fabled journey of Lewis and Clark was just half of Thomas Jefferson’s
plans post-Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson was just as curious about
the Southwest as he was the Northwest and he organized a second
expedition to explore that part of the country’s newly acquired
lands via the Red River. Lewis and Clark ended up at the Pacific
Ocean and in the history books but the second expedition came up
Jefferson was, of course, motivated by curiosity as would be any
new landowner – or president of a country in recent possession of
a vast quantity of land – but he also was motivated by political
and commercial concerns; he wanted to see what he had. He sent Lewis
and Clark north and, in 1806, he sent Thomas Freeman, naturalist Peter Custis and 50 or so other men to explore the southern region
along the Red River.
As the southernmost tributary to the mighty Mississippi, the Red
provided a certain symmetry to Lewis and Clark’s exploration of
the northern territories by way of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.
The Red also passed close to the boundary of New Spain, much of
which we call Texas today.
Not knowing where the Red River actually originated, Jefferson and
most people who knew enough to make an educated guess assumed Freeman’s
journey would end up in the vicinity of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In
the process, he would mark a trade route to Santa Fe.
Spain didn’t care for America’s new expansionist ways and they didn’t
like the idea of its territories bumping up against their territories.
Spaniards were considered as big a potential threat as any hostile
tribes they might encounter. In anticipation of the possible, Jefferson
included a line in his letter of instructions to Freeman that read:
“If at any time a superior force authorized or not authorized by
a nation should be arrayed against your further passage and inflexibly
determined to arrest it, you must decline its further pursuit and
Spain had good reason to be paranoid. One of those reasons had a
name: James Wilkinson. Wilkinson served under Benedict Arnold, our
most famous treasoner, in the American Revolution. Later, during
James Madison’s administration, Wilkinson would be tried and acquitted
Wilkinson comes to us now, after decades of historical research,
as just the kind of guy who would have told Spain that the Americans
were coming and where they could be found. And that’s just what
he did. Even as Freeman and Cutis and the others made their way
up the Red River, marveling the same way that Lewis and Clark did
over the wonders of this new world, two divisions of Spanish soldiers
raced to intercept them.
Freeman and Custis entered the Red River in May and traveled 615
miles before one of the Spanish divisions intercepted them at Spanish
Bluff, in present day Bowie County. Jefferson’s instructions were
pretty clear and, besides, the Spanish had them outnumbered four
to one. What a collective sigh of resignation and disappointment
there must have been on that day in late July, 1806.
Wilkinson and Aaron Burr, who had hoped an armed confrontation between
Spain and the U.S. would spark a war to keep those countries busy
while they set up their own country in the west, also moaned the
Today’s disappointment in the expedition is centered on what might
have been and is based on what Freeman and Custis recorded in their
journals. Custis was particularly struck by the beauty of the Red
River country and sang its praises decades before anyone ever sang
a song about the Red River Valley.
“The Valley of the Red river is one of the richest and most beautiful
imaginable,” Custis wrote. “It cannot be exceeded either in fertility
or beauty, by any part of America, or perhaps the world.”
Custis catalogued 22 species new to Western science, including the
bois d’arc tree, the Mississippi kite and the black-footed jackrabbit.
Together, Freeman and Custis put together one of the earliest scientific
and cultural descriptions of the country and its native people.
It is history’s loss that they were only able to scratch the surface.
© Clay Coppedge
June 6, 2014 Column
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