Which Way to the Wild West?: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About Westward Expansion

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9781596433212: Which Way to the Wild West?: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About Westward Expansion

History--with the good bits put back. Discover the drama, discoveries, dirty deeds and derring-do that won the American West.

With a storyteller's voice and attention to the details that make history real and interesting, Steve Sheinkin's Which Way to the Wild West? delivers America's greatest adventure. From the Louisiana Purchase (remember: if you're negotiating a treaty for your country, play it cool.) to the gold rush (there were only three ways to get to California--all of them bad) to the life of the cowboy, the Indian wars, and the everyday happenings that defined living on the frontier.

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About the Author:

Steve Sheinkin is the award-winning author of several fascinating books on American history, including The Notorious Benedict Arnold, which won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for nonfiction, and received three starred reviews; and Bomb, a National Book Award finalist and recipient of five starred reviews. He lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

How the West Moved WestHave you ever tried to negotiate a treaty for your country? Maybe not. Well, if you ever do, play it cool. You know—don’t act too eager to make a deal.This would have been good advice for Robert Livingston, the American ambassador to France. On the afternoon of April 11, 1803, Livingston was sitting in the office of the French foreign minister. The two men were chatting politely, until the Frenchman cut in with an offer that nearly knocked Livingston out of his chair.Might as Well Start HereAs Robert Livingston sat in Paris that day in 1803, the United States looked like this:This is a good place to start a book about the American West. Because, as you can see, the land we call the West wasn’t actually part of the United States yet. When Americans said “the West” back then, they meant Kentucky and Tennessee.That was about to change. In fact, Livingston’s trip to France set off a series of events that quickly changed the size and shape of the United States—and the location of what we think of as the West. Here’s how it happened.Step 1: Ask for New OrleansOn the map you can see that the city of New Orleans was located in the French territory of Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. When American farmers shipped their goods down the Mississippi, their ships had to pass through New Orleans before reaching the sea. This made Americans nervous. What if France suddenly shut this port to American shipping? The French could do it at any moment—they had a much more powerful military than did the young United States.Terrified of losing their route to the sea, American farmers demanded action from Congress. Terrified of losing their jobs, members of Congress demanded action from President Thomas Jefferson. “Every eye in the United States is now fixed on this affair of Louisiana,” Jefferson moaned. “Perhaps nothing since the Revolutionary War has produced more uneasy sensations through the body of the nation.”So Jefferson gave the ambassador Robert Livingston a new assignment: convince the French to sell New Orleans to the United States. That explains what Livingston was doing in the office of Charles de Talleyrand, the foreign minister of France, on April 11, 1803.Talleyrand listened to Livingston’s request. Then he suddenly said: “Would you Americans wish to have the whole of Louisiana?”This was the point at which Livingston was in danger of collapsing.By “the whole of Louisiana,” Talleyrand meant France’s massive empire in North America, stretching from the Mississippi River all the way to the Rocky Mountains. Hmm, Livingston thought, might be nice to add all that land to the United States. But Jefferson’s orders were buy New Orleans, not buy half a continent.“No,” Livingston finally managed to say. “Our wishes extend only to New Orleans.”But Talleyrand would not drop the subject. “I should like to know what you would give for the whole,” he insisted.Sensing he was being offered the deal of a lifetime, Livingston pulled a number out of the air: twenty million francs (about four million dollars).Talleyrand waved the figure away as if swatting a fly. Much too low, he said. He told Livingston to think it over and get back to him with a serious offer.Step 2: Send in MonroeBack in Washington, D.C., Jefferson was getting more and more worried about New Orleans. He had sent Livingston to buy the place but hadn’t heard any news yet. What was Livingston up to in Paris? What was taking so long?Jefferson decided to send his trusted friend, James Monroe, to France to help speed up negotiations. When Monroe arrived, Livingston told him that the French had just offered to sell the United States all of Louisiana.“All France’s lands west of the Mississippi!” Livingston said to Monroe. “My, my! Why, no one even knows how much land that is. How many square miles, have we any idea?”Monroe said he wasn’t quite sure.Anyway, he pointed out, they had no authority to buy all that land. And there was no way to check quickly with Jefferson, since getting letters back and forth across the ocean could take months. By then, the French might have changed their mind and taken back their offer.Livingston and Monroe talked over what to do next.Step 3: Buy LouisianaWhat the Americans didn’t know: Napoleon was desperate for cash. As the emperor of France, Napoleon had the expensive hobby of invading neighboring nations. He needed money for his wars. That’s why he wanted to sell Louisiana.Napoleon told his treasury minister, Francois de Barbé-Marbois, to get the deal done already. He insisted on getting one hundred million francs for Louisiana.Barbé-Marbois pointed out that this was more cash than the United States government had.“Make it fifty million then, but nothing less,” Napoleon said. “I must get real money for the war with England.”Now it was Barbé-Marbois’s turn to play it cool—or, to try to. He waited a couple of days, expecting Livingston and Monroe to come to his office. When the Americans didn’t show up, he started to sweat.Livingston and Monroe were still trying to figure out what to do. They invited some friends for dinner and were talking things over when they noticed someone watching them from the garden behind the house.“Doesn’t that look like Barbé-Marbois out there?” asked one of the dinner guests.“It is! It is!” cried Livingston.Yes, the treasury minister of France was peeking through their dining room window. So much for playing it cool.Livingston went to the window and invited Barbé-Marbois to come around to the door. Then the two men had a short, awkward conversation.Livingston and Monroe realized the French were eager to make a deal. And they took a chance, guessing Jefferson would want Louisiana (he did). Over the next couple of weeks, the American and French negotiators hammered out the details of what became the Louisiana Purchase. The United States paid fifteen million dollars (75 million francs) for the Louisiana Territory—less than four cents an acre.The purchase instantly doubled the size of the United States, which now looked like this:Step 4: Hire Lewis and ClarkOf course, it’s easy to draw maps these days. But back in 1803 the Americans didn’t really know what they had just bought, or who lived there. Thomas Jefferson gave the job of finding out to two explorers: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.Lewis and Clark’s mission was to explore the land, study new plants and animals, find rivers leading from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean (there aren’t any), and establish friendly relations with Native American tribes. The two explorers put together a thirty-three-man team they called the Corps of Discovery, made up mostly of young soldiers. The crew included one African American, a young man named York. (Clark called him “my manservant.” Actually, York was Clark’s slave.)The Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1804.Step 5: Meet Your NeighborsA few months later, three Lakota Indian boys were swimming in the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota. They noticed a group of about thirty men setting up tents on the other side of the river. The boys had seen a few white men before (though never a black man). But they had never seen a large group like this. They swam across the river to investigate.Though they couldn’t understand each other’s words, the Lakota boys and the travelers were able to communicate pretty well using sign language. The leaders of the white men seemed to be saying that they wanted to meet with the Indian chiefs. The boys told them to come to their nearby village, and pointed out the way.Two days later the travelers paddled up to the village. The chiefs welcomed them, and the groups traded food as a symbol of goodwill. Then the Lakota people gathered around to listen to one of the white leaders, who began a speech with the words:“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah, blah, blah blah...”At least, that’s what it must have sounded like to the Lakota. To those who spoke English, it was clear that Lewis was explaining that all of this land now belonged to the United States. From now on, Lewis said, Native Americans of the region must obey the commands of the “Great Chief”—President Jefferson, that is.“The Great Chief of the seventeen great nations of America has become your only father,” Lewis said. “He is the only friend to whom you can now look for protection, or from whom you can ask favors, or receive good councils, and he will take care that you shall have no just cause to regret this change.”No cause to regret the change? Well, we’ll see about that.Meanwhile, Lewis realized that the Lakota had no clue what he was saying. One of Lewis’s men was trying to translate the speech using sign language. It wasn’t working. “We feel much at a loss for the want of an interpreter,” Clark noted.Excerpted from Which Way To the Wild West? by Steve Sheinkin and Tim Robinson.
Copyright © 2009 by Tim Robinson.
Published in July 2009 by Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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