The United States purchased the Louisiana Territory for $15 million but did not know its borders. Fenster (FDR's Shadow: Louis Howe, The Force that Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, 2009, etc.) ably depicts the men who set out to discover them.
We all know about Lewis and Clark, but there were other parties seeking the territory’s boundaries. The author narrates the wonderful and twisted story of how Napoleon’s France acquired the territory from Spain and then sold it a year later to America, while Spain did their best to block exploration. The threat of war with Spain was a constant, with explorers on alert. Thomas Jefferson sought men who would make a geographic record, interact and seek peace with Native Americans, and survey sites for forts. Most importantly, they were to conduct experiments to establish longitude and latitude, describe the land, and collect mineral, vegetable, and animal specimens. “Jefferson had in mind a very special combination of characteristics when he chose his explorers,” writes the author. Andrew Ellicott and Thomas Freeman were appointed to survey the 31st parallel boundary between the Floridas and the Mississippi territory, working in cooperation with William Dunbar, a brilliant but difficult polymath. The self-serving Gen. James Wilkinson, a subject worth a book on his own, often got in the way and collected salary from Spain and America. In spite of Wilkinson, however, the 31st parallel project was completed. Lewis and Clark’s Missouri River expedition may have been the longest, but equally important were Dunbar and chemist George Hunter’s work on the Ouachita River as well as Zebulon Pike’s discovery of the source of the Mississippi and his attempts to link up with Freeman’s Red River expedition.
Geographers and American history buffs will enjoy Fenster’s detailed research on these fascinating men, her easy style of writing, and tales beyond the textbooks. She opens an entirely new vista on those who opened the West.