A Sketch of the Early “Far West”


Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

After his death in 1706, Louisiana was but little more than a wilderness, and a vain search for gold, and trading in furs, rather than the substantial pursuits of agriculture, allured the colonists; and much time was lost in journeys of discovery, and in collecting furs among distant tribes. Of the occupied lands, Biloxi was barren land and the soil of the Isle of Dauiihine poor. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the brother and successor of D’ Iberville, was at the fort on the Delta of the Mississippi River, where he and his soldiers were liable to inundations, and held joint possession with mosquitoes, frogs, snakes, and alligators.

In 1712, Antoine de Crozat, an East India merchant of vast wealth, purchased a grant of the entire country, with the exclusive right of commerce for 16 years. But, in 1717, the speculation having resulted in his ruin, all to the injury of the colonists, he surrendered his privileges. Soon after, a number of other adventurers, under the name of the Mississippi Company, obtained from the French government a charter, which gave them all the rights of sovereignty, except the bare title, including a complete monopoly of the trade, and the mines. Their expectations were chiefly from the mines; and on the strength of a former traveler, Nicolas Perrot, having discovered a copper mine in the valley of St. Peters, the directors of the company assigned to the soil of Louisiana, silver and gold; and to the mud of the Mississippi River, diamonds and pearls. The notorious Law, who then resided at Paris, was the secret agent of the company. To form its capital, its shares were sold at five hundred lives each; and such was the speculating mania of the times, that in a short time more than a hundred million was realized. Although this proved ruinous to individuals, the colony was greatly benefited by the consequent emigration, and agriculture and commerce flourished.

In 1719, Renault, an agent of the Mississippi Company, left France with about 200 miners and emigrants, to carry out the mining schemes of the company. He bought 500 slaves at St. Domingo, to work the mines, which he conveyed to Illinois in 1720. He established himself a few miles above Kaskaskia, Illinois and founded there the village of St. Philips. Extravagant expectations existed in France, of his probable success in obtaining gold and silver. He sent out exploring parties in various sections of Illinois and Missouri. His explorations extended to the banks of the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers, and even to the Cumberland Valley in Tennessee, where at “French Lick,” on the site of Nashville, the French established a trading post . Although Renault was woefully disappointed in not discovering extensive mines of gold or silver, he made various discoveries of lead; among which were the mines north of Potosi, and those on the St. Francois. He eventually turned his whole attention to the smelting of lead, of which he made considerable quantities, and shipped to France. He remained in the country until 1744. Nothing of consequence was again done in mining, until after the American Revolution.

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville

In 1718, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville laid out the town of New Orleans, on the plan of Rochefort, France. Some four years after, the bankruptcy of Law threw the colony into the greatest confusion and occasioned widespread ruin in France, where speculation had been carried to an extreme unknown before.

The expenditures for Louisiana were consequently stopped, but, the colony had now gained strength to struggle for herself. Louisiana was then divided into nine cantons, of which Arkansas and Illinois each formed one.

About this time, the colony had considerable difficulty with the Indian tribes and were involved in wars with the Chickasaw and the Natchez. This latter named tribe were finally completely conquered. The remnant of them dispersed among other Indians, so that once powerful people, as a distinct race, was entirely lost. Their name alone survives, as that of a flourishing city. Tradition related singular stories of the Natchez. It was believed that they emigrated from Mexico, and were kindred to the Incas of Peru. The Natchez alone, of all the Indian tribes, had a consecrated temple, where a perpetual fire was maintained by appointed guardians. Near the temple, on an artificial mound, stood the dwelling of their chief — called the Great Sun; who was supposed to be descended from that luminary, and all abound were grouped the dwellings of the tribe. His power was absolute; the dignity was hereditary and transmitted exclusively through the female line, and the race of nobles was so distinct, that usage had molded language into the forms of reverence.

In 1732, the Mississippi Company relinquished its charter to the king, after holding possession fourteen years. At this period, Louisiana had about 5,000 whites and 2,500 blacks. Agriculture was improving in all the nine cantons, particularly in Illinois, which was considered the granary of the colony. Louisiana continued to advance until the war broke out with England in 1755, which resulted in the overthrow of French dominion.

Immediately after the peace of 1763, all the old French forts in the west, as far as Green Bay were repaired and garrisoned with British troops. Agents and surveyors too were making examinations of the finest lands east and northeast of the Ohio River. Judging from the past, the Indians were satisfied that the British intended to possess the whole country. The celebrated Ottawa chief, Pontiac, burning with hatred against the English, in that year formed a general league with the western tribes, and by the middle of May, all the western posts had fallen — or were closely besieged by the Indians, and the whole frontier, for almost a thousand miles, suffered from the merciless fury of savage warfare. Treaties of peace were made with the different tribes of Indians  in the year following, at Niagara, by Sir William Johnson; at Detroit and vicinity by General John Bradstreet, and, in what is now Coshocton County, Ohio, by Colonel Henry Boquet; at the German Flats, on the Mohawk, with the Six Nations and their confederates. By these treaties, extensive tracts were ceded by the Indians in New York and Pennsylvania, and south of Lake Erie.

Peace having been concluded, the excitable frontier population began to cross the mountains. Small settlements were formed on the main routes, extending north toward Fort Pitt, and south to the headwaters of the Holston and Clinch Rivers, in the vicinity of southwestern Virginia. In 1766, a town was laid out in the vicinity of Fort Pitt. Military land warrants had been issued in great numbers, and a perfect mania for western land had taken possession of the people of the middle colonies. The treaty made by Sir William Johnson, at Fort Stanwix, on the site of Utica, New York, in October 1768, with the Six Nations and their confederates, and those of Hard Labor and Lochaber, made with the Cherokee, afforded a pretext under which the settlements were advanced. It was now falsely claimed that the Indian title was extinguished east and south of the Ohio River, to an indefinite extent, and the spirit of emigration and speculation in land, greatly increased. Among the land companies formed at this time, was the “Mississippi Company,” of which, George Washington was an active member.

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone blazed the Kentucky Frontier.

Up to this period, very little was known by the English of the country south of the Ohio River. In 1754, James M. Bride, with some others, had passed down the Ohio River in canoes; and landing at the mouth of the Kentucky River, marked the initials of their names, and the date on the barks of trees. On their return, they were the first to give a particular account of the beauty and richness of the country, to the inhabitants of the British settlements. No farther notice seems to have been taken of Kentucky, until the year 1767, when John Finlay, an Indian trader, with others, passed through a part of the rich lands of Kentucky — then called by the Indians “the Dark and Bloody Ground.” Finlay, returning to North Carolina, fired the curiosity of his neighbors by the reports of the discoveries he had made. In consequence of this information, Colonel Daniel Boone, in company with Finlay, Stewart, Holden, Monay, and Cool, set out from their residence on the Zadkin, in North Carolina, May 1, 1769.

After a long and fatiguing march, over a mountainous and pathless wilderness, they arrived on the Red River. Here, from the top of an eminence, Boone and his companions first beheld a distant view of the beautiful lands of Kentucky. The plains and forests abounded with wild beasts of every kind; deer and elk were common; the buffalo were seen in herds, and the plains covered with the richest verdure. The glowing descriptions of these adventurers inflamed the imaginations of the borderers, and their own sterile hills and mountains beyond, lost their charms when compared to the fertile plains of this newly-discovered Paradise in the West.

In 1770, Ebenezer Silas and Jonathan Zane settled Wheeling, West Virginia. In 1771, such was the rush of emigration to western Pennsylvania, and western Virginia, in the region of the Upper Ohio River, that every kind of breadstuff became so scarce, that for several months, a great part of the population was obliged to subsist entirely on meats, roots, vegetables, and milk, to the entire exclusion of all breadstuffs; and hence that period was long after known, as “the starving year.” Settlers, enticed by the beauty of the Cherokee country, emigrated to East Tennessee, and hundreds of families also, moved farther south, to the mild climate of West Florida, which at this period extended to the Mississippi River. In the summer of 1773, Frankfort and Louisville, Kentucky, were laid out. The next year was signalized by “Dunmore’s War,” which temporarily checked the settlements.

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