Cover image for Jefferson and the gun-men : how the West was almost lost
Jefferson and the gun-men : how the West was almost lost
Montgomery, M. R.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Crown Publishers, [2000]

Physical Description:
vi, 333 pages : maps, portraits ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F592 .M685 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



"Just three decades after the revolution that gave birth to the United States, another insurgency was already brewing, this time led by a charming - and treacherous - Aaron Burr. The former vice president had determined that if he could not be master of his nation, he would instead become emperor of the Louisiana Territory. Working with the powerful commander of the U.S. Army, General James Wilkinson, Burr instigated a plot to seize not only Louisiana, but all of Mexico. This nefarious plot even included the hapless Zebulon M. Pike." "Jefferson and the Gun-men is the story of this scheme. Montgomery portrays a time when the wildest plots and the most grandiose dreams thrived as schemers, revolutionaries, black-guards, and braggarts conspired to create a new country. In this race to capture the heart of a new frontier, Montgomery finds a young nation just beginning to imagine itself and understand its destiny."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Author Notes

M. R. Montgomery, award-winning writer for the "Boston Globe", has been a journalist for 30 years and is the author of 5 previous books. He graduated from Stanford University and the University of Oregon with degrees in American history. A native of Montana, Montgomery lives in Boston.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Montgomery provides a new twist on the purchase and the exploration of the Louisiana territory. Though scholarly accounts of the Lewis and Clark Expedition are plentiful, few have focused on the fact that the West could have been lost had an insidious plot hatched by former vice president Aaron Burr been successful. Together with respected military commander General James Wilkinson and intrepid explorer Zebulon Pike, Burr attempted to forge a bizarre deal with Spain to invade the new U. S. territory, making himself emperor of the West in the process. Chock-full of intrigue, humor, and colorful characters, this little-known historical footnote adds mystery and spice to an enduring American legend. --Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1804, Lewis and Clark, at the behest of President Jefferson, made their famous western journey. But they weren't the only Americans with their eye on the WestÄAaron Burr, former vice-president and senator from New York (and a failed candidate for the New York governorship), was plotting to take over the Louisiana Territory. While the exact details of Burr's vision have long been a matter of historical debate, the gist is that he envisioned a separate country, with New Orleans as capital and himself as impresarioÄwith a few important backers, from Andrew Jackson to the Catholic bishop of New Orleans and chief of America's armed forces General James Wilkinson. It is a fascinating tale but one to which Boston journalist Montgomery fails to do justice. Montgomery's portrait of Jefferson is maddeningly inconsistent: he appears at turns indecisive, calculatingly cruel and dim-witted. The puffed-up prose and Montgomery's penchant for the present tense are distracting, and his unconcealed disdain for professional historians will strike the reader as more than a touch defensive. Finally, Montgomery's admission in the last pages of the book that the story he tells here of Burr's wild schemesÄa story of something that almost happened, but did notÄis "ultimately irrelevant" will leave readers who plow through the entire volume wondering why they bothered. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



February 1803, Washington City Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, is writing a lengthy letter to William Henry Harrison, military governor of the Northwest Territory; that is, of the scarcely settled lands between the Mid-Atlantic states and the Mississippi River. Jefferson is his own secretary, and he is almost certainly alone as he writes. The federal government of the United States is very small and highly personal. Jefferson will make a copy of this letter on an unsatisfactory machine called a letterpress that transfers a little of the ink from the original to a flimsy, almost transparent, sheet of paper. The third president is probably sitting in a pair of frayed trousers, wearing house slippers and a coat against the chill. He looks rather more like Bob Cratchit than Ebenezer Scrooge as he instructs Harrison on Indian policy and the role of the western country, across the Mississippi, in managing the Indian problem. We will get to the content of the letter in a moment, but if you are going to understand some of the history about to unfold, it is good to stop a moment and recognize that the entire Executive Office of the President consists of this middle-aged man, wearing casual clothes, alone in a rented house in Washington City. Technically, Jefferson has a personal secretary. This is Captain Meriwether Lewis, U.S. Army, who is about to depart on an exploration of the country west of the Mississippi by ascending the Missouri River to its source and then proceeding down some western river to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis is probably unaware of the contents of the letter. He is a secretary in name only. Jefferson has brought him to Washington to prepare him for a more serious job than copying and filing letters. Lewis expects to lead a clandestine mission through a country that belongs to France, to Napoleon Bonaparte. The government funds for the expedition are a well-kept secret, the result of a concealed congressional vote. And Thomas Jefferson is keeping an important development hidden from the Congress: Two American envoys are about to begin negotiations to buy the island of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi. Jefferson wants New Orleans so that trade down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers can move freely to the sea from the still lightly settled American soil along the Ohio River and the eastern bank of the Mississippi. It is a few decades before railroads, and goods from Ohio and Kentucky and Mississippi must move on the rivers. The island of New Orleans, first in French, then Spanish, and now again in French hands, is a barrier to free passage. Napoleon has his little secret, too. Shortly after reacquiring the Louisiana Territory for France (Napoleon is governing Spain with puppets and relatives), Napoleon wants to trade it in for cash. He's not only ready to sell New Orleans, he wants to dump the whole of Louisiana--that is, all of the vast country north of Spanish Mexico and south of British Canada and west of the Mississippi River as far as to the Continental Divide, to the very headwaters of all the western tributaries of the Mississippi. Napoleon is going to need money for more adventuring in Continental Europe, and he is bleeding whole armies into a failing attempt to hang on to France's Caribbean island colony of Santo Domingo (today's Haiti and Dominican Republic). But Jefferson has no idea that this Louisiana real estate deal is in the works. So, when we read Jefferson's secret addition to his otherwise official letter to Harrison, we must remember that America stops at the Mississippi, with or without the island of New Orleans. Jefferson begins by telling Harrison that the nation's policy "is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate an affectionate attachment from them, by everything just and liberal which we can do for them within the bounds of reason." Having said that, Jefferson then instructs Harrison on how to get rid of every last independent Indian tribe between the Atlantic states and the Mississippi. Harrison is to encourage a series of government trading posts selling at a discount (to undercut the few itinerant French-Canadian traders and the increasing number of British traders coming down from Canada). "We shall push our trading . . . and be glad to see them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands. . . ." Jefferson understands that some recalcitrant Indians may be unwilling to sell and "be foolhardy enough to take up the hatchet." In that case, Harrison is to seize "the whole country of that tribe" and drive them across the Mississippi. This would "be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation." Jefferson is almost finished. As usual, the letter is in his own hand. And now he draws a firm line of emphasis under his last words. The contents of this letter, he reminds Harrison, "must be kept within your own breast, and especially how improper to be understood by the Indians. For their interests and their tranquility it is best they should see only the present age of their history." So, from the very beginning, we see the Indian policy of the United States for what it is: all agreements and all promises are temporary, expedient, and faithless. There will be times, in the next few years, when almost everyone involved in this business of Louisiana will be happier if they live only in the future age of their history. The wildest plots, the most grandiose dreams, will thrive as long as the actors move toward an imaginary future bliss while ignoring present realities. Only a few will even attempt to judge the practicality of their desired future. They are an odd mixture of schemers, dreamers, revolutionaries, blackguards, and braggarts. Before it is done, Jefferson, that most complicated and opaque personality, will have played more than one of those parts. Excerpted from Jefferson and the Gun-Men: How the West Was Almost Lost by M. R. Montgomery All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.