- Historic Sites
“By Chaos Out Of Dream”
An exploration into the exploration of America
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
In his History of the Dimding Line (1729) William Byrd complained that “our country has now been inhabited more than 130 years by the English, and still we hardly knew anything of the Appalachian Mountains, that are no where above 250 miles from the sea.” The French, by contrast, had run over half the continent, had discovered the canoe route to the Great Lakes, had found the Mississippi and gone down it to its mouth, had explored the Ohio and the Illinois, had dreamed of a vast inland empire based on the fur trade (a trade that depended on continuing wilderness) with the Illinois and Mississippi rivers as its lifeline and the Gulf of Mexico as its opening on the world.
Had La Salle s magnificent dream been realized, his colony on the gulf would have been under constant threat from the Spanish to the west, and indeed, Spanish exploration from Mexico eastward through Texas in 1689-90 was motivated by fear of La Salle’s settlement, as her colonization of California in the eighteenth century was motivated by fear of Russian incursions from the north. Empire went to those who got there first and backed their claims with force. Consider La Salle. With that European arrogance which was so innocent it is almost charming, he stopped his canoes at the mouth of the Arkansas in 1682 and took formal possession of the land he named Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV. “On that day,” Francis Parkman says, “the realm of France received on parchment a stupendous accession. The fertile plains of Texas; the vast basin of the Mississippi, from its frozen northern springs to the sultry borders of the Gulf; from the woody ridges of the Alleghanies to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains—a region of savannas and forests, suncracked deserts, and grassy prairies, watered by a thousand rivers, ranged by a thousand warlike tribes, passed beneath the sceptre of the Sultan of Versailles; and all by virtue of a feeble human voice, inaudible at half a mile.”
In nothing was the New World more fabulous than in the justifications Europe found for seizing it—a foot on a strange shore, a boat in a river mouth, a proclamation to wondering Indians, a brass plate, a planted cross. But the dubiousness of imperial “rights” did not make the conflict less bitter. After a century of border wars, France lost Canada to the British on the Plains of Abraham in 1729. England in turn lost its thirteen colonies to the Americans in the Revolution. Louisiana, tossed back and forth between Spain and France, was finally sold to the Americans by an overextended Napoleon Bonaparte for $15,000,000 in 1803. Within two years, Lewis and Clark had taken the Americans to the Oregon coast—claimed by America because Captain Gray had taken his ship Columbia over the bar into an unknown river for a quick peek in 1792. Manifest Destiny was born of westward pressures, and clashed with the Spanish in Texas, the British in Oregon; and in 1846, which DeVoto called the Year of Decision, war with Mexico and compromise with Great Britain gave the United States another vast accession of territory and confirmed it as a continental nation, with nearly its present boundaries.
In the long effort that led to unification and to independence from Europe, most of the myths melted away. California’s Amazons receded back into the romance from which they had sprung; Cíbola and Quivira, the Fountain of Youth and the Rio Buenaventura, faded out in the daylight of observation; such animals as Vizcáino’s men saw on Monterey Bay, with wool that dragged on the ground and horns three yards long, shrank and reshaped themselves into tule elk. But realistic wonders remained, a continent whose riches even by 1846 had been barely touched and only fragmentarily discovered. Already penetrated, not quite so vaguely realizing westward as it once had, possessed America lay ready not for them, Europeans, but for us, Americans, molded by generations of adaptation to the frontier, with our unchastened hope and greed and our barely formed responsibility, our democracy and our capitalism and our technical know-how, all products of the frontier; with our optimism and our gospel of work, our individualism and independence and self-reliance, likewise born of the frontier and the long boom it fostered; and with our carelessness born of plenty, our wastefulness that, once we were past the first stage of settlement, had never known shortage.
The people who inherited the United States in the mid-nineteenth century were as unstoried, artless, and unenhanced as the land of their inheritance, midway between a Europe that had not yet died in them and an America not quite born; but they had begun to try to answer the question Orevecoeur had asked before the Revolution: “Who is this new man, the American?” In a little more than a generation, Henry James would have essayed his portrait, significantly naming him Christopher Newman, and Mark Twain would have done him in one-gallus frontier terms as Huckleberry Finn, and Abraham Lincoln would have embodied his highest virtues on such a grand scale that he thereafter would sit like a demigod above our national life. But no sooner would those trial syntheses have been made than fresh waves of immigration, drawn by New World opportunity and hope, would flood the nation with new seekers, new races, new types, old hungers, and old, old memories. Those floods would postpone a higher synthesis, a final consolidation of the American character, into the twenty-first century or beyond.