GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — Events in recent days have allowed the U.S. another opportunity to say two simple words to France.
While the two traditional allies have recently had fierce disagreements with war in Iraq, May 2 marked the 200th anniversary of the signing of one of the greatest transactions ever to occur between the two nations: the Louisiana Purchase.
The deal entailed French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's sale of more than 800,000 square miles of land for $15 million — or about four cents an acre — to the United States under President Thomas Jefferson.
The U.S. eventually divided the land into all or part of 15 states: Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, Texas, South Dakota, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Colorado, Montana and, of course, Wyoming.
Most historians agree that the Louisiana Purchase was a landmark in U.S. history because it nearly doubled the size of the country and helped it become the world power it is today.
For what was to become Wyoming, the deal included more than two-thirds of the state's land and encouraged eventual massive westward migration.
Now, 200 years later, the value of Wyoming and other states realized by the purchase that some have called "the sweetest land deal of the millennium" has proven greater than its originators could have ever dreamed.
If Napoleon — genius that he was — had known what the land would one day be worth and what riches lay underneath, would he still have made the sale?
"Especially with the minerals I doubt it," Campbell County Assessor Jerry Shatzer said.
The world was only beginning its industrial revolution and didn't have nearly as much need for mineral deposits as it does now.
And most of what has since become the breadbasket cropland of the modern central U.S. was thought to be un-farmable with the period's agricultural techniques.
Times are different in the 21st century.
The land that has become northeast Wyoming has changed from being penniless to producing many pennies — $2.1 billion worth in taxable minerals from Campbell County in 2001 alone.
"My guess is that the overall budget of the Campbell County School District might be equivalent to the budget of entire nations then," said Dr. Phil Roberts, a University of Wyoming history professor.
"How was he (Napoleon) to know what was going to be valuable?" Roberts said.
Even if the value had been realized, could France have kept the land? Not likely, according to historians.
"I think if we hadn't paid for it, we would've just taken it," Kothe said. "Napoleon was in a position where they couldn't exploit it. It was kind of get something for it or get nothing for it."
"I think it was inevitable," Roberts agreed. "There were already people moving West and squatting on those lands."
But no one really knew the true lay of the newly acquired territory, creating a need for an expedition to explore the area.
The immediate effects of the purchase on what became Wyoming were mostly insignificant, Kothe said.
"In the short term, it didn't make a lot of difference. There really aren't any significant numbers of people here until the 1870s," he said.
Fur trappers and Indians remained in the areas but most others continued west across Wyoming for gold in California or land in Oregon in the following decades.
Kothe likes to use a quote from 20th century historian Carl Frederick Karzel to describe the history of the area following Lewis and Clark: "Aside from the Lewis and Clark expedition and the writings about the mountain plainsman, the plains history following the Louisiana Purchase until 1846 are far too little known."
The first census for the state, in 1870, lists the population as 9,118, compared to 20,600 in Montana.
Wyoming was inducted into the union on July 10, 1890, as the 44th state. The population then was about 62,500, with only Nevada and Alaska showing lower numbers.
It was not until these years and the 20th century that the real ramifications of the Louisiana Purchase were easily visible in Wyoming, but visible they were and still are.
The name Jacques LaRamie should ring a bell.
Even if the French-Canadian trapper's adventures don't come to mind, his everlasting footprints should, such as in the names of various state landmarks.
The French may have sold the land 200 years ago, but its influence continues today in Wyoming.
"If it's not an Indian word, it's oftentimes a French word," Roberts said of landmarks.
According to the book "Wyoming Place Names" by Mae Urbanek, numerous geographic names have French origins.
- The French used the name "Les Trois Tetons," meaning "The Three Teats," for the mountain range near Jackson.
- The North Platte River got its name from the French word "platte," which means "broad and shallow."
- The Belle Fourche River was named prior to the 1870s for "beautiful fork."
- LaRamie, or LaRamee, was killed by Arapahoes sometime between 1818 and 1820 in the region where his name has become prevalent — Laramie.
Even the term "prairie" is a French word meaning meadow. It was used because the French did not have another word to describe the Wyoming landscape.
So again, France, thank you.
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