Louisiana Territory transfer ceremony
The Louisiana Purchase map
George Caleb Bingham’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson

The Louisiana Purchase, an 1803 land deal between the United States and France, doubled the size of the United States and made the future state of Missouri a part of the American nation. The momentous acquisition, which encompassed the vast territorial expanses between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, altered the youthful republic’s future course and transformed the lives of Louisiana’s culturally diverse populace. At the time of its transfer to the United States, the Louisiana Territory was not an empty space. Indigenous people had inhabited the region from earliest times, and more recently Europeans of different nationalities with the help of the African slaves they brought with them had competed alternately with native people and among themselves for the right to control the contested territory.

In 1682 the French explorer René Robert, Sieur de La Salle, claimed the right of preemption for all lands drained by the Mississippi River and honored France’s king by christening the spacious territory Louisiana. Europeans had formulated the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal justification for asserting their right to take possession of the lands of the indigenous peoples they allegedly “discovered.” French colonizers and settlers labored to establish and maintain a presence in Louisiana until France was forced to surrender all of its North American holdings at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, which ended that conflict, Great Britain extended the bounds of its Atlantic seaboard colonies northward into Canada and westward to the Mississippi River. A year earlier, in anticipation of its pending exodus from North America, France had ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain, and for the next four decades Imperial Spain struggled to uphold its authority in the contested province. At the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 the newly independent United States secured the Mississippi River as its western boundary. There matters stood until 1800, when the Spanish government acquiesced to Napoleon Bonaparte’s demands and secretly agreed to retrocede the Louisiana Territory back to France.

Upon receipt of the unexpected news that the territory along the United States’ western border might soon be subjected to the powerful French ruler’s dictates, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Robert Livingston to France to seek guarantees that would ensure a continuation of America’s rights to navigate the Mississippi and to deposit goods at New Orleans. Jefferson even dared to suggest that if the French refused to recognize those rights, the United States might be compelled to seek an alliance with Great Britain. He understood that without access to the mouth of the Mississippi and the port of New Orleans, the rising American republic risked losing control of its holdings west of the Appalachians.

Napoleon pressed ahead with his grand scheme for resurrecting France’s colonial empire in the Americas. He dispatched a large military force to the island of St. Domingue for the purpose of subduing the rebellious slaves who had seized control there, and he simultaneously moved to regain possession of the Louisiana Territory from Spain. But his plans for returning to the Western Hemisphere went awry when his military campaign on the sugar-producing island floundered and collapsed.

With the French troops bogged down in the Caribbean, the Spaniards, who had not yet formally relinquished control in New Orleans, unexpectedly announced the closing of the port there to all foreigners. This action further roused the anxieties of America’s western frontier dwellers, who were already alarmed by the possible consequences of Louisiana’s pending retrocession to France. In a renewed effort to deal with the situation diplomatically, Jefferson dispatched James Monroe as an envoi extraordinaire to negotiate with France—and, if necessary, with Spain. He authorized Monroe to try to purchase New Orleans and West Florida for as much as $10 million.

Events soon vindicated the president’s decision to seek a diplomatic solution. On the day before Monroe joined Livingston and the American delegation in Paris, France’s foreign minister Talleyrand had inquired if the United States would be interested in purchasing all of Louisiana. The failed campaign in St. Domingue had caused Napoleon to lose interest in New World colonization and redirect his attention to more promising spheres closer to home. The need for additional funds to help finance an expected renewal of warfare with Great Britain was a key factor in the First Consul’s sudden offer to sell Louisiana, and he also anticipated that the transaction would forestall any possible Anglo-American rapprochement.

Although they had not been authorized to purchase the entire province, Monroe and Livingston did not hesitate to seal the deal. Fearful that if they failed to act quickly the offer might be withdrawn, the American ministers moved ahead without seeking further authorization from their superiors in Washington. The terms of sale outlined in the 1803 Treaty of Cession called for the United States to pay $15 million for the 828,000-square-mile territory that encompassed all or parts of fifteen future states. Approximately 811,000 square miles of the region was unceded Indian land, and as part of the agreement France transferred to the United States its assertion of the exclusive authority to obtain by conquest or purchase the titles to those lands.

At a cost of approximately four cents an acre, the Louisiana Purchase seemed a bargain that all but Jefferson’s most diehard political opponents found difficult to resist, but the relatively cheap purchase price failed to take into account the eventual costs of extinguishing Indian land titles. The sums paid for those subsequent land transfers, typically negotiated or extorted under duress, have seldom been factored into an accounting of the acquisition’s actual cost, but more importantly, their inclusion in the story affords a more accurate representation of the process by which Louisiana’s Indian lands actually became a part of the United States.

Notwithstanding challenges questioning the president’s constitutional authority to conclude any such transaction, the US Senate ratified the treaty and Congress promptly authorized Jefferson to take possession of the historic land acquisition. A ceremony marking the formal transfer of authority occurred in New Orleans on December 30, 1803, and a similar observance in Upper Louisiana took place in St. Louis on March 9–10, 1804. When the US authorities took charge in St. Louis, the culturally diverse inhabitants of Louisiana’s upper portions faced uncertain futures under the dictates of the rambunctious Americans who had already begun infiltrating into their spaces. It was little wonder that following the raising of the Stars and Stripes in St. Louis, the incoming American commandant detected tears in the eyes of the assembled natives. He surmised that they were tears of joy, not regret, but his assessment likely was more patriotic than accurate. Most Francophones would have preferred to remain under the paternalistic Spanish system with its simple government and its immunity from direct taxation, but since they were largely powerless to alter the situation, they resigned themselves to their fate under the American regime.

Meanwhile, in faraway Washington, DC, officials struggled to decide how to incorporate the strange and unfamiliar territory into the United States as they sought to formulate suitable forms of government and resolve issues related to the status of slavery, private land claims granted by foreign governments, and relations with the territory’s still formidable Native American populace and their legitimate rights to occupy the region.

While the Louisiana Purchase eventually paved the way for an unleashing of the nation’s boisterous expansionist impulses, Jefferson favored an orderly and controlled settlement process. He briefly contemplated closing Upper Louisiana’s sparsely populated lands to additional settlement by whites for the foreseeable future, but that proposal failed to find favor in any quarter apart from the indigenous populace. Given the reluctance of the territory’s French and Spanish inhabitants to embrace the unfamiliar republican institutions, any immediate attempt to impose a system of representative government seemed unwise. But when the president proposed the creation of a transitional government more in line with their experiences under the previous regimes, he opened himself to charges from his Republican colleagues of seeking to perpetuate military despotism.

Congress eventually settled on a plan that attached Upper Louisiana to the Indiana Territory and assigned its officials to administer the trans-Mississippi district. In response to rising protests against having absentee officials, Congress relented and agreed to employ the established framework for territorial governance first outlined in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The new legislation created the Territory of Louisiana separate from the previously established Territory of Orleans in Lower Louisiana. Under the auspices of the tried and tested territorial administrative system, the Territory of Louisiana, later renamed the Territory of Missouri, successfully transitioned to eventual statehood.

For their part, the pragmatic French Creoles attempted to make the best of their new situation. Actually, for all their sentimental attachments to the old order, powerful merchant families like the Vallés in Ste. Genevieve and the Chouteaus in St. Louis stood to gain much from the change in governments. Rising land prices, lucrative government-supply contracts, improved prospects for expanded fur-trading operations, and a growing local retail trade seemed likely to follow the expected American influx. Ironically, some of the strongest initial opposition to the transfer came from American farmers who had previously migrated to the Spanish province seeking to take advantage of that government’s free land policy and to avoid US taxation. Since many had never bothered to claim legally the lands they occupied, their thoughts undoubtedly turned to how they would fare under the more stringent US land laws. Disputes over land rights that pitted claimants of Spanish land concessions against squatters, speculators, and eventual purchasers from the US government were destined to bedevil American authorities for generations to come.

Upper Louisiana had a significant enslaved black population under the French and Spanish regimes. According to the Spanish census of 1800, blacks accounted for 18 percent of Upper Louisiana’s nonindigenous population. Any attempt to redefine their status promised to have profound consequences locally and nationally. Thus it came as no surprise when on the heels of the American acquisition the persistent and troublesome issue of slavery reared its ugly head. Upper Louisiana’s attachment to the Indiana Territory where slavery was banned raised fears in St. Louis that the institution there might be in jeopardy. Local slaveholders promptly petitioned incoming officials to enforce the black codes that the French and Spanish regimes had employed for controlling the slave population. Attempts to exclude the institution from the newly acquired region gained little traction, and an 1804 congressional act opening Louisiana to slavery doomed all but a handful of its black populace to enslavement and abuse for the foreseeable future. It also set the stage for the Missouri statehood controversy fifteen years later. Missouri’s application for admission to the Union as a slave state in 1818 rekindled the debate over whether slavery should be extended into new territories carved from the Louisiana Purchase, and the ensuing clash further enflamed the sectional divide that led to the Civil War.

Following the Louisiana Purchase, no one stood to lose more than the Native American inhabitants of Louisiana’s trans-Mississippi expanses. The divergent Indian nations they represented had long before established their sovereign rights in various parts of the far-ranging territory, but under the Doctrine of Discovery they were considered to have lost full ownership of their lands, retaining only the right to occupy and use them. They could, however, sell the lands to the government holding the power of preemption, and US Indian policy was designed to expedite the expropriation of the indigenous land titles under that assumed authority. As soon as the incoming American officials crossed the Mississippi, they launched a campaign to annex tribal lands for white settlement. Claiming that native people would be better off living in the manner of Euro-American–style farmers, Thomas Jefferson sought to portray dispossession as an act of kindness rather than one of cruelty or injustice. Indian removal, he contended, would give them the time they needed to make the requisite adaptation.

Faced with those realities, Upper Louisiana’s indigenous people responded to the demands of the expanding settler society in diverse ways. The more disgruntled factions staged raiding parties against unwelcome interlopers in an attempt to uphold tribal sovereignty, defend land rights, demonstrate military prowess, and drive out trespassers. Others relied on diplomatic negotiations to safeguard their interests. In those proceedings the US officials typically held the upper hand, but their Native American counterparts had cards of their own to play. This state of affairs contributed to a piecemeal takeover of Indian lands that historian Stuart Banner labeled conquest by contract. Over the course of the next century and a half, the US government expended, according to one recent study, an estimated $2.6 billion (equivalent to $418 million in 1803 dollars) to extinguish Indian land titles in the Louisiana Purchase. In its quest to diminish the ability of indigenous nations to exercise their sovereign functions, the US government resorted to policies of subjugation, dispossession, forced relocation, and cultural genocide. The new American order had no place for indigenous people in its settled areas.

The Louisiana Purchase marked the beginning of a new era for Missouri. In less than two decades, it advanced from a culturally and racially diverse frontier region outside the bounds of the United States to a rising state in the American union. Under the aegis of the United States, the territory’s population grew steadily. A brief interruption in the influx of newcomers caused by the War of 1812 soon gave way to a virtual tidal wave of new emigrants who filled the territory’s interior spaces and increased its population to the requisite numbers for statehood. Once it became a part of the United States, Missouri’s strategic location in the nation’s heartland enabled it to occupy a unique niche in the larger story of national development. It became a crossroads in the broader matrix of immigration patterns and served as gateway to the western half of the North American continent. The new American order that emerged in Missouri following the Louisiana Purchase represented a triumph for white settler society and self-governance, but its nonwhite and native populations faced far gloomier futures.

Further Reading

Foley, William E. The Genesis of Missouri: From Wilderness Outpost to Statehood. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.

Foley, William E. “The American Territorial System: Missouri’s Experience.” Missouri Historical Review 65, no. 4 (July 1971): 403–26.

Kastor, Peter J. The Nation’s Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Kukla, Jon. A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Lee, Robert. “Accounting for Conquest: The Price of the Louisiana Purchase of Indian Country.” Journal of American History 104 (March 2017): 921–42.

Miller, Robert J. Native America Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark and Manifest Destiny. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

Published September 5, 2018; Last updated March 9, 2021

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