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European Explorers

In the last half of the 1500s, both France and Spain were sending explorers to the New World in search for fortunes as yet undiscovered by Europeans.  By the 1600s, the center of attention was shifting from the South American continent to lands further north.  Louis XIV of France, sent Sieur de La Salle to explore lands in the New World and claim territory not yet discovered or explored by their rival Spain, who was also exploring lands further north in their search for Quivaria.

LaSalle reached the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River.  On foot, he led an expedition inland extending into portions of the lower Midwest.  Encountering only the natives, uncivilized in comparison, the commander claimed all lands drained by the Mississippi and all tributaries to be property of France.  In honor of his king, he named the land Louisiana.  The lands remained in the hands of the king until his death.

In 1762, the new king of France signed a treaty in the palace at Fontainebleau, where France ceded the lands west of the Mississippi to Spain.  The exchange was not made public prior or even for a long time after the signing.

In 1800, Napolean's power left Spain little choice but to give up the lands.  At the La Granja palace, the Treaty of San Ildofonso returned the land back to France.  This treaty likewise was not publicized.

The United States had already made plans to explore the lands beyond the Mississippi even though it was now owned by France.  Spanish forts inside the territory maintained access into the interior, still not aware Spain had given up the land.

France was contemplating war with Great Britain but now the money strapped country needed cash.  The United States was ready to go ahead with the purchase from France of the portion that makes up Louisiana today but was surprised when Napolean offered all of the land France owned in the New World for $15,000 or approximately 3 cents per acre.  They had already realized losing Louisiana meant losing control of the Mississippi and therefore access to the Missouri River.  The sale took place on July 4th, 1803.  In one purchase, the United States had doubled its size.

On the day following the purchase. the United States' most ambitious journey began.  The first obstacles were informing the Spanish forts they no longer were in control.

Find out even more?

For more information on European early explorers, check out the Native American History page on In Search of Native Wealth.