Have you ever explored a new place, and felt a rush of excitement and wonder as you let the adventure unfold? You may have wanted to dig deep and get to know the history, natural treasures, and people of that strange and exciting new place. If this connects with you, I think you’ll find the story of the Louisiana Purchase very interesting. Surprisingly enough, this story begins with France.
France’s Sneaky Deal
The year was 1803. At the end of the French and Indian war (so called because the French teamed up with Native Americans to fight against the British), France secretly gave Spain a territory. Stretching from the west banks of the Mississippi River to the Rockies, the Louisiana Territory was enormous! Well, something the Spanish didn’t know was that Napoleon Bonaparte would soon take over France. Napoleon was a cunning statesman. He was so crafty that he swayed Spain to give that land back to France in exchange for Tuscany (a region in Europe).
This transfer was kept secret from the Americans. Napoleon kept the deal hush-hush because he hoped to expand his French empire to North America! As we now know, Napoleon’s aspirations to settle America never happened. The reason for this could be because war was brewing in Europe between England and France.
Napoleon was soon in need of money for weapons. Apparently, he figured that if he sold something, he could afford what he needed. What did he have to sell? He had the Louisiana Territory—craftily bartered back from Spain and available to sell to America!
A Plan is Hatched and a Deal is Made
Now, at this time in history, Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States. He wanted access to New Orleans for trade purposes. Jefferson sent delegates to France to negotiate access to New Orleans. When the American delegates got to France, they were shocked to be offered much more! They were offered 827,987 square miles from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains—as far north as Canada and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico! The price? Fifteen million Dollars. That may sound like a lot, but when you divide it by the number of acres in the Louisiana Territory, the price was slightly less than 3¢ per acre. What a bargain! Now, Thomas Jefferson didn’t have the authority to buy the land, but he “tweaked” the Constitution to make it work. (He later admitted that he overstepped his position.)
At the time of the transaction, neither the French nor the Americans seemed to realize the worth of this land. With loosely defined boundaries, nobody knew exactly how big it was. So, Jefferson sent a team out to explore the Louisiana “Purchase” (as it was now called) and beyond.
The Expedition of Lewis and Clark
Thomas Jefferson recruited Meriwether Lewis, an Army captain, to survey the new territory. Together they chose William Clark as second in command, but Lewis privately promoted Clark to co-leader. They picked 43 recruits to join them.
The men planned to follow the Missouri River and the Columbia River past it to reach the Pacific. In between the rivers, they planned to climb the rugged Rockies by way of well-established Native American trails. The round-trip journey of 8,000 miles started in St. Louis, Missouri, on May 14, 1804.
Lewis and Clark could not believe all the wildlife they saw—especially the buffalo (which roamed in herds of 3,000+) and dangerous grizzly bears. By the time the expedition was over, the traveling team described in their journals seeing 122 or more different species of animals and all sorts of plants. They fought gnats and mosquitoes, which plagued the men to near madness. They also dealt with prickly pear cacti that tore their feet. Even though the cost was high, their findings greatly helped those studying north American wildlife in the future.
A Helpful Guide: Sacagawea
In the area now known as North Dakota, the expedition met some friendly Mandan Indians. Lewis and Clark built a fort near their village and stayed the winter. While there, they met a French-Canadian trader named Toussaint Charbonneau (TOO sawn SHAR buh new). You may never have heard of Toussaint Charbonneau, but you may have heard of his wife Sacagawea (Sack uh juh WEE uh). She was a teenage Shoshone Indian (Shoh SHOH nee). Sacagawea became a valuable translator and guide. Traveling with her infant son, Jean Baptiste, Sacagawea helped lessen the fears that Native Americans had of the newcomers. (Having no previous contact with Europeans, most Native Americans considered them smelly and unusually hairy!) Toussaint traveled with the expedition too, serving as a guide.
The expedition traveled by keelboat until the Missouri River narrowed. The team scaled down to canoes and sent the boat back to St. Louis to report. Deep into the Rocky Mountains, those who kept going west met up with Shoshone Indians. The tribal chief was Sacagawea’s brother—whom she had not seen since she had been kidnapped by the Mandan years ago! Theirs was a tearful reunion. The Shoshone helped Lewis and Clark navigate through the mountains using horses, as it was quite steep. After a month of hiking, the expedition reached the Snake River, which led them to the Columbia. Using canoes, they reached the Pacific Ocean before winter set in. They finally made it to the end of the territory. Lewis and Clark built Fort Clatsop on the coast and spent the winter there. By March 1806, it was time to turn around and head home.
So, that’s the short story of how the Louisiana Territory became the Louisiana Purchase—and the brave men and women who traversed it. For a longer version of this story, which includes the adventures of Zebulon Pike, see The Mystery of History Volume IV (Lesson 14).
Activities for All Ages
All Student: IMAX. All ages can enjoy a movie! If there is an IMAX theater near you, see if you can catch a showing of Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West.
Younger Students—Sketch Diary. Lewis and Clark saw many new and interesting creatures on their journey across the Louisiana Purchase. Create a miniature diary with sketches following the directions below.
- Fold a piece of paper (8½ by 11 inches) in half lengthwise.
- Fold it again in two places to make a “Z”.
- Open your paper to reveal six boxes on one side and six on the other.
- Label it ‘sketch diary’.
- With the help of your teacher, fill in the boxes with creatures that Lewis and Clark might have seen and label them accordingly.
Middle Students—Journal Your Surroundings. In a blank journal, record or sketch the insects, plants, and small animals that surround your area. (Take regular nature hikes to find these!) Describe these plants and creatures. Look up the Latin names for each animal in an encyclopedia or on the internet. Write them in your nature journal.
Older Students—Make a Map! Go out to a small nature trail or outdoor, forested area and challenge your students to explore and note the important landmarks. (Make sure it is a small, easy-to-navigate area) Then have them create a map with landmarks to navigate a small part of the park. They can also include common animals and plants in their map, and make sure to note which ones are to be avoided! Now pick a volunteer to use the map(s) to navigate the area. Make sure to give them a walkie-talkie and leave one with the main group. Communicate the pros and cons of your map, and then refine it to be more accurate. Have fun and be safe!