The Louisiana Purchase
Lesson One: The Louisiana Purchase
One way to begin a lesson in nineteenth century history is to create a sense of perspective by accenting the differences between the world then and now. It is helpful to remind students of how strikingly different the world was just 200 years agono electricity, no phones, no cars, trains or planes, not even a steam ship. Travel was by horse or on foot. The telegraph was two generations away. Photography had yet to be developed. And the high tech world of computers, Internet and cell phones could not have been imagined. Life for most people was arduous, and there was little free time. No white American of the time had been overland from the Eastern states to the Pacific (although Cabeza de Vaca, a Spaniard, had done it several centuries earlier). The west was largely unknown, except to the Native Americans who made it their home. For them, the strange white people moving westward were a noveltyand also a threat and a danger.
After the War of Independence with Great Britain, the new nationthirteen states along the East coast of the Atlanticgrew and prospered rapidly. One of the most significant developments took place when Thomas Jefferson was Presidentan event described as the most important land deal in history.
When Jefferson took office as the third President, the United States was still a relatively weak country with many potential enemies. Spain, England and France still claimed huge territories in the New World and had ambitions for developing them. Jefferson was a visionary and realized that if the young nation did not grow, it might soon be hemmed in by strong European states, especially in the vast regions of the west, stretching beyond the Mississippi through the largely unexplored lands that reached to the distant Pacific.
As a result of war and treaties, the French gained many of Spains holdings in North America, including New Orleans, the thriving city at the mouth of the Mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico. Jefferson feared that Napoleon, the ambitious French ruler, desired to build a French empire in the new world.