Despite all the fighting in the east, it had been pretty much “All Quiet on the Minnesota Front” for forty years after the French and Indian War. Even though the land east of the Mississippi was officially American, the British continued to send fur traders into the area. They might still be doing it had it not been for a man who wasn’t even an American. Napoleon Bonaparte, widely known in English as “Boney,” would shake up nations from Russia to the American Midwest.
Napoleon came to rule France in the aftermath of the French Revolution, just about the time the United States experienced something that was almost a second revolution of its own: The Federalist party, which had ruled the country from Washington’s time until 1800, was voted out of office and replaced by a party called the Republicans (though they weren’t the same party as today’s Republicans). The first Republican President was Thomas Jefferson, and when he replaced John Adams, it was the first real transfer of power in American history.
Soon after Jefferson took office, Napoleon made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Napoleon had a history of Big Plans. One of those Big Plans brought France ownership of the Louisiana country — all the land west of the Mississippi which drained into the Mississippi river. But then came a slave revolt in the Caribbean. After that, Louisiana didn’t look so useful to France. And Napoleon always needed money. He sold Jefferson the Louisiana country.
Instantly, the United States doubled in size. Included in the Purchase was the larger part of Minnesota. Americans set out to survey the area. One survey was conducted by Lewis and Clark. Another exploration party, which moved up the Mississippi toward Minnesota, was headed by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike (1779-1813). At Prairie du Chien he put his men in two bateaux (low, shallow-bottomed boats) and sailed north. He camped at Pike Island where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet, raised the American flag (possibly the first time it was raised in Minnesota), and “bought” the land that would later house Fort Snelling. He then headed up the Mississippi seeking its headwaters. He failed to find them (it was Henry Schoolcraft who put Lake Itasca on the map a quarter of a century later), but Pike did at least take his men far enough north to make an (unsuccessful) show of force against British posts in the Brainerd area (Blegen, pp. 87-89).
The Louisiana Purchase wasn’t the only time Napoleon influenced American history. For more than a decade, the British and French fought. Napoleon wanted desperately to conquer Britain, which was bankrolling his other enemies. As long as the British Navy could control the seas, Britain was safe from invasion. But to control the seas required ships and sailors. The British recruited sailors by a system known as “impressment” — like a modern draft, but rougher: They sent out groups of men known as press gangs and grabbed sailors off the streets or off merchant ships. Including, sometimes, American ships, if they thought there were British deserters aboard. They also demanded that American ships trade through them, rather than to the continent. It made the Americans very angry. Finally they declared war on Britain.
For the British, the War of 1812 was a sideshow. The big fight was with Napoleon. They sent only a few soldiers, mostly to defend Canada, and a few ships to blockade the American ports. They still held the Americans to a draw for two years. Much of this was due to American impetuosity: The Americans kept trying to invade Canada, and kept digging themselves holes. (Zebulon Pike was killed on one of those expeditions.) One of the great battles of the war, for instance, was fought at Lundy’s Lane. Like the war as a whole, it was a bloody draw. The commander at Lundy’s Lane was Jacob Brown. It was Brown who, in 1819, issued the orders which sent Lt. Colonel Henry Leavenworth to found what became Fort Snelling (Folwell, p. 135).
Napoleon kept the British busy for all of the two terms of President Jefferson, and through the first term of his successor James Madison. But eventually the French wars ended and Napoleon went into exile:
Oh, Boney’s away from his wars and his fightings,
He is gone to a land where naught can delight him.
And there he may sit down and tell the scenes he’s seen-o,
While alone he does mourn on the isle of Saint Helena.
The British then were able to turn their full might on the U. S. In 1814, they burned Washington. But Fort McHenry, outside Baltimore, held them up (incidentally inspiring “The Star Spangled Banner”), and peace commissioners started meeting. The British could surely have won the war had they been willing to pay for it — but their economy had been strained to the breaking point by the French wars. Both sides agreed to go back to the way things were in 1812.
The War of 1812 did have one important effect: It caused the British to finally leave the northern United States. That was due in part to the fact that the Americans had beaten them in the one major battle on the Great Lakes, the Battle of Lake Erie.
Gradually, the Americans moved into the vacated territory. In Minnesota, the single most important act was probably the building of a fort near the present site of the Twin Cities. The first soldiers were sent out in 1819, under Lt. Col. Henry Leavenworth. He was replaced soon after by Col. Josiah Snelling, who decided to build the fort at a different site, at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. The fort, completed in 1824, would eventually be renamed Fort Snelling (Blegen, pp. 99-102).