Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Bradford, 29 November 1803

From John Bradford

Lexington (Kentucky) Novr. 29th. 1803


I was favored (by a French gentleman from St. Louis) about 4 years ago, with a piece of the rock Salt of Louisiana; and judging from your communication to congress, in which mention is made of that Salt mountain, that you had never seen a specimen of the Salt, have taken the liberty of forwarding to you a piece thereof; it is inclosed in a small tin cannister, soldered at both ends (to prevent damage,) and inclosed in white leather, and accompanies this letter by mail.

from sr Yr. Obedt. servt

John Bradford

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 13 Dec. and so recorded in SJL.

A native of Virginia, John Bradford (1749-1830) first came to Kentucky as a surveyor in 1779 and settled there permanently in the mid-1780s. He became the state’s pioneer printer, establishing the Kentucky Gazette in Lexington in 1787 and the Guardian of Freedom in Frankfort in 1798. Acting on recommendations from Kentucky senators John Brown and John Breckinridge, TJ appointed Bradford a commissioner of bankruptcy in 1802 (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; Brigham, American Newspapers description begins Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, Worcester, Mass., 1947, 2 vols. description ends , 1:152-3, 163; Vol. 37:402, 706, 710).

salt mountain: the digest of information on Louisiana that TJ sent to Congress on 14 Nov. included an “extraordinary fact relative to salt” in upper Louisiana: “There exists about 1000 miles up the Missouri, and not far from that river, a Salt Mountain! The existence of such a mountain might well be questioned, were it not for the testimony of several respectable and enterprising traders, who have visited it, and who have exhibited several bushels of the salt to the curiosity of the people of St. Louis, where some of it still remains.” The account described this natural wonder as 180 miles long and 45 miles wide and consisting of solid rock salt, “without any trees, or even shrubs on it.” Numerous salt springs allegedly ran underneath the mountain and flowed “through the fissures and cavities of it” (An Account of Louisiana, Being an Abstract of Documents, in the Offices of the Departments of State, and of the Treasury [Washington, D.C., 1803; Shaw-Shoemaker description begins Ralph R. Shaw and Richard H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801-1819, New York, 1958-63, 22 vols. description ends , No. 5196], 10). Federalist newspapers were quick to ridicule the remarkable claim. The New-York Evening Post pondered why TJ’s account of Louisiana did not also cite the existence of “an immense lake of molasses” near the salt mountain, with “an extensive vale of hasty pudding” located in between. In a similar vein, the Gazette of the United States proffered several additional natural wonders waiting to be discovered in Louisiana, including a “vast river of golden eagles ready coined,” an “immense mountain of solid refined sugar,” and a “considerable lake of pure Whiskey.” Other newspapers suggested that TJ preserve the salt mountain by constructing a dry dock over it, or that he appoint a “committee of wise ones” to investigate whether the mountain “may not be Lot’s wife, magnified by the process of time.” Observing the sheer quantity of such remarks, one Federalist editor opined that TJ’s salt mountain “has called forth more queer remarks, puns and epigrams, than any thing which has come to light, under the present ‘enlightened government’” (New-York Evening Post, 28 Nov. 1803; Gazette of the United States, 21, 23, 25 Nov. 1803; Albany Centinel, 13 Dec. 1803; New-York Gazette & General Advertiser, 25 Nov. 1803; Hudson, N.Y., Balance, and Columbian Repository, 13 Dec. 1803). The source of the administration’s information regarding the salt mountain is uncertain. Thomas T. Davis reported the existence of “a Salt Rock of immense size” in his letter to TJ of 5 Oct., and William Henry Harrison forwarded a sample of rock salt from the Missouri River in his 29 Oct. letter to the president. A report on Louisiana prepared in August 1803 at Kaskaskia by Zebulon M. Pike and forwarded to Samuel L. Mitchill included accounts of a “mountain of salt” on the Missouri. Citing French sources, Pike estimated the salt mountain to measure “60 leagues by 15.” Writing to Benjamin Waterhouse in 1813, TJ asserted that the salt mountain claim originated in a paper written by Captain Amos Stoddard, “an officer, a federalist and an honest man,” abridged by Jacob Wagner of the State Department “and put by him into the bundle of documents made up at that office for Congress, & passed through me without ever having been seen or read by me.” TJ claimed that he had no knowledge of the salt mountain reference “till the federal writers drew forth the morsel so delicious for the exercise of their wit. I thought it as innocent a tub for the whale as could be given them, & said nothing” (Medical Repository, 7 [1804], 410; Donald Jackson, ed., The Journals of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, with Letters and Related Documents, 2 vols. [Norman, Okla., 1966], 1:227, 228n; RS description begins J. Jefferson Looney and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, Princeton, 2004- , 11 vols. description ends , 5:682; Vol. 41:675-6). The probable inspiration for the salt mountain account was the Big Salt Plain, a massive salt plain located next to an escarpment on the Cimarron River, a tributary of the Arkansas River in western Oklahoma. Its vast rock and crystalline salt deposits have attracted the interest of Indians, explorers, traders, and scientists for centuries (Thomas D. Isern, “Jefferson’s Salt Mountain: The Big Salt Plain of the Cimarron River,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, 58 [1980], 160-75).

About the time Bradford wrote the letter printed above, his son and fellow newspaper publisher, James M. Bradford, was attempting to secure an appointment in Louisiana. Writing Senator John Brown for assistance on 19 Dec. 1803, the younger Bradford explained his frustration at not becoming public printer of Kentucky and weariness over his rivalry with opposition printer William Hunter. Bradford hoped to secure the office of territorial secretary for Louisiana. He suggested that the salary would allow him to establish a newspaper in the remote territory, “and thereby diffuse those political principles which are the glory of the present administration” (RC in DNA: RG 59, LAR, endorsed by TJ: “Bradford James M. to John Brown. for Louisiana. mr Brown says he is honest, industrious, republican, and of good strong understanding. brought up a printer”). Although Bradford did not receive the appointment, he moved to New Orleans and established the Orleans Gazette in December 1804 (Brigham, American Newspapers description begins Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, Worcester, Mass., 1947, 2 vols. description ends , 1:152-3, 190-1).

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