All the "Western World," as the settlers loved to call the land beyond the mountains, depended on the Mississippi for an outlet for the crops. The dwellers on the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and all the western waters, shut off by the Alleghanies from the coast, could only find a market for their crops through New Orleans. Obviously the very strength of Spain's position also constituted a menace to herself, in view of the feeble garrisons by which she blocked the river. To meet this situation, in 1786 she entered into negotiations for a treaty by which we should forgo our claim to the navigation of the Mississippi for twenty-five years in return for concessions to our commerce in her European possessions. This proposal met the approval not only of some of the most important statesmen from the northeastern commercial sections, like Jay and King, but also of Washington, who believed that the West stood upon a pivot,—"the touch of a feather would turn it any way." Fearing that the ease of navigating the Mississippi would menace the connection of the West with the Union, Washington desired first to bind the West to the East by ties of interest, opening communication by canals and roads. But many Southern men, particularly Monroe and Patrick Henry, saw in the proposal to relinquish the navigation of the Mississippi the sacrifice of the agricultural interests to those of the maritime section, and foretold a dissolution of the Union. In the outcome, sufficient votes could not be obtained to carry the treaty; but the West was deeply stirred by the attempt.
Another device of Spain to check the American advance was the use of the Southern Indians. Carondelet, the governor of Louisiana, afterwards expressed the Spanish policy when he declared that there was no American force which could protect the two hundred leagues and more of frontier from the devastations of fifteen thousand well-armed savages, nor any which would venture to descend the Mississippi, leaving their
communications to be cut off by a swarm of
savages. "Not only will Spain always make the American settlements tremble by threatening them with the Indians, but she has no other means of molesting them." Well might Spain base her hopes on the unsubstantial protection afforded by her Indian allies, for, at the time, she had but a single regiment, distributed in twenty-one detachments, to guard nearly two thousand miles of river front.
Under these circumstances, the Spanish authorities also tried to detach the West from the Union by promising free navigation in return for the acceptance of Spanish sovereignty by Kentucky and the Tennessee and Cumberland settlements. In the disturbed conditions of the period, this, for a time, seemed a possible solution of the difficulty, for the Westerners were deeply impressed by the effectiveness of the mountain barrier in dividing them from the states of the coast, and they had slight respect for the type of social life on the seaboard, or for the feeble government, which, at the close of the Confederation, afforded them protection against neither the Indians nor the Spaniards. The Westerners as a whole preferred the Union; but its value to them depended on the efficiency with which it dealt with the problem of the Indians and the navigation of the Mississippi, and they were determined to secure local self-government independent of the coastwise states whose chartered limits overspread their territory, and whose governments disposed of their land, although they were impotent to defend the settlers. When the old Confederation was going to pieces in 1788-89, the Kentucky and Tennessee settlements were engaged in a struggle for separate statehood, and the more radical and best known leaders of these communities at the same time entered into correspondence with the governor of Louisiana with a view to securing Spanish concessions in the event of declaring independence. Inasmuch as the thirteen states were considering the question of ratification of the Constitution as sovereign bodies, the western settlements, not unnaturally, were disposed to decide their own allegiance at the same time. Men like Wilkinson, of Kentucky, later the commander in chief of the American army, and the prominent Judge Sebastian went so far as to accept pensions from Spain as the price of supporting her designs. General George Rogers Clark, the most famous military figure in the West since his conquest of the Illinois country, offered to become a Spanish subject, and to transfer from the weak authority of the United States a numerous colony if he could receive a land grant west of the Mississippi. Sevier and Robertson, the founders of Tennessee, also corresponded with the Spanish authorities, with similar ideas of saving themselves and their communities in the midst of the general confusion. But some of the more conservative and far-sighted Kentucky leaders imposed a successful opposition to precipitate action, and demanded that further time be given to the United States to secure from Spain the western demands. The Spanish intrigue for seducing the West from the Union met defeat (although Spain did not realize the fact for some years) when the new Constitution was ratified and a stronger national government was established.