2016 Sunset Report

OLG & DCRT Strategic Plan
2020-21 through 2024-25


Did you know?
Introduction Native Americans Colonial Louisiana The Louisiana Purchase Territory to Statehood Battle of New Orleans
Antebellum Louisiana I Antebellum Louisiana II Antebellum Louisiana III The Civil War Reconstruction I Reconstruction II

The purchase added to the United States a region very different from others on the American map. Louisiana had a more ethnically and racially diverse population than many parts of the United States, and its political and social systems were deeply rooted in the French and Spanish colonial period. Although American procedures eventually replaced many of those of the colonial era, Americans did not mold Louisiana into a state like all others. The United States government made Louisiana residents go through a trial period before admitting Louisiana as a state. However, many of Louisiana's unique aspects, rooted in the colonial period, remain intact today.

The Louisiana Purchase treaty did not define where the exact boundaries of the new territory were. The only boundaries the French recognized were those existing when Spain gave them the colony, and these were very uncertain. Louisiana was a huge land mass, and no one knew for sure just how far it reached. This opened the door for new exploration and settlement.

In order to claim its new territory with authority, the United States first had to explore and then populate it. President Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to head the first transcontinental expedition. In May 1804, once the transfer of Louisiana to the United States was official, Lewis and Clark departed from the St. Louis area with some forty enlisted soldiers. Their journey up the Missouri River, into uncharted lands, across the Great Divide, and along the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean took over a year. They returned to St. Louis in September 1806.

Meriwether Lewis
C. W. Peale

President Jefferson appointed Lewis as governor of Upper Louisiana after the success of his transcontinental expedition with William Clark.
Reproduced courtesy of Independence National Historical Park

William Clark
C. W. Peale

Clark was appointed head of Indian affairs of Upper Louisiana as a result of his exploration of the Louisiana territory with Meriwether Lewis.
Reproduced courtesy of Independence National Historic Park

The Lewis and Clark expedition was the first government-sponsored scientific enterprise in the United States. It was America's first attempt to evaluate the environment of the Great Plains, the breadth of the Rockies, and the nature and extent of the terrain west of the Continental Divide. Geographical discoveries made by Lewis and Clark and recorded in their journals vastly expanded American knowledge of the new territory and helped promote trade and settlement in the region.

Other explorers, including Zebulon Pike, William Dunbar, and George Hunter explored other important river regions in the new Louisiana territory to add to Lewis's and Clark's discoveries.

Piracy and Smuggling
Long a feature of Louisiana life, piracy, smuggling, and other illicit economic activities became even more pronounced during the territorial period and undermined United States authority in the region. In flagrant violation of United States laws, traders of all nationalities smuggled slaves and goods into Louisiana through the numerous swamps, bayous, and rivers that were too difficult to police.

Among the most infamous pirates were brothers Jean and Pierre Laffite and Renato Beluche. These men led groups of French and Spanish pirates who were given official status by the United States since they represented American interests by attacking enemy ships and capturing their goods. These pirates were known as privateers. The Laffite privateers, along with their white, free black, and runaway slave accomplices, ran goods into Louisiana, primarily through Barataria Bay below New Orleans. The Laffites also engaged in legitimate trade.

Jean Lafitte
Newell Convers Wyeth
c. 1910

This dramatic pencil drawing indicates the romantic nature of pirate legend as seen by the artist and illustrator N. C. Wyeth, father of famous American artist Andrew Wyeth.
Gift of John Morrell and Co.

Border Conflicts
Spain and the United States could not agree on Louisiana's western border with Texas, which was then still held by Mexico. Spanish officials maintained that the Texan border traditionally had extended to the Arroyo Hondo, a dry gulch west of Natchitoches. The United States, however, argued that Louisiana's border stretched at least to the Sabine River, and possibly even to the Rio Grande.

Negotiations to resolve the western border dispute broke down when Spain and the United States severed diplomatic relations in 1805. Rumors circulated that both sides were gathering troops near the contested area, and in 1806 General Wilkinson sent his forces up the Red River. However, General Wilkinson managed to avert warfare and found a solution acceptable to both sides, in part because he served both parties--the United States as commander of southwestern troops and Spain as a spy. The compromise that was reached with Spain established a "neutral strip" in the disputed area, with neither power presiding over it for over a decade. Finally, in 1819 a treaty signed by both parties placed the boundary between Texas and the United States along the Sabine River, where it remains today.

Territorial Law and Government
Closing the vast chasm that separated Anglo-American and European colonial political traditions posed the greatest challenge to Claiborne's leadership. The various European ethnic groups already in Louisiana, primarily those of French and Spanish descent (commonly known as creoles), united to resist United States imposition of Anglo-American political and cultural systems. During this time, Louisiana served as a laboratory in which United States officials experimented with various methods for establishing control of lands previously held by other nations.

Two political organizational units unique to Louisiana were implemented during this experimental period: the parish system and the police jury system. In 1807 the territorial legislature replaced the twelve counties created shortly after the Louisiana Purchase with nineteen civil parishes. They were modeled on the Catholic parishes that existed during French and Spanish rule. The parish, rather than the county, still constitutes the basic unit of local government in Louisiana.

Under the parish system, the parish judge, justices of the peace, and a group of twelve citizens carried out administrative duties on a local level. This twelve-person body came to be known as the police jury. The police jury system, modeled after the Spanish system of syndics, was roughly equivalent to most states' county court systems.

Map of Louisiana
Anthony Finley

This map shows the parishes of Louisiana.
Gift of the Friends of the Cabildo

Territorial officials had to merge English common law, familiar to most Americans, with French and Spanish civil law procedures long practiced in Louisiana. Common law placed greater reliance on the judiciary as the source of new law, whereas civil law looked to other agencies and placed more emphasis on weighing the interests of various groups than on protecting the rights of individuals. A partial remedy to the legal mayhem was the Civil Code of 1808, which drew upon French and Spanish colonial law and the Napoleonic Code. Its drafters represented both Anglo-American and European factions, and it instituted some unique aspects of Louisiana law.

In 1811 the United States Congress authorized the calling of a state convention to draw up a constitution for Louisiana. According to the 1810 census, more than 76,000 people, about half black and half white, resided in the Territory of Orleans, which constituted the present state of Louisiana, minus the parishes east of the Mississippi River. This number exceeded the minimum population of 60,000 specified for statehood. The convention of forty-three delegates, half Anglo and half of French descent, deliberated in a New Orleans coffeehouse, presided over by prominent planter and politician Julien Poydras.

Louisiana's 1812 constitution, conservative for the time, was modeled after that of Kentucky, providing for a two-house legislature, limited suffrage, and extensive executive powers. Only adult white males who paid taxes could vote, disqualifying two-thirds of the adult white male population and all nonwhites and women. Age, property, and residency requirements restricted those who could hold office.

Unlike most states, Louisiana's governor had the authority, with senate approval, to appoint all judges and local officials. This policy of a strong head of state accorded with Louisiana's French and Spanish colonial tradition of powerful governors.

William Charles Cole Claiborne
E. B. Savary
19th century

William Charles Cole Claiborne acted as first territorial governor of lower Louisiana from 1803 to 1812. A native of Virginia and friend of President Thomas Jefferson, Claiborne had previously served in Congress and as governor of the Mississippi Territory.
Loaned by the Louisiana Historical Society

On April 30, 1812, exactly nine years after the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, Congress admitted Louisiana as the eighteenth state in the Union. The convention requested that Congress add the Florida parishes to the new state, and Congress honored this request. In late June 1812, Louisianians elected William Claiborne their first state governor.