Canada and the Louisiana Purchase

The area covered by the Louisiana Purchase. Ever wonder about that little bit that extends into Canada? Map by William Morris

The area covered by the Louisiana Purchase. Ever wonder about that little bit that extends into Canada? Map by William Morris

Parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan have a connection to Napoleon that cannot be claimed by anywhere else in Canada: they were once under Napoleon’s rule.

A question of boundaries

In 1803, short of funds for a planned invasion of England, Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana – France’s territory in mainland North America – to the United States for $15 million. James Monroe (who appears in Napoleon in America) negotiated the purchase.

When it came time to specify the boundaries, there was a slight problem. Most of the land in question had never been explored, surveyed or mapped by a white man. Treaties transferring Louisiana from France to Spain in 1763 and back to France in 1800 had not included a specific delineation of boundaries. Perpetuating this lack of definition, the French representatives agreed to cede to the United States

the colony or province of Louisiana, with the same extent it now has in the hands of Spain, and that it had when France possessed it, and such as it should be after the treaties subsequently entered into between Spain and other states. (1)

When Napoleon was advised of the vagueness of the text, he replied “that if an obscurity did not already exist it would perhaps be good policy to put one there.” (2) He wanted a quick deal, and didn’t mind if the treaty led to conflict between the United States and its neighbours.

Everyone generally agreed that the territory was bordered on the south by the Gulf of Mexico and on the east by the Mississippi River (including New Orleans). The western border with Spain was much disputed. It was eventually fixed as the Sabine River in the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819.

As for the northern boundary with British North America, that was unclear. France had given up its claims to the area drained by Hudson Bay (Rupert’s Land, nominally owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company) in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, though the exact extent of the Hudson Bay land was not defined. When France ceded its colony of Canada to Britain in the Treaty of Paris (1763), the boundary between the Hudson Bay territory and Louisiana remained unspecified.

In October 1802, French Foreign Minister Talleyrand wrote this about the boundaries of Louisiana:

The farther north one goes, the more vague is the demarcation. Since that part of America is without European settlements and encloses only uninhabited forests or Indian tribes, the necessity of marking a line of demarcation has been less felt there. Neither has a line been drawn between Louisiana and Canada. Since both of these countries belonged to France before the treaty of 1763, there was little to be gained in separating exactly their boundaries, and that has not been done since…. (3)

The Missouri and its tributaries

Nonetheless, France believed Louisiana encompassed the watershed of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. According to François Barbé-Marbois, French negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase:

The charter given by Louis XIV to Crozat [the first owner of Louisiana] included all the countries watered by the rivers which empty directly or indirectly into the Mississippi. Within this description comes the Missouri, a river that has its sources and many of its tributary streams at a little distance from the Rocky Mountains. (4)

US President Thomas Jefferson also took this view. On July 11, 1803, he wrote to General Horatio Gates:

The territory acquired…includes all the waters of the Missouri and Mississippi…. (5)

A Cabinet decision of November 14, 1805, regarding the American stance on the western boundary of Louisiana also implied that the northern part of the territory included the tributaries of the Missouri River:

The boundary between the territories of Orleans & Louisiana on the one side & the domns. of Spain on the other shall be the river Colorado from its mouth to it’s source thence due N. the highlands inclosing the waters which run directly or indirectly into the Missouri or Misipi rivers, & along those highlands as far as they border on the Span domns. (6)

Napoleonic Alberta and Saskatchewan?

This is where Alberta and Saskatchewan come in. While most of the rivers and creeks in the southern part of these provinces flow toward Hudson Bay, some – the Milk River in Alberta and the Poplar River and Big Muddy Creek in Saskatchewan – flow south through the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. The lands drained by these tributaries could thus be regarded as having been part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Missouri Territory formerly Louisiana, published by Matthew Carey in 1814. Source: Library of Congress

Missouri Territory formerly Louisiana, published by Matthew Carey in 1814. Source: Library of Congress

This can be seen on this 1814 map, which depicts the “Missouri Territory Formerly Louisiana.” In 1812, the state of Louisiana was carved out of the Louisiana Purchase area, and the remaining lands were called the Missouri Territory. The area below the “probable north boundary of the Missouri Territory” encompasses the land around the Missouri River tributaries, including the Milk River and Big Muddy Creek (Martha’s River).

Detail of the previous map, showing the “Probable North Boundary of the Missouri Territory." Source: Library of Congress

Detail of the previous map, showing the “Probable North Boundary of the Missouri Territory”

The “probable north boundary” soon changed. In the Convention of 1818, Britain and the United States established that the 49th parallel would separate Canada and its southern neighbour from the Lake of the Woods westward to the Stony (Rocky) Mountains – something that the two sides’ negotiators had agreed on in 1807.

As for how long parts of present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan were – at least in theory – under Napoleonic rule, the answer is not long. Although France had secretly acquired Louisiana from Spain in 1800, Spain continued to administer the territory. To effect the transfer of the Louisiana Purchase to the United States, France took control of Louisiana on November 30, 1803. The French handed Louisiana over to the Americans just three weeks later, on December 20, 1803.

If you wonder what might have happened if Napoleon had tried to play a greater role in ruling parts of North America, read Napoleon in America.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon in French Canada

Were there Canadians at the Battle of Waterloo?

A tomb for Napoleon’s son in Canada

A Petition for the Emperor

Dr. Sym Goes to Heaven

Glimpses of Canada in 1817

Canada Day in 1867

  1. Louis Houck, The Boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase: A Historical Study (St. Louis, 1901), p. 5.
  2. François Barbé-Marbois, The History of Louisiana: Particularly of the Cession of that Colony to the United States of America (Philadelphia, 1830), p. 286.
  3. James Alexander Robinson, Louisiana Under the Rule of Spain, France and the United States, 1785-1807, Vol. 2 (Cleveland, 1911), p. 141.
  4. The History of Louisiana: Particularly of the Cession of that Colony to the United States of America, p. 290.
  5. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Memoirs, Correspondence, and Private Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. III (London, 1829), p. 518.
  6. Paul Leicester Ford, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. X (New York and London, 1905), p. 180.

4 commments on “Canada and the Louisiana Purchase”

  • Mark Anderson says:

    Interesting article

  • Addison Jump says:

    Thanks Shannon. Looking back today is seems rather strange that no one involved in the sale considered there were humans living on this land. They had been there making their living from it for thousands of years; if anyone had a MORAL claim to the land, they did. They were the natural owners. Nonetheless, I am glad US and UK did not go to war with one another later over that little patch that fell into Canada. Sanity for once.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I agree, Addison. Talleyrand’s comment about the territory containing “only” Native Americans was quite reflective of the prevailing attitude.

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Since that part of America is without European settlements and encloses only uninhabited forests or Indian tribes, the necessity of marking a line of demarcation has been less felt there. Neither has a line been drawn between Louisiana and Canada.

Talleyrand