December 20, 1803: The Day United States Bought Louisiana for a Song – for Less than 3 Cents per Acre.


By T. V. Antony Raj 


“Let the Land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a Song.” – Gen. Horatio Gates to President Thomas Jefferson, July 18, 1803

Never did the united states grab so much for so little.” – Henry Adams


French Tricolor Flag - 1803
French Tricolor Flag – 1803

US Flag of 15 stars - 1803
US Flag of 15 stars – 1803


Vente de la Louisiane” or “Sale of Louisiana” also known as “The Louisiana Purchase” considered the greatest real estate deal in history took place on December 20, 1803.


The Louisiana Purchase of 1803
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 (marked in green).


Louisiana has a long rich history. Native Americans settled there first, and then it became the mainspring of an empire, and finally it got incorporated into the United States. Various cultures: Native American, French, Spanish, the Caribbean, African, and the English influenced Louisiana, evolving it into a region of exuberant and intrinsic blend of ethnicity.

In 1528, a Spanish expedition led by Panfilo de Narváez  were the first European to visit Louisiana. They located the mouth of the Mississippi River.

When the first Europeans set foot in this region many native groups inhabited there such as: Acolapissa, Adai, Appalousa, Atakapa, Avoyel, Bayougoula, Caddo, Chawasha, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Houma, Koroa, Nakasa, Natchitoches, Natchez, Okelousa, Ouachita, Quinipissa-Mougoulacha, Taensa, Tangipahoa, Tunica, Washa, Yagenechito, Yatasi and so on.

In 1542, another Spanish expedition led by Hernando de Soto ventured into the north and west of the region where they encountered the Caddo and Tunica groups. In 1543, they followed the Mississippi River down to the Gulf of Mexico. As they drifted along the river, hostile tribes besieged them. The natives followed their boats in large canoes. Continually shooting arrows they killed 11 Spaniards and wounded many more.

Gradually, Europeans lost interest in Louisiana until the late 17th century, when sovereign, religious and commercial aims surfaced once again. The French established their first settlements, on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast, and claimed a vast region of North America. France then set out to establish a commercial empire and a nation under the French rule that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada.

In 1682, the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, or Robert Cavelier de La Salle (November 22, 1643 – March 19, 1687)named the region Louisiana to honor France’s King Louis XIV. In 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, a French military officer from Canada established the first permanent settlement, Fort Maurepas, at what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi, near Biloxi.

The French explored the Mississippi River valley and established scattered settlements in the region. By the middle of the 18th century, France controlled more of the modern United States than any other European power. The French colony of Louisiana originally claimed all the land on both sides of the Mississippi River and north to French territory in Canada.

The following present-day states were part of the then vast tract of Louisiana: Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

In 1719, two ships, the Duc du Maine and the Aurore, arrived in New Orléans, carrying the first African slaves to Louisiana. From 1718 to 1750, transportation of thousands of Africans to Louisiana from the Senegambian coast, the west African region of the interior of modern Benin, and from the coast of modern Angola took place. The  influx of slaves from Africa strongly shaped the Louisiana Creole culture.

Having suffered damaging defeats in the Seven Years’ War against the British, the French wanted to prevent losing its Louisiana territory and the city of New Orléans to them. So in 1762, King Louis XV of France ceded the French American territory west of the Mississippi River to his cousin, King Carlos II of Spain by the Treaty of Paris of 1763. However, in 1763, France transferred nearly all of its remaining North American holdings to Great Britain.


Napoleon in his study
Napoléon Bonaparte


At the end of the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte after grabbing the French throne looked westward to enlarge his empire. In 1800, the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso between Spain and France gave the son-in-law of King of Spain power over Tuscany in trade for returning the Louisiana Territory to French control.


Thomas Jefferson Painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1800
Thomas Jefferson (Painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1800).


After about two years, the United States government discovered the re-transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France. At this time, the Mississippi River had become the chief trading route for goods shipped between the states it bordered. President Thomas Jefferson sought to acquire New Orléans because of its vital geographic position at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The acquisition would ensure its right to sail its vessels down the Mississippi River through Spanish territory, and unload goods at New Orléans for shipment to the Atlantic coast and Europe.

In 1801, President Jefferson sent Robert Livingston to France to negotiate the sale of New Orléans; but Napoleon refused to sell the city.

In early 1803, the French commander Vicomte de Rochambeau lost a fierce battle in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). This battle consumed much-needed resources and it also cut off the French connection to the ports on the southern coast of North America.

Napoleon realized that France did not have a strong enough navy to maintain control of its lands far away from home separated by the Atlantic ocean. Napoleon’s sole aim was to consolidate his resources to conquer England. To raise funds for the troops and materials to wage an effective war against England, he decided to sell the French territories in North America.

Again in early 1803, President Jefferson sent James Monroe to France to negotiate the sale. However, in April 1803, just days before Monroe arrived in Paris Napoleon offered to sell to the United States not only New Orléans but all of Louisiana.

The Louisiana territory encompassed all or part of the 15 present U.S. States and two Canadian provinces. The Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, Napoleon’s minister of the treasury negotiated the terms of the Louisiana Purchase with Livingston and Monroe.

The land purchased contained all of present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska; parts of Minnesota that were west of the Mississippi River; most of North Dakota; most of South Dakota; northeastern New Mexico; northern Texas; the portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; Louisiana west of the Mississippi River, including the city of New Orléans; and small portions of land that would eventually become part of the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.


Louisiana Purchase Historical Document
Louisiana Purchase Historical Document


The United States of America purchased Louisiana for 50 million francs ($11,250,000) plus cancellation of the claims of its own citizens against France worth 18 million francs ($3,750,000), for a total sum of 15 million dollars – less than 3 cents per acre.

Upon concluding the purchase Robert Livingston, U.S. Minister to France, said of the transfer:

We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our whole lives … From this day the United States will take their place among the powers of the first rank … The instruments which we have just signed will cause no tears to be shed; they prepare ages of happiness for innumerable generations of human creatures.



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One thought on “December 20, 1803: The Day United States Bought Louisiana for a Song – for Less than 3 Cents per Acre.”

  1. Two comments: (1) Interesting that the 10-year Haitian Revolution with France and Napoleon is not mentioned in your article as a causal effect on Napoleon’s decision to sell the entire Louisiana territory to the US. This war with Haiti drained much of Napoleon’s resources needed to expand into eastern Europe. (2) The Louisiana territory never actually belonged to Napoleon and France. This land belonged to the washitaw indians


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