CHAPTER VIII. THE FAR WEST (1820-1830)
In the decade of which we write, more than two-thirds of the present area of the United States was Indian country - a vast wilderness stretching from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. East of the Mississippi, the pioneers had taken possession of the hardwoods of the Ohio, but over the prairies between them and the Great Lakes the wild flowers and grasses grew rank and undisturbed. To the north, across Michigan and Wisconsin, spread the somber, white-pine wilderness, interlaced with hardwoods, which swept in ample zone along the Great Lakes, and, in turn, faded into the treeless expanse of the prairies beyond the Mississippi. To the south, in the Gulf plains, Florida was, for the most part, a wilderness; and, as we have seen, great areas of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia were still unoccupied by civilization.
West of the Mississippi lay a huge new world - an ocean of grassy prairie that rolled far to the west, till it reached the zone where insufficient rainfall transformed it into the arid plains, which stretched away to the foot-hills of the Rocky Mountains. Over this vast waste, equal in area to France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Denmark, and Belgium combined, a land where now wheat and corn fields and grazing herds produce much of the food supply for the larger part of America and for great areas of Europe, roamed the bison and the Indian hunter. Beyond this, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas, enclosing high plateaus, heaved up their vast bulk through nearly a thousand miles from east to west, concealing untouched treasures of silver and gold. The great valleys of the Pacific coast in Oregon and California held but a sparse population of Indian traders, a few Spanish missions, and scattered herdsmen.
At the beginning of Monroe's presidency, the Pacific coast was still in dispute between England, Spain, Russia, and the United States. Holding to all of Texas, Spain also raised her flag over her colonists who spread from Mexico along the valley of the Rio Grande to Santa Fe, and she claimed the great unoccupied wilderness of mountain and desert comprising the larger portion of Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, as well as California. In the decade of 1820-1830, fur-traders threaded the dark and forbidding defiles of the mountains, unfolded the secrets of the Great Basin, and found their way across the Rockies to California and Oregon; the government undertook diplomatic negotiations to safeguard American rights on the Pacific, and extended a line of forts well into the Indian country; while far-seeing statesmen on the floor of Congress challenged the nation to fulfill its destiny by planting its settlements boldly beyond the Rocky Mountains on the shores of the Pacific. It was a call to the lodgment of American power on that ocean, the mastery of which is to determine the future relations of Asiatic and European civilizations. [Footnote: Cf. Babcock, Am. Nationality (Am. Nation, XIII.), chap. xv.]
A survey of the characteristics of the life of the far west shows that, over Wisconsin and the larger part of Michigan, the Indian trade was still carried on by methods introduced by the French. [Footnote: Masson, Le Bourgeois de Nordwest; Parkman. Old Regime.] Aster's American Fur Company practically controlled the trade of Wisconsin and Michigan. It shipped its guns and ammunition, blankets, gewgaws, and whiskey from Mackinac to some one of the principal posts, where they were placed in the light birch canoes, manned by French boatmen, and sent throughout the forests to the minor trading-posts. Practically all of the Indian villages of the tributaries of the Great Lakes and of the upper Mississippi were regularly visited by the trader. The trading-posts became the nuclei of later settlements; the traders' trails grew into the early roads, and their portages marked out the location for canals. Little by little the fur-trade was undermining the Indian society and paving the way for the entrance of civilization. [Footnote: Turner, Character and Influence of the Fur Trade in Wis., in Wis. Hist. Soc., Transactions, 1889.]