Monthly Archives: May 2016

300 Years Ago: May, 1716

1716 was not especially a good one in Louisiana. That year may, perhaps, be taken as a “poster year” for the economic stagnation of the colony and for establishing Louisiana’s reputation which would stain the colony for the rest of the French regime through the 1760’s. Even though by 1730 and through the late twenties, the thirties, and the forties Louisiana would begin to produce enough to feed itself as well as produce the occasional surplus. The mid-18th century saw the emergence of the first Creole generation, the establishment and growth of cities and towns, of plantations, farms, and fisheries, and of the culture that would define the region down to the present day. But whatever success may be found in the future French Louisiana, 1716 would always overshadow the view of the colony in the eyes of the outside world. 
As the Crozat regime crumbled, the Regency government in Paris took some steps to reorganize the colony. But it was an uphill battle all the way. There were several underlying problems which seemed unsurmountable. First, the French colonists and soldiers were bound to the coast. Since the fishing industry was hardly begun, this staple of today’s Creole economy and culture was, for all intents and purposes, non-existent in 1716. Nothing much, except vegetables, would grow well along the sandy pine forests of the coast so agriculture – again an anchor of future growth remained largely undeveloped. The only firm economic activity was the Indian trade and this was never to be a major economic engine. Second, land tenure was a hit and miss proposition. It wasn’t really settled for a decade or so, and thus French farms were slow in development. Third, both the Crozat monopoly and the attitudes of New Spain were totally opposite the encouragement of any sort of trading systems which would benefit any and all along the Gulf coast. Official trade was expensive and restrictive to all concerned. So it is no wonder that most people ignored it and unofficial trade (smuggling and piracy) found a ready market for its goods and services. 

In spite of all of this some positive or, at least, encouraging steps forward occurred in 1716. Natchitoches was established the previous year and would grow to be “the most important European post on the edge of the Atlantic world”. There Spanish trade goods and cattle would enter the Louisiana colony – both as contraband and as legitimate trade goods or as Louisiana produce. Natchez, or rather Fort Rosalie, was established in the the early spring of 1716 and would eventually become another success story of French Louisiana. In France, the Council of the Navy became the political headquarters of the Louisiana colony, eventually giving Bienville the virtual command of Louisiana under various titles – usually governor. This Council would soon establish the new capital of Louisiana at New Orleans. “In May 1716, the Banque Générale Privée (“General Private Bank”), which developed the use of paper money, was set up by convicted murderer and millionaire gambler John Law. It was a private bank, but three quarters of the capital consisted of government bills and government-accepted notes.” Wikipedia. John Law and his bank would eventually become the Company of the West and run Louisiana through the decade of the twenties. 

1716 would not be any major turning point in Louisiana history, but it helped set the tone for the next decade of so of the growth of French Louisiana. 

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A Bohemian among the WASPs

At the turn of the century, my wife and I decided it was time to leave our beloved New Orleans and move to the country. The “country” surrounding New Orleans is either the River Parishes or “across the lake” – Pontchartrain, that is. Now the River Parishes lay between the river and the lakes or between the river and Bayou LaFourche. This essentially translates to swamp. having lived in a swamp all of my life, as New Orleans is on average 3 to 5 feet below sea level, I decided that “across the lake” was a better choice. Here there are actually rolling lands, which, with some imagination, can be regarded as hilly terrain. Between the towns can be found these small hills covered with hardwood and/or pine forests divided by dozens of steams, a few even amounting to rivers.

Culturally, the population here is a mixed bag. Also known as the Florida Parishes, “across the lake” was never part of the Louisiana Purchase. Rather, it was the western part of the Fourteenth Colony. From 1763 to 1783, it was part to the British colony of West Florida, acquired by Britain, as a result of the Seven Year’s or French & Indian War. West Florida’s major settlements, Pensacola, Mobile, and Baton Rouge were captured by America’s Spanish ally, Governor Bernardo de Gálvez of Spanish Louisiana, during the American Revolution. From 1783 through 1803, West Florida was a separate Spanish possession along with East Florida (today’s state). In 1803, when Spain gave Louisiana back to Napoleon, West Florida was not included. The upshot of all of this is that, except for a fringe along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, there wasn’t a Frenchman in sight. West Florida was primarily settled by anglophones (some fleeing from the newly independent American states). These White Anglo-Saxon Protestants cleared the land, built churches, primarily Baptist or Methodist, and established towns with names like Hammond, Franklinton, Folsom, Independence, Covington, etc. Some Indian town names were included, like Ponchatoula and Bogalusa.

The result of all of this is, once past today’s great east-west thoroughfare of Interstate -12, a traveler no longer finds himself in the South Louisiana of seafood, French Bread, jambalaya, Cajun music, Mardi Gras, gumbo, French and Cajun patois, Jazz clubs, The Times-Picayune, Catholic Churches every few blocks, roast beef or oyster po-boys, parades for every occasion. In other words, once north of Folsom, you are back in rural America, with all that entails.

As a writer and retired teacher, I now have a part-time retirement job as a gas station cashier. Once I told a customer, merci beaucoup, after he made his purchase. He didn’t know what I was talking about ! On another occasion, I made some oyster patties one year at Thanksgiving. I brought some to share with my co-workers. They had no idea what they were ! My wife brought up pain Perdue or lost bread one day in a culinary conversation at her job. her co-workers did not realize she was talking about what they call French Toast ! More than once, I have been asked – not where I went to school – but what church did I belong to ! I replied that I was heathen Catholic. And may the gods and goddesses forbid, that the WASPs I associate with ever find out that we follow the old religion. And let’s not even get into politics. Suffice it to say that I was one of the 230 voters in Washington parish who voted democratic (for Bernie Sanders) in the recent primary.

There are many other examples of this cultural divide a scant 30 miles north of New Orleans. maybe I will chronicle them further in future writings. But as Beth and I carve out a bohemian haven here among the WASPs, include us in your prayers and good hopes for the future of democratic and cultural diversity in America.

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Filed under Louisiana History, New Orleans Tercentennial, NEW ORLEANS TRI-CENTENNIAL 1718 TO 2018