In 1803, the United States government purchased over 800,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River from France in what would become the largest land acquisition in American history, also known as the Louisiana Purchase. Named “Louisiana” after the French “sun king,” Louis XIV, the territory comprised most of the present-day western United States, including Arkansas. The Louisiana Purchase allowed the U.S. government to open up lands in the west for settlement, secured its borders against foreign threat, and gave the right to deposit goods duty-free at port cities (mainly New Orleans). In Arkansas, the Louisiana Purchase signaled an end to French and Spanish dominance as Americans filtered into the area.
Between 1686 and the 1790s, the French and Spanish colonized and governed the lower Mississippi River Valley (including present-day Arkansas). By the late eighteenth century, it was apparent to both that the Americans wanted to cross into their territory to obtain navigation rights on the Mississippi River, to trade in the port city of New Orleans, and to cultivate the economic, political, and social possibilities in the Louisiana colony. Ever since the French defeat during the French-Indian War in 1763, the Spanish had controlled Louisiana, but after feeling threatened by the growing power of the United States in North America, the Spanish returned Louisiana back to the French with the “secret” Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800.
Learning of the treaty, President Thomas Jefferson felt a threat toward American interests and security east of the Mississippi River by the French. Jefferson sent his ambassadors, Robert Livingston and James Monroe, to purchase New Orleans and parts of the “Floridas” for the United States in 1802. While in France, the negotiations between Livingston and Monroe appeared to fail until the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, shocked his guests by offering the U.S. government the entire Louisiana colony or nothing. Although Monroe and Livingston were not given the authority to purchase the entire colony, they agreed to the sale. In exchange for $15 million, President Jefferson was able to annex Louisiana as a territory to the U.S. This land acquisition made the U.S. the largest republic in the world. However, Jefferson worried about this large land acquisition, since he was not clearly given the authority to act on his own accord in the U.S. Constitution. Despite fears that the land deal would be rejected by Congress, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in the fall of 1803.
As a result of the Louisiana Purchase, Arkansas became part of the District of Louisiana and the Territory of Orleans, with territorial status given to its white citizens. Europeans living in Arkansas had to acclimate themselves to the American systems of law, politics, and culture when they took hold of the area in 1804. The French habitants of Louisiana either stayed and accepted these new ways of life or moved to other areas of the former colony; by the 1830s, for example, the only French influence at Arkansas Post (Arkansas County) was its architecture—the families were gone. The American legal system, based on English Common law, was enforced; legal rights were denied to persons of mixed races (of which there were many); slavery, which had existed in French and Spanish Arkansas, was expanded into areas conducive to farming cash crops over time, and rules guiding slave behavior were tightened under Americans; exploration of Arkansas began in order to make way for new settlements; and the U.S. Army established itself in western Arkansas at Fort Smith (Sebastian County) to protect Americans from perceived American Indian threats as tribal members faced the impending removal from their traditional homelands in Arkansas. Resistance by French, Spanish, and American Indians was almost non-existent, as families either embraced the new system voluntarily or were forcefully moved through treaties to other parts of Arkansas or further westward. In short, the Louisiana Purchase signaled the end of European rule in the west and the Americanization of Arkansas.
For additional information:
Arnold. Morris. Colonial Arkansas, 1686–1804: A Social and Cultural History. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
———. Rumble of a Distant Drum: The Quapaw and Old World Newcomers, 1673–1804.Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Baker, William D. “The Louisiana Purchase National Historic Landmark.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. 1993. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Bolton, S. Charles. Remote and Restless: Arkansas, 1800–1860. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
———.Territorial Ambition: Land and Society in Arkansas, 1800–1840. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
Cerami, Charles. Jefferson’s Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Men Behind the Louisiana Purchase. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2003.
Ellis, Joseph. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Fleming, Thomas. The Louisiana Purchase. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.
“The Louisiana Purchase: Empires, Nations, Communities.” Special issue. Arkansas Historical Quarterly 62 (Winter 2003).
Lea Flowers Baker
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Last Updated: 03/19/2019