The American Exploration of The Louisiana Purchase

With a lot of Scottish help

By Jim “Ski” Schiaffino Post 1814


As most school children know, on 4 July 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. It included most of the Great Plains excluding Texas, New Mexico, parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. It cost us 15 million dollars for 828,000 acres

The Louisiana Purchase

--that works out to about 4 cents an acre. What they weren’t taught is that the Louisiana Purchase did not include the Rocky Mountains, nor the land adjacent to the Pacific Ocean.


Also never mentioned is that there were four mili- tary-style ‘explorations’ (an early forerunner of Gen- eral Patton’s “Reconnaissance in force”) of the area West of the Purchase. Those areas were claimed by England and Spain. In essence, President Jefferson used the purchase as an excuse to explore, survey and map potential expeditionary routes into foreign coun- tries. This was especially onerous to the Spanish since Spain was an ally during the Revolutionary War. It was a Spanish army in Louisiana that played a pivotal role in driving Lord Cornwallis out of the South northward to Yorktown. The Spanish garrisons in the Louisiana region repelled attacks from British units and the lat- ter’s Indian allies in the Battle of Saint Louis in 1780. Additionally, it was the Spanish who supplied 500,000 in silver pesos, to purchase critical supplies for the siege at Yorktown and to fund the payroll for the Con- tinental Army.

President Thomas Jefferson decided to “explore” the newly purchased territory. In all, there were four such expeditions. He insisted that detailed scientific reports be submitted to the Government after each ex- pedition. These reports fired the imagination of the public about the new lands in the west to the people of the new United States.

The first expedition in May 1804, was called ‘The Northern Exploration’ and involved Captain Meriweth- er Lewis, who was of Welsh descent, and Lieutenant William Clark, who had Scottish blood coursing through his veins. They were ordered to explore the northern section of the Purchase, eventually reaching

the Pacific Ocean. Most of the area Lewis and Clark ‘explored’ was claimed by England. Essentially, Presi- dent Jefferson sent an armed military expedition into a foreign country, i.e: English Canada. When they crossed the Continental Divide and entered the south- ern portion of British Columbia, later known as the Oregon Territory, they were for all intent and purpose in England. Fortunately, the expedition did not encoun- ter any British units during their journey. President Jef- ferson’s armed expeditions into Spanish territories wasn’t as fortunate.

There was a definite Scottish influence to the 1st Southern expedition of October 1804. The ‘George Hunter-William Dunbar Expedition’ of 1804-1805 ex- plored the Ouachita River in Louisiana and Arkansas as far as Hot Springs. William Dunbar was born to an aristocratic family in Elgin, Morayshire, Scotland in 1749. He later studied astronomy and mathematics in Glasgow and London.

George Hunter, was born in Duffus House, Duffus Parish also near Elgin, Scotland. He was second in command to Dunbar. Their expedition was charged with exploring and mapping the southern portion of the Purchase. Due to Jefferson’s concerns about friction with the Osage Indians and Spanish colonial officials, they were warned not to engage in any hostile actions. They succeeded in mapping most of their assigned ter- ritory. Their maps aided Zebulon Pike in his second expedition into the area west of the Purchase.


Another fact that is little known was that Jefferson sent Zebulon Pike on Two separate missions of explo- ration. The U.S. wanted to establish friendly relations with the Native American tribes in the region. Pike was selected to lead an exploratory expedition in search of the Mississippi River’s source in the northern part of the Purchase area.

Pike assembled a 20-man party and departed north- ward from St. Louis in early August 1805. At this time, the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition had followed the Missouri River to its source and was crossing the northern Rocky Mountains en-route to winter at the

mouth of the Columbia River. When winter arrived, the Pike party had journeyed as far as 100 miles north of the Falls of St. Anthony in present-day Minnesota. Taking a smaller party and hauling supplies on sleds, Pike continued onward to Lake Leech, which he mis- takenly proclaimed the source of the Mississippi River. Pike’s second expedition began in July 1806 and drew to a close in late June 1807. He was instructed to explore the lands that were part of the Spanish territory

of New Mexico and Texas, west of the Purchase.

In early November 1806, Pike and his team sighted and tried to climb to the summit of the peak later named after him (Pikes Peak). They made it as far as Mt. Rosa, located southeast of Pikes Peak, before giv- ing up the ascent in waist-deep snow. They had already gone almost two days without food. They returned to camp and continued south, searching for the Red River’s headwaters, and built a fort for shelter during the winter. However, they had crossed the border. Spanish authorities captured Pike and some of his party on 26 February 1807 near present-day Alamosa, Colo- rado.

Their claim of having made mistakes in navigation were, more or less, accepted by the Spanish. The Span- ish formally complained to the U.S. Department of State about the military expedition in its territory, but the government maintained that the party had been one of exploration only.

Pike and his men were taken to Santa Fe. Along the way, Pike’s party was treated with respect and cele- brated by the Mexican locals, and Pike made careful notes of the military strength and civilian population. Upon their arrival at Santa Fe, the capital of Chihuahua province, they were presented to Commandant General Salcedo, who was governor of the state. Pike was treat- ed well and invited to formal social dinners but still not quite given the treatment of a visiting dignitary, and his men were kept prisoner. Salcedo housed Pike with Juan Pedro Walker, a cartographer who also acted as an interpreter. While they waited together, Walker transcribed and translated Pike’s confiscated docu- ments, including his journal. Spanish authorities feared the spread of both democracy and Protestant Christian sects that might undermine their rule.

Salcedo ordered the repatriation of Pike but held some of the soldiers of his party in jail in Mexico for years. The Spanish military then escorted Pike and some of his party back north, through San Antonio, Texas, arriving at the border with Louisiana at Natchitoches on 1 July 1807.

Pike’s capture by the Spanish and his “escort” through New Mexico, northern Mexico, and Texas, gave him more information about the area around the Arkansas River area and Spanish power than his expe- dition alone could have done.

Another incursion occurred in 1806, the ‘Red River Expedition.’ It was to be an exploration of the central area of the Purchase and areas west (Spanish held). It was led by Captain Richard Sparks and accompanied by Thomas Freeman, (Freeman was Irish) a surveyor and Peter Custis, a naturalist and 19 soldiers. President

Jefferson ordered them to find the headwaters of the Red River as a possible trading route to Santa Fe, then under Spanish control. Also, to contact Native Ameri- can peoples for trading purposes. Additionally, they were to collect data on flora, fauna, and topography, and map the country and river; and to assess the land for settlement.

The Freeman-Custis Expedition 1806

The expedition departed on 11 July, with three Cad- do Indian guides. It reached an old Caddo village and abandoned French military post, on 25 July. Later to a Creek Coushatta Indian village near the present Arkan- sas border. The Indians told the expedition of a troop of Spanish soldiers seeking to block their path. The expedition put aside a reserve of provisions and field notes and proceeded upriver.

On 28 July, the Spanish intercepted the expedition several hundred miles upriver. The expedition was now roughly 615 miles above the mouth of the 1,360-mile Red River in what is now northeastern Texas, then part of Spanish America. The Spanish force was four times the size of the expedition. It camped on a bluff on the west side of the river, known ever since as “Spanish Bluff.” The expedition camped on the opposite, Arkan- sas side. The leader of the Spanish forces met Freeman and Custis, directing the expedition to go no farther, claiming that the Americans were in Spanish territory.

Freeman’s written instructions from President Jef- ferson addressed just such a situation, ordering the ex- pedition to return in the face of a superior force arrayed against them. To avoid another embarrassment like Zebulon Pike’s capture, the expedition therefore started its return trip before the party had achieved all of its goals on 30 July, reaching Natchitoches by the end of the following month. However, Custis had been able to prepare descriptions of more than 267 plants and ani- mals found along the journey, and Freeman had chart- ed the coordinates of the river.

These expeditions were “de facto and de juro” armed invasions of foreign countries. They also proved to be the guiding factor in Jefferson’s vision of Mani- fest Destiny. It was Jefferson’s belief that the expan- sion of the U.S. throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable. Jefferson also set his sights on Spanish Florida, a process that was finally concluded in 1819 under President James Monroe.