The Louisiana Purchase and the Changes It Wrought

22, October 2014

When I was a kid learning about the Louisiana Purchase in school, I learned the basic framework of the story—in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from France, nearly doubling the size of the United States. And, from what I learned, the Louisiana Purchase was undoubtedly a good thing: It gave the United States access to the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, granted the United States control of the Missouri, and gave Americans millions of acres of land to settle.

painting of Fox and Sauk leader KeokukFox and Sauk leader Keokuk, who advocated for  negotiations with the United States. Missouri History Museum.

However, like any historical event, not everyone gained from the Louisiana Purchase. In fact, some people lost quite a lot. Soon after the Louisiana Purchase was signed, for example, William Henry Harrison, then governor of the Indiana Territory, visited St. Louis. While he was here, he signed a treaty with representatives of the Sac and Fox people, convincing them to give up large swaths of land in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri in exchange for a small cache of goods and a yearly payment of $1,000.

When word of the treaty reached the rest of the Sac and Fox people, however, they were outraged. They argued that the land had been stolen from them, their representatives in St. Louis had no authority to make the deal, and that Harrison’s men had tricked them and had negotiated the sale illegally. Today, many scholars and historians agree with these charges. But, in 1804, the U.S. government refused to relent, arguing that the treaty was legally binding. Soon, the Sac and Fox were being forced out of their traditional lands by an influx of white settlers—setting a precedent for how native peoples in the Louisiana Territory would be treated by the American government for the next century. This sad incident also set the stage for the Black Hawk War in 1832, fought between the U.S. military and members of the Sauk and Fox tribe, led by Black Hawk, who were attempting to resettle the lands that had been stolen from them in 1804.

Native peoples weren’t the only ones to lose rights following the Louisiana Purchase. Women in St. Louis, particularly free women of color, also lost a great deal, as we can see from the story of Esther. Esther came to St. Louis as an enslaved woman around 1784. She was brought here by Jacques Clamorgan, a powerful merchant and trader. Soon, Esther began a relationship with Clamorgan, serving as an advisor when he made business decisions and acting as his confidant and mistress. By 1793, she had become such a vital part of Clamorgan’s business that he freed her. To Esther, freedom meant she could work and acquire her own wealth. But Clamorgan saw her freedom differently. To him, Esther’s freedom meant she could hold property for him in secret, so that he would never lose it in court or to pay off debts. He intended to claim any property in Esther’s name and tried to force her to sign documents against her will. By 1797, Esther caught on to his scheme and left him—taking her share of the property with her.

However, American rule changed everything. Americans had many more restrictions on the conditions that women had to meet in order to own property. Sensing an opportunity to claim Esther’s property, Clamorgan pounced. He challenged Esther’s right to own her land and forged documents in order to weaken Esther’s claims. He even threatened to take Esther’s daughter away from her by changing the dates on the papers that had transmitted Esther’s daughter to her. Esther, though, did not take this challenge lying down. She fought back, and soon found herself in court arguing for the property that was rightfully hers. When she died in 1833, much of her property was still in limbo due to the changes wrought by the Louisiana Purchase.

As you can see, Esther and the Sac and Fox people lost some of their rights after the Americans took possession of St. Louis in 1804. These stories show us that, for some people, the Louisiana Purchase was certainly not the greatest land deal in history. For them, the Louisiana Purchase caused great hardships and turmoil, stripping them of possessions and lands that they had maintained for years. To see more about these stories, and the stories of other people that the Louisiana Purchase created hardships for, visit The Louisiana Purchase: Making St. Louis, Remaking America, which opens on October 25.

—Adam Kloppe, Research and Writing Fellow