Reliving Lewis and Clark: Louisiana Purchase Ceremony

Anthony Brandt
for National Geographic News
March 23, 2004

This article is second in a series. Author Anthony Brandt is following the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition across the North American West. Along the way, he's reporting on 200th-anniversary events at pivotal locations—and on what happened all those years ago.

The Three Flags Ceremony marking the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase—the acquisition that inspired the Lewis and Clark expedition—was held on March 14 in St. Louis, overlooking the Mississippi River under the Gateway Arch.

The heads of state of France, Spain, and the United States, the three countries involved, had been invited, but they could not attend. Instead the Spanish ambassador to the United States, Francisco Viqueira, came to represent Spain, Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador, was there for France, and United States Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson was there for the U.S. Representing American Indian tribes was Tex G. Hall (otherwise known as Red Tipped Arrow), president of the National Congress of American Indians.

It was a sad occasion in some respects. Only days before, ten terrorist bombs had exploded in Spanish commuter trains, killing more than 200 people. The crowd observed a moment of silence to commemorate the Madrid dead.

The original Three Flags Ceremony must have been a much more casual affair. We know that most of St. Louis came to watch flags raised and lowered and volleys of gunshot by U.S. soldiers, but the population of St. Louis in 1803 stood at about a thousand people, and that's fewer than attend a lot of high school football games.

Most of those 1803 inhabitants were French in origin and spoke French. The three flags were, of course, the Spanish, French, and U.S. flags. The French owned the Louisiana Territory at the time, but they had only owned it for three years. Napoleon had acquired it from the Spanish in 1800 in the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso. He exchanged the North American land for land in northern Italy—the so-called kingdom of Etruria, which was to become the realm of the Queen of Spain's nephew.

Napoleon's Right to Dispose of Italy

Napoleon had conquered Italy, and he considered it his right to dispose of it as he wished. The Spanish agreed to the deal partly because Napoleon promised never to sell the Louisiana Territory to any other nation—particularly the Americans.

The Spanish had no interest in settling the vast lands west of the Mississippi, but they wanted to keep them as a buffer zone between Spain's holdings in western North America and the United States.

At the time U.S. citizens were pouring across the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and the Illinois Territory. Some had already crossed the Mississippi River to settle.

Spain was concerned about the security of its silver mines in northern Mexico, which supplied half of Spain's total wealth in trade. They did not want Americans constantly moving west toward those mines.

Napoleon did have plans to settle the Louisiana Territory, which comprised all the lands drained by the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers—an enormous tract, as big as the United States itself at the time. He intended to revive the French overseas empire in North America, lost at the time of the French and Indian War.

Continued on Next Page >>


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