Facts About the Louisiana Purchase That Might Surprise You

Photos Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images; The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images; joeygil/iStock

The Louisiana Purchase Treaty of 1803 was one of the most monumental real estate transactions in U.S. history, one that nearly doubled the size of the United States at the time. The historic deal revolved around the United States’ purchase of 828,000 square miles of territory from France — land that would go on to form either all, or at least significant parts, of 15 different states as we know them today. But how much do you really know about this turning point in U.S. history? Check out these interesting facts about the Louisiana Purchase to get a deeper look at how and why it took place. 

Louisiana Is the Namesake of a French King

Some of the first European explorers to visit Louisiana’s shores were part of an expedition led by Panfilo de Narváez, a Spanish soldier and explorer, in 1528. But, for the next century or so, European colonizers didn’t seem to have much collective interest in the land. 

The next time the area saw major historical action involving Europeans was in 1682 when explorer René-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle first claimed for France the territory that would become the Louisiana Purchase as he canoed down the Mississippi River. It was he who dubbed the territory “Louisiana” in honor of King Louis XIV, France’s ruler at the time. 

Louis XIV at the Taking of Besançon’, 1674. Meulen, Adam Frans, van der (1632-1690). Photo Courtesy: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Louisiana Had a History of Secret Exchange Agreements

By the time it officially became part of the United States, the Louisiana Territory had already changed hands several times in a series of shady treaties. In 1762, France was still reeling from a loss during the Seven Years’ War to the British. France ultimately handed over Louisiana, also called New France, to Spain in a secret agreement known as the Treaty of Fontainebleau. The country also lost most of its other U.S. holdings to Great Britain.

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In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte decided to attempt to reclaim the land for France. He negotiated a secret deal with Spain, called the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso. In exchange for the Louisiana Territory and six warships, Napoleon helped set up the Spanish king’s son in law with his own throne in Northern Italy.

It Was Initially All About New Orleans

Back in the days before air travel, trade routes were vital for economies around the world. At the dawn of the 19th century, the port of New Orleans was considered prime real estate because it was the gateway from the Mississippi to the sea.

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Engraving of New Orleans Harbor. Photo Courtesy: Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

In fact, Spain nearly incited a war with America by refusing to honor a treaty that gave Americans the right to pass through New Orleans on their trade routes. President Jefferson realized that gaining control of the port would be vital for both avoiding wars and keeping America’s trade economy secure.

Initially, he sent two envoys, James Monroe and Robert Livingston, to offer Napoleon $9.3 million for New Orleans and Florida. At the time, none of the men could have foreseen the upcoming deal that would allow them to purchase the entire Louisiana Territory. 

Napoleon Threw a Bathtub Tantrum in Response

Napoleon had initially planned to establish an empire in Louisiana fueled by coffee and sugar — commodities produced by enslaved people in French-controlled Haiti. But in 1791, a massive rebellion broke out among enslaved Haitian people and effectively put an end to Napoleon’s plans. He also found himself preoccupied with the costly wars he’d been waging across Europe for the previous decade and saw the sale of the Louisiana Territory as a way to recoup lost funds.

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When his brothers, Joseph and Lucien, discovered he was considering the idea of selling, they visited Napoleon at Tuileries Palace in an attempt to dissuade him. There they found him bathing in rose-scented water, which he proceeded to soak them with when they dared to suggest he hadn’t really thought the deal through.  

A painting of Thomas Jefferson by Alonzo Chappel. Photo Courtesy: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Jefferson Wasn’t Sure of the Deal’s Legality

To Monroe and Livingston’s surprise, Napoleon offered the U.S. the entire Louisiana Territory in exchange for $11.25 million, plus forgiveness of $3.75 million worth of French debt. It was an offer Monroe and Livingston felt they couldn’t refuse, so they decided to pursue it immediately.

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President Jefferson was unsure whether or not he actually had the authority to authorize the purchase, but, nevertheless, he ended up agreeing to it. It was later reported that he admitted to having “stretched the Constitution till it cracked” to secure the purchase.   

The U.S. Bought the Louisiana Territory Partially on Credit

While the terms of the Louisiana Purchase allowed the U.S. to buy the land for less than 3 cents an acre, $11.25 million was a huge sum of money back then. Unfortunately, Napoleon wanted payment immediately in order to prepare for more upcoming military exploits. Given that Napoleon was known for taking on a tyrannical attitude when he didn’t get what he wanted, the U.S. ended up taking out expensive loans from two European banks to fund the deal. It would take until 1823 to finish paying off the loans.  

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James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston completing negotiations with Comte Talleyrand for the Louisiana purchase. Photo Courtesy: MPI/Getty Images

Some Americans Opposed the Louisiana Purchase

Several members of the waning Federalist Party thought the Louisiana Purchase was a terrible idea. As one Federalist newspaper put it, “We are to give money of which we have too little for land of which we already have too much.” Many people felt Jefferson was risking national bankruptcy to purchase a tract of land that even Alexander Hamilton predicted wouldn’t be inhabited “for centuries to come.” 

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The Dark Side of the Louisiana Purchase 

In hindsight, the deal turned out to be helpful for the fledgling republic’s expansion. That isn’t to say, however, that it didn’t end up having devastating effects. It was ultimately a death sentence for many of the Native American tribes who had lived on the land for centuries. America’s westward expansion resulted in the forced removal and genocide of many tribes, not to mention the theft of countless acres of Indigenous land.

There was also debate over whether slavery should be allowed in the new territory. Ultimately, the state-divided arguments over the issue went a long way toward fanning the flames that would result in the American Civil War.  

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