Miller: 1800 was an exciting year for the country. We'd established our
independence; we have a new president, Thomas Jefferson; and we have an
unexplored, largely, and unknown frontier, on the west of the Appalachians.
America had been an ever-expanding nation, but we were still largely a seacoast
nation hugging the coast. What was out there, Steven, beyond those
Ambrose: As you say, the roads were hugging the coastline. And there
was almost no settlement out west of the Appalachian Mountains. So it was
unknown territory, and completely wide open. And who did it belong to was up
for some kind of grabs. I mean, we had signed a peace treaty with Great
Britain that made it a part of the United States, but the Brits kept keeping
their forts down there on the part of the land that was supposed to belong to
the United States, but it wasn't quite clear yet whose it was. And the Spanish
are still on the other side of the Mississippi River, very much so, in Texas
and California and elsewhere out West.
Miller: How was the Louisiana Purchase, 1803, how was that received by
Ambrose: With deliriums of joy. Everybody was--it was such a bargain.
And to get it without having to go to war. What people were afraid of was we
were going to have to fight Napoleon to get control of New Orleans, and you had
to have control of New Orleans if you were going to make anything out of
Kentucky and Tennessee and Illinois and all of the Northwest territory.
Miller: Steve, everybody knows the Lewis and Clark expedition. What's
the real importance of that expedition?
Ambrose: Well, Thomas Jefferson, who purchased Louisiana and sent Lewis
and Clark out, had an idea that had never occurred to anyone else before, and
had never been done anywhere before. And that was that we're going to
establish an 'empire of liberty' that's going to stretch from sea to shining
sea. And when we start bringing in Kentucky and Tennessee and Illinois and
Ohio into the Union, they're going to come in as equal states. They're going
to have all the same rights and privileges as New Hampshire, or Virginia, or
New York, or the original 13 colonies. And, we're going to go across the
Mississippi with that, and, we're going to go all the way to the West Coast
with it. And when he sent Lewis and Clark out, it wasn't just that they
explored up the Missouri River and brought back the first description of what's
out there in that Louisiana Purchase. They crossed the mountains, and they
went into the great northwestern empire of Oregon and Washington and Idaho.
And they brought that area into the United States at a time when Jefferson had
this idea -- we're going to have this 'empire of liberty,' it's going to go the
Miller: Now, did Jefferson, or Lewis and Clark, or the three of them
together, have discussions about how this untracked wilderness was going to be
peopled? Here we are, before the steamboat...
Ambrose: Jefferson thought it would take 100 generations.
Miller: Yeah, exactly.
Ambrose: That's right. It's before steamboats. The steamboat, when
Lewis and Clark came back, nothing moved any faster than it had when they left.
And George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, or Andrew Jackson couldn't move any
place any faster than Napoleon could or Caesar.
Miller: No telegraph, nothing.
Ambrose: You couldn't move ideas, you couldn't move mail. As fast as a
horse could run--that's the fastest that anything could move.
Maier: But did anybody have any idea how much there was west of those
mountains? Did anybody have any idea the size of the continent? I mean
Ambrose: Well yes, they did, because the mouth of the Columbia had been
discovered, and so they knew how far everything stretched. They didn't know
what was there. They didn't know what the Rocky Mountains were like. They
thought they were going to be like the Appalachian mountains. Well, the Rocky
Mountains are a little bit bigger than that--it's like 160 miles of Rocky
Mountains out there, and way, way bigger than anything in the eastern part of
the United States. But they knew that there was a lot of wealth out there on
that Columbia River, there were a lot of Indians living out there, there was a
lot of furs out there, there was a big country out there, that, and this gets
us back to this 'empire of liberty'...
Miller: Isn't it interesting, though, how many times the country was
discovered? I mean, De Soto so-called "discovers" the Mississippi River.
Marquette and Joliet discover the Mississippi River. LaSalle goes to the mouth
of the Mississippi. Now here are the French, in the late 17th Century. They
have a vision of empire almost like the Louisiana Purchase--it's going to run
north to south, from Quebec and Montreal, all the way down to the Gulf. What
was the real importance of New Orleans?
Ambrose: It was the only outlet to the world's markets.
Miller: On the Mississippi.
Ambrose: You couldn't move the corn or the wheat or other products, you
couldn't move them over the mountains. You could put them on a boat and bring
them down the Mississippi River. But as long as the Spanish controlled New
Orleans, and then the French immediately after -- they got it from the Spanish
-- you don't have an outlet. And Jefferson had originally thought he was going
to just be buying New Orleans. But Napoleon said to hell with it, the whole
thing. "I mean, we can't hold it anyway. What are we going to do with
Missouri, what are we going to do with the Dakotas, what are we going to do
with Montana, what are we going to do with Arkansas?" There wasn't anything
the French could do with it. Sell the whole damn thing. And he did.
Miller: Yeah. But at the same time, there are people beginning to pour
into the Ohio valley, right Pauline?
Maier: Right. And the one exception to the unoccupied character, the
Trans-Appalachian west--rather big exception very important to the
story--Kentucky and Tennessee. People start pouring in there in the 1780s.
And it's amazing, actually, when you think of the size of the migration. There
may be 10,000 people in Kentucky in 1780, and they go up to 110,000 a decade
later. I mean, it's more than the whole migration of the 17th Century. It's a
massive movement of population.
Miller: This is largely a migration pattern out of Pennsylvania,
through West Virginia, Virginia, down into the Carolinas, across the line, into
Maier: Exactly. And, to some extent from--well, the Davis family comes
Miller: Jefferson Davis.
Maier: Jefferson Davis, right.
Miller: And the Lincoln family's a Kentucky family.
Miller: And there's Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, born within a
year of each other, in the same state, Kentucky. One family, Lincoln's father
opposed to slavery, migrates out to Indiana. And the other family, a small
slaveholding family, migrates out to Mississippi, near Vicksburg.
Ambrose: And they were born, as you say, within a year of each other,
at a time when there were steamboats. Fulton had invented the steamboat--well,
when they were kids, Fulton had invented the steamboat and you could go upriver
for the first time without having to paddle your way upriver. No railroads.
Miller: Without railroads, how was the west settled? What are the
primary technologies that allow this settlement to take place, given the
absolutely abysmal road systems?
Maier: It's onto the Mississippi. And it's -- the world was made up
of bodies of water interrupted by land, and that continued to be true. It had
been true historically.
Miller: That's a wonderful way of putting it. I mean, that whole west
-- people have this image of everybody just pouring out of there in Conestoga
wagons or on foot, and don't appreciate, I think, the magnificent waterway
systems that we had, and how many settlers went west in these waterways.
Ambrose: And went west on the waterways, and shipped their produce to
market on the waterways, and the waterways were the key to everything. The
Ohio comes down, the Missouri comes down, all these...
Miller: Right smack in the middle of the continent.
Ambrose: ...The Cumberland, and the Tennessee, and the Illinois, and
they all come together in the Mississippi and flow down to New Orleans. And
the whole of the continent is one transportation system.
Miller: Right. Right. Canals... we...
Maier: Canals, absolutely critical. I was thinking, how important was
the southern market to the west, to the upper reaches of the river, to the
Northwest Territory? Which is, of course, where, after the 1780s and 1790s, a
good many immigrants were going, from New England particularly. We know that
the only way they could sell their products was down the river, and a great
amount was shipped to New Orleans. But it wasn't consumed in the South. Some
of it was, but the greater part of it was re-exported out of New Orleans, to
Europe and to the Northeast. So you had to go all the way down and then all
the way up again. So the canals made all the difference in the world. And I
think, ultimately, they had some political significance. You didn't see the
effect right away. 1825, the Erie Canal is completed. It really took another
two decades, until all these ancillary canals are built in Ohio. And then you
saw a massive change of the direction of western trade, not south but east and
north, and the railroads just consolidated that. And it's the Northeast that
is a real customer, because they're moving increasingly toward
industrialization, to a more specialized economy, and they have a food deficit.
So the West feeds the Northeast.
Miller: There had always been the theory that it was the railroads that
first connected the two, but it's actually the southern driving canals actually
turn the other way and went out there like that.
Maier: Yeah. But it's a relatively short period, really, the canal
era. It might have done the trick. But perfectly in keeping with this idea
that water is how you travel.
Miller: Water's the key. Look at Fulton. I mean the steamboat,
obviously, had enormous impact on the southern development, didn't it?
Ambrose: Sure, very much so. The ability to be able to go upstream.
Before the steamboat, if you made ten miles a day going upstream, that was a
hell of a good day.
Maier: It was what, with poles?
Miller: Six mile current, six mile per hour current, that Mississippi
Ambrose: Right. Go out and try it today in a canoe, and you'll find
out in a hurry what it meant to go upstream, and only muscle power to do it
with. Or you could get horses on land to draw the things along, but the turns
in the river and other things made that very, very difficult. It was a lot
easier on the canal to use horses to pull barges along the canal, because they
Miller: They'd send sailboats ahead of some of these keel boats. The
sailboat would wrap a rope around a tree, and then they'll pull themselves
upriver, like this!
Maier: Yeah. No, this was not a viable system!
Miller: To see a boat going upriver.
Ambrose: Oh boy. A whole new world. And it was.