The Louisiana Purchase – 1803

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“The day may come when the cession of Louisiana to the United States shall render the Americans too powerful for the continent of Europe.

“Let the Louisianans know that we separate ourselves from them with regret; that we stipulate in their favor everything that they can desire, and let them, hereafter, happy in their independence, recollect that they have been Frenchmen, and that France, in ceding them, has secured for them advantages which they could not have obtained from a European power, however paternal it might have been. Let them retain for us sentiments of affection; and may their common origin, descent, language, and customs, perpetuate the friendship.” — Napoleon I, 1803

The Louisiana Purchase
Louisiana Purchase Map. (Used with permission from the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, State of Louisiana Bicentennial brochure.)

Fearing Napoleonic France’s control of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and with a desire to preserve and expand the agricultural character of the United States, President Thomas Jefferson sent James Monroe and Robert Livingston to France in early 1803 to negotiate for the purchase of New Orleans and as much land east of the Mississippi River as possible. On April 29, 1803, Napoleon unexpectedly agreed to sell the entire Louisiana Territory for only $15 million dollars, which doubled the size of the United States. The U.S. Senate approved the purchase on October 20, 1803. President Jefferson instructed William C. C. Claiborne and General James Wilkerson to take possession of the territory.

The transfer took place on December 20, 1803. The Louisiana Territory proved to be one of the richest regions in the world because of its natural resources, timber, vast agricultural and ranching lands, and fertile soil.

General Horatio Gates told President Jefferson on July 18, 1803, “Let the land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a song.”
Many historians believe that, with the exception of the Declaration of Independence, no other document has had a greater impact on American society than the Louisiana Purchase.

The purchase meant that the lower Mississippi Valley and the German Coast would be dramatically affected. The more democratic form of government would require unwanted change for many. Since 1793, thousands of black and white refugees had come to Louisiana from St. Domingue (Haiti), settling in New Orleans and along the German Coast. This assimilation helped to enhance the unique culture. Many German Coast settlers feared the U.S. government, wanted France to remain in control, and did not want unknown changes to disturb the established way of life, which they had struggled to achieve and maintain. There were religious and social differences. Private schools protected the French language and the Catholic religion.

However, when some wanted immediate statehood President Jefferson informed Congress that the people of Louisiana were “as incapable of self-government as children.” Jefferson’s statement was probably based on a letter received from William C. C. Clairborne, new governor of Orleans Territory which read—”I fear that if education be left entirely to the patronage of the inhabitants, it will continue to be neglected; for they are not sufficiently informed to appreciate its value.” A majority of Congress declared that a people who had long been accustomed to the rule of Spain must serve an apprenticeship before they could be regarded as ready to adopt the government of the United States. The Territory of Orleans and the German Coast remained a territory for nine years after the purchase. Residents of the German Coast would play a major role in Louisiana’s quest for statehood.

The following toast was offered by the St. Charles Historical Foundation at an “Evening with the Notables” gala, the opening event of the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Celebration held at Destrehan Plantation on January 18, 2003: “To our ancestors who settled this great land of Louisiana and to those brought in bondage for their perseverance, courage and ingenuity in carving out our unique cultural heritage within this great Louisiana Territory, embodying the spirit of all who came to this United States of America.”

“The Cote des Allemands was pictured at the time of the Louisiana Purchase as the best cultivated part of Louisiana….The French colonial prefect, Laussat, made the suggestion to increase the population of Louisiana primarily by bringing in Germans….He supported this recommendation in the following words: ‘This class of peasants, especially of this nationality (German), is just the kind we need and the only one which has always done well in this area, which is called the German Coast. It is the most industrious, the most populous, the most prosperous, the most upright, the most valuable population segment of this colony. I deem it essential that the French government adopt the policy of bringing to this area every year 1000 to 1200 families from the border states of Switzerland, the Rhine and Bavaria; the emigrants from our southern provinces are worth nothing here.'”
— Helmut Blume, The German Coast During the Colonial Era (1722–1803)

For as far back as these early residents could remember, they and their ancestors had been ruled by kings, princes and warlords… From the beginnings of their history, the residents…were subjects, not citizens. And subjects, as we know, do not make the laws under which they live; subjects follow them. Subjects do not choose their rulers; subjects obey them. Before 1807, the King’s word was law and those men that the King appointed, enforced his law. The people were told that the King ruled over them because it was the Will of God … The King and the Catholic Church appointed all local officials in Louisiana … But in March 1807, a radically different system of government was about to take shape and dramatically change the lives of everyone living here.
Extracted from “Letter from Norman Marmillion”, News Examiner, April 5, 2007

Jefferson Document
President Thomas Jefferson signed what is now referred to as the Jefferson Document appointing four men to the legislative council. One of the four was Jean-Nöel Destrehan of the German Coast. These men were carefully selected and charged with the task of planning the new provisional government. The original Jefferson Document can be viewed at Destrehan Plantation on River Road.

Jean-Nöel Destrehan
Jean-Nöel Destrehan. (Photo courtesy of Destrehan Plantation)

President Thomas Jefferson signed what is now referred to as the Jefferson Document appointing four men to the legislative council. One of the four was Jean-Nöel Destrehan of the German Coast. These men were carefully selected and charged with the task of planning the new provisional government. The original Jefferson Document can be viewed at Destrehan Plantation on River Road.

This text is copyright © material by Marilyn Richoux, Joan Becnel and Suzanne Friloux, from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana: A Pictorial History, 2010.

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