1803 - Louisiana Purchase

Map showing the lands annex by the United States in the cession from France in 1803.

        The conventional story of the European's westward migration across the North American continent begins in 1803 when President Thomas Jefferson arranged a treaty with Napoleon Bonaparte to annex the French territory of Louisiana.  Generations of American children have been taught in school that the United States government acquired a million square miles of unsettled land in the West in a deal known as the Louisiana Purchase.   (click here for more)


         What the government actually acquired from France amounted to a few dozen square miles of land beneath the port towns of New Orleans and St. Louis.  The new republic also obtained the right to use the rivers that flowed through the territory for navigation and commerce -- no trifling matter -- and finally, it obtained the right to engage in negotiations for land cessions with the territory's owners, the American Indians.  Although the nation's western boundary was moved on maps to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the government did not acquire title to the land itself.  Despite the loftiest claims of generations of American historians to the contrary, the U.S. Constitution, International Law, and the U.S. Supreme Court, all recognized the American Indians as the rightful owners of the million square miles of land that now fell within the nation's westernmost boundaries.  In stark contrast to our conventional narratives, title to that land remained with the Indians.

         Consequently, the Euro-American's westward-looking ambitions in the 19th Century had to overcome the obstacle of Indian land ownership.  This, too, was no trifling matter.  The citizenry's elected representatives in Congress, and a succession of presidents, would eventually overcome that obstacle through the masterful use of the government's favorite tools -- treaty and breach, and executive orders.  As seen through a lens brought to focus by the hundreds of treaties ratified during the 'removal eras' of the 19th Century -- each one subsequently violated or abrogated in whole or in part by the federal government -- the social forces that were let loose in 'the great migration' of Euro-Americans to the Pacific Ocean under the banner of Manifest Destiny begin to take on new aspects of meaning.   The lawlessness of white men in Congress and on the frontier, and the officially sanctioned genocide of Indians that ensued, raise troubling questions about the widely accepted and sanitized theories of America's westward expansion across the territory know as Louisiana.