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New Orleans Prepares to Celebrate 200th Anniversary of Louisiana Purchase - 2003-12-13

On Saturday, December 20, a ceremony will be held in Jackson Square in the southern U.S. city of New Orleans to commemorate the transfer of the Louisiana Territory from France to the United States in 1803 - 200 years ago.

A party atmosphere is a permanent feature of the old section of New Orleans known as the French Quarter. Today, most people associate it with jazz, rowdy bars, and Mardi Gras - the annual festival that starts the Christian Lenten season.

But this was once the site of both French and Spanish colonial communities, and it was here in an old Spanish building known as the Cabildo that the official transfer of the city and the entire Louisiana territory took place.

Steve Schulkens, spokesman for the Cabildo museum, says the historic event will be celebrated with a re-creation of what happened here back on December 20, 1803.

"What we are planning is a major, spectacular re-enactment with all of the French, Spanish, and American militiamen, with muskets and cannons, fife and drums," he explains. "This colorful re-enactment will go through all the steps that happened 200-years ago when French envoy Pierre Lausat turned over the Louisiana Purchase to America."

Descendants of the principal players in the original transfer ceremony will be on hand for the re-enactment, which will include actors signing documents in the same second-floor room in the Cabildo where the transfer took place in 1803. Outside, on Jackson Square, men dressed in the uniforms of French and American soldiers of the period will re-enact the taking down of the French flag and the running up of the American flag.

U.S. officials, along with diplomats and representatives of France, Spain, and Haiti are expected to attend the re-enactment. Mr. Schulkens says France sold the land, but Spain also had a strong presence in Louisiana at the time.

"France had ceded the Louisiana Purchase to Spain back in 1763, so for over 40 years it was under Spanish control," he points out. "It was not until November 30, 20 days before America took over the Louisiana Purchase that France took it back over for a short 20-day period.

Steve Schulkens says Haiti is linked to Louisiana because the slave revolt against French rule that occurred there had a direct impact on French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte's decision to sell the vast territory.

"Haiti, of course, played a key role in the Louisiana Purchase because it was the loss of the battle in Haiti that hastened Napoleon to sell the Louisiana Purchase, because he did not think he could now have his empire from the Caribbean to Canada," he said. "So it became fruitless to keep Louisiana, in his mind, after the defeat he suffered in Haiti."

Much of the Louisiana territory was wide open country, inhabited by scattered Indian tribes when France transferred it to the United States, but there were some places along the Mississippi River, such as New Orleans and St. Louis, that had been thriving communities for more than a century.

Steve Schulkens notes that the transfer of the land to the United States caused some concern among the French and Spanish colonists, many of whose families had been established in Louisiana more than a century before.

"They both stayed after the Americans took over, although many of them were ambivalent because they did not realize what changes would happen when this new country called the United States became the new owner," he says. "Especially people in the church, who were very wary about how the church was going to be treated under this new separation of church and state concept that they were not familiar with at all."

According to Mr. Schulkens, some of the fears were alleviated when a group of Catholic nuns wrote a letter to President Thomas Jefferson asking what would happen to their convent and lands once the transfer was complete. He wrote back to them assuring them that their land and property would continue to be in their hands.

The Louisiana Purchase was the largest land sale in history and turned out to be quite a bargain for the United States. The $15 million paid to France amounted to only pennies per hectare and more than a dozen current U.S. states were carved in whole, or in part, from the Louisiana territory.