Thomas Jefferson was greatly concerned about retaining control of the Mississippi River, because, in the days before canals and railroads, rivers were the only way to ship goods from one point to the other, Further, the port city of New Orleans, was vital to the further development of the American economy.
The Mississippi River area was divided into two territories: the northern section was called the Louisiana Territory, and consisted of the largely wild frontier later explored by Lewis and Clark; the southern part, known as Orleans Territory, was a small, densely populated region that had been colonized by France. With borders that roughly corresponded to the modern state of Louisiana, Orleans Territory was home to about 50,000 people, a primarily French-speaking population that had been living under a Spanish administration. (In an 1800 treaty, Spain returned the colonial territory of Louisiana to France, but was allowed to continue to administer it.)
Haiti (Saint Dominigue, at that time,) was France’s most prosperous colony in the Americas, and one of the world’s chief coffee and sugar producers. French settlements in the 18th century were strictly hierarchical, with native-born Frenchmen at the top, followed by, Creoles, freed blacks, and black slaves. Between the blacks and the French and Creoles were the mulattoes, whose social status was indeterminate. When French-descended Creole planters sought to prevent mulatto representation in the French National Assembly and in local assemblies in Saint-Dominque, the mulattoes began a rebellion which eventually destroyed the rigid structure of Haitian society. The blacks formed guerrilla bands led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave who, because of his intelligence and military strategy, had been made an officer of the French forces.
When the English invaded Haiti in 1793 during the Napoleonic Wars, Toussaint began an uneasy alliance with the mulattos and cooperated with the remnant of French governmental authority. In 1795, Spain ceded its part of the island to France, and in 1801 Toussaint conquered it, abolished slavery, and proclaimed himself governor-general of an autonomous government over all Hispaniola. Napoleon responded with a huge punitive force in 1802, but he was unable to defeat L’Ouverture’s forces.
A peace was negotiated, and although Toussaint, taken by trickery, died in a French prison, the revolt continued and forced the French troops, outnumbered and ravaged by yellow fever, to break off and return to France.
While all this was going on, President Jefferson was negotiating to purchase the city of New Orleans from France.
Napoleon Bonaparte had been interested in Jefferson’s offer to purchase the seaport at the mouth of the Mississippi, but the loss of her most profitable colony began to convince Napoleon’s government that hanging on to Louisiana was a bad idea. For one thing, they French worried that the British, invading from Canada, could eventually seize all the territory anyway. They abandoned their plans for a French presence in America.
When France’s finance minister suggested that Napoleon should offer to sell Jefferson all the French holdings west of the Mississippi, the emperor agreed. And so Thomas Jefferson, who had been interested in buying a city, was offered the chance to buy enough land that the United States would instantly double in size.
Jefferson made all the necessary arrangements, got approval from Congress, and in 1803 the United States bought the entire Louisiana and Orleans territories. The actual transfer took place on December 20, 1803, and cost $15 million. This figures out to a tiny bit more than 2¢/acre, probably the best real estate deal in history.
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