The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana: Overview
As the frontier pushed to the west by the end of the eighteenth century, use of the Mississippi River to transport goods became an important issue for the United States. France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762. In the 1790s, Spaniards closed the Mississippi to all American traffic, causing internal American trouble. In 1800 Napoleon, however, succeeded in once more gaining ownership of Louisiana.
This transfer of Louisiana to France troubled President Thomas Jefferson. Not strong enough to fight Napoleon’s armies if such should become the need, Jefferson, a Francophile, saw the possibility of having to ally the United States with England, hoping that her navy could protect American interests against France. The solution? Buy New Orleans which controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River from France. U.S. Minister to France Robert Livingston met with French Foreign Minister Talleyrand, offering to purchase New Orleans to give the United States control of the mouth of the Mississippi. Talleyrand’s response startled Livingston: “What will you give us for the entire Louisiana?” Livingston stalled for time but did offer $4 million. “Too low,” was Talleyrand’s reply.
Jefferson had no idea that Napoleon was interested in selling the whole of Louisiana—a purchase that would double the size of the United States. In 1803 the president sent James Monroe to Paris to assist Livingston in negotiations. Napoleon, who was on the verge of war with England, feared that England might take Louisiana. That fear lay behind his desire to cede the territory to the United States. Haggling over the price took seven days. The United States paid 50 million francs, ($11,250,000) for the vast Louisiana country. Paying off American debts owed to France raised the sum to $15 million. The United States had acquired the right to govern and tax 529,911,680 acres of territory by signing the treaty of cession in Paris on April 30, 1803.
Jefferson submitted the treaty to the senate for approval. The Federalists violently opposed the treaty on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Jefferson more than likely agreed but said nothing. The treaty was ratified on October 20, 1803.
The President had already decided to explore the lands west of the Mississippi—the territory of the purchase—and beyond it to the “Western Ocean.” His interest reflected his concern for the future of the nation and his insatiable inquiring scientific mind. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Corps of Discovery, was Jefferson’s logical first step in the Louisiana process.
Jefferson’s instructions to William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, the expedition leaders, were clear: To explore the Missouri River and its tributaries, hoping to find a northern route to the Pacific, to gather all possible information about the Indian tribes and their relationships with each other, to establish friendly relations with the Indians and promote peace among them, and to record as much scientific data as possible.
The story of the expedition is by now familiar to most students. In 1804, the Corps traveled as far up the Missouri River as the Mandan and Hidatsa villages where they spent the winter of 1804-1805. It crossed the uncharted land between the Mandan and Hidatsa villages and the Pacific Ocean during 1805. They wintered at Fork Clatsop during the winter of 1805-1806 and returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, two years and four months after its departure. This was an unbelievable accomplishment with the loss of only one life.
Was the Lewis and Clark Expedition a success? Not until 1814 were the Corps’ findings published for the nation to study. Lewis’s death and Clark’s involvement in other matters caused the delay. The expedition clearly succeeded in establishing a solid scientific knowledge about the West, in drawing amazingly accurate maps and in its ethnographic descriptions of the many Indian tribes. By going beyond the confines of the Louisiana Purchase territory, it gave the United States a claim to the Pacific Northwest—“Oregon country.” The expedition failed, however, to create peace among those Indian tribes that traditionally had been at odds.
In the end, the Lewis and Clark expedition opened the West to American occupation and promoted the rapid westward movement of the fur trade frontier.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.