December 20

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 20, 1803:

The French surrender Orleans to the U.S.

Without a shot fired, the French hand over New Orleans and Lower Louisiana to the United States.

In April 1803, the United States purchased from France the 828,000 square miles that had formerly been French Louisiana. The area was divided into two territories: the northern half was Louisiana Territory, the largely unsettled (though home to many Indians) frontier section that was later explored by Lewis and Clark; and the southern Orleans Territory, which was populated by Europeans.

Unlike the sprawling and largely unexplored northern territory (which eventually encompassed a dozen large states), Orleans Territory was a small, densely populated region that was like a little slice of France in the New World. With borders that roughly corresponded to the modern state of Louisiana, Orleans Territory was home to about 50,000 people, a primarily French population that had been living under the direction of a Spanish administration.

These former citizens of France knew almost nothing about American laws and institutions, and the challenging task of bringing them into the American fold fell to the newly appointed governor of the region, twenty-eight-year-old William Claiborne. Historians have found no real evidence that the French of Orleans Territory resented their transfer to American control, though one witness claimed that when the French tri-color was replaced by the Stars and Stripes in New Orleans, the citizens wept. The French did resent that their new governor was appointed rather than elected, and they bridled when the American government tried to make English the official language and discouraged the use of French.

It didn't help matters that young Claiborne knew neither French nor Spanish. Claiborne soon found himself immersed in a complex sea of ethnic tensions and political unrest that he little understood, and in January he wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the population was "uninformed, indolent, luxurious-in a word, ill-fitted to be useful citizens for a Republic." To his dismay, Claiborne found that most of his time was spent not governing, but dealing with an unrelenting procession of crises like riots, robberies, and runaway slaves.

Despite his concerns, Claiborne knew that somehow these people had to be made into American citizens, and over time he gradually made progress in bringing the citizenry into the Union. In December 1804 he was happy to report to Jefferson that "they begin to view their connexion with the United States as permanent and to experience the benefits thereof." Proof of this came eight years later, when the people of Orleans Territory drafted a constitution and successfully petitioned to become the eighteenth state in the Union. Despite Claiborne's doubts about whether the French would ever truly fit into their new nation, the approval of that petition meant that the people of Louisiana were officially Americans.

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