Today is the 210th Anniversary of the largest territorial acquisition in U.S. history: the Louisiana Purchase. A highly controversial move in the United States, Jefferson’s acquisition doubled the size of the nascent country overnight. It set the stage for the nineteenth century theory of Manifest Destiny, that the U.S. would come to control the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The territory of the Louisiana Purchase has a long and storied history. The first European settlement in this area was La Nouvelle-Orlèans, today the city of New Orlans. It was founded in 1718 and named for the Duke of Orlèans, Regent of France. Settlements continued up the river and spread down from what is today Quebec, Michigan, and Illinois. All of this territory was considered part of the colony of New France.
In 1762, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau. France had lost Canada to the British. This was part of the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War in North America. The agreement covered the territory of Louisiana, which spread from the Appalachians to the Rockies.
The following year, Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain, officially ended the Seven Years’ War with the Peace of Paris. Also called the Treaty of Paris, the agreement was signed 10 February 1763. As part of the agreement, France ceded Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tobago to Britain, as well as all of Louisiana east of the Mississippi, except for New Orleans. Under the Treaty of Fontainebleau, the western part of Louisiana and New Orleans were ceded to Spain.
This left France with no holdings in mainland North America. They did preserve fishing rights off of Newfoundland, and retained the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River as a place to cure the fish before transporting it. Those two islands remain part of France today.
Under the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso, Spain returned the Louisiana Territory to France in 1800. In 1801, Napoleon sent a military force to secure New Orleans. In 1803, Napoleon offered the territory to the U.S. for the sum of $15 million. This is equivalent to more than $306 million in 2013.
The American Revolution had shown the strategic importance of the port of New Orleans. Thomas Jefferson’s representatives quickly agreed to the purchase, realizing its potential significance to the United States. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed 30 April 1803.
Unfortunately, there was great opposition to the purchase at home. Many were worried about alienating Britain, which whom the French were at war. Others thought it was unconstitutional, because the U.S. Constitution did not provide for the U.S. to purchase additional territory. Still others were concerned about granting U.S. citizenship to the French and Spanish “foreigners” who lived in the territory. There were also questions as to whether or not France even had the right to sell the territory to the U.S. under the terms of its agreement with Spain.
In the end, everything worked out. The U.S. acquired the territory, and Jefferson immediately sent out three parties to survey the territory. Among these was the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. Today, the land of the Louisiana Purchase is part of fourteen states: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. This area opened up extensive settlement for Americans in the 19th century, and its availability no doubt changed the course of U.S. history.