(Originally published July 30th, 2013)
Everything grown on the West Side of the Appalachian Mountains eventually ended up on the Mississippi River
At the time of the Founding the American population was clustered around the East Coast. And on major rivers that flowed into the Atlantic Ocean. On land east of the Appalachian Mountains. Not by choice. But because of geography. The Founding Fathers knew what great land lay west. But getting there was another story.
The Great Lakes are huge. The largest group of freshwater lakes in the world. If you walked all the coastlines you’d walk so long and so far that you could have walked halfway around the world. Getting on the lakes opened up the Northwest Territory. Western New York. Western Pennsylvania. Ohio. Michigan. Indiana. Illinois. Wisconsin. Minnesota. And with some portaging, the great interior rivers. Including the Mississippi River. Opening up the Great Plains to the West. And the rich fertile farmland of the interior. But there was one great obstacle between all of this and the east coast. Niagara Falls. Which portaging around was a bitch.
The United States would become an agricultural superpower. But until they had a way to transport food grown on the land west of the Appalachians that land was not as valuable as it could be. There were some land routes. George Washington crossed many times into the Ohio Country from Virginia. And Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee. Opening the Northwest Territory to settlement. All the way up to the Mississippi River. And its tributaries. Including the Ohio River. But none of these water routes offered a way back east. Which is why everything grown on the west side of the Appalachian Mountains eventually ended up on the Mississippi River. And traveled south. To the Port of New Orleans. But there was one major problem with that. The Port of New Orleans belonged to the Spanish.
Thomas Jefferson fought Tirelessly against the Constitution to Restrict the Powers of the Executive Branch
At the time of the Founding there were four European nations jockeying for a piece of the New World. Who all wanted to keep the Americans east of the Appalachians. The French had lost New France to the British. Which they hoped to get back. And the farther the Americans moved west the harder that would be. The British were in Canada. With outposts still in the Northwest Territory. Despite ceding that land to the Americans. While the British were pressing in from the north the Spanish were pressing in from the south and the west. Coming up from Mexico they were in New Orleans. Texas. The trans-Mississippi region (the land west of the Mississippi River. And California and the West Coast. Making navigation rights on the Mississippi River and the Port of New Orleans a hotly contested issue.
Time would solve that problem in America’s favor. Napoleon would get the Louisiana Territory for France from the Spanish. And was intent on rebuilding New France in the New World. But with the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue—present day Haiti—Napoleon’s plans changed. Instead of building New France he was focusing on saving Old France. As the world war he launched wasn’t going all that well. So he sold the Louisiana Territory to Thomas Jefferson, then president of the United States. Making the navigation rights of the Mississippi River a moot point. For it now belonged to the United States. Which was great for Thomas Jefferson. For, he, too, looked west. And believed the young nation’s future was on the west side of the Appalachian Mountains. Where yeoman farmers would work their land. Forming the backbone of the new republic. Honest men doing honest labor. Not merchants, bankers and stockjobbers that were trying to destroy the new nation in the east. The detestable moneyed men that Jefferson hated so. No. The winds of the Revolutionary spirit blew west.
This is why Jefferson jumped on the Louisiana Purchase. In direct violation of the Constitution. A document he hated because it gave way too much power to the president. Making the president little different from a king. Which was the whole point of the American Revolution. To do away with king-like power. Throughout his active political life he fought tirelessly against the Constitution. Fighting to restrict the powers of the executive branch wherever he could. But the Louisiana Territory? President Jefferson suddenly had an epiphany. It was good to be king.
The Erie Canal connected the Eastern Seaboard with the Great Lakes without any Portages
Jefferson would resort to his anti-government positions following the Louisiana Purchase. He may have violated everything he stood for but even the most stalwart limited government proponent no doubt approves of Jefferson’s actions. Jefferson was happy. As was everyone west of the Appalachians. But it didn’t solve one problem. The Great Lakes region upstream of Niagara Falls was still cutoff from the East Coast. And the Port of New Orleans. There were some routes to these destinations. But they included some portaging between navigable waterways. Which made it difficult to transport bulk goods into the region. And out of the region.
As Jefferson’s vision of limited government faded government grew. As did government spending. Especially on internal improvements. For they had great political dividends. They created a lot of jobs. And brought a lot of federal money to communities with those internal improvements. Which helped politicians win elections. And back around the 1800s the big internal improvements were canals. Such as the Erie Canal. Connecting the Eastern Seaboard with the Great Lakes. Providing a waterway without any portages from the Hudson River that flows into the Atlantic Ocean at New York City. All the way to the Great Lakes. Near Buffalo. Just above Niagara Falls. Opening the Great Lakes regions to settlement. And the Northwest Territory. (Something George Washington wanted to do. Who wanted to extend a canal into the West from the Potomac River.) Creating a trade super highway between the Great Lakes region and the East Coast. Through the Port of New York. And on to the rest of the world.
The U.S. population moved west. But still clung to rivers and coastlines. Until another internal improvement came along. The railroad. Which did for the country’s interior what the Erie Canal did for the Great Lakes region. With cities growing up along these rail lines. Away from rivers and coastlines. Then came the interstate highway system. Which allowed cities to grow away from the rail lines. There is now a road, rail or waterway that will take you pretty much anywhere in the United States. And now we have the airplane. Which can fly over the Appalachians. Or the Niagara escarpment. Allowing us today to move anyone or anything anywhere today. Something George Washington and Thomas Jefferson desperately wanted. But could only dream of.
Tags: Appalachian, Appalachian Mountains, canals, East Coast, Erie Canal, Founding Fathers, George Washington, Great Lakes, interior, internal improvements, Louisiana Purchase, Louisiana Territory, Mississippi River, Napoleon, New France, New Orleans, Niagara Falls, Northwest Territory, Ohio River, port of New Orleans, portage, Thomas Jefferson