Digital History

The Jeffersonian Era

The Louisiana Purchase Previous Next
Digital History ID 2983



In 1800, Spain secretly ceded the Louisiana territory--the area stretching from Canada to the Gulf Coast and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains--to France, which closed the port of New Orleans to American farmers. Westerners, left without a port from which to export their goods, exploded with anger. Many demanded war.

The prospect of French control of the Mississippi River alarmed Jefferson. Jefferson feared the establishment of a French colonial empire in North America blocking American expansion. The president sent negotiators to France, with instructions to purchase New Orleans and as much of the Gulf Coast as they could for $2 million.

Circumstances played into American hands when France failed to suppress a slave rebellion in Haiti. One hundred thousand slaves, inspired by the French Revolution, had revolted, destroying 1,200 coffee and 200 sugar plantations. In 1800, France sent troops to crush the insurrection and re-conquer Haiti, but they met a determined resistance led by a former slave named Toussaint Louverture. Then, French forces were wiped out by mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. "Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies," Napoleon, the French leader, exclaimed. Without Haiti, Napoleon had little interest in keeping Louisiana.

France offered to sell not just New Orleans but all of Louisiana Province. The American negotiators agreed on a price of $15 million, or about 4 cents an acre. In a single stroke, Jefferson doubled the size of the country.

To gather information about the geography, natural resources, wildlife, and peoples of Louisiana, President Jefferson dispatched an expedition led by his private secretary Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, a Virginia-born military officer. For 2 years Lewis and Clark led some 30 soldiers and 10 civilians up the Missouri River as far as present-day central North Dakota and then west to the Pacific.

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