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How did a shipwreck double the size of the United States?

Fisherman Jerry Murphy and his crew snagged something unexpected while trawling
the Gulf of Mexico one afternoon in 1993. At first glance, the fishing net appea
red weighted down with rock and debris. Upon closer inspection, some of those ro
cks were actually piles of silver coins, which had fused together while underwat
er. Realizing that he may have stumbled onto a deep sea treasure trove, Murphy d
ialed up his lawyer to attain rights to the booty, then contacted maritime histo
ry experts to determine the source of the coins [source: McConnaughey]. A year l
ater, researchers concluded that Murphy's discovery -- which occurred, ironicall
y, in a boat named Mistake -- was the ruins of a warship called El Cazador, or "
The Hunter," that disappeared at sea in 1784.
El Cazador set out from Veracruz, Mexico, loaded down with 19 tons (17 metric to
ns) of newly issued silver reales, or Spanish currency. King Carlos II of Spain
ordered the money to be transported from the mint in Mexico to New Orleans, the
capital of Spain's Louisiana colony. The king needed to pay his soldiers and gov
ernment officials in charge of the city, but the paper money circul ating in New
Orleans had lost much of its value.
Not surprisingly, the city that lives by the motto "laissez les bon temps rouler
" (let the good times roll) didn't always follow the letter of the law during co
lonial times. Situated in a relatively remote locale and settled by a fascinatin
g hodgepodge of immigrants from France, Spain, Africa and the West Indies, New O
rleans quickly developed its signature culture -- and a dash of Cajun corruption
. A rash of counterfeiting and a shortage of hard currency devalued the cash in
circulation, and left the Spanish government scrambling to compensate its employ
(PHOTO: LIFE Magazine. M. Moshe Malamud, Chairman of The Franklin Mint, holds a
n 8 Reales Silver coin from The Franklin Mint's collection of treasure recovered
from the sunken spanish ship 'El Cazador' in a vault at The Franklin Mint offic
es on March 9, 2007 in Hicksville, New York.)
On Jan. 11, 1784, El Cazador left Mexican shores, headed for the bayou. In June,
the ship was declared missing, lost in murky depths for nearly 210 years. The m
ore than 400,000 silver reales on board wasn't exactly pocket change for the Spa
nish government. That unlikely shipwreck gave King Carlos pause about whether th
e Louisiana Territory that Spain won from the French 20 years earlier was a wort
hwhile investment.
The Founding of New Orleans
King Carlos II of Spain was cousin to King Louis XV of France through the Bourbo
n bloodline. In 1762, Louis ceded the Louisiana Territory to Carlos with the Tre
aty of Fontainebleau. The land grant wasn't motivated by fond familial regard; L
ouis sought keep his precious Louisiana Territory out of British hands. The Fren
ch had lost the Seven Years' War to the British, and King Louis foresaw the upco
ming repercussions. The next year, Britain and France signed theTreaty of Paris
that ended the war officially and gave the English all of Louisiana east of the
Mississippi River -- except for New Orleans.
In 1682, explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle discovered the mouth of the Missis
sippi near present-day New Orleans and named the land "Louisiana" in honor of Ki
ng Louis XIV. De La Salle failed to establish a lasting settlement, but Pierre L
eMoyne Sieur d'Iberville arrived 17 years later and started Fort Maurepas about
70 miles (112 kilometers) northeast of New Orleans. Hearing the news, King Louis
XV granted permission to start a French colony, and New Orleans became the capi
tal city in 1718.
New Orleans' geography had its share of pros and cons. Hordes of mosquitoes attr
acted to the waterlogged city's climate bred disease, including yellow fever and
smallpox. Yet New Orleans was prime commercial real estate. Farmers and traders
could send their goods down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico via New
Orleans, then ship it anywhere in the world. Spain exploited its control over t
he port and levied expensive tariffs for its use. But those export profits didn'
t insulate New Orleans or the Spanish government from the loss of money that san
k with El Cazador. As more people settled in the sprawling Territory, it became
even more unwieldy -- and costly -- for Spain to manage.
Around that time, France started eyeing its former territory again. Napoleon too
k the French throne by coup in 1799, and he looked to the West to expand his emp
ire. On Oct. 1, 1800, Spain and France signed the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso
. With it, Napoleon cut a deal to give the King of Spain's son-in-law the Tuscan
throne in exchange for returning the Louisiana Territory to French control. At
the same time, trouble was brewing in French-owned Hispaniola that would indirec
tly alter the United States' fortune forever.
The Haitian Revolution and Louisiana Purchase
Napoleon dream ed of creating a Western empire centered on international trade.
The French Caribbean islands and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) c
ould farm sugar, coffee and tropical produce. With New Orleans as its trading st
ronghold in North America, Napoleon would wield economic power over the United S
tates [source: Lachance]. However, a slave uprising led by Toussaint L'Ouverture
in Saint-Domingue (the former name for Haiti) dashed those imperial plans.
The Real American Dollar
The first U.S. dollar was modeled off Spanish reales, the type of coins recovere
d in the El Cazador wreckage. Although the U.S. mint was built in 1792, the gove
rnment accepted reales as legal tender until 1857 [source: U.S. Mint].

The only successful slave revolt in history, French forces couldn't quell the Ha
itian rebellion. Napoleon dispatched 20,000 soldiers to restore peace and order,
but a combination of yellow fever and unyielding solidarity among the former sl
aves defeated the military's efforts. By late 1802, France had lost an estimated
55,000 men [source:Lachance]. Since Saint Domingue was France's most lucrative
colony in the West, Napoleon considered it a key asset for building his Caribbea
n empire [source: Rodriguez]. Cutting his losses, Napoleon abandoned the Western
strategy and decided to refill France's dwindling treasury for impending war wi
th Britain.
While Napoleon sorted out his imperial problems, another legendary leader also c
ontemplated expanding his nation's horizons. President Thomas Jefferson viewed F
rench control over the port at New Orleans as a hindrance to American settlement
in the West. Jefferson didn't want to fight with France over the territory, ins
tead seeking a diplomatic solution. He sent James Monroe as his envoy to the Fre
nch government with an offer to buy New Orleans for no more than $3 million.
Instead of haggling over the port city, Napoleon surprised Jefferson by upping t
he ante. He put up the entire Louisiana Territory for sale -- no more, no less.
The strict constructionist president was conflicted at first with the offer sinc
e the Constitution didn't include allowances for the federal government to accep
t land purchases. To get around that, he framed the deal as a treaty between the
United States and France. The strategy worked, and Jefferson bought the enormou
s swath of land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains for $15 mi
llion on April 30, 1803.
Priced at barely four cents per acres, the 828,000 square miles (2.1 million squ
are kilometers) signed over in Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase Treaty effectively
doubled the size of the country. In less than three years, Louisiana passed fro
m Spain to France to the United States. Though it took an unlikely shipwreck, wa
r and a slave uprising to get there, Jefferson sealed the largest land deal in U
.S. history with peaceful diplomacy and a signature.
• "Coin of the Month." U.S. Mint. (Feb. 18, 2009)
• Feigenbaum, Gail. "A Particular Solution to Inevitable Expansion." American Hist
ory. Vol. 38. Issue 3. August 2003.
• Lachance, Paul. "An Empire Gone Awry." Humanities. Vol. 23. Issue 6. November 20
• Lawson, Gary and Seidman, Guy. "The Constitution of Empire." Yale University Pre
ss. 2004. (Feb. 18, 2009)
• McConnaughey, Janet. "A Fishing Vessel Called Mistake Finds Sunken Spanish Treas
ure by Accident." Los Angeles Times. Feb. 13, 1994.
• McGill, Sarah Ann. "Louisiana Purchase." Great Neck Publishing. 2005.
• Rodriguez, Junius P. "The Louisiana Purchase." ABC-CLIO. 2002. (Feb. 18, 2009)
• "Sunken Spanish Brig Yields Mementos of the Past." The New York Times. Nov. 21,
1994. (Feb. 18, 2009)
• Thibodeaux, Ron. "Growing a Nation." The Times-Picayune. Dec. 22, 2002.

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