While rarely mentioned in history books, the legacy of the Legion of the United States lives on today. It was born in 1792 because President Washington and the Congress realized they needed a military force to protect settlers moving into what we now know as Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan.
In addition to its success on the battlefield, the Legion spawned several Americans who influenced U.S. history. Two of the most famous – Meriweather Lewis and William Clark – were officers in the Legion and went on to lead the expedition that explored Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. They followed the Missouri River to its source and then, led by Indians, take the Columbia River to the Oregon Coast.
William Henry Harrison was General Mark Anthony Wayne’s aide de camp throughout his command of the Legion. Harrison eventually became a major general and led the force that defeated Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe. His running mate for office was John Tyler and they ran under the slogan of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” When Harrison became the ninth president of the United States at age 68, he was the oldest man to be elected to president until Reagan who was 69 when he won the presidency for the first time.
Harrison died within a month of his inauguration and even though the Constitution clearly states that the VP takes over in the event of death or incapacitation of the president, it is ambiguous as to whether or not the VP should assume the title of president. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court ruled that he should and the precedent set was followed seven times in U.S. history and made part of the Constitution via Section 1 of the 25th Amendment.
In 1787, after he left the Legion, Captain William Eaton was assigned as the Consul General to Tunis with the mission of building relationships with leaders along what was called the Barbary Coast. Later, in 1803 and appointed as a Naval officer, he led an overland expedition of two midshipmen, eight Marines and mercenaries 600 miles from Alexandria, Egypt and captured the Libyan city of Derna. It was the first victory on land by of American forces outside North America.
In 1805, Zebulon Pike, another officer in the Legion, led an expedition to find the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Then, in the summer of 1806, he was sent to find the headwaters of the Red and Arkansas Rivers. In the early winter, the group began to climb a mountain that was later named Pike’s Peak.
Pike’s expedition moved south out of the mountains where built a fort to wait out the winter. He didn’t know he had crossed into Spanish territory, was captured and taken to Santa Fe in what is now New Mexico. A year later, Pike and most of his men were escorted to the Spanish/U.S. border and released near where they were taken.
The Legion’s legacy lives on in the accomplishments of its members who were, like these men, more than just soldiers. They were pioneers who helped build this great and wonderful country.