Steven Newcomb

The Louisiana Purchase and the Doctrine of Discovery

While President Barack Obama was recently hosting French President Françoise Hollande, they took a tour of Monticello, the slave plantation home of President Thomas Jefferson. After the tour, President Hollande said at one point: “And then President Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Napoleon, and today we’re not demanding anything.” (people present laughing)              

President Obama: “It was still a good deal, though.”

What was it that President Obama characterized as “a good deal”? From whose perspective was it “a good deal”? In 1803, the U.S. government purchased France’s claim to “the colony and province” called “Louisiana,” which was named after Louis XIV, King of France from 1643 to 1715. That vast area is 875,025 square miles in extent. That’s 560 million acres of Indian nations’ territories which had been claimed by France (and Spain) based on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.

France’s claimed right of discovery was premised on a simple idea: When the exploring representatives of a Christian ‘sovereign’ managed to “discover” the mouth of a river, such as the Mississippi, the family of Christian sovereigns regarded that “discovering sovereign” as having had the right to claim “dominion” over all the watersheds that drained into that particular river, all the way to its source. What President Jefferson purchased from Napoleon was France’s “discovery” claims to all the territories of Indian nations within that 875, 025 square miles.

The first French explorer to sail down the Mississippi River in 1682, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, was Rene-Robert de La Salle. In The Louisiana Purchase and Our Title West of the Rocky Mountains (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1900), Binger Hermann, then Commissioner of the U.S. Land Office, wrote: La Salle, standing with Tonty, Dautray and other companions on the banks of the most western channel of the Mississippi, about three Leagues from its mouth, on April 9, 1862, took possession of the country in the name of Louis XIV, and setting up a column, or, as Dr. Kohl insists, “a cross with arms of the King,” buried a plate, unfurled the flag of France, sung a Te Deum and naming the country “Louisiana” in a loud voice…

Hermann said that La Salle had proclaimed the extent of Louisiana to be “from the mouth of the great river St. Louis, on the eastern side, otherwise called Ohio, Alighin, Sipore, or Chiskagona,” and this was done “with the consent of the Chaonanons, Chikachas, and other people dwelling therein, with whom we have made alliance, as also along the river Colbert, or Mississippi and rivers which discharge themselves therein…”[p. 12]

The explanation continues by referring to a place “beyond the Kious or Nadonessians, and this with their consent, and with the consent of the Motanties, Illinois, Mesigameus, Natches, Koroas, which are the most considerable nations dwelling therein, with whom we have also made alliance … as far as its mouth at the sea or Gulf of Mexico.” The French invaders made their claim, said the account, “upon the assurance which we have received from all these [Indian] nations that we are the first Europeans who have descended or ascended the said river Colbert [Mississippi].” (Ibid.)

In an effort to make his actions appear legitimate, La Salle claimed that the original nations had consented to the French claiming their territories as a French possession. There is, of course, no way of verifying La Salle’s account. Nor is there a way to verify what the French had said to the Indian nations, or what those nations understood, or didn’t. I suppose we are expected to simply accept the idea that the French account is truthful. Undoubtedly, a tremendous amount of historical information, such as what the Indian nations truly thought of the invader’s claims, was never adequately or accurately recorded by the French.

We do know that in the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. M’Intosh, handed down just two decades after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase Treaty, Chief Justice Marshall, who wrote the ruling, referred to the Indian nations in that vast area as “in fact independent.” This is evidence of the original free and independent nationhood or our nations and peoples that I am in the obsessive habit of pointing out.

Returning to presidents Obama and Hollande, who could have guessed that history connected to the Doctrine of Christian Discovery would have come up in a couple of off-hand comments between the two heads of state? And  because that history did get alluded to, it is a great time for American Indian leadership to seize the opportunity to challenge on the world stage the destruction that has been visited upon our nations and peoples as a result of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee-Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has published several law review articles and has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.


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The Louisiana Purchase and the Doctrine of Discovery