Lewis and Clark Weren't the Only Explorers to Map the American Frontier

Victory by the United States in the Revolutionary War didn't mark the end of its problems with European conquest of North America. As Julie M. Fenster describes in Jefferson's America, her remarkable history of the exploration of the American frontier, without proper mapping and settlement, the Louisiana Purchase was little more than a few words on paper, the territory ripe to be plucked away, part and parcel, by Spain, France, and England.

"The French," writes Fenster, "sold Louisiana and intentionally left the detail of drawing boundaries to the new owners." She later writes that the Spanish, who had a significant military and administrative presence in the western frontier, "had come to the sensible conclusion that without money or soldiers or people in abundance, a territory can't be controlled. It can only be held, and rather gently ... Exploration could assert control, because accurate information was another basis of power."

The Louisiana Purchase was France's idea. With the French and British on the cusp of war, Napoleon didn't dare attempt to hold a North American front in addition to the European theatre. He knew that the British would invade from Canada at the first opportunity. Moreover, France's grip on its North American holdings was tenuous at best, the U.S. Congress making things worse with its increasing disposition in favor of an armed seizure of New Orleans. The whole continent was just more trouble than it was worth, and so the French government offered to sell its territory for a song.

Jefferson jumped at the opportunity and, as he later wrote, "by a reasonable and peaceable process, we have obtained in 4. months what would have cost us 7. years of war, 100,000 human lives, 100 millions of additional debt."

For Jefferson, it was about more than territory and political intrigue. While holding the offices of the vice presidency and later the presidency, he also ran the American Philosophical Society, one of the first science institutions in the United States. The frontier presented a bonanza of unknown flora, fauna, ecosystems, and geology, and it was Jefferson's personal obsession to have the frontier thoroughly mapped and studied.

Such exploration would be no small task either physically or intellectually. In his own words, he sought in his ideal explorer "a person who to courage, prudence, habits & health adapted to the woods, & some familiarity with the Indian character, joins a perfect knowledge of botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy." Though he doubted such men existed in America, a blizzard of correspondence issued by his own hand would turn up a few explorers up to the task. These explorers were sometimes called "Jefferson's Men," and they managed the seemingly impossible: the exploration, mapping, and surveying of the west. Here are seven explorers of the American frontier, and how they did it.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark were tasked by Jefferson to explore the Louisiana territory and map a route across the western half of North America. They were to satisfy Jefferson's hopes for information on flora and fauna, and to establish trade with the American Indians they encountered along the way. Moreover, they were to assert American sovereignty over the areas explored—in other words, to let everyone they encountered know that this land was our land. There and back, the expedition lasted just under two-and-a-half years. The journey started out in Wood River, Illinois, and ended at the mouth of the Columbia River in present-day Washington State.

The return trip, which lasted six months, saw the group split so as to more efficiently explore even more territory, which included Yellowstone and the Continental Divide. The expedition ended on September 23, 1806. This expedition is notable for the inclusion of Sacajawea, whose contributions involved some work as a guide, but far more significantly, as a multilingual ambassador to tribes encountered along the way.


William Dunbar / Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fenster describes George Hunter as an "animated tourist," who "delighted in everything from the howl of wolves in the distance to the sight of another vessel on the river." He was "a good frontiersman and always a resilient one." He was also a chemist of some repute, which fit Jefferson's bill for someone able to truly study the land. William Dunbar, meanwhile, was a wealthy trader whose loyalties were ever in motion. Spanish, French, American—it was all the same to him. He just wanted to be out there. He had a love of, and talent for, science, and word of this reached the vice president of the United States and president of the American Philosophical Society. In Fenster's words, Jefferson "initiated correspondence, capturing Dunbar as though he were a bird formerly believed extinct."

While Lewis and Clark explored the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase, Dunbar and Hunter, soon brought together, were charged with the Ouachita River, an "alligator-infested, lumber-clogged river in the parched Southwest." The expedition brought them to the hot springs of Arkansas. Ultimately, the men completed a geologic and zoological study of the land along the river, as well as a chemical analysis of the hot springs.


In 1806, Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis embarked on an exploration of the Red River. Freeman was a highly accomplished surveyor who had completed the highly contentious survey of what would be the nation's capital on the Potomac, and later helped survey the 31st Parallel separating U.S. and Spanish territory in the Southeast. (A present-day map of the United States will reveal a straight line dividing part of Louisiana from Mississippi, and Florida from Alabama. That is the 31st Parallel. His work in D.C. and in establishing the borders of southern states has stood the test of time.) Custis brought to the expedition his expertise as a naturalist and a physician-in-training.

The men traveled from Natchez, Mississippi to present-day New Boston, in northeast Texas. Along the way, they encountered "almost impenetrable Swamps & Lakes for more than 100 miles," according to Custis. In Texas, they encountered Spanish soldiers who had been tipped off about their expedition, and were made to turn back. Still, the scientific observations gathered from the 600-mile stretch of frontier proved invaluable to Jefferson, who now knew the land to be worthy of settlement. It also established warm relations with native tribes along the way, and the fallout from the Spanish confrontation would force Spain to allow American expeditions along its Red River holdings.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Zebulon Pike first joined the Army at the age of 15, and 12 years later would be placed in charge of an expedition that would cross the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Pike was, according to Fenster, "born supremely, even mythologically, confident in his sense of mission." The expedition wasn't an easy one. After crossing present-day Kansas, they arrived at the Rockies in time for winter and with but a single layer of cotton clothing.

"They had no coats," writes Fenster, "Or even socks." When trying to make their way and accurately ascertain where they were, Pike led a group of men to a "blue-tinted mountain" where they might look down and survey the terrain. What seemed a one-day hike turned into four, and even then the mountain "now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended." Fenster describes the mountain as having been "apparently on wheels," seeming always to be those 15 miles away. Pike eventually turned around, the mountain being "the only thing on earth that ever made him give up."

The ensuing winter was unkind to the explorers, bringing frostbite, illness, near-starvation, and subzero temperatures. Still, his men believed in Pike and his indomitable spirit, and they survived; they eventually reached the Rio Grande in Spanish territory, where they were rescued (and captured) by the Spanish. Pike and his men were brought to Mexico, and later escorted to the Louisiana border at Natchitoches. The blue-tinted mountain was, of course, what is now called Pike's Peak.

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”


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