In that city you may go and stand to-day on the spot still as antique and quaint as the Creole mind and heart which cherish it, where gathered in 1765 the motley throng of townsmen and planters whose bold repudiation of their barter to the King of Spain we have just reviewed; where in 1768 Lafrénière harangued them, and they, few in number and straitened in purse but not in daring, rallied in arms against Spain’s indolent show of authority and drove it into the Gulf. They were the first people in America to make open war distinctly for the expulsion of European rule. But it was not by this episode-it was not in the wearing of the white cockade-’ that the Creoles were to become an independent republic under British protection, or an American State.
We have seen them in the following year overawed by the heavy hand of Spain, and bowing to her yoke. We have seen them ten years later, under her banner and led by the chivalrous Galvez, at Manchac, at Baton Rouge, at Mobile, and at Pensacola, strike victoriously and “wiser than they knew” for the discomfiture of British power in
America and the promotion of American independence and unity. But neither was this to bring them into the union of free States. For when the United States became a nation the Spanish ensign still floated from the flag-staff in the Plaza de Armas where “Cruel O’Reilly” had hoisted it, and at whose base the colonial council’s declaration of rights and wrongs had been burned. There was much more to pass through, many events and conditions, before the hand of Louisiana should be unclasped from the hold of distant powers and placed in that of the American States.
Through all, New Orleans continued to be the key of the land and river and of all questions concerning them. A glance around the old square, a walk into any of the streets that run from it north, east, or south, shows the dark imprint of the hand that held the town and province until neither arms, nor guile, nor counterplots, nor bribes, could hold them back from a destiny that seemed the appointment of nature. For a while, under Unzaga and Galvez, the frail wooden, town of thirty-two hundred souls, that had been the capital under French domination, showed but little change. But 1783 brought peace. It brought also Mirós able administration, new trade, new courage, ” forty vessels [in the river] at the same time,” and, by 1788, an increase in number to fifty-three hundred. In the same year came the great purger of towns-fire.
Don Vicente José Nunez, the military treasurer, lived in Chartres Street, near St. Louis, and had a private chapel. On Good Friday, the 21st of March, the wind was very high and from the south, and, either from a falling candle of the altar, or from some other accident or inadvertence, not the first or the worst fire kindled by Spanish piety flared up and began to devour the inflammable town. The people were helpless to stop it. The best of the residences, all the wholesale stores, fell before it. It swept around the north of the plaza, broadening at every step. The town hall, the arsenal, the jail-the inmates of which were barely rescued alive the parish church, the quarters of the Capuchins, disappeared. In the morning the plaza and the levee were white with tents, and in the smoldering path of the fire, the naked chimneys of eight hundred and fifty-six fallen roofs stood as its monuments. The buildings along the immediate river front still remained; but nearly half the town, including its entire central part, lay in ashes.
Another Spaniard’s name stands as the exponent of a miniature renaissance. Don Andreas Almonaster y Roxas was the royal notary and alferez real. As far back as 1770 the original government reservations on either side the plaza had been granted the town to be a source of perpetual revenue by ground rents. Almonaster became their perpetual lessee, the old barracks came down, and two rows of stores, built of brick between wooden pillars, of two and a half stories height, with broad, tiled roofs and dormer windows and bright Spanish awnings, became, and long continued to be the fashionable retail quarter of the town.
Just outside the “Rampart,” near St. Peter Street, the hurricane of 1779 Galvez’s hurricane, as we may say had blown down the frail charity hospital which the few thousand livres of Jean Louis, a dying sailor, had founded in 1737. In 1784-86 Almonaster replaced it with a brick edifice costing $114,000. It was the same institution that is now located in Common Street, the pride of the city and State.
In 1787 he built of stuccoed brick, adjoining their convent, the well-remembered, quaint, and homely chapel of the Ursulines. And now, to repair the ravages of fire, he in 1792 began, and in two years completed sufficiently for occupation, the St. Louis Cathedral, on the site of the burned parish church. Louisiana and Florida had just become a bishopric separate from Havana. All these works had been at his own charge. Later, by contract, he filled the void made by the burning of the town hall which had stood on the south side of the church, facing the plaza-erecting in its place the hall of the cabildo, the same that stands there still, made more outlandish, but not more beautiful, by the addition of a French roof. The Capuchins, on the other side of the church, had already replaced their presbytery by the building that now serves as a courthouse. The town erected, on the river-front just below the plaza, a halle des boucheries the “old French market.” But, except for these two structures, to the hand of the old alferez -real, or royal standard-bearer, belongs the fame of having thrown together around the most classic spot in the Mississippi Valley, the most picturesque group of facades, roofs, and spires in picturesque New Orleans.
But fate made room again for improvement. On the 8th of December, 1794 the wind was this time from the north some children, playing in a court in Royale Street, too near an adjoining hay-store, set fire to the hay. Governor Carondelet Colonel Francois Louis Hector, Baron de Carondelet, a short, plump, choleric Fleming of strong business qualities, in 1792, when lie succeeded Miró, had provided, as he thought, against this contingency. But, despite his four alcaldes de barrio, with their fire-engines and firemen and axmen, the fire spread; and in three hours for the houses were mere tinder again burned out of the heart of the town two hundred and twelve stores and dwellings. The new buildings at the bottom of the plaza escaped; but the loss was greater than that of six years before, which was nearly $2,600,000. Only two stores were left standing; the levee and the square again became the camping ground of hundreds of inhabitants, and the destruction of provisions threatened a famine.
So shingles and thatch and cypress boards had cost enough. From this time the tile roof came into general use. As the town’s central parts filled up again, it was with better structures, displaying many Spanish-American features adobe or brick walls, arcades, inner courts, ponderous doors and windows, heavy iron bolts and gratings (for houses began to be worth breaking into), balconies, portes-cochères, and white and yellow lime-washed stucco, soon stained a hundred colors by still and rain. Two-story dwellings took the place of one-story, and the general appearance, as well as public safety, was enhanced.
The people were busy, too, in the miry, foul smelling streets, on the slippery sidewalks and on the tree planted levee. Little by little the home government, at the intercession of the governors old Unzaga, young Galvez, the suave and energetic Miró had relaxed its death-grip. A little wooden custom house, very promptly erected at the upper front corner of the town, had fallen into significant dilapidation, thought it was not yet such a sieve but it could catch an export and import duty of six per cent on all merchandise that did not go round it. The concessions of 1778, neutralized by war and by English blockade, had been revived, enlarged, and extended ten years, Moored against the grassy bank of the brimming river, the black ships were taking in hides and furs, bales of cotton, staves, and skins of indigo for the Spanish market, box-spooks for the West Indian sugar-makers, and tobacco, bought by the Government; and were letting out over their sides machinery and utensils, the red wines of Catalonia, and every product of the manufacturer, besides negro men and women, girls and boys, for sale singly or in lots on the landing.
On the other side of the town, also, there was, by and by, no little activity. A lake and bayou business was asking room, and a question of sanitation was demanding attention, and in 1794 -96 the practical Carondelet gathered a large force of slaves, borrowed from their town and country owners, and dug with pick and shovel in the reeking black soil just beyond the rear fortifications of the town, the “Old Basin” and canal that still bear his name. The canal joined the Bayou St. John, and thus connected ten thousand square yards of artificial harbor with Lake Pontchartrain and the sea coast beyond. The lands contiguous to this basin and canal were covered with noisome pools, the source of putrid fevers, and, some years later, as Carondelet had urged from the first, the cabildo divided them into garden lots and let them out at low ground rents to those who would destroy their insalubrity by ditching and draining them into the canal. They began soon to be built on, and have long been entirely settled up; but their drainage can hardly be considered to have been thorough and final, as, during an inundation eighty years afterward, the present writer passed through its streets in a skiff, with the water as high as the gate-knobs.
By such measures it was that the Spanish king sought “to secure to his vassals the utmost felicity.” This was much more than the possession of Louisiana afforded the king. The treaty of peace, signed in 1783 by Great Britain, the United States, France, and Spain, had made the new American power his rival. The western boundary of the States was fixed on the Mississippi from the great lakes to a point nearly opposite the mouth of Red River, and the fortified points along that line, which had fallen so short a time before into the hands of Galvez, were required to be yielded up. Such was the first encroachment of American upon Spanish power in the great basin.
Another influence tending to turn the scales in favor of the States was a change in the agricultural products of the Delta, giving to the commerce of New Orleans a new value for the settlers of the West and the merchants of the Atlantic seaports.