To my best knowledge, at the point of Louisiana Purchase, the area was inhabited mostly by Native Americans. At the time there existed some legislation regarding how the settlement should look like. The latest, at the time, was the Land Act of 1804. However, it applied only to the territory to the east of the Mississippi River. I can I am wondering what were the rules applying to pioneers travelling further to the West. Did they have some support of the government, did they have to pay for the land?


I am asking about the first settlers, not necessarily the people that visited this area at the time (e.g. to explore it or hunt) but the ones that have built their houses, set up farms etc. Those who have funded this infrastructure.

The period I am interested in is after Louisiana became USA territory. Specifically, the US government take on managing them. If no one cared about what was happening there, it is a fine answer. However, I would like to see the sources stating that.

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    It's not clear that the question makes sense during the era described. A Western lifestyle requires an infrastructure that was, as best I can determine, wholly absent; and if one simply lived like the Indians, as trappers and fur traders did, one was effectually becoming one. An exception to this would of course be the immediate vicinity of New Orleans itself - but I read OP's interest as being elsewhere. Sep 13, 2019 at 16:38
  • @Pieter Geerkens I am asking about the first settlers, not necessarily the people that visited this area at the time (e.g. to explore it or hunt) but the ones that have built their houses, set up farms etc. Those who have funded this infrastructure. Sep 13, 2019 at 18:14
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    Please edit all expansions and clarifications of the question into the original question post. Questions MUST stand on their own, as comments are ephemeral and subject to arbitrary deletion at any time. Sep 13, 2019 at 18:15

1 Answer 1


The question seems to assume the existence of immigration controls, which are a fairly modern invention. The first US law restricting (voluntary) immigration in any significant way wasn't passed until 1875*. Prior to that, the general process in the Americas was to control naturalization (citizenship), but not immigration.

Of course anyone wanting to live in a territory has to make arrangements with the communities already living there to respect their settlement. While New Orleans was a proper European-settled city, immediately becoming one of the 10 largest cities in the United States upon signing of the Louisiana Purchase, the rest of the Louisiana territory was, as you say, much more sparsely inhabited.

Prior to the Purchase, the primary settlement pattern for most people in the Mississippi River Valley west of the US border was Native American nations following the old Mississippian ways of life, which involved maize agriculture supplemented with hunting.2 They were willing to accept the nominal theoretical suzerainty of colonial Euorpean powers like France or Spain, because effectively that boiled down to the colonial governor periodically giving them gifts, and a general availability of trade (particularly guns) at the cost of some small amount of meddling by his small and intermittently effective garrisons in a few scattered forts. A smart ruler could convince the Governor to meddle with his enemies, and not with his own tribe. Otherwise they mostly occupied themselves with agriculture, hunting, and warring with each other for territory, as they always had. There was perhaps a bit more of the latter than normal, due to eastern tribes getting squeezed out of the territories in the US, and being forced to move west.

Most of the people of European descent living in the territory at this time were either working for the Territorial Governor in some capacity, or trading and living with the Native nations (which implies some level of assimilation).

After the US took over, everyone knew this was going to change. While Spain and France were mostly interested in extracting money from their territory at minimum cost to themselves, the US was looking for land for their European-descended citizens to colonize and farm. Spain and France were weak and far away, while the USA was right next door, far too strong for any one native nation to fight, and getting stronger every year.

The general precedent for how to settle unsettled US territory was set down in the Northwest Ordinance, one of the last acts of the Continental Congress prior to the US Constitution's adoption. The general idea is that unorganized land gets surveyed, subdivided, and then sold to individual buyers for settlement, with certain amounts of territory set aside for administrative purposes, like government buildings and schools.

In theory the territory of native nations was supposed to be respected and left alone. In practice settlers would squat on that (relatively) free land until the natives got sick of it and tried to use force to expel them. At that point the squatters would complain to the nearest US Army fort, or failing that their territorial political leaders, until they found someone willing to defend them and their illegal settlement against the natives. Considering those territorial political leaders were elected by settlers, they didn't have much choice but to agree, no matter what the technical legalities of the situation were.

That's assuming the native nation wasn't sharp enough to see which way the wind was blowing, and negotiate themselves some territory further west that white settlers weren't currently interested in. This is how pretty much every surviving native nation in the eastern half of the continental United States managed to get themselves dumped into increasingly smaller slices of Oklahoma.

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1 - By this time, all of the Louisiana Purchase had already achieved statehood, with the exceptions of Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas.

2 - For those with access to the Great Plains, this meant seasonal horseback buffalo hunting.

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    Reminds me of an old joke: "New Orleans was of course the most populous Confederate city in 1863, but what was the second most populous?" "Answer: Wherever the Army of the Potomac had camped for the night." Sep 13, 2019 at 19:01
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    Full disclosure: Your author is a proud resident of the aforementioned dumping ground. Home to what everyone else considered the scum and refuse of North America: Indians, ex-slaves, outlaws, and cheaters, living together on its least-wanted land.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 13, 2019 at 19:32
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    LOL. As I recall, that would be somewhere near Tulsa, where Amoco Petroleum used to have it's training centre in the 1970's. A bunch of us Canucks sat in the hotel lobby in December 1978 laughing at attempts to navigate a curving uphill off-ramp in sleet - while remembering our own futile attempts to do likewise at 16. "This one's going too fast" "The guy behind him's going too slow" Sep 13, 2019 at 19:35
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    @PieterGeerkens - Yup. I live in Tulsa, which on the map above runs on the border between the Osage, Creek, and Cherokee territories. All three happened to have large oil deposits discovered in them in the early 20th Century. The Osages had cause to be particularly sore about that, as they figured they'd shrewdly picked rocky hill country no white man would ever be interested in. The oil royalty checks ended up being a decent consolation though.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 13, 2019 at 19:42
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    Upon reading the question earlier, I thought "how long before TED ans....." uh huh, there we go.
    – CGCampbell
    Sep 13, 2019 at 23:18

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