Whenever I publish a historic adventure audiobook, I include an AFTERWARD, so that the listener can place the events in a historical perspective. For this reason, I was reviewing American history about the Louisiana Purchase for my new audiobook, “A Tour On The Prairies,” by Washington Irving, the first famous American author.
“A Tour On The Prairies” is about a trip on horseback made by Washington Irving and some companions into the Louisiana Territory of 1832, thirty years after the Territory was purchased for the United States by President Thomas Jefferson.
I was reminded that it was a war in Europe that made the purchase of the Louisiana Territory possible. In 1803, young Washington Irving was beginning his literary career, writing articles for the Morning Chronicle. At the same time, across the Atlantic, French leader Napoleon Bonaparte seemed to be fighting almost everyone, including major powers Great Britain and Austria. The cost of the wars was draining the French treasury.
Napoleon thought he could at least control the sparsely populated French territories in the Americas, but when his troops landed in Haiti, the former slaves had taken control and were not going to tolerate French domination. Life for Napoleon was getting to be a little bit too hard.
And then there was the vast Louisiana Territory: it stretched west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Canadian Border to the Gulf of Mexico. There was no question that France owned it. The problem was that France had to pay for defending it, pay for governing it and pay for policing it, while it was financing bitter European wars. It was a serious problem.
The United States also had a serious problem. The Mississippi River had become a great water highway, terminating at the port of New Orleans. Unfortunately, the administrative bureaucrats would not allow US boats to unload their goods in the Port of New Orleans.
To solve this problem, President Thomas Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris to discuss the possibility of France selling New Orleans to the United States. This would make New Orleans a United States port city.
Napoleon had a bigger idea–he needed a lot of money for his European wars. He offered to sell both New Orleans and the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States for fifteen million dollars, two to three cents an acre. It was an offer Jefferson couldn’t refuse, and, in one sweeping deal in 1803, the size of the United States was doubled.
And that’s why today we can all eat beignets at Café Du Monde in New Orleans without a passport.
Now that the United States was larger and the immigrant population growing, Thomas Jefferson began thinking of how to integrate Native Americans into American culture. He was afraid to interfere with Native American life too forcefully out of concern that the Native Americans would form alliances with European powers, who might try to establish their own claims for lands in the Americas.
Jefferson first thought to civilize the tribes and change their traditional occupation of hunting for food. The amount of land required for hunting was huge. The Native American hunters required extensive forests full of game– an inefficient use of land by European standards. Jefferson hoped to lure the Native Americans into farming, raising stock or other occupations requiring less space.
As Jefferson wrote to Congress on January 18, 1803,
“ the extensive forests necessary in the Hunting Life, will then become useless, and they will see advantage in exchanging them for the means of improving their farms, and of increasing their domestic comforts.”
By 1814, the war in Europe was over and in America the Native Americans were mostly defeated. The US Government was no longer fearful of any Native American/European alliances and it began to take a harder view of Native American life.
Democrat Andrew Jackson was elected President in 1828. He had achieved fame as a military leader and an Indian fighter. He had successfully waged a brutal war against the Seminole Indians, burned their villages and discovered there was, in fact, a relationship between the Seminole tribe and Spain and Britain.
It was clear to Jackson that the new territories, west of the Mississippi River and far, far away from the traditional Hunting Grounds, where the white population was growing, held the solution for the future of the Native American population.
In his first term, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which resulted some years later in the “Trail of Tears, ” as Native Americans were removed from their homes.
In 1832, the year Washington Irving made his trip across the Mississippi into the Far West, President Andrew Jackson had just been re-elected by a substantial majority of the voters, who agreed with his policies.
So, that is the serious back-story for the American author and humorist Washington Irving’s entry into the picture. Irving was already a famous man at the time, considered America’s first financially successful writer. A problem for Irving, however, was that he hadn’t been living in America for 17 years. He had been living in Europe, looking after his family’s business interests, which seemed to be dwindling.
It had been 13 years since his book, “Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent,” containing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” and the description of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall had been published. While Irving had continued to write articles, he knew his continued reputation required that he must write a new, complete book, preferably an American book about America.
Irving was exploring ideas for the book while he sailed home from Europe across the Atlantic. On board ship, he made the acquaintance of the young immature Swiss Count, Albert de Pourtales, and an Englishman, Charles J. Latrobe. After landing in the United States, the three became traveling companions.
The trio visited the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and, eventually met Judge Henry L. Ellsworth of Connecticut. Ellsworth had just been appointed by President Jackson as a Commissioner, tasked with the removal of Native Americans from their homes to new lands, set aside for them in the former Louisiana Territory, parts of which became the Oklahoma Territory. The Judge invited the three companions to accompany him West.
The result of that exciting trip was the creation of “A Tour On The Prairies,” a humorist’s view of Prairie Squatters, Prairie Indians, Prairie life, Prairie buffalo hunting and a lot of young rangers getting into trouble. It is not, however, a story of Indian Removal; that would be too serious for Irving’s sense of humor.
The judge they were traveling with was simply, at this stage, studying the country, marking boundaries and pacifying warring Native Americans and initiating public relations – spreading the word of the “Great White Father” in Washington having plans for his “Indian Children.”
For the most part, however, the Native Americans were not buying it.
Here’s a link to the Preview of the audiobook together with some pictures, which illustrate the adventure: http://listen2read.com/a-tour-on-the-prairies/
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