Despite a surprising victory in their War of Independence, the new United States appeared to be unlikely candidates for future continental dominance in 1783. Most of North America was still wilderness, and under claim by the major European powers of the day, Britain, France and Spain. But Europe was soon to become embroiled in – and exhausted by – the Napoleonic wars (1793–1815), and would persistently underrate the potential value of North American ‘real estate’. This was understandable; by this stage, sufficient exploration had been undertaken to dispel myths of ‘cities of gold’, and, in the colonial currency of the time, the American West offered little but the fur trade to justify the cost and aggravation of occupation. Thus, having acquired lands west of the Mississippi from Spain, Napoleon immediately sold them to the United States for a pittance (1803). Then Spain surrendered Florida rather than fight (1819), while the old colonial power, Britain, bargained harder, haggling over its Canadian borders.
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