau, Jr., & Co., was organized soon afterwards, and eventually secured the control of both the fur trade and the Santa Fe trade. The information concerning the western mountains and plains which reached the people through the fur traders was of course considerable. It would be impossible to estimate it with accuracy as to quantity, but its value will be easily appreciated by those who remember the “Great American Desert” of earlier days, as portrayed in the geographies of Morse, Cummings, and others, indicated by those little dots which are the geographical symbols of sterility and starvation, and comparable in size only to the Great Sahara. Lieutenant Pike, in his account of his explorations, had reported the Great Plains as a providential desert barrier which would restrain the American people from thin diffusion and ruin. he said, “Our citizens being so prone to rambling and extending themselves on the frontiers will, through necessity, be constrained to limit their extent on the west to the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi, while they leave the prairies incapable of cultivation to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country.” Lieutenant Long, in 1818, improved on Pike’s account only by placing the beginning of the desert some two hundred miles farther westward. Even so lately as 1843 George McDuffie, of Georgia, announced in the Senate of the United States his understanding that the country for “seven hundred miles this side of the Rocky Mountains is uninhabitable.”‘

A fourth agency in the occupation and settlement of the mountain country, and the last one I shall consider, was missionary work in Oregon. Away back in 1817, Hall J. Kelly, a Boston teacher, became impressed with the idea of colonizing Oregon, converting the Indians, and establishing a new republic on the Pacific coast. For this end he worked ardently, memorializing Congress for cooperation repeatedly and issuing several pamphlets treating of his project. In 1829 he formed a society to carry out his views, which had then become definite in a plan for an overland expedition. In 1831 he induced the Legislature of Massachusetts to incorporate “The American Society for Encouraging the Settlement of Oregon Territory.” Several hundred names were enrolled on the emigration books, among others, Captain Bonneville and N. J. Wyeth, when opposition sprung up. It seems to have been customary in those days to suspect every pioneer leader of being another Aaron Burr. Kelly’s motives were assailed, the press misrepresented the difficulties of the undertaking, and the expedition was broken up. But several of the members went out, of whom Bonneville and Wyeth have already been mentioned. John Ball, Calvin Tibbitts, and others went also in 1832. They reached Oregon, established the first school among the Indians, under the auspices of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and did the first farming in that region in 1833. The Methodist Board of Missions was to have sent two missionaries with this party, but on its being broken up the ministers selected were sent to Liberia instead. Kelly tried vainly to reconstruct his company, and finally, in desperation, started for Oregon himself, by way of Mexico. At Vera Cruz the revenue officials appropriated most of his goods, although they were not subject to duty, and though he was travelling under a passport front our department of State, endorsed by the Mexican Government. At Monterey, Cal., he induced Ewing Young and a small party to accompany him, and sailing thence arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1834. The Monterey party settled permanently, and formed the nucleus of the subsequent settlement. The estate of Ewing Young, which escheated in default of heirs, gave the provisional government of Oregon its first and, for some time, only funds. Kelly’s health was impaired and his spirits depressed by misfortune. He soon returned to the East, and went down to death in poverty, worn out by exposure, and in premature decay.

There were others besides Kelly who were advocating a settlement in Oregon at an early day. The idea of a seaport on the Pacific coast, which should be the western terminus on our continent of a line of trade with Asia, had originated with Thomas Jefferson. lie foresaw a vast Oriental traffic across America, and tried to have the country explored long before he sent out Lewis and Clarke. Some of his worshippers followed up the thought, particularly Colonel Benton, who wrote newspaper articles favoring the settlement of the Northwest as early as 1819. In 1820 Dr. Floyd, of Virginia, endeavored to get action towards that end in the House of Representatives. In 1825 Benton introduced in the Senate a bill for the occupation of the Columbia, which received fourteen votes. While philosophers were still speculating and enthusiasts arguing, a romantic event occurred which brought about the desired end. In 1832 a deputation of four Nez Perce Indians visited St. Louis. They were no usual visitors there, and they had come on a strange errand. Some trapper had told their tribe of a wonderful Book that the white men had – a Book which told all about the Great Spirit, the happy hunting grounds, and the trail that led to them – and they had come after it. From away in their mountain girt valleys beyond the Columbia they had searched out a pathway, over mountains and plains, through the fierce tribes of their deadly enemies, until they reached the great village of the white man. They found there, as Indian Superintendent, Gen. William Clarke, who had visited their country twenty-seven years before. He received them kindly. They were feasted, and loaded with presents, but they failed to obtain the Book. It was not printed in a language which they could understand, and no missionary volunteered to return with them. The two older Indians died at St. Louis, and the younger ones returned to their homes, ascending the Missouri to the mouth of the Yellowstone by the first steamboat that traversed those waters. It was sent up by the American Fur Company, and bore also the celebrated George Catlin, whose work among the Indians is known to the world. When the Nez Perces bade farewell to General Clarke they were full of sadness at the failure of their mission, and portrayed, in their graceful imagery, the disappointment which their tribe would feel. A young clerk overheard the conversation. It was one of those happenings which seem to be the work of some great guiding hand. He wrote an account of the entire circumstance to friends in Pittsburg, who showed the letter to Catlin on his return. Catlin felt sure there was some mistake about it, for he had become acquainted with the Nez Perces on the boat, and they had not spoken of their mission to him, but on corresponding with General Clarke he found it to be true. They had come solely to obtain the Book, and they had failed. The young clerk’s letter was then published. It touched the hearts of Christian America. The Methodist Board of Missions at once sent out Jason and Daniel Lee and others. The American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions sent Samuel Parker and Marcus Whitman, M.D., who were to have gone with the Lees but missed the convoy of the American Fur Company, and did not reach the American rendezvous on Green River until 1835. Here they luckily met a party of Nez Perces whom Mr. Parker accompanied to their home. He remained with them until 1830, and then returned home by way of the Sandwich Islands. Whitman saw a great duty placed before him, and he undertook it without hesitation. Having persuaded two of the Nez Perce boys to accompany him, he returned to the East to prepare for his lifework. In the following spring he married Miss Narcissa Prentiss, and having secured as colleagues Rev. II. H. Spalding and wife, a newly married couple who were about going as missionaries to the Osages, they started on their bridal tour to Oregon. But taking women among the Indians was a new project, and was looked on as foolhardy by experienced frontiersmen. They had to turn a deaf ear to warnings of danger from the time they started until they left the settlements. The American Fur Company at first refused to convoy them, but finally consented. At Council Bluffs they found that the company’s party had started six days before them, but accompanied by W. H. Gray, who had joined them as agent for the proposed mission, they followed on and overtook it at Loup Fork. They crossed the South Pass six years before Fremont “discovered it,” and in July reached the place of the annual fair of the Indians and traders, midway between South Pass and Fort Hall. Here they met their Nez Perce friends, and accompanied by them and some Hudson’s Bay Company men, they proceeded on their journey. They reached Fort Walla Walla in September; the missions at Wailatpu and Lapwai were soon established, and the Book was given to the Nez Perces and their neighbors.

It had been usual for these trading parties to leave their wagons at Fort Laramie, but Dr. Whitman insisted on taking his through. He succeeded in getting it as far as Fort Hall, then under British control, and there, after many objections and representations of the impassability of the trail by the Hudson’s Bay men, he compromised by making a cart of it. At Fort Boise the convoy rebelled. They said that if he wanted to take the wagon farther he must take it apart and pack it on horses, as the road was absolutely impassable. The cart was accordingly left till a future time. It appeared to be a part of the policy of the British companies to prevent wagons passing beyond Fort Hall, thus building up the impression that there could be no overland route to Oregon. They succeeded with party after party following Whitman, and in 1842, when one hundred and twenty-seven emigrants had reached Oregon, of whom thirty-four were white women, thirty-two white children, and twenty-four ministers, no wagon had passed Fort Hall except the doctor’s cart.

In October, 1842, Dr. Whitman was at Fort Walla Walla, attending a patient, when word was brought of the arrival of a party of British settlers at Fort Colville. Prior to that time the representatives of England were trappers and attaches of the fur companies only. The people of the fort were at dinner when the news was announced. General joy prevailed, and a young priest, in the excess of his enthusiasm, tossed up his cap and cried, Hurrah for Oregon! America is too late, and we have got the country.” Dr. Whitman was the only American present. To him that cry was an expression of the British policy. They were planning an actual occupation of the country as a basis of future action. A few moments’ talk confirmed this opinion, and he was taunted with his inability to prevent it. On the instant he determined to defeat the scheme. Winter was at hand, but he must act at once. The latest information he had was that Lord Ashburton, on the part of the English, and Daniel Webster, on the part of the Americans, were negotiating a treaty for the settlement of the disputed boundary. Any delay might prevent his reaching Washington before a treaty was signed. In two hours he was at Wailatpu, twenty-five miles away; in twenty-four hours he was started for Washington; in eleven days he was at Fort Hall, six hundred and forty miles on his journey. Here

he made a mistake. Deterred from the usual South Pass route by anticipations of severe weather, he and his companion, Mr. Lovejoy, undertook a long detour to Bent’s Fort by way of Fort Uintah, Fort Uncompahgre, Taos, and Santa Fe. Instead of being a better route, it took them into the desert of Eastern Utah and Western Colorado, and forced them to cross the lofty San Juan Mountains, where Fremont’s fourth expedition narrowly escaped destruction afterwards. They succeeded in reaching Bent’s Fort on January 3, 1843, after appalling perils and exposure, and, pressing on alone, Dr. Whitman reached St. Louis, clad in furs, with fingers, ears, nose, and feet frostbitten, after four months in the saddle. From there he took the stage to Washington, and reached his destination on March 3d. He found that the Ashburton treaty had been signed before he left Oregon, but Oregon had been left out. The line had been determined only to the Rocky Mountains. He was too late for that treaty, but in good time for the next one. He furnished the government with explicit and reliable information concerning the country, and in the summer led back an emigrant train of two hundred wagons.

As soon as Whitman reached the settlements he had spread broadcast his report of the country, by word and in printed circulars, and notified the people that an emigrant company would leave Westport, Missouri, in the June following. Eight hundred and seventy-five emigrants met him there and accompanied him, while others followed in their trail. In 1846 the American population of Oregon was fully 10,000, and of other nationalities not to exceed one tenth of that number, living under a local government which was established in 1843. It was this emigration that decided public sentiment on the Oregon question. It settled the mooted questions of the agricultural value of Oregon and the feasibility of overland emigration, besides binding the Mississippi Valley to the Columbia by ties of blood and friendship. The government had understood well enough that emigration would settle the Oregon question, beforehand, but how to get the emigration was another matter. Congress had been discussing the bill “for the occupation and settlement of Oregon” while Whitman was making his long ride, and the plan of inducing “fifty thousand rifles” to settle on the Columbia, by giving each settler 64:0 acres of land and IGO additional for his wife and each child, had met with favor, until Mr. Choate pointed out its infringement on the joint occupation agreement, and told the Senate that America could not afford to sully her honor, however much she advanced her interests. Congress had no other inducement to offer. Dr. Whitman got the emigration. It is true that Linn, Benton, and others had shown Oregon to be much more desirable than it had been believed to be, a few years back, but other congressmen had controverted their propositions, and the matter was left in doubt. Whitman solved the doubt, He accomplished what the statesmen, without him, had been unable even to plan for. That is the measure of his work and the just measure of his praise.

Meantime, the Democratic party had asserted the right of the United States to the whole of Oregon, in their platform of 1844, and the campaign in which “Fifty four, Forty, or Fight” was a rallying cry had resulted in the election of Mr. Polk by a majority of sixty-five of the two hundred and seventy-five electoral votes. Mr. Polk, in his message, advised giving the agreed one year’s notice of the termination of joint occupation, and an armed occupation of the country. The question received a long consideration in Congress, during which it was made manifest that the only land really in controversy was that between parallel 49 and the Columbia River, for the United States had repeatedly offered to compromise on 49, and England had as often offered to compromise on 49 to the Columbia and by it to the ocean. A bill ordering notice finally passed in April, 1846, bearing, by amendment, a pacificatory preamble and a provision leaving the time of serving the notice at the discretion of the President. It was served at once, and England came to terms’ forthwith. Mr. Pakenham offered to compromise on 49. Here was a dilemma. England offered all America had asked, but could Mr. Polk, after the declarations of the late campaign and subsequent debate, consistently accept it? He did so secretly, and threw the responsibility of a public acceptance on the Senate. The Senate accepted it by a full vote of the Whigs and the compromise faction of the Democrats. The treaty establishing the present line was signed on June 15, and proclaimed as a law of the land on August 5, 1846. The meaning of the treaty as to what was “the channel separating Vancouver’s Island from the mainland” was not finally settled until 1872, and then under arbitration, by Emperor William of Germany.

It should be borne in mind that although the Democratic platform of 1844 declared in favor of “the reoccupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period,” the great political parties were not thoroughly united either for or against these propositions. The Whig platform did not mention either subject, and many Whigs insisted that they were not in issue between the parties. The fact is that there was serious question in the minds of many thoughtful men as to the policy of extending our territory to so great an extent. To some it appeared that the occupation of these vast regions would create a detrimental diffusion of our population, for they could not foresee the wonderful increase our population was destined to have. Others feared the extension of slavery, for they could not foresee that slavery was to be blotted out forever. Others feared the union of distant sections with no means of ready communication, for they could not foresee the rails and wires of today. Others thought the country impracticable of settlement and worthless, for they could not foresee the discovery of the enormous mineral wealth which now makes the mountains to resound with the hum of labor. The two objections last mentioned were the more serious. When we remember that the first railroad reached the Mississippi in 1854, we are not so much surprised that ten years earlier a railroad to the Pacific was viewed by many as chimerical. At that time it took months to get letters across the continent by the swiftest couriers, and the transportation of supplies was proportionately slower. The difficulty of transporting armies, with their subsistence, to the frontier of such domains, might well appall a statesman. The feasibility of even a wagon road to the Pacific was not yet settled. Who then could foresee that in forty years three lines of railroad should cross the Rocky Mountains, and half a dozen span the Great Plains? It is true that at that time a transcontinental railroad was widely discussed, but it was from a wholly speculative standpoint. With the information then had, I doubt if a more sensible statement of the situation was made than the following in the New York Evening Post, in 1846: “I apprehend it would require the whole white population west of Independence, Missouri, to act as mere servants of the line, allowing it was now built and in operation; and to prevent the Indians and storms from destroying the road would require an army of 10,000 soldiers, laborers besides. It will be time enough for the Government of the United States to make railroads beyond St. Louis when the people shall have completed roads from New York to St. Louis or the Mississippi River. Such a railroad will be, but not within forty years.” There was just one thing that prevented the accomplishment of this prediction, and of it no one dreamed then. It was the mineral wealth of the Rocky Mountains. Without it there had not been a rail laid in the mountains today. Nevertheless, John Plumbe had begun his survey of a road from Lake Michigan to the Pacific in 183G, fifteen years before a road reached Chicago, had received aid from Congress in 1838, and was still appealing to the people to buy stock long after the above extract was written.

As to the value of the territory to be acquired or held, the popular notion of the country east of the mountains has been mentioned. In regard to Texas, it was contended by those who opposed the annexation that the country was not worth enough to compensate us for her debt of $10,000,000, which we were to assume. The country west of the mountains was generally estimated a desert. In the year 1839 Robert Greenhow, translator and librarian to the Department of State, prepared an exhaustive memoir on this question, for the use of Congress. He had all the information in the country at his disposal, and he favored our claim to Oregon. His statements may therefore be taken as at least not underestimating the country as it was then known. He says of the California coast: “The soil and climate appear to be favorable to the growth of every vegetable substance necessary for the subsistence and enjoyment of man; but no large portion of the territory will probably be found fruitful without artificial irrigation. Of the interior of California little is known.” Oregon he divides into three parts; the first reaching from the coast to the Cascade Mountains; the second, from the Cascade Range to the Blue Mountains; the third, the remaining country, to the Rockies. Of the first he says: “The climate of this region is more favorable to agriculture than those of the other parts of Oregon, although it is certainly adverse to great productiveness,” Of the second he quotes Wyeth, that “the agriculture of this territory must always be limited to the wants of a pastoral people.” Of the third he says that the climate is “sufficient to render any attempts at cultivation in this region entirely fruitless.” He continues: “The country east of the Rocky Mountains, for more than two hundred miles, is almost as dry and barren as that immediately on the western side.” The whole matter is summed up as follows: “In what other pursuits besides the fur trade British capitalists may advantageously employ their funds m Northwest America, is, therefore, an interesting question at present. From what has been hitherto learned of those countries, they do not offer prospects of a speedy return for the investment of capital in any other way. They contain lands in detached portions which will immediately yield to the industrious cultivator the means of subsistence, and enable him, perhaps, to purchase some foreign articles of luxury or necessity. But this is all; they produce no precious metals or commodities, no gold, nor silver, nor coffee, nor cotton, nor opium, nor are they, like India, inhabited by a numerous population, who may be easily forced to labor for the benefit of a few.” With such information before them, and lacking the gift of prophecy, our statesmen certainly had little reason to desire the territory on account of its intrinsic value.

But back of all these questions was a more serious question with many patriots. Was our form of government adequate for the wants of so great domains, with their conflicting interests, and might not the undue extension disrupt the whole union? Washington thought there was danger of losing our territory west of the Alleghanies when we extended only to the Mississippi. Jefferson always favored more than one government within our present boundaries. In a letter to Mr. Astor, expressing his regret at the failure of the Astoria venture, he tells how it had been his hope to see the Pacific coast covered with “free and independent Americans, unconnected with us but by the ties of blood and interest, and enjoying, like us, the right of self government.” Jackson early advised the limitation of our boundaries until our territory was more densely populated. Benton wrote the first newspaper article calling attention to the importance of occupying Oregon, but at the first he wanted it occupied as Jefferson had. In fact, he says he took his idea from Jefferson. In this vein he said, on March 1, 1825: “The ridge of the Rocky Mountains may be named without offence as presenting a convenient, natural, and everlasting boundary. Along the back of this ridge the western limits of the republic should be drawn, and the statue of the fabled god Terminus should be raised upon its highest peak, never to be thrown down. In planting the seed of a new power on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, it should be well understood that, when strong enough to take care of itself, the new government should separate from the mother empire as the child separates from the parent at the age of manhood.” Mr. Winthrop, of Massachusetts, referred to this sentiment with approval, in 1844, when Benton had changed his mind, and when he saw in the Pacific Ocean a more satisfactory boundary. Of Oregon, McDuffie, of Georgia, said in the Senate, in 1843: “If there was an embankment of five feet to be removed, I would not consent to expend five dollars to remove that embankment to enable our population to go there. I thank God for his mercy in placing the Rocky Mountains there.” Mr. Webster said, in 1845, when opposing the admission of Texas: ”The government is very likely to be endangered, in my opinion, by a further enlargement of the territorial surface, already so vast, over which it is extended.” In 1847, in a speech at Springfield, after disclaiming any sympathy with Mexico, he said: “Mexico had no ground of complaint in the annexation of Texas; we are the party to complain – we did not want Texas.” This feeling was not caused by any want of sympathy on the part of the citizens of the United States for those of other parts of America. The announcement of the Monroe doctrine, in 1823, and the popular favor which it received, preclude such a supposition. It was a doubt of the elasticity of the Union, which was well formulated by the venerable Genevan, Albert Gallatin, thus: “Viewed as an abstract proposition, Mr. Jefferson’s opinion appears correct, that it will be best for both the Atlantic and the Pacific American nations, while entertaining the most friendly relations, to remain independent, rather than to be united under the same government.” The statesmen were not yet ready for the bold position of Stephen A. Douglas – “I would make this an ocean bound republic, and have no more disputes about boundaries, or ^red lines’ upon the maps.”

The people were less timorous, perhaps because less thoughtful. When the question was submitted to them they warmly supported the extensions. The defeat of Mr. Van Buren, as a candidate for nomination, and of Mr. Clay, as a candidate for election, by Mr. Polk, who was then a comparatively unknown man, showed how strongly the people were attached to the principle. Mr. Polk had therefore no occasion for hesitancy in his policy after the Mexican war was begun, and he acted promptly and wisely. One of the first steps of the war was to dispatch an army under General Kearny to occupy New Mexico and California, in order that if the war should close with a treaty on a uti possidetis basis we should hold those states. New Mexico was taken without opposition. California had been partially conquered by Commodore Stockton and Lieutenant Fremont when Kearny reached it. Insurrection broke out afterwards, but their united forces soon disposed of it; and when the Mexican war ended, with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in consideration of $15,000,000, we were left in possession of all of our present western territory except the strip south of the Gila River in Arizona known as “the Gadsden Purchase.” This we bought of Mexico in 1853, for $10,000,000. There was an insurrection in New Mexico after General Kearny left it, but it was, in its nature, rather an Indian massacre than a war movement by a military force. An account of it forms the chapter following.


Dunn, Jacob Piatt. Massacres of the mountains: a history of the Indian wars of the far West. Harper & brothers, 1886.

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