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The Louisiana Bargain

L'Empereur Napoleon in better times

Unique Nola Tours always enjoys a nice bargain. For example, our Local’s Guide to the French Quarter always rolls with small groups along the music and history filled “Rues” of the Old Quarter.


The French Quarter was the city back in the day. In the 1790s, everything was pretty groovy in New Orleans for your New World French aristocrat. We had coffee, we had silk, we had champagne, we even had Opera. And then the worst thing in the world happened: Napoleon sells us to the Americans.


This is how it went down. President Thomas Jefferson was getting all these complaints from people out West. Out West in those days meant Ohio and Kentucky and other places along the Mississippi. And the bounty of our brand-new growing country had to ship downriver out of New Orleans. Recently, Americans had the so-called ‘Rights of Deposit’ in New Orleans until the rights got suspiciously revoked. In a way this shows the importance of the port – America had all that great land up North, but it wasn’t as valuable without possessing the way out. And didn’t the French know it.



Mikko Macchione

Tour Guide with Unique NOLA Tours and Author of books about New Orleans.

New Orleans Rum: A Decadent History

They were charging such outrageous fees for loading and unloading on the docks that the Americans weren’t making any money.

So Jefferson sends a little committee to Paris to buy what he called “The Isle of Orleans.” Bonaparte was literally in the bathtub, his daily routine for a skin disease he had, when the visiting Americans offered five million dollars for just New Orleans. This sounded intriguing, because France had land, albeit not very profitable, but they needed money for another coming war with England.

The Emperor basically tells them “Give me 15 million and I’ll give you the whole damn thing.” Now there are many common retellings of this sale but there are a couple of things people don’t remember.

First, France already owed us four million dollars from some earlier wartime debt, and to make up the rest of the 11 million the Americans went to Barings Bank in London to float the bonds for the money. Then we get the money, give it to Napoleon, who then spends it on weapons to attack England. Thus an early tale of the cycle of finance and military.

The other idea that is very popular among certain historians is how Napoleon squandered the great Midwest for just four cents an acre. How could he be so stupid?  The reality is Napoleon was like a guy selling a camera on a street. He had less than five ships in the whole of the Caribbean; whereas England had over 20. He knew he couldn’t hold on to the territory so he got what he could for it. Indeed just twelve years later, the British did land troops to take New Orleans anyway.

Louisiana used to mean everything up to Canada