Louisiana Purchase Manuscript Goes on Public Display

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
April 19, 2002

The greatest land deal in history. That's the historical consensus on the Louisiana Purchase, a real estate deal in which the United States paid France $15 million for around 828,000 square miles of land.

With the stroke of a pen and a bank loan, the United States nearly doubled in size, acquiring land that stretched from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border.

The original handwritten proclamation signed by President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, that informed the American public of the landmark deal is going on public display for the first time.

The 16-page document, from the private collection of Walter Scott, Jr., of Omaha, Nebraska, contains the complete text of the treaty and the two conventions that together constitute the agreement known as the Louisiana Purchase. The Proclamation bears the original, official United States seal embellished with silk ribbons.

The document will be on display at the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha, April 20 through May 12. The exhibit coincides with the premiere of Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West, a large-format film produced by National Geographic Television and Film and distributed by Destination Cinema, Inc., at the Lozier IMAX Theatre at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.

The film, celebrating the bicentennial of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition, was brought to the IMAX screen by National Geographic supported by a grant from the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation.

It was largely the territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase that Lewis and Clark set out to explore when they began their epic Western adventure in May 1804.

Rivalries, Secret Treaties, Spies

The 1803 purchase took place in a stormy cauldron of international power plays, as England, France, and Spain vied for supremacy both in Europe and North America, in a stew rife with political rivalries, secret treaties, spies, personal ambition, and the always looming specter of war.

It changed the course of history for several nations. It cleared the way for the Lewis and Clark expedition that opened the rest of the western United States, allowed Napoleon to concentrate on his campaign in Europe, sowed the seeds of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain, and spelled the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire in North America.

"The United States was interested in acquiring New Orleans, and the Floridas, particularly western Florida, from France, in order to control the Gulf Coast and the terminus of the Mississippi. They wound up with a western empire," said Bob Moore, a historian at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri.

The deal was criticized at the time as overly costly and probably unconstitutional. The boundaries of the purchase were undefined and title to the land cloudy. Many Americans considered the purchase senseless—why pay money the nation didn't have for land characterized as a vast swampland and a howling wilderness.

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