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  Great Expectations

Great Expectations
The size of the Rocky Mountains was highly underestimated. President Jefferson envisioned them being about half as high as they were. He also thought they would be a single ridge. Image © 2002 www.clipart.com.

Although Thomas Jefferson was a well-educated and wise man, his ideas of what existed in the American West turned out to be fairly inaccurate. For example, Jefferson and many geographers of the time underestimated the overall size of the Rocky Mountains. The president believed the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia were quite possibly the highest in North America. Their peak reaches 6,500 feet, while that of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado reaches more than 14,400 feet. Jefferson and other geographers also believed in the existence of a "River of the West" that emptied into the Pacific Ocean. Ultimately, they thought all the great rivers of the West—the Missouri, Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande—rose from a single source, sometimes referred to as a "height of land."

The president was also convinced that there were erupting volcanoes in the West. He believed a great mountain made purely of salt lay somewhere on the Great Plains. Of the mountain he said, "There exists, about one thousand miles up the Missouri, and not far from that river, a salt mountain.... This mountain is said to be one hundred and eighty miles long, and forty-five in width, composed of solid rock salt, without any trees, or even shrubs upon it."

Of the terrain in the West, Jefferson envisioned a farmer's dream: a bright, green, and prolific utopia that stretched across the uncharted territory. In Jefferson's mind the West was the garden of the world—a wealth of lush grassland with an abundant water supply, fertile soil, and the perfect agricultural climate.

Prehistoric creatures, including the wooly mammoth, were believed to exist near the upper Missouri. Image © 2002 www.clipart.com.

In addition to the rumors that the West contained mythical creatures such as unicorns, Peruvian llamas, and seven-foot-tall beavers, Jefferson suggested that woolly mammoths, the giant ground sloth, and other prehistoric creatures existed near the upper Missouri.

It was also rumored that the Indians who roamed the Western lands were blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking natives.

Jefferson would soon discover that his expectations of the West would be replaced by some surprising realities.

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