An important but little celebrated anniversary is taking place this week. On April 30, 1803 the Louisiana Territory was ceded to the United States and on May 3 the treaty was signed. In this one treaty the young United States gained more than 800,000 square miles stretching from the Mississippi river to the Rocky Mountains. This huge area eventually formed all or part of 18 states. The Library of Congress offers a variety of primary documents detailing this event.
The newly formed United States had been trying to protect the interest of the settlers in the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys. They worried that a strong France might increase its activity along the Mississippi River and even cut off access to the port of New Orleans. President Jefferson had directed his Minister to France, Robert Livingston, to negotiate with the French Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, to secure our rights and interests along the Mississippi River and the territory to the east. Jefferson had allocated up to $10 million to purchase New Orleans and all or part of Florida.
In a sudden and unexpected move France offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million. This amazing real estate deal nearly doubled the size of the United States. Perhaps Napoleon was worried about the slave uprising in Haiti or the threat of an impending war with Great Britain and probable British naval blockade. There are many books on the subject. Try Jon Kukla’s A Wilderness So Immense or Charles Cerami’s Jefferson’s Great Gamble or Fredrik Stanton’s Great Negotiations: Agreements that Changed the Modern World.
Before the treaty was even signed President Thomas Jefferson had requested and received authorization from Congress to explore the Missouri River. This expedition was to be headed by Meriwether Lewis who invited William Clark to be a co-leader. There is a fine timeline of the Corps of Discovery’s adventure presented on the Monticello website.
The Library of course also has a selection of books about this amazing and dangerous journey. There is Landon Jones’s edition of The Essential Lewis and Clark and Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage and Peter Lourie’s ‘identical’ journey In the Path of Lewis and Clark: Traveling the Missouri. Ken Burns’ film for PBS, Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, is available in the Media section.
If you want a good story about diplomacy and adventure, the true story of the Louisiana Purchase and its exploration might be what you are looking for.
– posted by Brenda, Reference Services