“Out of this nettle, danger,” says the great bard, “we pluck this flower, safety.” The dreadful scourge of 1853 roused the people of New Orleans, for the first time, to the necessity of knowing the proven truth concerning themselves and the city in which they dwelt. In the midst of the epidemic, the city council had adjourned, and a number of its members had fled. But, in response to popular demand, a board of health had appointed the foremost advocates of quarantine and municipal cleansing a commission to study and report the melancholy lessons of the plague. It labored arduously for many months. At its head was that mayor of New Orleans, Crossman by name, whose fame for wise and protracted rule is still a pleasant tradition of the city, and whose characteristic phrase-“a great deal to be said on both sides”-remains the most frequent quotation on the lips of the common people to-day. Doctors Barton, Axson, McNeil, Symonds, and Riddell,-men at the head of the medical profession,-completed the body. They were bold and faithful, and they effected a revolution. The thinking and unbiased few, who in all communities, must first receive and fructify the germ of truth, were convinced. The technical question of the fever’s contagiousness remained unsettled; but its transportability was fearfully proven in a multitude of interior towns, and its alacrity in seeking foul quarters and...Read More
Collection: The Creoles of Louisiana
Take the map of Louisiana. Draw a line from the southwestern to the northeastern corner of the State; let it turn thence down the Mississippi to the little river-side town of Baton Rouge, the State’s seat of government; there draw it eastward through lakes Maurepas, Pontchartrain, and Borgne, to the Gulf of Mexico; thence pass along the Gulf coast back to the starting-point at the month of the Sabine, and you will have compassed rudely, but accurately enough, the State’s eighteen thousand seven hundred and fifty square miles of delta lands. About half the State lies outside these bounds and is more or less hilly. Its population is mainly an Anglo-American moneyed and landed class, and the blacks and mulattoes who were once its slaves. The same is true of the population in that part of the delta lands north of Red River. The Creoles are not there. Across the southern end of the State, from Sabine Lake to Chandeleur Bay, with a north-and-south width of from ten to thirty miles and an average of about fifteen, stretch the Gulf marshes, the wild haunt of myriads of birds and water-fowl, serpents and saurians, hares, raccoons, wild-eats, deep-bellowing frogs, and clouds of insect, and by a few hunters and oystermen, whose solitary and rarely frequented huts speck the wide, green horizon at remote intervals. Neither is the home of the...Read More
Little wonder that it is said the Creoles wept as they stood on the Place d’Armes and saw the standard of a people, whose national existence was a mere twenty-years’ experiment, taking the place of that tricolor on which perched the glory of a regenerated France. On that very spot some of them had taken part in the armed repudiation of the first cession. The two attitudes and the two events differed alike. The earlier transfer had come loaded with drawbacks and tyrannous exactions; the latter came freighted with long-coveted benefits and with some of the dearest rights of man. This second, therefore, might bring tears of tender regret; it might force the Creole into civil and political fellowship with the detested Américain; but it could not rouse the sense of outrage produced by the cession to Spain, or of uniform popular hatred against the young Virginian whom President Jefferson had transferred from the Governorship of the Territory of Mississippi to that of Louisiana. O’Reilly, the Spanish Captain-General, had established a government whose only excellence lay in its strength; Claiborne came to set up a power whose only strength lay in its excellence. His task was difficult; mainly because it was to be clone among a people distempered by the badness of earlier rule, and diligently wrought upon by intriguing Frenchmen and Spanish officials. His wisest measures, equally with...Read More
Once more the Creoles sang the “Marseillaise.” The invaders hovering along the marshy shores of Lake Borgne were fourteen thousand strong. Sir Edward Packenham, brother-in-law to the Duke of Wellington, and a gallant captain, was destined to lead them. Gibbs, Lambert, and Kean were his generals of division. As to Jackson, thirty-seven hundred Tennesseeans under Generals Coffee and Carroll, had, when it was near Christmas, given him a total of but six thousand men. Yet confidence, animation, concord, and even gaiety, filled the hearts of the mercurial people. “The citizens,” says the eye-witness, Latour, “were preparing for battle as cheerfully as for a party of pleasure. The streets resounded with ‘Yankee Doodle,’ ‘La Marseillaise,’ ‘Le Chant du Depart,’ and other martial airs. The fair sex presented themselves at the windows and balconies to applaud the troops going through their evolutions, and to encourage their husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers to protect them from their enemies.” That enemy, reconnoitring on Lake Borgne, soon found in the marshes of its extreme western end the month of a navigable stream, the Bayou Bienvenue. This water flowed into the lake directly from the west — the direction of New Orleans, close behind whose lower suburb it had its beginning in a dense cypress swamp. Within, its mouth it was over a hundred yards wide, and more than six feet deep. As they ascended...Read More
The great Creole city’s geographical position has always dazzled every eye except the cold, coy scrutiny of capital. “The position of New Orleans,” said President Jefferson in 1804, “certainly destines it to be the greatest city the world has ever seen.” He excepted neither Rouge nor Babylon. Put man’s most positive predictions are based upon contingencies; one unforeseen victory over nature bowls them down; the seeming certainties of tomorrow are changed to the opposite certainties of today; deserts become gardens, gardens cities, and older cities the haunts of bats and foxes. When the early Kentuckian and Ohioan accepted nature’s highway to market, and proposed the conquest of New Orleans in order to lay that highway open, they honestly believed there was no other possible outlet to the commercial world. When steam navigation came, they hailed it with joy and without question. To them it seemed an ultimate result. To the real-estate hoarding Creole, to the American merchant who was crowding and chafing him, to every superficial eye at least, it seemed a pledge of unlimited commercial empire bestowed by the laws of gravitation. Few saw in it the stepping stone from the old system of commerce by natural highways to a new system by direct and artificial lines. It is hard to understand, looking back from the present, how so extravagant a mistake could have been made by wise...Read More
Paterson and Ross had struck the Baratarians just in time. The fortnight asked of the British by Lafitte expired the next day. The British themselves were far away eastward, drawing off from an engagement of the day before, badly worsted. A force of seven hundred British troops, six hundred Indians, and four vessels of war had attacked Fort Bowyer, commanding the entrances of Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound. Its small garrison had repulsed them and they retired again to Pensacola with serious loss, including a sloop-of-war grounded and burned. Now General Jackson gathered four thousand men on the Alabama River, regulars, Tennesseeans, and Mississippi dragoons, and early in November attacked Pensacola with great spirit, took the two forts – which the Spaniards had allowed the English to garrison – drove the English to their shipping and the Indians into the interior, and returned to Mobile. Here he again called on Claiborne to muster his militia. Claiborne convened the Legislature and laid the call before it. His was not the toaster-spirit to command a people so different from himself in a moment of extremity. On every side was discord, apprehension, and despondency that he could not cure. Two committees of safety engaged in miserable disputes. Credit was destroyed. Money commanded three or four percent a month. The Legislature dawdled until the Louisianian himself uttered a noble protest. “No other evidence...Read More
The New Orleans resident congratulates himself – and he does well – that he is not as other men are, in other great cities, as to breathing-room. The desperate fondness with which the Creole still clings to domestic isolation has passed into the sentiment of all types of the city’s life; and as the way is always open for the town, with just a little river-sand filling, to spread farther and farther, there is no huddling in New Orleans, or only very little here and there. There is assurance of plenty not only as to space, but also as to time. Time may be money, but money is not everything, and so there never has been much crowding over one another’s heads about business centres, never any living in sky-reaching strata. The lassitude which loads every warm, damp breeze that blows in across the all-surrounding marsh and swamp has always been against what an old New Orleans writer calls “knee-cracking stairways.” Few houses lift their roofs to dizzy heights, and a third-story bedroom is not near enough to be coveted by many. Shortly before the war – and the case is not materially changed in New Orleans today – the number of inmates to a dwelling was in the proportion of six and a half to one. In St. Louis, it was seven and three-quarters; in Cincinnati, it was...Read More
The people of New Orleans take pride in Canal Street. It is to the modern town what the Place d’Armes was to the old. Here stretch out in long parade, in variety of height and color, the great retail stores, displaying their silken and fine linen and golden seductions; and the fair Creole and American girls, and the self-depreciating American mothers, and the majestic Creole matrons, all black lace and alabaster, swarm and hum and push in and out and flit here and there among the rich things, and fine things, the novelties and the bargains. Its eighteen-feet sidewalks are loftily roofed from edge to edge by continuous balconies that on gala-days are stayed up with extra scantlings, and yet seem ready to come splintering down under the crowd of parasolled ladies sloping upward on theta from front to back in the fashion of the amphitheatre. Its two distinct granite-paved roadways are each forty feet wide, and the tree-bordered “neutral ground” between measures fifty-four feet across. It was “neutral” when it divided between the French quarter and the American at the time when their “municipality” governments were distinct from each other. In Canal Street, well-nigh all the street-car lines in town begin and end. The Grand Opera House is here; also, the Art Union. The club-houses glitter here. If Jackson Square has one bronze statue, Canal Street has another,...Read More
Not schools only, but churches, multiplied rapidly. There was a great improvement in public order. Affrays were still common; the Know-Nothing movement came on, and a few “thugs” terrorized the city with campaign broils, beating, stabbing, and shooting. Base political leaders and spoilsmen utilized these disorders, and they reached an unexpected climax and end one morning confronted by a vigilance committee, which had, under cover of night, seized the town arsenal behind the old Cabildo and barricaded the approaches to the Place d’Armes with uptorn paving-stones. But riots were no longer a feature of the city. It was no longer required that all the night-watch within a mile’s circuit should rally at the sound of a rattle. Fire-engines were no longer needed to wet down huge mobs that threatened to demolish the Carondelet Street brokers’ shops or the Cuban cigar stores. Drunken bargemen had ceased to swarm by many hundreds against the peace and dignity of the State, and the publicity and respectability of many other vicious practices disappeared. Communication with the outside world was made much easier, prompter, and more frequent by the growth of railroads. Both the average Creole and the average American became more refined. The two types lost some of their points of difference. The American ceased to crave entrance into Creole society, having now separate circles of his own; and when they mingled it...Read More
Three-quarters of a century had passed over the little Franco-Spanish town, hidden under the Mississippi’s downward-retreating bank in the edge of its Delta swamp on Orleans Island, before the sallow spectre of yellow fever was distinctly recognized in her streets and in her darkened chambers. That it had come and gone earlier, but unidentified, is altogether likely. In 1766 especially, the year in which Ulloa came with his handful of Havanese soldiers to take possession for Spain, there was an epidemic which at least resembled the great West Indian scourge. Under the commercial concessions that followed, the town expanded into a brisk port. Trade with the West Indies grew, and in 1796, the yellow fever was confronted and called by name. From that date it appeared frequently if not yearly, and between that date and the present day twenty-four lighter and thirteen violent epidemics have marked its visitations. At their own horrid caprice they came and went. In 1821, a quarantine of some sort was established, and it was continued until 1825; but it did not keep out the plague, and it was then abandoned for more than thirty years. Between 1837 and 1843, fifty-five hundred deaths occurred from the fever. In the summer and fall of 1847, over twenty-eight hundred people perished by it. In the second half of 1848, eight hundred and seventy-two were its victims. It...Read More
“France has cut the knot,” wrote Minister Livingston to Secretary Madison. It is the word of Bonaparte himself, that his first diplomatic act with. Spain had for its object the recovery of Louisiana. His power enabled him easily to outstrip American negotiations, and on the 1st of October, 1800, the Spanish King entered privately into certain agreements by which, on the 21st of March, 1801, Louisiana, vast, but to Spain unremunerative and indefensible, passed secretly into the hands of the First Consul in exchange for the petty Italian “kingdom of Etruria.” When Minister Livingston wrote, in November, 1802, the secret was no longer unknown. On the 20th of March, 1803, M. Laussat, as French Colonial Prefect, landed in New Orleans, specially commissioned to prepare for the expected arrival of General Victor with a large body of troops, destined for the occupation of the province, and to arrange for the establishment of a new form of government. The Creoles were filled with secret consternation. Their fields, and streets, and dwellings were full of slaves. They had heard the First Consul’s words to the St. Domingans Whatever be your color or your origin, you are free.” But their fears were soon quieted, when Laussat proclaimed the design of their great new ruler to “preserve the empire of the laws and amend them slowly in the light of experience only.” The planters...Read More
Weighing all the facts, it is small wonder that the Delta Creoles coquetted with the Baratarians. To say no more of Spanish American or French West Indian tincture, there was the Embargo. There were the warships of Europe skimming ever to and fro in the entrances and exits of the Gulf. Rarely in days of French or Spanish rule had this purely agricultural country and non-manufacturing town been so removed to the world’s end as just at this time. The Mississippi, northward, was free; but its perils had hardly lessened since the days of Spanish rule. Then it was said, in a curious old Western advertisement of 1797, whose English is worthy of notice “No danger need be apprehended from the enemy, as every person whatever will be under cover, made proof against rifle or musket balls, and convenient port-holes for firing out of. Each of the boats are armed with six pieces, carry a pound ball, also a number of muskets, and amply supplied with plenty of ammunition, strongly manned with choice hands, and masters of approved knowledge.” Scarcely any journey, now, outside of Asia, Africa, and the Polar seas, is more arduous than was then the trip from St. Louis to New Orleans. Vagabond Indians, white marauders, Spanish-armed extortion and arrest, and the natural perils of the stream, made the river little, if any, less dangerous than...Read More
The brow and cheek of this man were darkened by outdoor exposure, but they were not weather-beaten. His shapely, bronzed hand was no harder or rougher than was due to the use of the bridle-rein and the gunstock. His eye was the eye of a steed; his neck-the same. His hair was a little luxuriant. His speech was positive, his manner was military, his sentiments were antique, his clothing was of broadcloth, his boots were neat, and his hat was soft, broad, and slouched a little to show its fineness. Such in his best aspect was the Mississippi River planter. When sugar was his crop and Creole French his native tongue, his polish would sometimes be finer still, with a finish got in Paris, and his hotel would be the St. Louis. He was growing to be a great power. The enormous agricultural resources of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee were his. The money-lender gyrated around him with sweet smiles and open purse. He was mortgaged to the eyes, and still commanded a credit that courted and importuned him. He caused an immense increase of trade. His extravagant wants and the needs of his armies of slaves kept the city drained of its capital almost or quite the whole year round. Borrower and lender vied with each other in recklessness. Much the larger portion of all the varied products...Read More
It has already been said that the whole Gulf coast of Louisiana is sea-marsh. It is an immense, wet, level expanse, covered everywhere, shoulder high, with marsh-grasses, and indented by extensive bays that receive the rivers and larger bayous. For some sixty miles on either side of the Mississippi’s month, it breaks into a grotesquely contorted shoreline and into bright archipelagoes of hundreds of small, reedy islands, with narrow and obscure channels writhing hither and thither between them. These mysterious passages, hidden from the eye that over-glances the seemingly unbroken sunny leagues of surrounding distance, are threaded only by the far-seen white or red lateen-sail of the oyster-gatherer, or by the pirogue of the hunter stealing upon the myriads of wild fowl that in winter haunt these vast green wastes. To such are known the courses that enable them to avoid the frequent culs-de-sac of the devious shore, and that lead to the bayous, which open the way to the inhabited interior. They lead through miles of clear, brown, silent waters, between low banks fringed with dwarf oaks, across pale green distances of “quaking prairie,” in whose shallow, winding coolées the smooth, dark, shining needles of the round rush stand twelve feet high to overpeer the bulrushes, and at length, under the solemn shades of cypress swamps, to the near neighborhood of the Mississippi, from whose flood the process...Read More
The Spanish occupation never became more than a conquest. The Spanish tongue, enforced in the courts and principal public offices, never superseded the French in the mouths of the people, and left but a few words naturalized in the corrupt French of the slaves. To African organs of speech cocodrie, from cocodrilo, the crocodile, was easier than a caiman, the alligator; the terrors of the calaboza, with its chains and whips and branding irons, were condensed into the French tri-syllabic calaboose; while the pleasant institution of ñapa – the petty gratuity added, by the retailer, to anything bought – grew the pleasanter, drawn out into Gallicized lagnappe. The only newspaper in the town or province, as it was also the first, though published under the auspices of Carondelet, was the “Moniteur de la Lonisiane,” printed entirely in French. It made its first appearance in 1794. Spanish Ursulines, sent from Havana to impart their own tongue, had to teach in French instead, and to content themselves with the feeble achievement of extorting the Spanish catechism from girls who recited with tears rolling down their cheeks. The public mind followed – though at a distance – the progress of thought in France. Many Spaniards of rank cast their lot with the Creoles. Unzaga married a Maxent; Galvez, her sister – a woman, it is said, of extraordinary beauty and loveliness; Gayarre...Read More
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