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Introduction

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
New Orleans:
The Place and the People

by
Grace King

published by The Macmillan Company
New York, 1926

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 2

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.


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p1 Chapter I

"Voici mon fleuve aux vagues solennelles :

En demi-lune il se courbe en passant,

Et la cité, comme un aiglon naissant,

A son flanc gauche étend ses jeunes ailes."

— Alfred Mercier.

In the continuity of a city which has a historical foundation and a historical past, there is much secular consolation for the transitoriness of human life. To the true city-born, city-bred heart, nothing less than the city itself is home, and nothing less than the city is family; and, more than in our hearts, do we look in the city for the memorials that keep our dead in vital reach of us. Here they worked, walked, talked, frequented; here they mused, even as we are musing; here they met their adventures of love, their triumphs, their failures; here they sowed and reaped their religion and politics, held meetings, dispensed eloquence, protested, commented, even as we are doing now, committing follies and heroisms. Through these streets they were carried in their nurses' arms; through these streets they were carried in their coffins. These stars, passing over these heavens, passed so for them; and these seasons, by local promises and disappointments so personally our own, sped by the same for p2them, marking off their springs, summers, autumns, and winters, of content and discontent. As we walk along the banquettes, our steps feel their footprints, and even the houses about us, new and fresh, and ignoble heirs as we hold them to be of respected ruins, with kindly loyalty to site, still throw down ancestral tokens to us. And not only the city inanimate, if as such it can be called inanimate, but the city animate, — the people, — how it eternalizes us to ourselves, to one another, old, young, white, black, free, slave; here we stand linked together, by name and circumstance, by affiliation and interdependence, by love and hate, justice and injustice, virtue and crime, indisputable sequences in the grand logic of humanity, binding one another, generation by generation, to generation and generation, until the youngest baby hand of to‑day can clasp its way back to its first city parent, to the city founder, Bienville himself, — and from him, linking on to what a civic pedigree! Enumerating from them haphazard: La Salle, Louis XIV, Marquette, Joliet, Colbert, Pontchartrain, Iberville, the Regent, Louis XV, Carlos III, the great Napoleon, the great Jefferson.

It is not entirely a disadvantage to be born a member of a small isolated metropolis, instead of a great central one. If the seed of its population be good and strong, if the geographical situation be a fortunate one, if the detachment from, and connection with, the civilized world be nicely adjusted, the former being definite and the latter difficult (and surely these conditions were met with a century and a half ago on the banks of the Mississippi), there follows for the smaller metropolis a freedom of development, with a resultant p3clearness of character, which is as great a gain for a city as for an individual. In such a smaller mother-city, individual acts assume an importance, individual lives an intrinsic value, which it would be absurd to attribute to inhabitants of a great centre; our gods seem closer to us, our fates more personal; we come nearer than they to having our great ones, our martyrs and heroes, and we can be bolder in our conviction of having them, and we can have the naïveté, despite ridicule, to express this conviction. It were a poor New Orleanian, indeed, who could not ennoble a hundred street corners, at least, (if the city were so minded and so dowered with wealth) with statues of the good and great men and women of our own production. And we can show saints and martyrs, even now in our midst, than whom, we think, palms never crowned worthier!

It is called the Crescent City, the Mississippi River, in its incessant travail of building and destroying, having here shaped its banks into the concave and convex edges of the moon in its first quarter. The great river is the city's stream of destiny, feared and loved, dreaded and worshipped; it seems at times, when its gigantic yellow floods rise high above the level of the land, threatening momentarily to rend like cobwebs the stout levees that withstand it, — it seems then like some huge, pitiless, tawny lion of the desert, playing with a puny victim in its paw. And then, again, flowing in opulent strength, laden with beneficence and wealth, through its crescent harbor, — it seems a dear giant Hermes, tenderly resting the metropolis, like an infant, on his shoulder.

Could we penetrate to the secret archives of the p4Mississippi, the private chronicles of its making, the atmospheric, tidal, and volcanic episodes in its majestic evolution, what a drama of nature would be unfolded! One that, in inflexibility of purpose, and sublime persistence of effort, might feebly be described as human. And the Promethean contest still goes on. Still, the great inland water-power fights its way to the South. Ever further and further it throws its turbid stream, through the clear green depths of the Mexican Gulf; ever firmer and surer advances its yellow banks against the rushing, raging, curling breakers; still ever, year by year, fixing its great, three-tongued mouth, with deadly grip, on its unfathomable rival.

The political history of the Mississippi begins, characteristically, one may say, with the appearance of this three-tongued mouth, on the Tabula Terre Nove in the 1513 Ptolemy, made by Waldseemüller before 1508. This map, traced back to an original of some date before 1502, throws us, searching for the discoverer of the Mississippi, into the glorious company of the immediate contemporaries of Christopher Columbus himself. The mind, as well as the heart, warms at the inference that to no one less than Americus Vespucius, is due the presence of the Mississippi on this old map, a record, perhaps, of the voyage of Pinzon and Solis, which he accompanied as pilot and astronomer.

To Alvarez de Pineda, 1519, is ascribed the honour of the first exploration of the river, and its first name, Rio del Santo Espiritu; an honour that would have remained uncontested, had the over-sharp explorer not praised his exploit out of all topographical recognition, so peopling its banks with Indian tribes, and decking them with villages glittering, according to the taste of p5the time, with silver, gold, and precious stones, that an impartial reader is placed in the dilemma of either refusing credence to the veracity of the explorer, or to the veracity of the three-tongued mouth on the map. Pineda's fable of the golden ornaments of the Indians of the Espiritu Santo was the ignis fatuus that lured Pamphilo de Narvaez, in 1528, to his expedition, ship-wreck, and death in the Delta.

One comes into clear daylight in the history of the Mississippi only with Hernandez de Soto. The river burst, in 1542, in all its majesty and might, upon the gaze of that fanatical seeker of El Dorado, as he marched across the continent. But it could not impede or detain him. When the blur disappeared at last from before his bewildered vision, and his gold-struck eyes recovered sight, and beheld his haggard desperation, he turned his steps back to the great river, and, hard pressed now by starvation, fever, and goading disappointment, he but gained its banks in time to die under the grateful shade of spring foliage, and find inviolate sepulture for his corpse in its turbid depths.


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A swamp scene.

A century and a half passed and the Mississippi p6relapsed to its old Indian name and to its aboriginal mystery and seclusion. The huge drift of its annual flood accumulated at its mouth in fantastic heaps, which in time, under action of rain, wind, and sun, took the semblance of a weird stone formation and an impregnable barrier. "Los Palissados" the Spanish sea‑farers and buccaneers called them, avoiding them, not only with real, but with superstitious terror.

To the seventeenth-century colonists of Canada, the stream was, one might say, so unknown that when the Indians told of a great river flowing through the continent, cutting it in two, they jumped to the conclusion (their wishes being to them logical inference) that the stream flowed from east to west, and so would furnish to the French their El Dorado, — a western passage to China.

This false inference was the inspiration of that great epic of colonial literature, the story of Robert Cavelier de la Salle, the Don Quixote of pioneer chronicles. His imagination, great as the Mississippi itself, turned its irresistible currents into this one channel, — the discovery and exploration of the new route to China. His enthusiasm, unfortunately, infected all with whom he talked, from the trader and half-breed at his side, up through church and state, priests, intendants, governors, courtiers, ministers, princes, to the very fountain head of power and authority, to the king himself, making them all, in more or less degree, his Sancho Panzas. And at the end of thirteen years of such vicissitudes as no human imagination would have the fertility to conceive, the river was found to flow not west, nor into any communicable reach of China, but south, into the Gulf of Mexico!

p7 La Salle's ardour reacted, however, from any disappointment that this might imply, and soared into probabilities superior in thrilling interest even to expectations from China. In the year 1682, standing on the desolate bank of the Mississippi, he, in the name of the king of France, took possession of it, and of its country, north, south, east, and west, to the extreme limit of verbal comprehension, christening the river St. Louis, and the country Louisiana. Through the sonorous sentences of his "prise de possession" shines the glittering future that dazzled his eyes. In easy reach of the treasure house of the king of Spain, the mines of Mexico, France had but to extend her hand at any time to grasp them, if she did not discover vaster, richer ones, in this new, undeveloped country. Already owning Canada and the great Western Lakes, this great central waterway and valley of North America, with its opening on the Gulf (the West Indian highway), gave France such grip upon the country that, by mere expansion of forts and settlements, England and Spain could be elbowed into the oceans on either side. Such a vision might have fired any imagination.

The place La Salle proposed to fortify on the river Colbert, as he again re-christened the Mississippi, was sixty leagues above its mouth, where, he said, the soil was very fertile, the climate mild, and whence the French could control the American continent. Thus and then was the idea of New Orleans conceived. It was not granted the author, however, to give the idea actuality, the gods having planned the story otherwise.

His determination and attempt, from 1684 to 1687, to found the city and bring his colony and stores to it, p8through its Gulf entrance, and not by way of Canada, furnish the misfortunes, calamities, and culminating catastrophe of the incredibly heartrending last chapter of his life. The indomitable courage and inflexible perseverance he displayed could be overmatched, it would seem, only by the like qualities in his evil genius. One rises somewhat to his own sublimity of desperation, as, even after two centuries, one reads the relentless record of the ill steering that threw his expedition upon the coast of Texas, of his struggle for hope and life, of his attempt to seek on foot help from Canada; of his betrayal and assassination. It is a wild and mournful story, as Parkman calls it.

La Salle's idea, however, arose only more radiantly triumphant from the blood-soaked earth of his Texas grave, and the true spirit of his enthusiasm lived in the enthusiasm he had engendered. When the proper moment came, his scheme was vital enough in governmental centres to kindle into energy the will to give it another chance at success. The proper moment arrived in 1697, when the Peace of Ryswick granted a breathing-space to war-driven Europe. Louis XIV was quick to seize it. Pontchartrain, the Minister of Marine, was as prompt in furnishing the means. Maurepas, his son and private secretary, was ready with the man, Pierre Lemoyne d'Iberville.


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Spanish dagger.
Canadian born and bred, and, in the commentary of his governor, "As military as his sword and as used to water as his canoe," with all the practical qualities of character since claimed as American, in primal freshness and vigour, Iberville seems the man as clearly pre-destined to succeed in the new World, as La Salle, the mediaeval genius, seems predestined to fail in it. Iberville's p11enterprise as we call it now and determination to recognize no eventuality but success, appeared in truth to discourage (as enterprise and determination have a way of doing) the very efforts of wind and tide against him. The expedition he led from Brest, in 1698, steered straight across the Gulf on its course, without accident or misadventure; he ships anchored safe in the harbor of Ship Island; and, from the very jaws of the tempest, his barges glided into security through one of the dread palisadoed mouths of the Mississippi. And, as if still further to accentuate his festal fortune, it was on the Mardi Gras of 1699, while France was laughing, dancing, carousing, and masquerading, that he erected her cross and arms upon the soil of Louisiana, and reaffirmed her possession of a colony greater in extent than her whole European world.

After exploring the river for five hundred miles, the nature and possibilities of the country gradually unfolded to Iberville, and La Salle's far-reaching scheme, for French domination in America, appeared in its true significance to him; and he became the ardent champion of it. Discarding his predecessors' wild and erring calculations upon the existence of silver mines in Louisiana, he cared only for the military and political importance of the new possession; and referred to the Mexican mines only to suggest the feasibility of capturing them at any time, with a handful of buccaneers and coureurs de bois, or at least of way-laying the gold and silver laden caravels on their way to Spain. La Salle's project of a chain of fortified posts along the line of the Mississippi and of the great tributaries from Canada to the Gulf, he supplemented with a practical plan for consolidating the Indians into connecting p12links between the posts, and so, holding not only the country but the people also, to France.

On the voyage up the river, the Indian guide conducted Iberville to the portage which crossed the narrow strip of land between the Mississippi and the arm of the Gulf, afterwards called Lake Pontchartrain. A few miles below, in a sharp bend of the bank, was a small, rude, savage stronghold, that commanded the river; near by were some deserted huts. The indications fixed the locality in the mind of Iberville, and of his young brother and companion, Bienville, as the proper one for the future city.

But the Canadian first made sure of his country. He fixed a fort and garrison at the mouth of the Mississippi; established a strongly fortified settlement on the Gulf at Biloxi, held on to his harbor of Ship Island, and planted outposts at Mobile, to guard against enterprise from the Spaniards at Pensacola.

The waters of the Gulf of Mexico seemed ever of yore to woo the ambitious with irresistible temptations. The spirits of the old Spanish adventurers were its sirens, and the song they sang of lawless freedom, conquest, and power, turned many an honest captain into a buccaneer, and maddened buccaneers, with dreams of empire and dominion, into pirates. It was the song of all others to fire the martial heart of Iberville. Gradually, he deflected from the La Salle idea, or bent it into an Iberville idea, — a French (or at times one suspects, an Iberville) domination of all the islands of the Gulf and the mastery of its waters. For such a scheme, a stronghold on the Gulf was of far more value than a city on the Mississippi; consequently, the establishment was removed from Biloxi p13to the more accessible Mobile, which became the capital and centre of the colony.

Magnetized by past successes against the English, into perfect confidence of future ones, Iberville obtained from his government a strong armament, and sailed with it into his new field of action. As a preliminary experiment, he captured the little islands of Nevis and St. Christopher; then, finding the English at Barbadoes and the larger islands prepared for him, he decided, instead of attacking them at that moment, to surprise and raid the coast of the Carolinas, as he once, with brilliant barbarity, had done to the coast of Newfoundland. But, stopping at Havana for a promised reinforcement of Spaniards, he was seized with the yellow fever, raging there in epidemic, and died in the full vigour of his prime, in the year 1706.


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Palmetto palm.


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Page updated: 25 Sep 05