Louisiana Purchases: The Acquisition of the Indian Estate

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
Robert Lee, University of California, Berkeley
Textbooks conventionally use maps of the Louisiana Purchase to illustrate one of history’s greatest real-estate bargains. This poster offers an alternative view. It details my effort to map the financial histories of more than 200 Indian land cessions in the region ringed by the Louisiana Purchase. The poster’s data comes from the first chapter of my dissertation on the US-Indian treaty system in the Missouri River Valley. The chapter highlights the scope and complexity of the treaty system by addressing a question that has lurked unanswered in the literature on the Indian estate for over sixty five years: How much did the Louisiana Purchase of Indian country cost? My answer hinges on a cache of accounting reports from nearly a century of Indian claims litigation. These reports contain information on actual (not promised) compensation for more than 200 Indian land cessions in the region otherwise known as the Louisiana Territory. I gathered this data and compiled it in a database, which I then digitally tied to cartographic representations of the cession areas in ArcGIS. The result is not only an answer to a question scholars have only been able to guess at, but the means to model its unfamiliar contours within the Louisiana Purchase’s recognizable frame. The poster will outline my method and display a map with an argument: the purchases by Indian treaty and treaty-like agreement it represents illustrate that the acquisition of the region better known as the Louisiana Territory was not a bargain because of how little the United States paid France for its preemption claim, but rather it was cheap because of how much federal authorities avoided paying indigenous polities for soil rights. The poster fits into my project’s larger effort to move studies of early American encounters beyond the call to “set aside the maps” by exploring the utility of drawing new ones.[1] Through a discussion of a series of cartographic representations, my poster will emphasize the methodological challenges and interpretive opportunities offered by increasingly accessible data visualization tools. My research shows that the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase was certainly not a bargain. The discussion I hope to spark at the poster session will help me grapple with how to more intelligibly characterize it as I move forward with my research.

[1] James Merrell, “The Indians’ New World: The Catawba Experience,” The William and Mary Quarterly 41, no. 4 (Oct. 1984): 538.

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