300 Years Ago – RIGHT NOW

Oh Noooo! It’s already started !! The TriCentennial has begun, and we almost missed it !!!

Wednesday night, Nov. 15, 2017 I watched the reader’s digest version of the History of French colonial experience in Louisiana. Channel 12’s (WYES) “New Orleans: The first 300 years.” How refreshing it was to find out that the last seven years of my life could be covered in 12 minutes of TV air time !!!!! Of course, I realize that covering 300 years in an hour and a half is challenging to say the least. So I cannot begrudge the otherwise fine production of this TV event. It even throws into relief the notion that books like my “Petticoat Rebellion” a culinary history of the French era can only enhance, expand, and increase our enjoyment and commemoration of this monumental anniversary of our “Queen City of the South”.

300 years ago – right now, Autumn of 1717.

October 1st, 1717: The Board of Marine in Paris appoints a cashier (called Bonnaud) and orders that a “counter” (a thing not a person – you know, like a kitchen counter or a physical Board of the Exchequer, perhaps even like the counter in a store where customers check out) be built AT NEW ORLEANS. At the end of December, D’Avirl, a court politico and military man was named “Major” of the city, later raised to Major-General. He actually served at New Orleans until January, 1721.

New Orleans now, as of October, 1717, officially EXISTS. On paper, at least. Of course, nobody actually in Louisiana knows this until several months later. It would be about six months later, in the spring of 1718, late March to early April, that Bienville and his intrepid band of salt smugglers and 8 or 9 actual carpenters get to the Indian portage between the Mississippi and Bayou St. John and begin clearing the land. In true Louisiana tradition, the founding of New Orleans would be a process that would go on for several years until finally in 1722, the new town is named the capital of the Louisiana colony.

{ The following account is a summary and paraphrase of the History of the Foundation of New Orleans (1717-1722) by Baron Marc de Villiers. Translated from the French by Warrington Dawson. Mr. Dawson translated this work on the occasion of the BiCentennial of New Orleans at the end of the Great War in 1918/20.

The entire work is available as a book, or can be found in the journal of the Louisiana Historical Society, Vol. 3 #2 April 1920, or at

http://www2.latech.edu/~bmagee/louisiana_anthology/texts/de_villiers/de_villiers–new_orleans_founding.html

Several sources agree that sometime in March of 1718, work finally began on clearing the land at the site that is now the Vieux Carre. In a report to Paris in June of 1718 the Commandant of Louisiana (i.e. Bienville) writes;

“We are working on New Orleans with such diligence as the dearth of workmen will allow. I myself went to the spot, to choose the best site. I remained for ten days, to hurry on the work, and was grieved to see so few people engaged on a task which required at least a hundred times the number. . . . All the ground of the site, except the borders which are drowned by floods, is very good, and everything will grow there.” (Archives des Aff. Etrang., Mém. et Docum. (Amérique) Vol. I; p. 200.)

As work continued on New Orleans from 1718 through 1722, the powers-that-were in Mobile and Biloxi fiercely contested the establishment of the new town. Their power base and the economy (such as it was) was rooted on those first establishments on the Gulf Coast. The two main problems on the coast, however, was the lack of strong (read protected) port locations and the simple fact that the sandy shores and piney woods cannot support any significant agricultural activity. Nor could the coastal fortifications control the Mississippi. All of this taken together required that the colony locate a central facility somewhere on the river.

Adding to the political resistance, geography and nature did not help the situation. Until the order of 1722 came down from the Company (of the Indies) in Paris, floods, hurricanes, and a “war” with Pensacola occupied much of Bienville’s and the government’s attention. In 1719, a Mississippi flood covered the new town. On September 12, 1722 a hurricane pretty much leveled the few buildings that were New Orleans.

This four year time-out did see some progress, though. On paper at least New Orleans began to take shape. Adrien de Pauger arrived at the site in March of 1721, “to trace on the spot the plan of New Orleans.” LaTour, the colony’s chief engineer, was an opponent of the plan to site New Orleans at the crescent and a proponent of the coastal capital. “Nevetheless, most Louisiana historians have attributed to La Tour the honour of creating New Orleans. This is both an error and an injustice. In truth, the engineer-in-chief, before receiving any formal instructions, had thought of building a big town at Biloxi, whose position he considered “advantageous, the air excellent, and the water good.” Pauger’s plans were buried in the colonial office’s paperwork and Pauger himself was sent to map the Mississippi River to Natchez. In spite of all this, Pauger’s plans of New Orleans mysteriously DID find their way to Paris. The decision was finally settled when, “Brought over by the Aventurier, the Company’s decision reached Biloxi on the 26th of May, 1722. A formal order being now given to transfer the seat of government, Bienville met with no further resistance; . . .”

Prior to and during all this skulldudgery, two other matters of note need to be mentioned: Jacques Barbazon de Pailloux, who might be called the first citizen of New Orleans, having lived there since 1718, was given the title of Director while remaining military commander of the counter. The Board deemed such an appointment a sufficient effort in behalf of New Orleans; Hubert, Father Charlevoix, and the Journal Historique all mention Pauger as the real author of the plan; and De Lorme, though he wasted no love on the engineer, yet writes at the end of 1721; “Pauger, after having sketched the plan of New Orleans, traced the alignments, and distributed the sites, came down the river with the Santo-Christo and built a beacon sixty-two feet high.” A few month’s earlier, “On the 15th of April, 1721, the Council of Regency reached a decision for founding in New Orleans a convent of Capucins (sic) from Champagne. Completing this, a further order was signed on the 16th of May, 1722, prescribing that the Company should “build in New Orleans a parish church of suitable size and an adjacent house for fourteen monks, with grounds for a garden and a poultry-yard.” Fathers Bruno, of Langres, Eusebius, of Vaudes, and Christophe and Philibert, both from Chaumont, were selected for rejoining the three Capucins already in Louisiana. (((And with them, of course, came our fictional Frere Gerard; cooks and servants are rarely, if ever, mentioned in official records.)))

”At last, an impetus had been given, and the number of inhabitants soon increased. From a census dated the 24th of November, 1721, we find the following:A total of four hundred and seventy inhabitants, of whom two hundred and seventy-seven were Europeans. In the list of residents, we find: Bienville, Governor; Pailloux, Commandant; Bannez, Major; de Gannerin, Captain; Pauger, Descoublanc, de La Tour, Bassée, Coustillar, officers; Rossard, notary; Le Blanc and Sarazin, storekeepers; Bonneau, secretary to Diron d’Artaguette; Bérard, surgeon-major; Bonneau, captain of the Neptune. We note also the commandant of negroes, a house outfitter, a turner, a barge-maker, a carpenter, two joiners, two armourers, an edge-tool maker, a black-smith, a harness-maker, a tobacco-curer, a carter, sixteen ship’s captains, some sailors, etc. Thirty-six head of horned cattle, nine horses, and “zero hog” complete the census.

If we add to the population of New Orleans that of the neighbourhood (Bayou St. John, old and new Colapissas, Gentilly, Cannes-Brulees, Petit-Désert, English Turn, and Tchachouas), we find six hundred and eighty-four Europeans, (293 residents, or planters, 140 women, 96 children, 155 servants); five hundred and thirty-three negroes or negresses, fifty-one Indians or squaws as slaves, two hundred and thirty head of horned cattle, and thirty-four horses.”

And so, there you have it. Beginning in late 1717 and through the intervening years until May of 1722, New Orleans becomes a reality. And the rest – as they say – is history !!!! How’s that for a cliche?

And speaking of history______________ H is the story of (whatever) based on the written records of the past. So goes the standard academic definition. However, we also have the words of the great English historian Edward Gibbon, who was required reading for any (of my generation) who had any pretensions of following the profession,

“The confusion of the times, and the scarcity of authentic memorials, oppose equal difficulties to the historian, who attempts to preserve a clear and unbroken thread of narration. Surrounded with imperfect fragments, always concise, often obscure, and sometimes contradictory, he is reduced to collect, to compare, and to conjecture: and though he ought never to place his conjectures in the rank of facts, yet the knowledge of human nature, and of the sure operation of its fierce and unrestrained passions, might, on some occasions, supply the want of historical materials.”

Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. opening paragraph, V. 1, Chapter 10.

The above account of the history of New Orleans’ founding used for this entry was written in French in 1792-4 and translated in 1918-19. As can be seen in the document quoted herein, the information is based on the colonial records housed in Paris. The interpretation of which is left to you, dear reader. Modern professional historians will undoubtedly have some bones to pick, but all in all, it follows the actual events pretty well. Besides, it was written for you, my blog followers, for as my all time favorite philosopher/historian – Will Durant – often said, “(Here I) pass it on, not to specialist scholars, who will learn nothing from it, but to (my) friends, wherever they are, who may find in it some moment’s illumination or brightening fantasy.”

HAPPY TRI-CENTENNIAL, EVERYBODY !!!!

(Undoubtedly, more to follow . . .)

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