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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of New Orleans

by
John Kendall

published by The Lewis Publishing Company,
Chicago and New York, 1922

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p75 Chapter V
The First Two Mayors

The appointment of John Watkins to be mayor, vice Pitot, resigned, was announced on June 27, 1805. In selecting Watkins for the vacancy, Claiborne was governed by the fact that he had served acceptably as recorder and was in line for promotion. He was a physician by profession and had previously been a member of the territorial council. The two years over which Watkins' administration extended were interesting and important. They witnessed, among other things, the incorporation of the College of Orleans, the visit of Aaron Burr, and the establishment of the first Protestant Church in New Orleans. He came into office at a time when people were disposed to complain of the small benefit resulting from the creation of the city government. He had to sustain a good deal of adverse criticism. Two matters of importance urged before the council were, the improvement of the market and the extension of the streets. The existing market had been erected by the Spanish Government in 1791. What was now needed was an extension to accommodate the vegetable venders. The finances of the city were not just then in a condition to permit this work to be done. Not until 1822 was it possible to meet this demand. The growth of the "fauxbourgs" was so rapid that the need for extensions of the streets of the "Vieux Carré" out into the new regions was obvious, but for some reason the council refused to accede to this reasonable demand, and even declined to order the removal of Davis' rope-walk, which blocked the egress from the "Old Square" for a considerable distance along Canal Street. We may suspect that in this opposition to the extension of the streets the prejudice of the Creole against the American figured to no inappreciable extent.

Watkins was more successful in regard to the police. There was a strong prejudice against the "gens d'armes," as they were called. These were composed to a considerable extent of soldiers who had served under the Spanish. A writer in the Louisiana Gazette referred to them as a "nuisance," and said that the corps was "unlawful and unnecessary."1 In deference to public opinion the council in 1806, created a city police force, known as the "garde de ville." This organization was intended to be a purely civic police. The military element was eliminated. It consisted of one chief, two sub-chiefs or assistants, and twenty men for the city proper; two sub-chiefs and eight men for the Faubourg Ste. Marie, now called the First Municipal District; a total of thirty-three men. The chief was provided with a horse and allowed a salary of $60 per month, from which he was supposed to provide feed for his mount. The sub-chiefs received $20 each, and the watchmen $20 each. The men were armed with the old-fashioned half-pike, and carried a saber suspended from a cross-belt of black leather adorned with a large brass-buckle, on which the words, "Garde de Ville" were conspicuously engraved. The headquarters were at the City Hall (Cabildo). Here two men and one sub-chief were always on duty as a sort of relief force or reserve. The p77guard was changed in summer at 7:00 A.M. and in winter at 9:00 A.M. This new force went on duty on March 14, 1806. It did not last long. Two years later it was suppressed by the city council as incompetent. There was good ground for this action. Within two months after its organization, it undertook to suppress a riotous demonstration in the city, but not only was unsuccessful, but the mob set upon the watch, deprived it of its weapons, and beat the men badly. For this exhibition of cowardice the council formally deprived the watch of its arms. The grand jury joined in the popular demonstration against the police for its failure to enforce order, and rendered a report in which it declared that "the city was at the mercy of brigands to loot and pillage at pleasure." The case specifically referred to by the grand jury was the murder of a man in the Faubourg Ste. Marie by footpads. The body was left lying in the streets three days, untended by the police, until at last some charitable persons removed and gave it burial.2

(p76)

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New Orleans in 1803a

Under Watkins' initiative the council also undertook to deal with the problem of fire prevention. This was a problem always urgent in the early history of the city. Although there was at this time a growing disposition to build solidly of brick, and consequently, there has been no repetition of the great conflagrations of 1788 and 1794 — the majority of the dwellings in the city were of inflammable construction and there was consequently constant peril of serious fires. In 1806 the council passed a number of wise regulations, one of which prohibited the use of shingle roofs, and another provided for the inspection of chimneys, and others still established rules for the police in case of fire to prevent looting and other depredations, of which there was much complaint at this time.

The territorial council passed the act creating the College of Orleans in April, 1805, and in July an organization was effected to put in operation, Ex‑Mayor Pitot being chosen vice chancellor. The college was the first institution of learning projected in the Territory of Orleans. It was the outcome of an attempt on the part of the government to create a complete educational system, which would include preparatory schools and public libraries in all parts of the territory subject to its jurisdiction, but which would have the university as its head and crown. The territorial council made various ill-judged plans to finance the institution, including a lottery scheme, but at Claiborne's wise motion, finally determined to impose a tax for the purpose. The city contributed a site and buildings, which were located at the corner of Hospital and St. Claude streets, on the site now occupied by St. Augustine's Church. In spite of further assistance from private parties, the institution was not ready to open its doors till 1811. In the meantime the matter of public education was much neglected. Rev. Philander Chase, who was called by the Protestants of the city to take charge of the congregation of Christ Church, opened a school on his arrival in the city in 1806, which soon had a good attendance, and thrived until his departure in 1811. The Ursuline nuns conducted a successful school for girls, but otherwise there seems to have been no provision for the important matter of the instruction of youth.

New Orleans has always been a predominantly Catholic city, but with the establishment of the American government in Louisiana, there was gradually formed in the city a group of Protestants sufficiently large to p78make the need felt of a church in which they might worship. As early as 1803 there is record of a Rev. Lorenzo Dow who ministered to the scattered Protestants in the Attakapas. In 1805 the Rev. Elisha Bowman, who was regularly stationed in Opelousas, is said to have occasionally conducted services in New Orleans. In 1805 the Louisiana Gazette printed an appeal to the English speaking population of New Orleans to "show that it was not irreligious." Resolutions to establish a Protestant church in the city were adopted at a meeting held on May 29 at Francisque's ball-room. A second meeting was held on June 2 at the residence of Mme. Forager, on Bourbon Street, between Customhouse and Bienville streets. At another meeting on June 11 it was decided to call a Protestant clergyman to take charge of the proposed congregation, and the sum of $2,000 per annum was guaranteed by subscriptions from those present to pay his salary. On June 16 a vote was taken to see with what denomination the congregation should affiliate, with the following result: Episcopalians, 43; Presbyterians, 7; Methodists, 1.3 The act incorporating the congregation under the name of Christ Church, received the approval of Governor Claiborne on July 3, 1805. Under this act Protestant services were held, for the first time in the history of New Orleans (except, perhaps, for such occasional ministrations as the Rev. Mr. Bowman had supplied) on Sunday, July 15, 1805, at the residence of a Mr. Freeman. Doctor Chase, who was called to the rectorate, arrived in the city from New York, October 20, 1805. He held his first service at the City Hall (Cabildo) on November 17, 1805. Thereafter Protestant forms of worship were observed regularly every Sunday, though the congregation had no permanent domicile until nearly twenty years later, meeting sometimes at the Cabildo, sometimes at the courthouse, and more often at private residences.4

The period of Watkins' administration was one of no small anxiety for Claiborne and the territorial government. The ownership of West Florida was arousing much ill feeling between the Spanish and the Americans, particularly among the hardy adventurers in the West whose insistence had influenced so largely the acquisition of the Province of Louisiana by the United States. Jefferson's desire to settle all such difficulties by diplomacy rather than by force did not appeal to the Kentuckians and Tennesseans, and there was a strong tendency to filibustering throughout the Mississippi Valley. Of this restive spirit both General James Wilkinson and Aaron Burr were eager to take advantage. Burr was then vice president of the United States, but on account of his duel with Hamilton, in which the latter had been killed, he was in ill repute in the North and East, and sought elsewhere fields of activity in which his distressing antecedents would not be remembered, or, at least, would not be held against him.

On the afternoon of July 25, 1805, in "an elegant Barge," with "sails, colors and oars," manned by "a sergeant and ten able, faithful hands," the ostracized vice president arrived in New Orleans. He was fresh from a visit to Wilkinson at Fort Massac, and brought with him now letters from that officer to Governor Claiborne, General John Adair and Daniel Clark. In his epistles to Adair and Clark, Wilkinson hinted darkly at some magnificent design which Burr entertained, and which he would unfold to p79them. To Adair he wrote: "He understands your merits and reckons on you. Prepare to visit me and I will tell you all. We must take a peep into the unknown world beyond me." He told Clark that "this great and honorable man would communicate to him many things improper to put in writing, and which he would not say to any other." It is supposed that Burr had ideas of separating the western part of the United States from the remainder and setting up there an independent government of some sort with himself at his head; failing which, he dreamed of an attempt against the Spanish in Mexico, with New Orleans as a basis of operations.5 There was at that time in New Orleans a strong sentiment in favor of independence for Mexico. A society, in which Mayor Watkins was a leading spirit, existed to promote this idea. Burr met Watkins, and through the latter's influence secured the endorsement of this organization. The visitor remained ten or twelve days in the city, during which time he received much social attention. Claiborne, who was not informed of his vague schemes of personal aggrandizement, entertained him at a banquet. Then he departed in the "elegant barge," for St. Louis, leaving behind no definite idea of what he proposed to do, save an impression that he meditated a great filibustering expedition against the Spaniards somewhere, sometime, somehow.

It is not necessary here to follow Burr's subsequent career; suffice it to say that the rumors of his shadowy enterprise were kept afloat in the country a twelvemonth, and served to agitate the public mind everywhere, but especially in New Orleans. Claiborne, partly on the basis of these reports, but also from what he knew of the state of partial mobilization in which the Spanish forces were kept on the frontiers of his territory, anticipated war between the United States and Spain at no distant date, and made what preparations he could for that event. He was surprised, therefore, when in the winter of 1805‑6 Wilkinson removed from New Orleans a large part of the little garrison and sent it up into the Mississippi Territory. To supply the gap in his ranks he appealed to the loyalty of the Creoles, and at first met with a gratifying response. Later on, as the first flush of enthusiasm evaporated, he was compelled to find excuses for their delinquencies: "Society," he wrote, regretfully in January, "is now generally engaged in what seems to be a primary object, the acquisition of wealth," to the exclusion of all other objects.

Two incidents which tended to convince Claiborne that he had reason to fear Spanish designs on New Orleans now occurred. The first was the affair of Père Antoine de Sedella, the Spanish monk, who, as we have seen, tried to introduce the Inquisition in the times of Miro, and who, as we shall see later on, having been purged of many faults, ended by dying reverenced as a saint by the entire community. Sedella was apparently wholly under the influence of Casa Calvo, Morales, and the rest of the Spanish clique which for several years after the acquisition of the Province by the United States made its headquarters in New Orleans, and labored to create difficulties for the new government. "We have here a Spanish priest who is a very dangerous man," wrote Claiborne, in one of his letters to the Secretary of War in Washington; "he rebelled against the superiors of his church, and, I am persuaded, would even rebel against this government, whenever a fit occasion may serve." He accused him of "embracing every opportunity to render" the negro population p80"discontented with the American government." Sedella fell out with the vicar general, Walsh, with the result that in June, 1803, he was deprived of his "faculties," and forbidden to exercise any priestly offices. This action occasioned great turmoil in New Orleans. The people supported him almost to a man, and, as Miss King says, in her delightful account of this famous controversy, "elected" him parish priest in the face of the opposition of his clerical superior.6 Watkins supported Sedella, and when he learned that Walsh was meditating the publication of a pamphlet in which the whole matter was to be set forth, interposed to prevent its publication,7 on the ground that such a work would tend to cause a violation of the public peace. Walsh took the quarrel up to Claiborne. He alleged "the interruption of the public tranquility," in justifying his request for the support of the civil arm, "which has resulted from the ambition of a refractory monk supported in his apostacyº by a misguided populace, and by the constitution of an individual (Casa Calvo?) whose interference is fairly to be attributed less to zeal for the religion he would be thought to serve, than to the indulgence of private passion and the promotion of views which are equally dangerous to religious and civil order." But Claiborne declined to interfere unless there were some actual violation of the peace, and advised "harmony and tolerance." Later on, in October, Claiborne, feeling that Sedella's influence was being used to undermine the position of the Americans in New Orleans, and to prepare the way for a Spanish descent upon the city, summoned the priest to the government house, and, in spite of his protestations of loyalty, required him to take the oath of allegiance, in the presence of Mayor Watkins and of Colonel Bellechasse.8

The other incident was connected with Casa Calvo, himself. This wily intriguer went, in October, 1805, on a journey into the western part of the territory. There was this much occasion for his perturbation about New Orleans and the Spanish — in the bank of the little city lay a sum of money reckoned very large in those days — not less than $2,000,000. The bank had been organized in 1804 under the name of the Louisiana State Bank, and opened for business in January, 1805; but in addition, there was a branch of the United States Bank, of Philadelphia, which likewise had on hand a large amount of specie. Claiborne seems to have felt that one phase of the Spanish plot, which he suspected but could not precisely put his finger on, was to loot these institutions. He sent an American military officer to accompany Casa Calvo to Natchitoches,º and report his actions; and they were sufficiently suspicious to convince the young governor that immediate action was necessary. On the return of the Spanish nobleman he received a courteous letter suggesting that he and Morales ought now to bring to an end their unnecessarily prolonged stay in Louisiana. They ignored the hint, and in February, 1806, Claiborne sent them their passports, politely wishing them a pleasant voyage to whatever part of the Spanish king's dominions they might wish to proceed. Casa Calvo was naturally very indignant at this procedure, but had no option save to depart. The incident had, of course, the effect of increasing the tension between the United States and Spain, and the p81young American governor was more than ever certain that he had now to look to hostilities between the nations.

Into this strained situation there was now injected another and troublesome element. When Burr left New Orleans, in July, 1805, it was with the understanding that he would return in the autumn. He never returned but he sent to the city certain emissaries, whose duty it was to keep alive the sentiment in his favor there. The most prominent of these were Samuel Swartwout, Dr. Eric Bollman and Peter V. Ogden. In October Swartwout, with a confidential letter from Burr, went to Natchitoches where Wilkinson had established his headquarters. He was received with much attention, remained eight days, and then returned to New Orleans. What happened after that is not clear. Wilkinson adopted a procedure which cannot well be explained, but which, at any rate was productive of the most singular consequences for New Orleans. He dispatched a letter to the President of the United States, exposing Burr's nefarious schemes, so far as he knew of them. Then he sent Major Porter to New Orleans with a force of artificers and a company of a hundred regulars, and a few days later he himself hastened down to the city. They arrived in New Orleans early in November. Then followed the hurried repairing, remounting and equipping of every piece of artillery in the town, the preparation of munitions of all descriptions, the overhauling of harnesses and the manning of the forts, the issue of contracts for palisades and instruments of defense, and other evidences of preparations for what was supposed to be an expected attack; and the city was plunged into a state of panic.

In the meantime Burr was on his way down the Mississippi with a force of men which rumor multiplied into a formidable little army, but which was actually a mere handful. Wilkinson had ordered it stopped at Natchez. Was he apprehensive that the arch-conspirator would elude his representatives at that point, and make his way down to the city? Or was he fearful that Clark, Watkins, and other known confidants of Burr in New Orleans would, on hearing of his approach, raise the city in his favor? At any rate, he contrived to create in the minds of the loyal citizens the impression that a grave military necessity existed. He demanded that Claiborne declare martial law. The discrete governor refused to take this extreme step, but consented to a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, and called out the militia, one company of which remained under arms thereafter until the disturbances were at an end. Wilkinson furnished vague but lurid information to the Chamber of Commerce; a large sum of money was subscribed for purposes of defense, and a temporary embargo was recommended on the port for the purpose of facilitating the enrollment of sailors, whom Wilkinson declared he needed. Claiborne mistrusted Wilkinson's motives. He had been advised by Cowles Mead, acting governor of the Mississippi Territory, that Wilkinson was a "traitor [. . .] little better than Cataline." Wilkinson, on the other hand, declared that he "had been betrayed, and therefore 'would' abandon the idea of temporising or concealment the moment after I have secured two persons now in this city." These persons were Burr's confidential agents. On December 14th he arrested Bollman. Two days later Swartwout and Ogden were apprehended at Fort Adams and brought down to New Orleans on a bomb-ketch, which anchored in front of the city. A writ of habeas corpus was sued out, but the people, who evidently approved heartily of Wilkinson's p82measures, offered a passive resistance to its execution which was entirely effective; the court official who undertook to serve the writ found that he could not hire a boat to take him out to the ketch, and the following day, when he did succeed in getting a skiff, he reached the vessel only to find that Swartwout had in the meanwhile been spirited away. Ogden, however, was set free, but Wilkinson immediately had him re-arrested along with a man named Alexander, and held them both in defiance of writs of habeas corpus issued by judge Workman, an attachment against himself, and an appeal to the governor to sustain the authority of the court with force. Workman resigned by way of protest. Wilkinson was in supreme control of the city.

On January 14, 1807, General Adair arrived in New Orleans with the intelligence that Burr would reach the city within the next three days, but without an army — with, in fact, only a single attendant. One would think that discouraging piece of news would have disposed of any possibility of danger, if any ever threatened, of an uprising in New Orleans, as it did of any possibility of an attack on the city at Burr's hands. Burr, as a matter of fact, never passed Natchez. Wilkinson, however, for some reason, felt it necessary to take Adair into custody. A force of 120 regular soldiers surrounded the hotel at which he was staying, and he was arrested while seated at the dinner table, thrust into confinement, and a few days later removed from the city. That day the troops were all under arms; patrols marched up and down the streets of the terrified city, and every person of whom the commander seems to have felt any suspicion was put under arrest, including Judge Workman. At this inopportune moment a Spanish force of 400 men from Pensacola arrived at the mouth of Bayou St. John and sent a messenger in to the governor to request permission to cross American territory to the post at Baton Rouge. Needless to say, this privilege was refused. The circumstances seemed to justify Wilkinson's wildest apprehensions.

Suddenly the whole strange business came to an end. The community awoke from the bad dream which obsessed it. The Legislative Council on January 22d addressed to the governor a communication in which it disclaimed on behalf of the Creoles any sympathy with or participation in the treasonable designs of Burr. Then the members announced their intention to investigate Wilkinson's "extraordinary measures [. . .] and the motives which had induced them, and to present the same to the Congress of the United States." There is, however, some indication that Wilkinson was acting with Jefferson's approval.9

On January 28th the news of Burr's arrest at Natchez was received in New Orleans, and on the 3d of March, that he had been re-arrested at Fort Stoddard, Alabama. About the middle of May, Wilkinson sailed from New Orleans for Virginia, to testify in the trial of Burr. With his departure the last trace of disorder disappeared.10

In the midst of this exciting episode Mayor Watkins was called on to deal with another danger much more real and terrible in character. This was a conspiracy among the negro slaves to burn the city and slaughter p83the inhabitants. "It seems that a white man, a fresh importation from Santo Domingo, where he had doubtless served an apprenticeship to the crimes which have plunged that unfortunate island into the depths of destruction, has been for some time employed as a workman in the shops of Mr. Duverne, a respectable citizen of the Faubourg Ste. Marie," wrote Watkins, in a long communication to the council, describing the occurrence, under date of September 28, 1805. "One day this wretch, who was named Grandjean, confided to a fellow employee, a mulatto man named Celestin, who was likewise employed by Duverne, a plan for a general insurrection of the slaves, the success of which would involve the destruction of the lives and fortunes of the whites." "Celestin," continued Watkins, "guided by natural sentiments of humanity, like a faithful slave, and without loss of time, communicated the information to Mr. Duverne, who, in turn, and conjointly with Celestin, apprised me thereof, accompanied for that purpose by Colonel Dorcière. Measures were immediately taken not only to frustrate the plot and apprehend its author, but to secure sufficient proof to convict him of the appalling crime which he was concerting against the peace of the territory. With this object in view we advised several free persons of color, both intelligent and of good character, to get themselves presented to Grandjean as individuals likely to second him in his enterprise, and who, under this disguise, were to obtain from him all the details of the conspiracy, in order to fit themselves to give testimony eventually before the courts. This plan proved successful, for Grandjean committed himself fully to them and explained his scheme, which was to be carried out in the following manner: He said that, although the real leader, he was to be known only to ten persons, who were to be the ostensible chieftains. These ten chiefs were then to communicate the secret to ten others, and so on indefinitely. Messengers were to be sent among the negroes at Natchez and to those at adjacent places. 'Commandeurs' or negro 'drivers' were to be especially won over, and at an appointed hour on a certain day the decisive blow was to be struck. The insurgents were to make themselves masters of the different streets of the city, get possession of the soldiers' barracks, and of the different public warehouses, surprise the state house, and other government buildings, massacre everyone who offered resistance, and finally set the city on fire, if it could not be subjugated in any other way."

As soon as the mayor had in hand all the threads of the conspiracy he called in consultation Colonel Bellechasse, Col. Dorcière and Mr. Duverne. A force of gendarmes was taken along. They surrounded the Duverne workshop. Bellechasse found a position where, without being himself seen, he was able to overhear Grandjean talking to his fellow operatives and obtained in this way a confirmation of the information that had already been laid before the mayor. The place was then raided and Grandjean was put under arrest. He was put in prison, brought to trial and received a life sentence at hard labor in the chain gang.

The mayor brought before the City Council the matter of an award for Celestin and the other colored people who had by their loyalty averted what could hardly have failed to prove a serious situation, even had the projected uprising failed of the terrible completeness which its originator hoped for it. The Council deputed two of its members, Messrs. Pedesclaux and Arnaud, to confer with Celestin's master, a Mr. Robelot, p84with reference to his manumission; and the price of $2,000 having been agreed upon, the corporation appropriated the money, and the mulatto became a "free man of color." The Council also adopted resolutions eulogizing the other negroes who had assisted in trapping Grandjean and made substantial grants of money in their favor.11

A few minor events connected with the administration of Mayor Watkins may also be noted.º In 1805 steps were taken to improve the paving by requiring the laying of sidewalks, or "banquettes," in front of property throughout the city. It was required that these "banquettes" should be of brick, wood or masonry of some sort, at least five feet wide, with curbs of cypress. In that year, also, Matthew Flannery undertook the publication of the first city directory. We may note, also, an election of councilmen on February 23, 1807, when Porée, Faurie, De Fléchier, Bertonnière, Carraby, LeBreton, Des Chapelles, and F. M. Guerin were elected to the City Council. On August 19, 1805, Claiborne addressed to Mayor Watkins a letter agreeing to withdraw the regular troops from the Cabildo, where they had hitherto been stationed, in order to leave the lower floor of that building clear for the use of the police. Up to this time a detachment of United States soldiers had been on duty there both by day and by night. Their principal duty was to turn out when the ruffling of drums announced the approach of the mayor, line up in two ranks before the great door of the Cabildo and present arms as his honor passed between them to enter or to leave the building. Their place was now taken by the police, but this picturesque ceremony was continued, nor was it abolished until Mayor Freret's time. That democratic official, considering this parade a useless and absurd survival of Spanish days, directed its discontinuance, with the result that his "democratic spirit" was warmly praised in the newspapers.

Watkins adorned his retirement from office with a few flowers of rhetoric. "If I have been so happy as to have served the public usefully," he said, in his last message to the City Council, "it has been due principally to the assistance which you have given me, and to the wisdom of the measures which you have adopted. In this persuasion [. . .] I beg of you to receive the offer of my gratitude and that you will receive the assurance that, if there is anything which can add to the satisfaction furnished by a pure conscience in my retirement, it will be found in the hope that you will honor me with your esteem."12

He was succeeded by James Mather, appointed mayor by Claiborne on March 9, 1807. Mather served till October 8, 1812. He was an Englishman by birth, but upon the acquisition of the Province of Louisiana by the United States, seems to have identified himself wholeheartedly with the American cause. His residence in New Orleans dated back many years. As early as 1780 we hear of him as a merchant in good circumstances, contracting with the Spanish Government to operate two vessels out of the port, with a view to import articles required in the trade with the Indians.13 In 1804, when Boré, Bellechasse, Jones and Clark had refused to serve on the Territorial Council under an appointment from the President of the United States, he had been selected by Claiborne, along with Dorcière, Flood and Pollock, to take p85their places.14 The principal event in Mather's administration was the arrival of the West Indian emigrants. A few other incidents, however, may be first mentioned. Scarcely had he taken his seat when he was informed that Burr's friends in the city, including some of the most prominent people, had formed an association and were conspiring with the Spanish to deliver New Orleans into their hands. Claiborne, although disposed to make light of the intelligence, deemed it wise to reinforce the garrison heavily, and this precaution caused the conspiracy, if such there were, to evaporate.15 In November, 1809, a negro insurrection was averted by the employment of a similar expedient. Disturbances among the negroes on the German Coast, not far from New Orleans, were expected to react on the black population in New Orleans, but the militia was set to patrol the streets and two companies of regulars were hurried to the scene and the peace was not troubled.16 Finally, in August, 1812, a severe storm did extensive damage to the city. Buildings belonging to the corporation sustained damages to the extent of about $60,000.

In 1806 the population of New Orleans was about 12,000 souls, of whom about 7,500 were whites. Within the next four years the total rose to 24,552. The reason for this remarkable increase was the arrival in New Orleans of several thousand persons who had formerly been residents of the Island of Santo Domingo, but who had been driven from that place by the servile wars. There was also a small influx of Americans. But the increase in the population from this source was smaller than is generally supposed. In 1806 the entire number of white inhabitants in New Orleans whose language was neither French nor Spanish was about 1,400. Three years later the proportion of Americans was about 12 to 100 of the total population — or about 14, counting the white population only. The Santo Domingans, on fleeing from their own island, had found refuge with their slaves and other property in Cuba. But now war broke out between France and Spain, and they were compelled to seek another place of exile. The ties of a common religion, a common language, and a common political sentiment, attracted them to Louisiana. Within the space of two months, from May 19 to July 18, 1809, thirty-four vessels arrived in the port of New Orleans from Cuba, with 5,754 of these hapless people on board. Thirty-two of these vessels were from Santiago de Cuba, one from Havana, and one from Baracoa. They were all small; the hardships of the voyage had been great, even to the point of starvation, and not a few arrived sick and destitute. Mayor Mather has left on record the fact that 400 poor widows, children and old men were cared for by the charity of the community. In this first delegation were 1,798 whites, 1,977 free persons of color, and 1,979 slaves. Subsequently, other groups of fleeing French, white and black, found their way to the city — in all a total estimated at 10,000.

The city was in no condition to receive so considerable an addition to its population. There was a particular objection to immigration from this source. The Creoles did not welcome the newcomers because of their fear that with them would come the terrible spirit which had led up to the servile revolt in Santo Domingo. Claiborne appealed to the p86American consuls at Havana to stop the movement; the free people of color were ordered to leave the territory, though few of them did so; and other futile measures were taken to fend off the imaginary danger. The Americans also saw the influx of these refugees with disfavor. The latter reinforced the Creoles, who, as a class, were already beginning to show that hostility to the Americans which down to the Civil War prevented the amalgamation into one homogeneous community all of the various elements that made up New Orleans. The price of bread and lodging was forced up abnormally by this sudden increase of population.

Mayor Mather has left us an account of the Santo Domingans. "The blacks," he writes, "have been trained up to the habits of strict discipline and consist wholly of Africans brought up from Guineamen in the Island of Cuba, or faithful slaves who have fled with their masters from St. Domingo as early as 1803. [. . .] A few characters among the free people of color have been represented to me as dangerous to the peace of the territory. [. . .] I have been particular in causing such as have been informed against to give bond for their leaving the territory within the time allotted for such cases." The white contingent excited the good mayor's sympathy. "The whites," he adds, "consisting chiefly of planters and merchants of St. Domingo who took refuge on the shores of Cuba about six years ago, appear to be an active, industrious people. They evince until now on every occasion their respect for our laws and their confidence in our Government. They have suffered a great deal both at sea and in the river. [. . .] Several have died and many are now a prey to diseases originating, as it appears, from the use of unwholesome food and from the foul air they have breathed while heaped together with their slaves in the holds of small vessels during their passage from Cuba."17 Most of these people supported themselves in New Orleans by hiring out their slaves as day laborers. They were quickly absorbed into the population of the city. Not after this eventful year are the Santo Domingans ever heard of again as a separate class. "The men became overseers, managers of plantations, clerks, teachers, musicians, actors — anything to make the first bare necessities of life. The women did embroidery, sewing, dressmaking, millinery, living or lodging, not in the new brick houses, but in little two-room cottages opposite or alongside. [. . .] It was the refugees from the West Indies that brought the love of luxury into the colony, the Creoles before that time, many believing and maintaining, being simple in their tastes and plain in their living. It would seem, from the constant mention made of it in family legends, that the tropical ease and languor of the West Indian women was indeed as much a novelty in the feminine world as the always emphasized distinction, the literary tastes, and accomplishments of the West Indian men were in the masculine world."18

In September of this same year Mayor Mather was called on to face a serious situation which arose as a result of the attempt of the eminent lawyer, Edward Livingston, to get possession of the "batture," or sandy deposits, made by the Mississippi River in front of the Faubourg Ste. Marie.b Livingston was a brother of the celebrated Chancellor Livingston. His home was originally in New York City. He came to New Orleans in 1801 as a fugitive from justice.19 He was an intimate friend of p87Daniel Clark, and it is supposed that the latter's influence shielded him from prosecution when New Orleans passed under American control. At any rate, he continued to practise his profession in this city with great success. Livingston purchased a property above Canal Street and claimed as riparian owner all the river deposits between his land and the water line. The claim was opposed by President Jefferson on the ground that the "batture" was public land belonging to the United States under the treaty of cession. The question was long before the courts; in fact, it was not settled until after both Livingston and Madison had been laid to rest, and resulted finally in a decision in the Supreme Court of the United States confirming the title to this immensely valuable property to the City of New Orleans.20

The attempt of Livingston to take possession of the property which he claimed led to two outbreaks, somewhat inaccurately remembered in New Orleans as "riots." The "batture" had been used for many years by the city as a commons. Livingston, having obtained an order confirming his claim from the Superior Court of the territory, in August, 1807, sent some negroes to work to dig a canal there, but the citizens assembled in considerable force and drove them away. This took place during a temporary absence of Claiborne from the city. On his return he found the city greatly excited over the incident. Livingston appealed to the governor. The City Council, on its side, passed a resolution requesting the governor to take steps to have its title confirmed without delay. Claiborne was non-plussed. "The opposition of the people to a decision of the court is in itself so improper and furnishes a precedent so dangerous that it cannot be constituted," he said. "But the opposition is on the present occasion so general that I feel myself compelled to resort to measures the most conciliatory as the only means of avoiding still greater tumult, and, perhaps, bloodshed."21 Livingston lost no time in instituting civil proceedings against the more prominent citizens who had opposed his attempt to take possession of the "batture." On September 15th he again sent laborers to the scene. At 4:00 o'clock the sound of a drum was heard in the streets of the city; the population rallied by thousands, and, pouring out in the direction of the "batture," prepared to enforce their wishes. Only the prompt interposition of Claiborne averted serious consequences; and that only when he agreed to commend to the President of the United States the claim of the city, and to place the matter in the hands of Colonel Macarty, who was present as one of the leaders of the populace.22 The long litigation which ensued had a bad effect upon the development of the Faubourg Ste. Marie, which might otherwise have become the real center of the city much sooner than it actually did.

Other events which agitated the city in this year were a series of collisions between American and European sailors, who met each other in genuine battle on the levee so frequently that Claiborne felt again the necessity of moving additional regulars into the city. The libelous publications in a newspaper called "La Lanterne Magique," the local organ of the Burr faction, help also to stir up excitement against the Government p89and its officers.23 The municipality found itself involved in extensive litigation with one Trémé over the property on which the now demolished fortifications had stood at the lower extremity of the city. Trémé, it appears, obstructed the drains there, on the ground that the property was his, having been acquired before the building of the forts. There was also litigation with one Lafon over the possession of a strip of the common lying between the upper boundary of the city and the Faubourg Ste. Marie. Many similar suits were brought on titles which Mather, writing to Claiborne, in August, 1809, said had been outlawed in Spanish times, and were now resurrected with a view to annoy the administration. In 1812 the mayor and the Council disagreed when the latter undertook to appoint commissioners of election without first getting the former's approval. "I must infer that you are determined to oppose all the measures which I may propose in accord with the law," he wrote bitterly; but agreed to issue the appropriate proclamation, with the understanding that his rights in the premises had been vindicated.24

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Map of New Orleans, 1815
A larger, fully readable scan (1.9 MB) is also available.

Mather was able to accomplish little with regard to the police but did succeed in organizing a tolerably efficient fire department. The former continued to be the scandal and menace of the city. The "Garde de Ville" created in 1806, having proven a complete failure, was, in 1808, reduced to eight men, who thereafter were known as constables. The militia patrol of 1804 was then revived, with the chief of the "Garde de Ville" in charge thereof. This system continued for fourteen years, with only such changes as arose from the necessity of increasing the number of constables as the city grew in size. The men who served in the patrol were, like the firemen, volunteers. They were private citizens and received no pay.25

The frequency of incendiary fires made the necessity of a good fire department evident. In 1807, therefore, the City Council passed a rigid law, fixing the limits in which the building of wooden structures was forbidden, and requiring every householder to have on his premises a well equipped with at least two buckets. A depot for four engines, known as the Depot des Pompes, was located at the city hall (Cabildo). Here were deposited twelve dozen buckets, twelve ladders, ten grappling-irons and chains, ten gaffs and quantities of axes, sledge hammers, shovels and other implements employed at that time, when the principal method of preventing the spread of fire was to tear down the adjoining properties. Six other engines were provided for, one of which was stationed in each of the four "quarters" into which the city was divided for the purposes of combating fire; one at the St. Philip Theater, and one in the Faubourg Ste. Marie. To each engine was assigned company of from twelve to twenty-four men. In addition was a reserve company of thirty "sapeurs," composed of workingmen habituated to the use of tools, whose duty was to tear down property to prevent the spread of fire. A review of the department was held every month, on Sunday, in the Place d'Armes, where the engines, which were operated by hand, were tested.

The firemen were all volunteers, like the militia patrolmen. Their only compensation was a provision by which they were exempted from jury duty. This privilege was enjoyed by the firemen thereafter down p90to the disbandment of the volunteer fire department, over eighty years later. Provision was also made for a fire alarm service, but it was of an exceedingly primitive order. A watchman was stationed day and night on the upper part of the St. Louis cathedral, whose duty it was, in addition to sounding the hours, to keep a lookout for signs of fire, and on the first sight of a blaze to ring the church bell by way of signal. All the watchmen who were not otherwise specially detailed were required to report to the Cabildo immediately upon the sounding of the alarm. Thence they were to proceed to the scene of the conflagration in squads along parallel streets, obliging all persons whom they met to accompany them, in order to man the engines and aid in extinguishing the flames.26

In view of the frequency of incendiary fires the Council in 1807 also passed a resolution offering a reward of $500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person guilty of this crime. The Legislature also took cognizance of the crime by passing an act by which slaves were allowed to give testimony against their masters in cases of arson. In such cases, where the slave furnished the information upon which the prosecution was based, it was provided that he should be rewarded by receiving his freedom.27 Still another and important improvement concerned the water supply. In May, 1810, the Council made a contract with Louis Gleizes to furnish "a sufficient supply of the Mississippi water not only for the use of the inhabitants but also to water the streets and to extinguish fire in the case of conflagration."28 Gleizes laid a system of wooden conduits to various parts of the town. He was paid not by the municipality but by selling the water to the persons with whose houses the system was connected.

The closing years of Mather's administration brought him much criticism. He was accused of being under the influence of certain individuals; of failing to protect the interests of the city by vetoing the unwise measures of the City Council; of hiring people to write anonymous letters attacking his enemies and paying them with public funds.29 There does not appear to have been any grounds for these accusations. They were, however, in part responsible for the determination arrived at in 1812 to retire from public life. Advancing years and declining health were also considerations which prompted his withdrawal.


The Author's Notes:

1 Louisiana Gazette, 1805.

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2 Rightor, "Standard History of New Orleans," 111‑112.

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3 Louisiana Gazette, May 31, June 2, 14, 16, 1805.

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4 Smith, "Life of Philander Chase," 63‑65.

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5 Channing, "The Federalist System," 155‑159.

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6 King, New Orleans, the Place and the People, 176; Latrobe, Journal of Latrobe, 190.

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7 Records of the City Council, May 29, 30, 1805, in New Orleans City Archives.

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8 Shea, "Life and Times of Bishop Carroll."

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9 See Jefferson's letter to Claiborne, quoted in Fortier, Louisiana, I, 136: "The Federalists will try to make something of the infringement of liberty by the military arrest and deportation of citizens," he writes; and he expresses the hope that public would in the end approve the actions of Wilkinson, if the infringement did not go too far.

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10 See Wilknson, "Memoirs of My Own Times, II, Chaps. VIII, IX.

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11 See Records of the Municipality in the New Orleans City Archives, September-October, 1805, passim.

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12 Records of the City Council, March 7, 1807, in New Orleans City Archives.

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13 Gayarré, "History of Louisiana," II, 162.

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14 Martin, "History of Louisiana," II, 252.

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15 Rowland, "Letter Books of W. C. C. Claiborne," IV, 279, 304, 309.

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16 Ibid., 18.

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17 Rowland, "Letter Books of W. C. C. Claiborne," IV, 381‑402, 403, 405.

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18 Grace King, New Orleans, the Place and the People, 171, 172.

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19 Sparks, "Memories of Fifty Years," 426.

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20 Ibid., 427.

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21 Gayarré, "History of Louisiana," IV, 186. See also Louisiana Courier, November 4, 16, 1807.

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22 Waring and Cable, "Social Statistics of Cities, Report on the History and Present Condition of New Orleans," 36, 37.

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23 Ibid., 37.

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24 Records of City Council, September 19, 1812, in the New Orleans City Archives.

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25 See Louisiana Courier, December 18, 1807.

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26 Ordinances of February 14, 1806, and March 14, 1807.

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27 Rightor, "Standard History of New Orleans," 120‑121.

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28 Record of the City Council, May 10, 19, 1810, in the City Archives of New Orleans.

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29 Louisiana Gazette, 1810.


Thayer's Notes:

a Further details about this drawing are given in Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 3, p248, in connection with the seal of the State of Louisiana. A closer view of it, with improved detail in the right background, is found in James Ripley Jacobs, Tarnished Warrior, p204.

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b The batture riots of 1809 are also covered by Gayarré, History of Louisiana, IV.185 ff.


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