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New Orleans in 1803

Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Louisiana | No Comments

New Orleans had been under the actual sway of the Spaniard for thirty-four years. Ten thousand inhabitants were gathered in and about its walls. Most of the whites were Creoles. Even in the province at large these were three in every four. Immigrants from Malaga, the Canaries, and Nova Scotia had passed on through the town and into the rural districts. Of the thousands of Americans, only a few scores of mercantile pioneers came as far as the town – sometimes with families, but generally without. Free trade with France had brought some French merchants, and the Reign of Terror, as we have seen, had driven here a few royalists. The town had filled and overflowed its original boundaries. From the mast-head of a ship in the harbor one looked down upon a gathering of from twelve hundred to fourteen hundred dwellings and stores, or say four thousand roofs-to such an extent did slavery multiply outhouses. They were of many kinds, covered with half-cylindrical or with flat tiles, with shingles, or with slates, and showed an endless variety in height and in bright confusion of color and form-verandas and balconies, dormer windows, lattices, and belvederes. Under the river bank, “within ten steps of Tchoupitoulas Street,” where land has since formed and been covered with brick stores for several squares, the fleets of barges and flat boats from the west moored and unloaded, or retailed their contents at the water’s edge. Farther down, immediately abreast of the town, between the upper limits and the Place d’Armes, lay the shipping twenty or more vessels of front 100 to 200 tons burden, hauled close against the bank. Still farther on, beyond the Government warehouses, was the mooringplace of the vessels of war. Looking down into the streets -Toulouse, St. Peter, Conti, St. Louis, Royale, Chartres — one caught the brisk movements of a commercial port. They were straight, and fairly spacious, for the times; but unpaved, ill-drained, filthy, poorly lighted, and often impassable for the mire.

The town was fast becoming one of the chief seaports of America. Already, in 1802, 158 American merchantmen, 104 Spanish, and 3 French, registering 31,241 tons, had sailed from her harbor, loaded. The incoming tonage for 1803 promised an increase of over 37 percent. It exported of the products – of the province alone over $2,000,000 value. Its imports reached $2,500,000. Thirty-four thousand bales of cotton; 4,500 hogsheads of sugar; 800 casks – equivalent to 2,000 barrels – of molasses; rice, peltries, indigo, lumber, and sundries, to the value of $500,000; 50,000 barrels of flour; 3,000 barrels of beef and pork; 2,000 hogsheads of tobacco; and smaller quantities of corn, butter, hams, meal, lard, beans, bides, staves, and cordage, had passed in 1802 across its famous levee.

Everywhere the restless American was conspicuous, and, with the Englishman and the Irishman, composed the majority of the commercial class. The French, except a few, had subsided into the retail trade or the mechanical callings. The Spaniards not in military or civil service were generally humble Catalans, keepers of shops, and of the low cabarets that occupied almost every street corner. The Creole was on every side – handsome, proud, illiterate, elegant in manner, slow, a seeker of office and military commission, ruling society with fierce exclusiveness, looking upon toil as the slave’s proper badge, lending money now at twelve and now at twenty-four percent, and taking but a secondary and unsympathetic part in the commercial life from which was springing the future greatness of his town. What could he do? The American filled the upper Mississippi Valley. England and the Atlantic States, no longer France and Spain, took its products and supplied its wants. The Anglo-Saxon and the Irishman held every advantage; and, ill-equipped and uncommercial, the Creole was fortunate to secure even a third or fourth mercantile rank in the city of his birth. But he had one stronghold. He owned the urban and suburban real estate, and presently took high station as the seller of lots and as a rentier. The confiscated plantations of the Jesuits had been, or were being, laid out in streets. From 1801, when Faubourg St. Mary contained only five houses, it had grown with great rapidity.

Other faubourgs were about springing up. The high roofs of the aristocratic suburb St. Jean could be seen stretching away among their groves of evergreen along the Bayou road, and clustering presently into a village near where a “Bayon bridge” still crosses the stream, some two hundred yards below the site of the old one. Here gathered the larger craft of the lake trade, while the smaller still pushed its way up Carondelet’s shoaled and neglected, yet busy canal.

Outwardly the Creoles of the Delta had become a graceful, well-knit race, in full keeping with the freedom of their surroundings. Their complexion lacked ruddiness, but it was free from the sallowness of the Indies. There was a much larger proportion of blondes among them than is commonly supposed. Generally their hair was of a chestnut, or but little deeper tint, except that in the city a Spanish tincture now and then asserted itself in black hair and eyes. The women were fair, symmetrical, “with pleasing features, lively, expressive eyes, well-rounded throats, and superb hair; vivacious, decorous, exceedingly tasteful in dress, adorning themselves with superior effect in draperies of muslin enriched with embroideries and much garniture of lace, but with a more moderate display of jewels, which indicated a community of limited wealth. They were much superior to the men in quickness of wit, and excelled them in amiability and in many other good qualities. The more pronounced faults of the men were generally those moral provincialisms which travellers recount with undue impatience. They are said to have been coarse, boastful, vain; and they were, also, deficient in energy and application, without well-directed ambition, unskilful in handicraft –doubtless through negligence only – and totally wanting in that community feeling which begets the study of reciprocal rights and obligations, and reveals the individual’s advantage in the promotion of the common interest. Hence, the Creoles were fonder of pleasant fictions regarding the salubrity, beauty, good order, and advantages of their town, than of measures to justify their assumptions. With African slavery they were, of course, licentious, and they were always ready for the duelling-ground; yet it need not seem surprising that a people so beset by evil influences from every direction were generally unconscious of a reprehensible state of affairs, and preserved their self-respect and a proud belief in their moral excellence. Easily inflamed, they were as easily discouraged, thrown into confusion, and overpowered, and they expended the best of their energies in trivial pleasures, especially the masque and the dance; yet they were kind parents, affectionate wives, tractable children, and enthusiastic patriots.


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