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The Creoles’ City

Posted By Dennis On In Louisiana,Native American | No Comments

Scarcely had the low, clay chimneys of a few woodsmen’s cabins sent up, through a single change of seasons, their lonely smoke-wreaths among the silent willow jungles of the Mississippi, when Bienville began boldly to advocate the removal of the capital to this so-called ” New Orleans.” But, even while lie spoke, the place suffered a total inundation. Yet lie continued to hold it as a trading post of the Mississippi Company, and, by the close of 1720, began again, in colonial council, to urge it as the proper place for the seat of government; and though out-voted, lie sent his chief of engineers to the settlement ” to choose a suitable site for a city worthy to become the capital of Louisiana.”

Thereupon might have been seen this engineer, the Sieur Le Blond de la Tour, in the garb of a knight of St. Louis, modified as might be by the exigencies of the frontier, in command of a force of galley-slaves and artisans, driving stakes, drawing lines, marking off streets and lots, a place for the church and a middle front square for a place-d’Armes; day by day ditching and palisading; throwing up a rude levee along the river-front, and grade. ally gathering the scattered settlers of the neighborhood into the form of a town. But the location remained the same.

A hundred frail palisade hats, some rude shelters of larger size to serve as church, hospital, government house, and company’s warehouses, a few vessels at anchor in the muddy river, a population of three hundred, mostly men -such was the dreary hunter’s camp, hidden in the stifling undergrowth of the half-cleared, miry ground, where, in the naming of streets, the dukes of Orleans, Chartres, Maine, and Bourbon, the princes of Conti and Conde, and the Count of Toulouse, had been honored; where, finally, in June to August, 1 the royal commissioners consenting, the company’s effects and troops were gradually removed and Bienville set up his head-quarters ; and where this was but just done when, in September, as an earnest of the land’s fierce inhospitality, a tornado whisked away church, hospital, and thirty dwellings, prostrated the crops, and, in particular, destroyed the priceless rice.

Tile next year, 1723, brought no better fortune. At home, the distended Mississippi Bubble began to show its filminess, and the distress which it spread everywhere came across the Atlantic. As in France, the momentary stay-stomach was credit. On this basis the company’s agent and the plantation grantees harmonized; new industries, notably indigo culture, were introduced; debts were paid with paper, and the embryo city reached the number of sixteen hundred inhabitants; an agricultural province, whose far-scattered plantations, missions, and military posts counted nearly five thousand souls, promised her its commercial tribute.

Then followed collapse, the scaling of debts by royal edict, four repetitions of this gross expedient, and, by 1726, a sounder, though a shorn, prosperity.

The year 1728 completed the first decade of the town’s existence. Few who know its history will stand to-day in Jackson Square and glance from its quaint, old-fashioned gardening to the foreign and antique aspect of the surrounding architecture-its broad verandas, its deep arcades, the graceful patterns of its old wrought-iron balconies, its rich effects of color, of blinding sunlight, and of cool shadow-without finding the fancy presently stirred tip to overleap the beginning of even these time stained features, and recall the humbler town of Jean Baptiste Lemoyne de Bienville, as it huddled about this classic spot when but ten years had passed since the first blow of the settler’s axe had echoed across the waters of the Mississippi.

This, from the beginning, was the Place d’Armes. It was of the same rectangular figure it has today: larger only by the width of the present sidewalks, an open plat of coarse, native grass, crossed by two diagonal paths and occupying the exact middle of the town front. Behind it, in the mid-front of a like apportionment of ground reserved for ecclesiastical uses, where St. Louis Cathedral now overlooks the square, stood the church, built, like most of the public buildings, of brick. On the church’s right were the small guard-house and prisons, and on the left the dwelling of some Capuchins. The spiritual care of all that portion of the province between the mouths of the ‘ Mississippi and the Illinois was theirs. On the front of the square that flanked the Place d’Armes above, the government-house looked out upon the river. In the corresponding square, on the lower side, but facing from the river and diagonally opposite the Capuchins, were the quarters of the government employes. The grounds that faced the upper and lower sides of the Place d’Armes were still unoccupied, except by cordwood, entrenching tools, and a few pieces of parked artillery, on the one side, and a small house for issuing rations on the other. Just off the river front, in Toulouse Street, were the smithies of the Marine; correspondingly placed in Du Maine Street were two long, narrow buildings, the king’s warehouses.

Ursulines Street was then Arsenal Street. On its first upper corner was the hospital, with its grounds extending back to the street behind; while the empty square opposite, below, reserved for air arsenal, was just receiving, instead, the foundations of the convent-building that stands there to-day. A company of Ursuline nuns had come the year before from France to open a school for girls, and to attend the sick in hospital, and were quartered at the other end of the town awaiting the construction of their nunnery. It was finished in 1730. They occupied it for ninety-four years, and vacated it only in 1824 to remove to the larger and more retired convent on the river shore, near the present lower limits of the city, where they remain at the present day. The older house-one of the oldest, if not the oldest building, standing in the Mississippi Valley became, in 1831, the State house, and in 1834, as at present, the seat of the Archbishop of Louisiana.

For the rest, there was little but forlorn confusion. Though the plan of the town comprised a parallelogram of five thousand feet riverfront by a depth of eighteen hundred, and was divided into regular squares of three hundred feet front and breadth, yet the appearance of the place was disorderly and squalid. A few cabins of split boards, thatched with cypress bark, were scattered confusedly over the ground, surrounded and isolated from each other by willow-brakes and reedy ponds and sloughs bristling with dwarf palmetto and swarming with reptiles. N o one had built beyond Dauphine Street, the fifth from the river, though twenty-two squares stood empty to choose among; nor below the hospital, nor above Bienville Street, except that the Governor himself dwelt at the extreme upper corner of the town, now the corner of Customhouse and Decatur Streets. Orleans Street, cutting the town transversely in half behind the church, was a quarter favored by the unimportant; while along the waterfront, and also in Chartres and Royale Streets, just behind, rose the homes of the colony’s official and commercial potentates: some small, low, and built of cypress, others of brick, or brick and frame, broad, and two or two and a half stories in height. But about and over all was the rank growth of a wet semi-tropical land, especially the water-willow, planted here and there in avenues, and elsewhere springing up at wild random amid occasional essays at gardening.

Such was New Orleans in 1728. The restraints of social life had, until now, been few and weak. Some of the higher officials had brought their wives from France, and a few Canadians theirs from Canada; but they were a small fraction of all. The mass of the men, principally soldiers, trappers, redemptioners bound to three years’ service, millers, galley-slaves, knew little, and cared less, for citizenship or public order; while the women, still few, were, almost all, the unreformed and forcibly transported inmates of houses of correction, with a few Choctaw squaws and African slaves. They gambled, fought duels, lounged about, drank, wantoned, and caroused “Sans religion, sans justice, sans discipline, sans ordre, et sans police.”

Yet the company, as required by its charter, had begun to improve the social as well as the architectural features of its provincial capital. Tile importation of male vagabonds had ceased; stringent penalties had been laid upon gambling, and as already noted, steps had been taken to promote education and religion. The aid of the Jesuits had been enlisted for the training of the male youth and the advancement of agriculture.

In the winter of 1727-28 a crowning benefit had been reached. On the levee, just in front of the Place d’Armes the motley public of the wild town was gathered to see a goodly sight. A ship had come across the sea and up the river with the most precious of all possible earthly cargoes. She had tied up against the grassy, willow-planted bank, and there were coming ashore and grouping together in the Place d’Armes under escort of the Ursuline nuns, a good threescore, not of houseless girls from the streets of Paris, as heretofore, but of maidens from the hearthstones of France, to be disposed of under the discretion, of the nuns, in marriage. And then there came ashore and were set down in the rank grass, many small, stout chests of clothing. There was a trunk for each maiden, a maiden for each trunk, and both maidens and trunks the gift of the king.

Vive le roi! it was a golden day. Better still, this was but the initial consignment. Similar companies came in subsequent years, and the girls with trunks were long known in the traditions of their colonial descendants by the honorable distinction of the filles à la cassette”–the casket-girls. There cannot but linger a regret around this slender fact, so fall of romance and the best poetry of real life, that it is so slender. But the Creoles have never been careful for the authentication of their traditions, and the only assurance left to us so late as this is, that the good blood of these modest girls of long-forgotten names, and of the brave soldiers to whom they gave their hands with the king’s assent and dower, flows in the veins of the best Creole families of the present day.

Thus, at the end of the first ten years, the town summed up all the true, though roughly outlined, features of a civilized community: the church, the school, courts, hospital, council-hall, virtuous homes, a military arm and a commerce. This last was fettered by the monopoly rights of the company; but the thirst for gold, silver, and pearls had yielded to wiser thought, a fur trade had developed, and the scheme of an agricultural colony was rewarded with success.

But of this town and province, to whose development their founder had dedicated all his energies and sagacity, Bienville was no longer governor. In October 1726, the schemes of official rivals had procured not only his displacement, but that of his various kinsmen in the colony. It was under a new commandant general, M. Périer, that protection from flood received noteworthy attention, and that, in 1726, the first levee worthy of the name was built on the bank of the Mississippi.


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