By Noah Brooks
First Across the Continent
A Great Transaction in Land
The people of the young Republic of the United States were greatly
astonished, in the summer of 1803, to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte,
then First Consul of France, had sold to us the vast tract
of land known as the country of Louisiana. The details of this
purchase were arranged in Paris (on the part of the United States)
by Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe. The French government
was represented by Barbe-Marbois, Minister of the Public Treasury.
The price to be paid for this vast domain was fifteen million dollars.
The area of the country ceded was reckoned to be more than one million
square miles, greater than the total area of the United States,
as the Republic then existed. Roughly described, the territory
comprised all that part of the continent west of the Mississippi River,
bounded on the north by the British possessions and on the west and south
by dominions of Spain. This included the region in which now lie the States
of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, parts of Colorado, Minnesota,
the States of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, a part
of Idaho, all of Montana and Territory of Oklahoma. At that time,
the entire population of the region, exclusive of the Indian
tribes that roamed over its trackless spaces, was barely ninety
thousand persons, of whom forty thousand were negro slaves.
The civilized inhabitants were principally French, or descendants
of French, with a few Spanish, Germans, English, and Americans.
The purchase of this tremendous slice of territory could
not be complete without an approval of the bargain by
the United States Senate. Great opposition to this was
immediately excited by people in various parts of the Union,
especially in New England, where there was a very bitter feeling
against the prime mover in this business, - Thomas Jefferson,
then President of the United States. The scheme was
ridiculed by persons who insisted that the region was not
only wild and unexplored, but uninhabitable and worthless.
They derided "The Jefferson Purchase," as they called it,
as a useless piece of extravagance and folly; and, in addition
to its being a foolish bargain, it was urged that President Jefferson
had no right, under the constitution of the United States,
to add any territory to the area of the Republic.
Nevertheless, a majority of the people were in favor of the purchase,
and the bargain was duly approved by the United States Senate; that body,
July 31, 1803, just three months after the execution of the treaty of cession,
formally ratified the important agreement between the two governments.
The dominion of the United States was now extended across the entire continent
of North America, reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Territory
of Oregon was already ours.
This momentous transfer took place one hundred years ago, when almost
nothing was known of the region so summarily handed from the government
of France to the government of the American Republic. Few white men
had ever traversed those trackless plains, or scaled the frowning
ranges of mountains that barred the way across the continent.
There were living in the fastnesses of the mysterious interior
of the Louisiana Purchase many tribes of Indians who had never looked
in the face of the white man.
Nor was the Pacific shore of the country any better known to civilized
man than was the region lying between that coast and the Big Muddy,
or Missouri River. Spanish voyagers, in 1602, had sailed as far north
as the harbors of San Diego and Monterey, in what is now California;
and other explorers, of the same nationality, in 1775, extended their
discoveries as far north as the fifty-eighth degree of latitude.
Famous Captain Cook, the great navigator of the Pacific seas,
in 1778, reached and entered Nootka Sound, and, leaving numerous
harbors and bays unexplored, he pressed on and visited the shores
of Alaska, then called Unalaska, and traced the coast as far north
as Icy Cape. Cold weather drove him westward across the Pacific,
and he spent the next winter at Owyhee, where, in February of
the following year, he was killed by the natives.
All these explorers were looking for chances for fur-trading,
which was at that time the chief industry of the Pacific coast.
Curiously enough, they all passed by the mouth of the Columbia
without observing that there was the entrance to one of the finest
rivers on the American continent.
Indeed, Captain Vancouver, a British explorer, who has left his name
on the most important island of the North Pacific coast, baffled by the
deceptive appearances of the two capes that guard the way to a noble stream
(Cape Disappointment and Cape Deception), passed them without a thought.
But Captain Gray, sailing the good ship "Columbia," of Boston, who coasted
those shores for more than two years, fully convinced that a strong current
which he observed off those capes came from a river, made a determined effort;
and on the 11th of May, 1792, he discovered and entered the great river
that now bears the name of his ship. At last the key that was to open
the mountain fastnesses of the heart of the continent had been found.
The names of the capes christened by Vancouver and re-christened by
Captain Gray have disappeared from our maps, but in the words of one of
the numerous editors of the narrative of the exploring expedition of Lewis
and Clark: "The name of the good ship `Columbia,' it is not hard to believe,
will flow with the waters of the bold river as long as grass grows or water
runs in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains."
 Dr. Archibald McVickar.
It appears that the attention of President Jefferson had been early
attracted to the vast, unexplored domain which his wise foresight was
finally to add to the territory of the United States.