At the very beginning of the 1600’s, explorers from England (Gosnold), Holland (Hudson and Block) and France (Champlain) nosed around Cape Cod and other places on the east coast of North America. Within a very short time, New England, New Netherland and New France were founded along with the English colony in Virginia; New Sweden followed soon. Unlike the early Spanish conquests and settlements in the Americas which were under the aegis of the King of Spain and legitimized by a papal bull, these new settlements were undertaken by private companies – the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Dutch West India Company, the Compagnie des Cent-Associės de la Nouvelle France, the Virginia Company, the South Sweden Company.
New Sweden was short lived and was taken over by New Netherland; New Netherland in turn was taken over by the Duke of York for the English crown.
In terms of sheer area, New France was the most impressive. To get an idea of its range, consider taking a motor trip through the U.S.A. going from French named city to French named city, a veritable Tour de France:
Presque Isle ME -> Montpelier VT -> Lake Placid NY -> Duquesne PA -> Vincennes IN -> Terre Haute IN -> Louisville KY -> Mobile AL -> New Orleans LA -> Petite Roche (now Little Rock) AR -> Laramie WY -> Coeur d’Alène ID -> Pierre SD -> St Paul MN -> Des Moines IA -> Joliet IL -> Detroit MI
That covers most of the U.S. and you have to add in Canada. It is interesting to note that even after the English takeover of New Netherland (NY, NJ, PA, DE) in 1664, the English territories on the North American mainland still basically came down to the original 13 colonies of the U.S..
The first question is how did the area known as the Louisiana Territory get carved out of New France? Mystère.
To look into this mystery, one must go back to the French and Indian War which in Europe is known as the Seven Years War. This war, which started in 1756, was a true world war in the modern sense of the term with fronts on five continents and with many countries involved. This was the war in which Washington and other Americans learned from the French and their Indian allies how to fight against the British army – avoid open field battles above all. This was the war which left England positioned to take control of India, this was the war that ended New France in North America: with the Treaty of Paris of 1763, all that was left to France in the new world was Haiti and two islands in the Caribbean (Guadeloupe and Martinique) and a pair of islands off the Grand Banks (St. Pierre and Miquelon). The English took control of Canada and all of New France east of the Mississippi. Wait a second – what happened to New France west of the Mississippi? Here the French resorted to a device they would use again to determine the fate of this territory – the secret treaty.
In 1762, realizing all was lost in North America but still in control of the western part of New France, the French king, Louis XV (as in the furniture), transferred sovereignty over the Louisiana Territory to Spain in a secret pact, the Treaty of Fontainebleau. (For a map, click HERE) The British were not informed of this arrangement when signing the Treaty of Paris in 1763, apparently believing that the area would remain under French control. On the other hand, in this 1763 treaty, the Spanish ceded the Florida Territory to the British. This was imperial real estate wheeling-and-dealing at an unparalleled scale; but to the Europeans the key element of this war was the Austrian attempt to recover Silesia from the Prussians (it failed); today Silesia is part of Poland.
How did the Louisiana Territory get from being part of Spain to being part of the U.S.? Again mystère.
The Spanish period in the Louisiana Territory was marked by struggles over Native American slavery and African slavery. With the Treaty of Paris of 1783 which ended the American War of Independence, the Florida Territory which included the southern ends of Alabama and Mississippi was returned to Spain by the British. For relations between the U.S. and Spain, the important issue became free navigation on the Mississippi River. Claims and counterclaims were made for decades. Eventually the Americans secured the right of navigation down the Mississippi. So goods could be freely shipped on the Father of Waters on barges and river boats and the cargo could still pass through New Orleans before being moved to ships for transport to further locations. This arrangement was formalized by a treaty in 1795, know as Pinckney’s Treaty but one honored by the Spanish governor often in the breach.
The plot thickened in 1800 when France and Spain signed another secret treaty, the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso. This transferred control of the Louisiana Territory back to the French, i.e. to Napolėon.
Switching to the historical present for a paragraph, Napolėon’s goal is to re-establish New France in New Orleans and the rest of the Louisiana Territory. This ambition so frightens President Thomas Jefferson that, in a letter to Robert Livingston the ambassador to France, he expresses the fear that the U.S. will have to seek British protection if Napoleon does in fact take over New Orleans:
    “The day that France takes possession of New Orleans…we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.”
This from the author of the Declaration of Independence!! So he instructs Livingston to try to purchase New Orleans and the surrounding area. This letter is dated April 18, 1802. Soon he sends James Monroe, a former ambassador to France who has just finished his term as Governor of Virginia, to work with Livingston on the negotiations.
The staging area for Napoleon’s scheme was to be Haiti. However, Haiti was the scene of a successful rebellion in the 1790’s against French rule led by Toussaint Louverture leading to the abolition of slavery in Haiti and the entire island of Hispaniola by 1801. Napoleon’s response was to send a force of 31,000 men to retake control. At first, this army managed to defeat the rebels under Louverture, to take him prisoner, and to re-establish slavery. Soon, however, the army was out-maneuvered by the skillful military tactics of the Haitians and it was decimated by yellow fever; finally, at the Battle of Vertières in 1803, the French force was defeated by an army under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Louverture’s principal lieutenant.
With the defeat of the French in Haiti at the hands of an army of people of color, the negotiations in Paris over transportation in New Orleans turned suddenly into a deal for the whole of the Louisiana Territory – for $15 million. The Americans moved swiftly, possibly illegally and unconstitutionally, secured additional funding from the Barings Bank in London and overcame loud protests at home. The Louisiana Territory was formally ceded to the U.S. on Dec. 20, 1803.
Some numbers: the price of the Louisiana Purchase comes to less than 3 cents an acre; adjusted for inflation, this is $58 an acre today – a good investment indeed made by a man, Thomas Jefferson, whose own finances were always in disarray.
There is something here that is reminiscent of the novel Catch 22 and the machinations of the character Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight in the movie) : Barings Bank profited from this large transaction by providing funds for the Napoleonic regime at a point in time when England was once more at war with France! What makes the Barings Bank stunt more egregious is that Napolėon was planning to use the money for an invasion of England (which never did take place). But, war or no war, money was being made.
The story doesn’t quite end there. The British were not happy with these secret treaties and the American purchase of the Louisiana Territory, but they were too occupied by the Napoleonic Wars to act. However, their hand was forced with the outbreak of the War of 1812. At their most ambitious, the British war aims were to restore the part of New France in the U.S. that is east of the Mississippi to Canada and to gain control of the Louisiana Territory to the west of the Mississippi. To gain control of the area in question east of the Mississippi, forces from Canada joined with Tecumseh and other Native Americans; this strategy failed. With Napolėon’s exile to Elba, a British force was sent to attack New Orleans in December 1814 and to gain control of the Louisiana Territory. This led to the famous Battle of New Orleans, to the victory which made Andrew Jackson a national figure, and to that popular song by Johnnie Horton. So this strategy failed too. It is only at this point that American sovereignty over the Louisiana Territory became unquestioned. It can be pointed out that the Treaty of Ghent to end this war had been signed before the battle; however, it was not ratified by the Senate until a full month after the battle and who knows what a vengeful and batty George III might not have done had the battle gone in his favor. It can be said that it was only with the conclusion of this war that the very existence of the U.S. and its sovereignty over vast territories were no longer threatened by European powers. The Monroe Doctrine soon followed.
The Haitians emerge as the heroes of this story. Their skill and valor forced the French to offer the entire Louisiana Territory to the Americans at a bargain price and theirs was the second nation in the Americas to declare its independence from its European overlords – January 1, 1804. However, when Haiti declared its independence, Jefferson and the Congress refused to recognize their fellow republic and imposed a trade embargo, because they feared the Haitian example could lead to a slave revolt here. Since then, French and American interference in the nation’s political life have occurred repeatedly, rarely with benign intentions. And the treatment of Haitian immigrants in the U.S. today hardly reflects any debt of gratitude this nation might have.
The Haitian struggle against the French is the stuff of a Hollywood movie, what with heroic figures like Louverture, Dessalines and others, political intrigues, guerrilla campaigns, open-field battles, defeats and victories, and finally a new nation. Hollywood has never taken this on (although Danny Glover appears to be working on a project), but in the last decade there have been a French TV mini-series (since repackaged as a feature film) and other TV shows about this period in Haitian history.
The Barens Bank continued its financially successful ways. At one point, the Duc de Richelieu called it “the sixth great European power”; at another point, it actually helped the Americans carry out deals in Europe during the War of 1812, again proving that banks can be above laws and scruples. However, its comeuppance finally came in 1995. It was then the oldest investment bank in the City of London and banker to the Queen, but the wildly speculative trades of a star trader in the Singapore office forced the bank to fail; it was sold off to the Dutch bank ING for £1. The villain in the piece, Nick Leeson, was played by Ewan McGregor in the movie Rogue Trader.
In the end, Napoleon overplayed his hand in dealing with Spain. In 1808, he forced the abdication of the Spanish king Carlos IV and installed his own brother as “King of Spain and the Indies” in Madrid. This led to a long guerrilla war in Spain which relentlessly wore down the troops of the Grande Armėe and which historians consider to have been the beginning of the end for the Little Corporal.

One thought on “Louisiana

  1. Here is a different, fantastic possibility. As they neared Cape Cod, the Pilgrims encountered the mother of all storms. First it drove them north, but then the winds came around and drove them to the southwest. Even the hardened old salt, Stephen Hopkins, who had regaled Shakespeare with tales of a tempest and shipwreck of his in the Bermudas, declared that even he had never seen this storm’s equal. When it was over, the Pilgrims spotted land and came ashore on the tip of southern New Jersey. Exploring to the north, they discovered a wide river and a superior harbor, and they called this place New Boston. Later a similar Dutch mission was caught by the tail of a massive storm which propelled them northward toward the end of the known world. All seemed lost until they found shelter in a curving wide open bay whose waters teemed with cod fish and alewives. Subsequent exploration revealed a superior harbor to the north, and the Dutch sought shelter there in a place they called New Amsterdam. This spit of land was transformed by the industry of these settlers who partially filled the marshy areas called the back bay and the south end. They used refuse and dirt and stones from their commerce to fill these areas in part, but instead of roads and streets, they built a system of canals and bridges that equalled those they left behind in Holland and that rivaled those of Venice. The Dutch medieval system of land ownership and indentured servitude fostered a revolt that led to a war of independence and the founding of a new republic whose capital was called New Amsterdam.

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