Louisiana Purchase

THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE (1803) included all of the present-day states of ARKANSAS, OKLAHOMA, MISSOURI, KANSAS, IOWA, and NEBRASKA, as well as parts of MINNESOTA, SOUTH DAKOTA, NORTH DAKOTA, MONTANA, WYOMING, COLORADO, NEW MEXICO, TEXAS, and, of course, LOUISIANA. The area is approximately one-third of the continental UNITED STATES. Initially, it included portions of CANADA—southern Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan, and southern Alberta—that drain into the Missouri River.

On April 30, 1803, for 60 million francs (approximately $15 million) under a treaty with FRANCE, the United States received the Louisiana Territory, land in excess of 800,000 square mi (2 million square km). The purchase incorporated territory from the MISSISSIPPI RIVER to the ROCKY MOUNTAINS. The treaty specified that France would receive $11,250,000 in cash, and for the remainder of the price, the United States would assume French debts to American citizens. The territory had belonged to France until the end of the French and Indian War. In 1762, France ceded it to SPAIN. Spain gave it back in 1800 under the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. The French ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte, wanted to re-establish French presence in the Americas, and the Mississippi Valley was to serve as the center of trade and food production for Hispaniola, the Caribbean heart of the new empire. Haitian slaves led by Toussaint L'Ouverture upset this dream in 1801 when they rose against their masters and seized control of the country. Napoleon's efforts to suppress the rebellion failed, in part because of yellow fever among the French troops, and Napoleon abandoned his dream of a western empire. Napoleon needed his troops for his anticipated war with Great Britain. He also needed money for his European adventures, so he decided to sell Louisiana.

Louisiana Purchase

The U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, had negotiators in Paris, trying to get a tract on the lower Mississippi or the right of free navigation through New Orleans. American vulnerability in New Orleans had become apparent in October 1802 when the Spanish intendant at New Orleans closed the port by suspending American right of deposit, prohibiting Americans from storing their cargoes in the city. Westerners were concerned, to put it mildly, and the giving of Louisiana to France did not calm them at all.

Jefferson responded by instructing his minister in Paris to buy land on the lower Mississippi to serve as an alternative port. James Monroe went over in early 1803 as minister plenipotentiary to assist in the negotiation. Monroe had authority to offer $10 million for New Orleans and West Florida. Napoleon had already decided to sell before Monroe arrived. When Napoleon offered all of Louisiana, the American negotiators quickly arranged the deal. The purchase more than doubled the size of the United States, provided land for settlement, and guaranteed free navigation on the Mississippi. Jefferson had concerns that the U.S. Constitution didn't authorize the acquisition of new territory by treaty, but he decided that the good to the nation outweighed his philosophical concerns about violating the Constitution. The Senate ratified the treaty on October 20, 1803. On November 30, the Spanish, who had remained in occupancy during the French ownership, yielded Louisiana to France, which in turn ceded it to the United States on December 20.

Louisiana, in 1803, had a population of about 50,000. Ten thousand lived in New Orleans. Over half of the population, 28,000 people, were slaves. The count included residents of British West Florida (given to Spain after the American Revolution) and transplanted Acadians by way of NEW YORK and St. Domingue.

Spanish immigrants from the CANARY ISLANDS reflected the attraction of Spain's liberal land policies in Louisiana. Approximately 10,000 settlers—master and slave—fled the slave revolt in St. Domingue. And some French left France because of the nature of Napoleon's regime. At the same time, Spanish officials and settlers left for Spain. There were free blacks in New Orleans and Natchitoches. Anglo immigration into the area had begun over a decade before the purchase. Spain disapproved of the sale, but Congressional approval forestalled any action. Jefferson appointed a territorial governor, William Charles Cole Claiborne, and sent him along with General James Wilkinson to take possession, which they did on the December date. A formal ceremony on March 10, 1804, completed the transfer from France to the United States.

Not everyone applauded the deal. The Federalists, who wanted the United States to support Britain instead of France, claimed that the purchase was unconstitutional. In their view, the United States had spent a lot of money simply to declare war on Spain. Furthermore, the new land had the potential to shift the balance of political power away from the Atlantic coast to the west. Eastern bankers merchants and western farmers often had clashing interests anyway. Timothy Pickering, senator from Massachusetts, led a Federalist cabal that sought to separate New England into a separate confederacy, with Vice President Aaron Burr as president. Alexander Hamilton intervened, prevented secession, and eventually died at the hand of Burr in an 1804 duel.


Jefferson wasted no time in finding out what he had bought. From the time that Jefferson was secretary of state, he had been interested in the Spanish territory blocking the United States from the Pacific. Even before the finalization of the purchase, when Spain refused his request to explore the territory, he had authorized an expedition by his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to study the land and find a river route to the PACIFIC OCEAN.

His January 18, 1803, secret request to Congress cited the need to subdue natives and counter infiltration by the French. The next month a “commercial venture” was okayed at a price of $2,500. Lewis began buying supplies and learning scientific observation.

When Napoleon was selling Louisiana to the United States, Lewis was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, buying instruments, guns and ammunition, medicine, trade goods, and a keelboat. In May, with William Clark, Lewis began the three-year exploration of the Louisiana Purchase northern area. When they returned in 1806, they had amassed invaluable information about the plains, the mountains, and the rivers that would later be crossed by the Oregon Trail. They also brought information about the various Indian groups they encountered en route to the Pacific, and they gave the United States a claim to OREGON that was much firmer than that of Captain Robert Gray, who had been in Puget Sound as early as 1789.

Although Lewis and Clark could not find the river route Jefferson wanted, they did end the hope for a northwest passage to CHINA. They reported the presence of obstacles such as the Great Falls of the Missouri and the Dalles on the Columbia that required exhausting portages. With peaks rising 2 mi (3.2 km) into the air, the ROCKY MOUNTAINS themselves were intimidating. Lewis and Clark established that wagon traffic could not exploit their route.

A large part of the purchase was a “wasteland.” Between the line of settlement in western Missouri and the ROCKY MOUNTAINS, there was an area where average annual rainfall is less than 20 in (8 cm), insufficient for 19th-century American farmers. Jefferson was aware; he wanted the port of New Orleans, not the wasteland he felt upper Louisiana to be. He got affirmation from Lewis and Clark, whose journals frequently noted treeless and arid land whose rivers were trickles vanishing into the sand. In 1806, Zebulon Pike explored from the Missouri to the Rockies on the latitude of Kansas, and he encountered sand dunes and land too arid for farming or timber. Stephen Long crossed at the latitude of Nebraska in 1819–20 and reported that the drainage basin of the Missouri and Arkansas rivers, as well as a great portion of western Kansas and Nebraska was a great American desert. Even as migrants crossed the land to the valuable areas in Oregon and California, the desert remained. Only in 1870 did the designation change. Immigrants to Kansas from RUSSIA brought dryland farming techniques that made the great desert into the Great Plains.