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.


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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.


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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.

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.


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