The United States was finally independent! It was 1803, only 2 decades since the American Revolution had ended in 1783, and already the country had grown from the original thirteen colonies to twenty states. The newly-elected president was Thomas Jefferson, the man who had written the Declaration of Independence, in which the original thirteen colonies announced their breakaway from Britain. He presided over a hopeful, prosperous and fast-growing country that stretched from the present state of Mississippi to Maine. No one had any idea that within a few months, the United States would double in size.
Napoleon, the French dictator, had a problem. He had recently acquired a huge parcel of land from Spain, called Louisiana. But now that he had it, he found it more of a liability than an asset. How could he possibly develop and defend all that territory? Besides, he needed cash. Napoleon was about to go to war with England, and wars, of course, cost money.
Meanwhile, the U.S. was also having problems. Their cargo ships were being prevented from unloading cargo at New Orleans, a major trading center for the U.S. Jefferson authorized the U.S. ambassador to France to negotiate a treaty that would either allow the U.S. access to New Orleans, or ownership of another port on the Mississippi river. Jefferson also had another plan. He sent James Monroe to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans from France for up to $2 million. Napoleon refused, so Jefferson raised the price to $10 million. Imagine the Americans’ shock when France not only agreed to sell New Orleans, but the whole Louisiana territory, totaling 828,000 acres, for a total of only $15 million! The United States rushed to accept the deal before Napoleon could change his mind.
Even before the U.S. bought the Louisiana territory from France, Jefferson instructed his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to prepare for a trip through the American West. Back in 1793, a Scottish explorer named Alexander Mackenzie had traveled across Canada, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The last thing Jefferson wanted was for a similar British expedition to take place through the Louisiana territory. Lewis and Jefferson were similar in a lot of ways. They both shared the same interests in science, nature, and medicine. For Lewis, Jefferson’s orders were the dream of a lifetime, a chance to explore and open the wild, mysterious West to civilization for the first time.