On December 20, 1803, The Louisiana Purchase, a land deal between the United States and France in which the U.S. acquired approximately 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River for $15 million, was finalized.

In 1802 Spain lost the vast territory of Louisiana, which had been its spoils for assistance in the American Revolution, to Bonapartist France. The port of New Orleans had become critical to American commerce, so this transfer of authority was cause for concern. In 1795, a treaty with Spain recognized the United States’ right to use the river and to deposit goods in New Orleans for transfer to oceangoing vessels. Loss of this treaty with the ceding of Louisiana to France, especially the imperial and militarily powerful France of Napoleon Bonaparte, represented a huge threat to the sovereignty and stability of the new United States. 

France had surrendered its North American possessions at the end of the French and Indian War. New Orleans and Louisiana west of the Mississippi were transferred to Spain in 1762, and French territories east of the Mississippi, including Canada, were ceded to Britain the next year. But Napoleon, who took power in 1799, aimed to restore France’s presence on the continent.  The Louisiana situation reached a crisis point in October 1802 when Spain’s King Charles IV signed a decree transferring the territory to France.  Immediately, Spanish agents in New Orleans, acting on orders from the Spanish court, revoked Americans’ access to the port’s warehouses closing the Mississippi, and effectively all US commerce west of the Appalachian Mountains. 

While James Madison worked to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels, some factions of the Federalist Party (backers of Adams and active opponents of Jefferson) called for war and advocated secession by the western territories in order to seize control of the lower Mississippi and New Orleans.  Concerned with the threat of disunion, Jefferson ordered James Monroe and Roger Livingston to go to Paris as “Minister Extraordinary.” Jefferson also asked Congress to fund an expedition that would cross the Louisiana territory, regardless of who controlled it, and proceed on to the Pacific. Monroe was empowered to enter into “such arrangements as may effectually secure our rights and interest in the Mississippi, and in the country Eastward of that.”  Monroe’s instructions, drawn up by Madison and approved by Jefferson, allocated up to $10 million for the purchase of New Orleans and all or part of Florida. If this bid failed, Monroe was instructed to try to purchase just New Orleans, or, at the very least, secure U.S. access to the Mississippi and the port.  Roger Livingston that a very different offer was on the table.

Napoleon’s plans to re-establish France in the New World were unraveling. The French army sent to suppress a rebellion by slaves and free blacks in the sugar-rich colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti) had been decimated by yellow fever, and a new war with Britain seemed inevitable. France’s minister of finance, François de Barbé-Marbois, who had always doubted Louisiana’s worth, counseled Napoleon that Louisiana was of little worth if Saint Domingue was lost and that France could not afford to send forces to occupy the entire Mississippi Valley.  He proposed that France SELL the territory entire to the United States.  Napoleon agreed and on April 11, 1803, Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand negotiated a price with Livingston. 

The final price exceeded the authority $10 Million that Monroe was authorized to spend but on April 30, 1803, France sold ALL of the Louisiana territory, including New Orleans, for $15 million. The acquisition of approximately 827,000 square miles would double the size of the United States.

The purchase treaty had to be ratified by the end of October, which gave Jefferson and his Cabinet time to deliberate the issues of boundaries and constitutionality. Exact boundaries would have to be negotiated with Spain and England and so would not be set for several years, and Jefferson’s Cabinet members argued that the constitutional amendment he proposed was not necessary. As time for ratification of the purchase treaty grew short, Jefferson accepted his Cabinet’s counsel and rationalized: “it is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; & saying to him when of age, I did this for your good.”  The Senate ratified the treaty on October 20 by a vote of 24 to 7. Spain, upset by the sale but without the military power to block it, formally returned Louisiana to France on November 30. France officially transferred the territory to the Americans on December 20, and the United States took formal possession on December 30.

The secret mission Jefferson sent to cross the Louisiana territory, “regardless of who controlled it, and proceed on to the Pacific,” was well underway.  An officer and a dozen soldiers had sailed up the Missouri River, made diplomatic contact with Indians, expanded the American fur trade, but failed to find the mythical northwestern water route to the Pacific Ocean). 

In 1804, Sacagawea, Shoshone woman living among the Mandan and Hidatsa near present day Bismarck, North Dakota, joined the Lewis and Clark expedition and helped guide them to the Pacific. Approximately four years earlier, a Hidatsa raiding party had taken Sacagawea from her home in Idaho and from her people, the Lemhi Shoshone. When the expedition made their way up the Missouri river to the winter encampments of the Mandan and Hidatsa, Sacagawea married French trader Toussaint Charbonneau who was part of the expedition. In February of 1805, she gave birth to a baby boy, her first child. Captain Lewis recorded the event in his journal: “about five o’clock this evening one of the wives of Charbonneau was delivered of a fine boy.”  On December 20, 1812, Sacagawea died she was only 24.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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