This is the first Sunday I've spent in Spain in over a month; I've been back in the U.S. for one of my twice-yearly visits, this one anchored by the annual meeting of the American Library Association (ALA) in New Orleans. As usual, the ALA convention was busy and productive, and as usual, New Orleans was fun and interesting. It was my second visit to New Orleans since I have been living in Spain, and I remembered previously stumbling onto the Spanish Plaza there, a beautiful gathering place with a typical Spanish fountain, surrounded by gorgeous tiles depicting the official seals of each of Spain's autonomous regions. The plaza was dedicated by Spain to the city of New Orleans in 1976 in recognition of their shared past and with a pledge of fraternity in the future.
This time as I wandered in the French Quarter (well, as I headed out for beignets and shopping in Jackson Square) I took more note of the ceramic tiles on many streets announcing that "When New Orleans was the Capital of the Spanish Province of Luisiana 1762-1803 This street bore the name" ... Calle Real, for example. I knew that New Orleans had been first French, then Spanish, and then French again before it came into the United States as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. What I didn't realize was just how short a period of time the second French period had been.
Thanks to a lovely reception sponsored by Oxford University Press in The Cabildo, a key site of the Louisiana State Museum, I had the opportunity to spend a Sunday evening perusing historical artifacts in various museum rooms. The Cabildo served as the town hall and its Sala Capitular was the site for the formalization of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. I was struck by historical descriptions that said that in this room the colony was transferred from Spain to France on November 30, 1803 and then from France to the United States on December 20, 1803. Just twenty days later!
Why the hurry? Did Spain know that France was going to turn around and re-sell the territory immediately, and to the U.S.? Did France know at the time of purchase that it would divest itself of this land so soon? What had happened to cause this dual transfer? And where was I back in my U.S. history classes many years ago to miss out on what sounds now like a scandal or a coup?
Explanations within the Cabildo were nonexistent, but now I've had the time to do some research, and Wikipedia and the Cabildo websites offer more explanation. It seems that the November 1803 transfer was just a formality and that the territory had really been in French hands, though secretly, since the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso three years earlier. It's a tale of intrigue, power, and negotiation, with Napoleon, a kingship in the Italian peninsula, the fall of Haiti, and the creation of a counter-power to England.
To find out more, read Wikipedia on the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. Yale Law School's Avalon Project has Hunter Miller's Notes on the Louisiana Purchase, together with English translations of the original documents