Learning About the Louisiana Purchase
Sites tied to America's greatest real estate deal
The Cabildo in the New Orleans French Quarter was Louisiana’s colonial seat of government.
Louisiana is a close to 50,000-square-mile boot-shaped tract of land on the Gulf of Mexico coast. But our state is a fraction of the original Louisiana Territory, acquired by a young and fledgling United States from France in 1803.
At the turn of the 19th century, President Thomas Jefferson saw French-held New Orleans as the stepping stone to secure American expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Controlling the port city at the mouth of the Mississippi River would give America control of the entire river, its tributaries and the land in its corridors. So Jefferson sent emissaries to France—Ambassador Robert Livingston and James Monroe, a statesman and future president—to cut a deal with Napoleon Bonaparte for New Orleans.
Livingston and Monroe received an unexpected counteroffer—Bonaparte would sell New Orleans, but only if America bought all of the Louisiana Territory. Neither the emissaries nor Bonaparte knew exactly how large Louisiana was, as it was simply a description—the Mississippi River, its western tributaries and the land in between those western rivers. Monroe and Livingston knew it would satisfy Jefferson’s westward plans, and Bonaparte’s $15 million asking price sounded fair. So the deal was struck.
It wasn’t until Jefferson’s commissioning of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition that America found out the steal of a deal it got on Louisiana. The land deal included everything between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, excluding Spanish Texas. In all, more than 800,000 square miles of land (at about 4 cents an acre) that would eventually be cut into all or part of 15 states.
- The Cabildo in New Orleans was the seat of colonial Louisiana government and where the Louisiana Purchase transfer from France to the U.S. occurred. The site on Jackson Square in the French Quarter is now a Louisiana State Museum site with exhibits on various aspects of Louisiana and New Orleans history. One of only four known death masks made of Bonaparte is permanently housed on-site. Check out The Cabildo’s tricentennial exhibition, The Baroness de Pontalba & the Rise of Jackson Square, which highlights the history and upcoming of New Orleans’ iconic urban core through the inspiring, yet twisted story of the Pontalba family.
- Daily cruises on the Steamboat Natchez give visitors an up-close look at New Orleans as America’s busiest port city. The paddlewheeler departs near Jackson Square twice daily, and riders can observe global river commerce between offerings of live jazz music and Creole cuisine.
- Capitol Park Museum in downtown Baton Rouge, another Louisiana State Museum site, features an exhibit on the Louisiana Purchase including a huge illuminated map of the territory.
- Just blocks away, visitors can learn about leaders during colonial and early statehood Louisiana in the Museum of Political History at Louisiana’s Old State Capitol.
- Natchitoches—recently named The South’s Best Small Town in Louisiana by Southern Living—is the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, predating New Orleans by a couple of years. Top activities in the quiet town on Cane River Lake are visiting Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, a reproduction of the settlement’s colonial French trading post; self-guided tours of sites associated with the Hollywood blockbuster Steel Magnolias, which was filmed in Natchitoches and written by a local; and dining, nightlife and shopping in the city’s downtown Historic Landmark District. On the latter, be sure to check out Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile on Front Street—established in 1863, it’s the oldest store in Louisiana.