Lions of the West

Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion


By Robert Morgan

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From Thomas Jefferson’s birth in 1743 to the California Gold Rush in 1849, America’s westward expansion comes to life in the hands of a writer fascinated by the way individual lives link up, illuminate one another, and collectively impact history.Jefferson, a naturalist and visionary, dreamed that the United States would stretch across the North American continent, from ocean to ocean. The account of how that dream became reality unfolds in the stories of Jefferson and nine other Americans whose adventurous spirits and lust for land pushed the westward boundaries: Andrew Jackson, John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, David Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Kit Carson, Nicholas Trist, and John Quincy Adams.

Their stories—and those of the nameless thousands who risked their lives to settle on the frontier, displacing thou- sands of Native Americans—form an extraordinary chapter in American history that led directly to the cataclysm of the Civil War. Filled with illustrations, portraits, maps, battle plans, notes, and time lines, Lions of the West is a richly authoritative biography of America—its ideals, its promise, its romance, and its destiny.



John Quincy Adams born July 11 in Braintree, Massachusetts.


Thomas Jefferson elected to Virginia House of Burgesses.


John Chapman born September 26 in Leominster, Massachusetts.
Jefferson publishes A Summary View of the Rights of British America.


American Revolution begins April 19 with battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.
Jefferson serves as delegate to Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Daniel Boone cuts trace through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.


Jefferson writes Declaration of Independence.


Battles of Saratoga in New York: Freeman’s Farm, September 19; Bemis Heights, October 7. Washington moves his army into winter quarters at Valley Forge.


Joel Roberts Poinsett born March 2 in Charleston, South Carolina.


Battle of Kings Mountain, South Carolina, October 7.


John Quincy Adams serves with legation in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Jefferson writes to George Rogers Clark in Kentucky asking for large fossil bones.
Jefferson begins Notes on the State of Virginia. Battles of Cow- pens, South Carolina, January 17. British surrender at Yorktown, October 17.


Martha Randolph Jefferson dies September 6.


Treaty of Paris, September 3.
Jefferson returns to Continental Congress where he helps draft Ordinance for Government of Northwest Territories.


Alexander McGillivray concludes Creek treaty with Spain.
Zachary Taylor born November 24 in Virginia.


Jefferson succeeds Franklin as minister to France, meets Buffon and other French scientists. Publishes Notes on the State of Virginia.


Winfield Scott born June 13 near Petersburg, Virginia.
David Crockett born August 17 in State of Franklin.


Andrew Jackson admitted to bar in North Carolina.
John Ledyard sets out to walk across Russia and then North America.


Andrew Jackson moves west to Nashville, meets Rachel Robards whom he will later marry.


Jefferson becomes Secretary of State in Washington’s cabinet, begins quarreling with Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists.


Sam Houston born March 2 near Lexington, Virginia. Jefferson commissions André Michaux to explore the West and resigns from Cabinet.


Jay’s Treaty bitterly opposed by Jefferson and others. Battle of Fallen Timbers, August 20, near Toledo. Antonio López de Santa Anna born in Mexico.


James Knox Polk born November 2 in Pineville, North Carolina.


Jefferson elected vice president, John Adams president.


John Chapman moves to western Pennsylvania wilderness.


Andrew Jackson serves as judge of Tennessee Superior Court. Jefferson writes the Kentucky Resolutions.


Jefferson elected president. Nicholas P. Trist born June 2 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Andrew Jackson elected major general of Tennessee militia.


Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson commissions Meriwether Lewis to explore the West to the Pacific, June 20. John Quincy Adams elected to Senate.


John Chapman plants apple trees in Ohio wilderness.


Lewis and Clark return from the Pacific. Nonimportation Act passed by Congress. Zebulon Pike explores headwaters of Arkansas River.
Houston family moves to Tennessee.


Embargo Act passed by Congress. John Quincy Adams breaks with Federalists.


James Madison elected president. Winfield Scott commissioned captain in U.S. Army.


Jefferson returns to Monticello. Kit Carson born December 24 in Madison County, Kentucky.


Mexican revolt against Spain begins.


Tecumseh tours the South. Battle of Tippecanoe River, November 7.


United States declares war on Britain, June 18.


Fort Mims Massacre triggers Creek War, August 30.
Perry’s victory over the British on Lake Erie, September 10.


Jackson defeats Red Stick Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama, March 27.
Scott’s victory over the British at Chippewa, July 5.
British burn Washington City, August 24. Treaty of Ghent signed December 24.


Jackson defeats British at New Orleans, January 8.


James Monroe elected president.


John Quincy Adams becomes secretary of state.


Treaty with Britain on U.S.-Canada boundary at forty-ninth parallel to Rocky Mountains.


Adams-Oni’s Treaty with Spain.


Missouri Compromise excluding slavery in new states north of 36°30′.


Mexican independence from Spain. Treaty of Cordoba, August 23.


Sam Houston elected to Congress from Tennessee.


John Quincy Adams elected president. Mexican constitution adopted.
Treaty with Russia on boundary of Alaska.


Erie Canal opens. James K. Polk elected to Congress from Tennessee.
Joel R. Poinsett becomes ambassador to Mexico.


Deaths of Jefferson and John Adams, July 4.


David Crockett elected to Congress from Tennessee. Nicholas Trist becomes clerk in State Department. Houston elected governor of Tennessee.


Andrew Jackson elected president.


Houston resigns as governor of Tennessee. Kit Carson explores the Gila River country.


John Quincy Adams elected to Congress from Massachusetts.


Play Lion of the West by James K. Paulding acted in New York by James Hackett.


Houston tried in Congress for attacking legislator. Goes to Texas December 1.


Santa Anna elected president of Mexico.
Nicholas Trist appointed consul in Havana.


A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee published.


R. H. Dana arrives in California. Crockett loses election for Congress, leaves for Texas.


Crockett dies at Alamo, March 6. “Gag law” passed by Congress. Houston elected commander of Texas army, defeats Santa Anna at San Jacinto, April 21.


Smallpox wipes out many Indian villages in the West.


Cherokee Removal to Arkansas Territory. Mexico fights “Pastry War” with France in which Santa Anna loses a leg.


James K. Polk elected governor of Tennessee.


William Henry Harrison elected president. Two Years Before the Mast by R. H. Dana published.


Harrison dies and John Tyler becomes president. Winfield Scott becomes General in chief of the army July 5.


Frémont’s First Expedition along Oregon Trail, with Kit Carson as scout.


Frémont’s Second Expedition to the Far West.


Polk elected president. “Gag law” repealed December 3.


Texas annexed by United States. Frémont’s Third Expedition to the Far West.
John Chapman dies in March at Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Andrew Jackson dies at Hermitage, June 8. Polk begins diary, August 26.
Trist becomes chief clerk of the State Department. “Manifest Destiny” becomes slogan.


United States declares war on Mexico May 13. Bear Flaggers declare independence from Mexico June 14. Battles of Palo Alto, May 8; Resaca de la Palma, May 9; Monterrey, September 20–24. Frémont and Stockton take San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara in August. Kearny claims Santa Fe, August 18, fights at San Pasqual, December 6–11.


Los Angeles retaken January 8–9. Battles of Buena Vista, February 22–23; Veracruz, March 22–26; Cerro Gordo, April 17–18. Trist arrives in Mexico, May 6. Battles of Contreras, August 19–20; Churubusco, August 20; Molino del Rey, September 8; Chapultepec, September 12–13.
Scott enters Mexico City, September 14.


Taylor elected president. Gold discovered in California January 24. Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed February 2.
John Quincy Adams dies February 23. Trist arrested in Mexico in April.


Polk dies. Gold rush in California.


Gadsden Purchase establishes the boundary between Mexico and New Mexico and Arizona.





THOMAS JEFFERSON’S attention seems always to have been turned toward the West. The West was the place of unexplored riches, the promise of adventure, commerce, the future. The possibilities and hope offered by the waterways and lands over the mountains were never far from Jefferson’s mind, even as events forced him to turn his attention to the political conflicts unfolding in Virginia and the other colonies. Jefferson loathed the crowding of cities and came to believe that the best hope for his society was the movement into the land beyond the Appalachians, even beyond the Mississippi. It was in the West where yeoman farmers could “avoid the miseries of the concentrated urban working classes.”

From the time of his youth the author of the Declaration of Independence had dreamed of exploring and claiming the West—to the Mississippi and maybe all the way to the Pacific. On February 2, 1848, almost twenty-two years after Jefferson’s death, his grandson-in-law, Nicholas P. Trist, special peace commissioner from the United States, signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo near the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe outside Mexico City, ending the Mexican-American War. Both countries pledged to cease hostilities, and for fifteen million dollars the Republic of Mexico agreed to cede to the United States Texas and all of the territory that would become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, half of Colorado and a chunk of Wyoming. With ports on the Pacific, the American Republic could become a world power, promoting prosperity, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness across North America and beyond. The continental and hemispheric vision Jefferson had contemplated from the height of Monticello was now realized but at a terrific cost.

their relations with other tribes of nations;
their language, traditions, monuments;
their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting,

war, arts, & the implements for these;
their food, clothing, & domestic accommodations;
the diseases prevalent among them, & the remedies they use;
moral & physical circumstances which distinguish them from

the tribes we know;
peculiarities in their laws, customs & dispositions;
and articles of commerce they may need or furnish, & to what extent

Jefferson also wanted Lewis to gather information about “the state of morality, religion, & information among” the natives. Like most enlightened men of his time, Jefferson believed that those who went among the Indians should seek to “civilize & instruct them,” but he also realized that to do so Europeans must “adapt their measures to the existing notions & practices of those on whom they are to operate.” The last clause of the sentence shows something of Jefferson’s sophistication. English missionaries and administrators usually failed with the native people because they wanted to teach Indians to behave like Europeans. French and sometimes Spanish missionaries were often more successful because they understood that they themselves had to adapt to Indian customs before they could have any effective impact. Had all Americans been as sensitive to this particular issue as Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis, our history might have been very different. To negotiate with others, trade with others, live beside others, we must first know something about who they are and how they view us and their own world. It is a simple principle to state but hard to practice in strange places and on dangerous occasions.

Significantly, Jefferson places study of the indigenous population ahead of his other lists of scientific objects of study. Only after he has described some of the things he wanted to know about the natives did he catalog his other scientific interests. For Jefferson the West was not just the land but also the people who had lived there for thousands of years. The priority of his scientific interest was the study of the people.

One of the most memorable passages in Jefferson’s letter to Lewis is his instructions about the treatment of native people. In no place does Jefferson’s idealism show through more than in this section. “Treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner,” he urged, and “allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it’s innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S., . . . & of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them.” He authorized Lewis to arrange visits of the chiefs to Washington at public expense, if they desired it, and to offer to educate their young. He also told Lewis to carry with him on the expedition “some of the matter of the kine-pox” to inoculate against small pox, which had already killed so many Indians. The inoculation might be especially important in the village where they would pass the winter.

Since it could not be known beforehand whether a given Indian tribe or nation would be welcoming or hostile, it was important for the expedition to have enough men to defend itself. But if a large group of Indians adamantly stood in the way of the expedition, “you must decline it’s farther pursuit, and return.” Not only must the lives of the Corps of Discovery be saved, but the information they have accumulated must be protected.

Jefferson recommended that Lewis commission friendly Indians to carry back letters and copies “of your journal, notes & observations of every kind,” to the settlements at Cahokia and Kaskaskia on the east bank of the Mississippi. That way he could be informed at every stage of the progress of the expedition up the river and to the West Coast. Sensitive messages should be put in code.

And then he gave Lewis a list of his interests in the physical landscape that reads like a passage from a poem by Walt Whitman or a paragraph by Henry David Thoreau.

the soil & face of the country, it’s growth & vegetable
productions, especially those not of the U.S

the animals of the country generally, & especially those
not known in the U.S

the remains or accounts of any which may be deemed rare
or extinct;

the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly
metals, limestone, pit coal, & saltpetre; salines &
mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last,
& such circumstances as may indicate their character;

volcanic appearances;

climate, as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion
of rainy, cloudy, & clear days, by lightning, hail,
snow, ice, by access & recess of frost, by the
winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at
which particular plants put forth or lose their
flower, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds,
reptiles or insects

Jefferson added that he thought it especially important to know the land between the headwaters of the Rio Brava, meaning the Rio Grande, and the headwaters of the Rio Colorado. He was not sure whether the country between these rivers and the Missouri was mountainous or flat land. Few people had studied the existing maps of the west as thoroughly as Jefferson had, yet he thought that by going up the Missouri Lewis might be able to learn “anything certain of the most Northern source of the Missisipi & of it’s position relatively to the lake of the woods,” which English and French traders had described. And Jefferson wanted to know the distance from the mouth of the “Ouisconsing” (Wisconsin) River to the mouth of the Missouri. But it is not clear how Lewis was expected to acquire that information while going up the Missouri, unless he happened to meet someone who knew the exact distance.

Furthermore, if the Pacific coast was reached, the prospects for the fur trade there should be studied. The present center of the fur trade was farther north, at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where British and Russian companies were already dominant. Most important, Lewis should find out if the United States could conduct business in the far northwest by going up the Missouri instead of sailing all the way around Cape Horn, as was the present practice.

When Lewis arrived at the Pacific coast he was to look for a port and if possible send two of his crew back to the United States by sea with copies of the journals and notes made crossing the continent. And if Lewis determined that it was too dangerous to return overland, Jefferson urged him to return with all his men by sea, either around the tip of South America or Africa. Since he would be without money, he must use letters of credit to pay for his passage.

If Lewis decided to return by land, Jefferson asked him to again make such observations “as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.” Each member of the expedition would not only be paid in full when they returned to the United States but would also be given a grant of land, as other soldiers were. Last he tells Lewis, “Repair yourself with your papers to the seat of government” once other duties were discharged.

And then Jefferson thought of one more contingency. In case Lewis should suffer death on the journey west, he should leave a signed document written in his own hand “to name the person among them who shall succeed to the command on your decease.” But as the voyage continued he should feel free to change the designated successor as he learns more about the character and competence of his men. And such a successor should be given authority to name his successor in case of his own demise. It does seem that Jefferson thought of everything on that day, June 20, 1803. Reading certain passages of the letter to Meriwether Lewis we are reminded that among his many other accomplishments, Jefferson was a gifted if reluctant lawyer.




IT IS probably impossible for us in the twenty-first century to understand what land meant to poor white people in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Newly released indentured servants, called redemptionists, who had never owned a square foot of property of their own looked west at regions where for a few cents an acre they might acquire tracts of rich farmland along streams and running back to picturesque hills. People of ambition who already had land in the East dreamed of gaining even more land and greater riches and prominence in the West.

For those in debt, or in trouble with the law, the frontier offered an opportunity for salvation, to start over, with a clean slate, in a place where no one knew them. Beginning with nothing but two hands, a few tools, and determination, they might clear land and work it and rise to prosperity. Or failing again, they could move on farther into the new territory and try once more. There seemed no end to the wild lands to the west—if only Indians could be cleared away—and no limits to hope. All you needed were an ax, a rifle, and a wife, and maybe a horse or ox. But even if you had no wife, one could be found among the Indians. In fact, for settling down at the edge of the wilderness, an Indian wife might be the best of all. She already knew the land there and the ways of extracting necessities and even luxuries from the forest. And she could do much of the farmwork and make clothes from buckskin with fancy beadwork or colorful clothes from cloth bought from traders. An Indian wife might make it safer also. After all, married to an Indian woman, you were halfway a member of the nation yourself.

To the Scots Irish, such as Andrew Jackson’s ancestors, free or cheap land must have seemed a dream too wonderful almost to believe. Born in Scotland, they had been sent to Northern Ireland to drive away the Catholics and make Ireland Protestant. Later, when that land was needed by the wealthy English for grazing sheep, they were displaced again, and those who could came to the New World in the years before the Revolution. But eastern land was already claimed and expensive by the time they arrived. That left the Appalachian foothills and the farther frontier claimed by Cherokees and other Indian nations, and most attractive of all, the land beyond the mountains, Kentucky and Tennessee, and the vast expanse of land to the southwest, all the way to the Mississippi and New Orleans, much of it controlled by the Creek, or Muscogee, Indian confederacy.




THOMAS JEFFERSON once wrote, “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add an useful plant to its culture.” He could have been thinking of John Chapman, the Johnny Appleseed of American legend.


  • "Robert Morgan’s latest work is a tour de force of historical concision, combining prodigious research and adroit synthesis. The biographer of Daniel Boone and prize-winning novelist and poet sets his sights on creating “a living sense of the westward expansion." –The Boston Globe

    “In his fascinating, magnificent Lions of the West, Morgan ... writes with an enviable clarity that makes personalities, issues and events come alive on the page... This authoritative and enlightening book engages the reader from the first page and holds our attention until the last.” –BookPage

    “Morgan's accounts of these key players make for an intriguing journey westward... Morgan has given us a stimulating and engaging account of how it all came about.” –Minneapolis Star Tribune

    “Morgan begins his work with Jefferson — a lover of nature, patron of explorers and dreamer of expansion. Several pages are dedicated to Jefferson’s work, Notes on the State of Virginia. “His book is, among other things, a celebration and homage to his birth country," Morgan writes. Though he lacks Jefferson’s poetry, the same might be said about Morgan’s latest work.” –Newark Star-Ledger

    “Highly entertaining... A highly readable, often enjoyable, perspective on some of the biggest American luminaries participating, either actively or philosophically, in the settlement of the American West.” –Roanoke Times

    Lions of the West is a compelling and insightful history that reads like the talk of a learned companion...Morgan entertains with adventures and details, both high-minded and handy. His largest achievement is something of special note here. In his fiction, poetry, and history, Morgan represents a Scots-Irish/British tradition, and fuses, for all of America, romantic and pragmatic traditions.” –Asheville Citizen-Times

    “Fans of David McCullough's big best sellers should eat this one up... Morgan knows that the root of history is story, and he has plenty to tell. He gives us wonderful moments: Sam Houston, in Cherokee costume, encountering Alexis de Tocqueville on a steamboat, or Abigail Adams meeting Alexander McGillivray, the half-caste, Charleston-educated chieftain of the Upper Creeks and judging him ‘much of a Gentleman.’ No novel can do better.” –Wilmington Star News

    “Robert Morgan should be declared a national treasure, and his latest work, Lions of the West, is bound to become a classic in the study of American westward expansion.” –Charlotte News Observer

    “[Morgan’s] detailed storytelling is rather poetically fascinating. He reminds us that all figures in history were more than what they accomplished -- that many led the lives of everyday men...I now see the men behind the America I've always known.” –Iowa City Press-Citizen

    “This valuable addition to the historical record is by a gifted historian and novelist. It fills the gap in a most interesting period of American history. It is a ‘can’t-put-it-down’ kind of history book.”
    –Southern Pines Pilot

    “History as it should be told: through colorful biographical sketches, Morgan presents the unvarnished story of the annexation and settling of the American West.” –Shelf Awareness

    “Morgan has made the Old West his preserve…[his] sympathetic and thoughtful essay on Kit Carson ruminates on the moral challenges raised by westward expansion. Readers interested in the Old West will be rewarded.” –Publishers Weekly

    “Morgan has done a good job of cherry-picking the best and the brightest of the bunch… a digestible introduction to American expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the larger-than-life men who led the inexorable charge westward.” –Booklist

    “A vivid, well-conceived look at western expansion in the old narrative-driven school of Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner.” –Kirkus Reviews
  • “A tour de force of historical concision, combining prodigious research and adroit synthesis.”
    The Boston Globe
  • “Sometimes, superb research can yield memorable chronicling of lives in an economical manner, rather than in a detailed cradle to grave account. That is the case in Morgan’s compulsively readable group history.”
    The Seattle Times
  • “Morgan’s marriage of history and well-wrought prose is as engrossing as it is edifying.”
    The Louisville Courier-Journal
  • “Morgan’s accounts of these key players make for an intriguing journey westward . . . A stimulating and engaging account.”
    Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • Lions of the West is history at its best.”
    The Charleston Post and Courier

On Sale
Aug 21, 2012
Page Count
528 pages
Algonquin Books

robert morgan

Robert Morgan

About the Author

Robert Morgan is the bestselling author of numerous works of fiction—including the Oprah Book Club selection Gap Creek—and non-fiction, and is also an established poet with fourteen collections to his credit. Born in Hendersonville, NC, he teaches at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, where he is Kappa Alpha Professor of English.

Learn more about this author