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Chapter 2

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

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 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

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On Bayou St. John.

 p33  Chapter III

Bienville had never wavered in his conviction that the raison d'être of the French domination of Louisiana was but the possession and control of the Mississippi. This control, as he reiterated in every report, could only be assured by colonizing its banks and by establishing upon it the capital city of the colony. For eighteen years the founding of this city grew from the fair ambition of the youth to the settled determination of the middle-aged man. On his excursions from Mobile he recurs again and again to the site, between the river and the lake, shown to him and Iberville by the Indian guide. He and Pennicaut, as Pennicaut relates, traversed it often on foot, and he settled some Canadians upon it to make trial of its soil and climate, and, as far as in him lay, he made it the official portage of the colony, through which communication was made between the lake and the river when the difficult entrance of the latter by mouth was to be avoided.

It was twenty years before the opportunity came for which he was waiting. In September, 1717, Louisiana, by royal charter, passed into the great colonial assets of that company of the west, by which John Law proposed to scheme France out of financial bankruptcy into the  p34 millennium of unlimited credit. In February, 1718, Law's Pactolus of speculation floated its first shiploads of men, money, and provisions to Louisiana. Out of them Bienville grasped the beginnings of his city. When the ships returned to France, they carried back with them the official announcement that it had been founded, and named after the Regent, Duke of Orleans.

What a picture flashes upon the eye with the name! There is absolutely no seeing of Bienville's group of palmetto-thatched huts by the yellow currents of the Mississippi. Instead, there is the brilliant epoch of the regency, — that "century in eight years," as it has been well called — that burst upon France like a pyrotechnic display, after the protracted, sombre old age of Louis XIV, when Paris, intoxicated by the rush of new life in her veins, staggered through her orgies of pleasure, arts, science, literature, finance, politics, — after her leader, her lover, the Regent Duke; her fair flower and the symbol of all that the eighteenth century contained of worst and best, the incarnation of all that is vicious, of all that is genial, debased, charming, handsome, witty, restless, tolerant, generous, sceptical, good-natured, shrewd. Kindly adjectives are so much quicker in their services to describe him than harsh ones, anecdotes and bon-mots are so ready-winged to fly to his succour against condemnation, that one feels the impotence against him that actuated his own mother to invent an apologue to explain him, an apologue, par parenthèse, that might have been invented also to explain his American city. "The fairies were all invited to my bedside; and, as each one gave my son a talent, he had them all. Unhappily, one old fairy had been forgotten. Arriving after the others, she exclaimed in her pique: 'He  p35 will have all the talents except that of being able to make use of them.' "

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Court house in which Jackson was tried.

And what a rôle in that Paris of the Regent was the Mississippi to play, with her Louisiana and her infant city of New Orleans? In truth, like Cinderella at the king's ball, she dazzled all eyes until the fatal limit of her time expired. Historians describe how the names of Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Orleans filled the cafés where the new Arabian luxury held enchanted sway over men's mind. It is said that France never talked so much or so well as under the influence of the subtle stimulant, "which sharpens precision and sublimates lucidity," — "le café, qui supprime la vague et lourde poésie des fumées de l'imagination, qui, du réel bien vu, fait jaillir l'étincelle et l'éclair de la vérité." And it may be said that France never had more to talk  p36 about, a more inspiring subject for facile tongues, than Law, his great scheme and his evangel, "Riches can be a creation of faith." There was, of course, a claque to lead applause for it; all the literature that could hang to it appeared suddenly on the streets; wonderful books of travel and adventure in the New World in the Islands, as, in their geographical ignorance, the people called America; and pictures — a telling print showing a savage paying a Frenchman a piece of gold for a knife; — it all took. Love of pleasure begets need of money. Law had his time and people made to his hand. A wild frenzy of speculation spread like the rabies, and — but a satirical verse of the time rolls it off for us:—

"Aujourd'hui il n'est plus question,

Ni de la Constitution,

Ni de la guerre contre l'Espagne ;

Un nouveau Pais de Cocagne,

Que l'on nomme Mississippi,

Roule à présent sur le Tapis.

Sans Charbon, Fourneau ni Soufflet

Un homme a trouvé le secret,

De la pierre philosophale,

Dans cette terre occidentale,

Et fait voir, jusqu'à présent,

Que nous étions des ignorants.

Il a fait de petits billets,

Qui sont parfaitement bien faits,

Avec des petites dentelles ;

Ce ne sont pas des bagatelles,

Car il a fait et bien su tirer

La quint-essence du papier.

Il a, pour les achalander,

A quelques Seigneurs assuré,

Que, pour leur dettes satisfaire,

Son projet était leur affaire

Car il voyait auparavant

Qu'on ne le suivait qu'en tremblant.

Mais depuis que les grands Seigneurs

Se mêlent d'être agioteurs

On voit avec grande surprise,

Gens, vendre jusqu'à leur chemise

Pour avoir des soumissions.

Les femmes vendent jusqu'à leurs bijoux

Pour mettre à ce nouveau Pérou

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Passer dans la rue Quincampoix

Car c'est dans ces fameux endroiº

Ou, des Indes la Compagnie

Établit sa friponnerie

Chacun y vient vous demander

Voulez vous bien actionner ?"

The map of Louisiana was parcelled out; allotments made to this noble name and to that, to one great financier and to another. Estates upon the Mississippi! What a vista not only of wealth but of seigneurial possibilities to the roturier. The Mississippi, in short, was "boomed," as it would be called to‑day; and its boom reverberated until no imagination, the medium of the boom, could be deaf to it. Colonists were sent out, land settled. The public credit of the system demanded that the movement should not slacken; that Louisiana should not stand still in the market, that it should be pushed until the faith which was the germ of the scheme was rooted. The rue Quincampoix did not flinch. Ah!  p38 the pitiless mastery of the thirst for gold has never been more cruelly displayed than in this artificial forcing of maturity and maternity upon a virgin country, to keep up the value of stocks! Emigration to Louisiana must be kept up, by fair means or by foul. Human beings would — faute de mieux, human beings at least could — be procured in Paris. The orders were given; so much money per head. There was no time to choose, select, or examine, and no disposition. It was a dog-catcher's work; and dog-catchers performed it. Streets were scoured at night of their human refuse; the contents of hospitals, refuges, and reformatories were bought out wholesale, servant girls were waylaid, children were kidnapped. Michelet, in one of his matchless pages, writes: "A picture by Watteau, very pretty, very cruel, gives an idea of it. An officer of the galleries, with atrocious smirks and smiles, is standing before a young girl. She is not a public girl; she is a child, or one of those frail creatures who, having suffered too much, will always remain in growth a child. She is perfectly incapable of standing the terrible voyage; one feels that she will die on it. She shrinks with fear, but without a cry, without a protest, says there is some mistake, begs. The soft look in her eyes pierces our hearts. Her mother, or pretended mother (for the poor little one must be an orphan), is behind her, weeping bitterly. Not without cause; the mere transportation from Paris is so severe that it drove many to despair. A body of girls arose in revolt from ill treatment at La Rochelle. Armed only with their nails and teeth, they attacked their guards. They wanted to be killed. The barbarians fired on them, wounded a great many, and killed six."

 p39  Another Watteau, with a different instrument, has given its reality of it in the tender perpetuity of romance. Do you remember the opening chapter in "Manon Lescaut"?

"I was surprised on entering this town [Passy] to find all the inhabitants in excitement. They were rushing out of their houses to run in crowds to the door of a mean hostelry, before which stood two covered carts. . . . I stopped a moment to inquire the cause of the tumult, but I received little satisfaction from the inquisitive populace, who paid no attention to my questions. At last an archer, with bandolier and musket, coming to the door, I begged him to acquire me with the cause of the commotion.

" 'It is nothing, Sir,' he said, 'only a dozen filles de joie, that I, with my companions, are conducting to Havre, where we will ship them to America. There are some pretty ones among them, and that is apparently what is exciting the curiosity of these good peasants.' I would have passed on after this explanation, had I not been arrested by the exclamations of an old woman who was coming out of the tavern, with clasped hands, crying that 'it was a barbarous thing, a thing to strike one with horror and compassion.' 'What is the matter,' I asked. 'Ah, Sir,' said she, 'enter and see if the spectacle is not enough to pierce one's heart.' Curiosity made me alight from my horse. . . . I pushed myself, with some trouble, through the crowd, and in truth what I saw was affecting enough. Among the dozen girls, who were fastened together in sixes, by chains around the middle of the body, there was one whose air and face were so little in conformity with her condition, that in any other circumstances I would have taken her for a person of the first rank. Her sadness, and the soiled state of her linen and clothing, disfigured her so little, that she inspired me with respect and pity. She tried, nevertheless, to turn herself around as much as her chains would permit, to hide her face from the eyes of the spectators. . . . I asked, from the chief of the guards, some light on the fate of this beautiful girl. 'We took her out of the hospital,' he said to me, 'by order of the lieutenant general of the police. It is not likely that she was shut up there for her good actions. There is a young man who can instruct  p40 you better than I on the cause of her disgrace. He has followed her from Paris, almost without stopping his tears a moment: he must be her brother or her lover.' I turned to the corner of the room where the young man was sitting. He seemed buried in a profound reverie. I have never seen a livelier image of grief. . . . 'I trust that I do not disturb you,' I said, seating myself beside him. 'Will you kindly satisfy the curiosity I have to know who is that beautiful person, who does not seem made for the sad condition in which I see her?' He replied politely, that he could not tell who she was, without making himself known, and he had strong reasons for wishing to remain unknown. 'I can tell you, however, what those miserable wretches do not ignore,' continued he, pointing to the archers, 'that is, that I love her with so violent a passion that I am the unhappiest of men. I have employed every means at Paris to obtain her liberty. Solicitations, intrigues, force, all were in vain: I resolved to follow her, even should she go to the ends of the earth. I shall embark with her. I shall cross over to America. But, what is a piece of the last inhumanity, these cowardly rascals, added he, speaking of the archers, 'do not wish to permit me to approach her. My plan was to attack them openly several leagues outside of Paris. I joined to myself four men who promised me their help for a considerable pay. The traitors abandoned me, and departed with my money. The impossibility of succeeding by force made me lay down my arms. I proposed to the archers to permit me to follow them, offering to recompense them. The desire of gain made them consent. They wished to be paid every time they gave me liberty to speak to my mistress. My purse became exhausted in a short while, and now that I am without a cent they have the barbarity to repulse me brutally every time I make a step towards her. Only an instant ago, having dared approach her despite their menaces, they had the insolence to raise their gun-stocks against me. To satisfy their avarice, and to be able to continue the journey on foot, I am obliged to sell here the wretched horse which has hitherto mounted me.' " . . .

Poor Manon! Poor Chevalier! Poor playthings of Youth and Love! Never has author breathed upon his creatures of romance the breath of such reality, if not  p41 of life. Nay, did they not incorporate, these frail children of Prevost's imagination, Manon and the Chevalier! They left France phantasies of fiction, but they seem to have landed bodily in New Orleans, where, as the Chevalier tells Manon, "one must come to taste the true sweetness of love; it is here that one loves without venality, without jealousy, without inconstancy. Our compatriots come here to seek gold; they would not imagine that we had found here far greater treasures." They seem, as has been said, to have landed in New Orleans in bodily form, for did not tradition long show, in the environs of the city, the grave of Manon Lescaut? Are not relics of her still sold in the bric-a‑brac shops here? Is not the arrival in the colony of a Chevalier des Grieux registered in 1719? Does he not live in history enrolled among the officers of the royal troops? And, alas! does not his name head the record of a family tomb in one of the old cemeteries of a river parish?

And so, out of the hell of lust, passion, and avarice that reigned in Paris during the last days of the System there, and out of the tempest of fury, ruin, and disgrace that followed the débâcle, ship after ship loaded and sailed for the New World and the new life; and we can imagine the desperate hearts, looking from deck over the grey waste of the ocean, sending out new hopes like doves ahead, in quest of some green sign of the great regeneration. But of returning olive branches, the straining eyes were greeted but by few. On the contrary, dumped, like ballast, upon the arid, glittering sands of Dauphin Island or Biloxi, ill from the voyage, without shelter, without food, without employment, blinded, tortured by the rays of a tropical sun,  p42 fevered and dying of the epidemic from the West Indian Islands; with piles of brute African slaves rotting on the beach before them; — the emigrants to this worse hell, must have sighed for the hell they had left. It is easy to believe the statement of the colonial records, that most of the unfortunates died in their misery.

In the meantime, however, and through it all, we see Bienville busily preoccupied with his city, arguing with the directors of the Company of the West, at the Council Board, to convince them of the superior advantages of New Orleans over Biloxi, as capital of the colony; fighting the rival claims of Natchez to that position; piloting a ship himself through the mouth of the river to prove its navigability; and, in short, turning every circumstance, with deft agility, to the profit of his project. Taking with him the Sieur Pauger, assistant engineer, and a force of convicts and piqueurs to the site occupied by the straggling cabins of his Canadian settlers, he had the land cleared and the streets aligned according to the plan of the engineer in chief to the colony, the Chevalier Le Blond de la Tour.

One can, in a morning's walk, go over the square, the vieux carré, as it is called, laid out by Le Blond de la Tour. The streets, fifty French feet wide, divide the cleared space into the sixty squares now comprised between Esplanade and Canal, Old Levee and Rampart streets; and their present names were given them, Chartres (below the cathedral), Condé, Royal Bourbon, Dauphine, Burgundy, and crossing them Bienville, Conti, St. Louis, Toulouse, St. Peter, Orleans, St. Anne (the two saints at the sides of the Cathedral, Orleans at its back), Dumaine and St. Philippe. Ursulines  p43 received its name later, from the convent. The barracks, or quarters of the soldiers, gave its name "Quartier," to the last street below the Place. The central blocks, fronting the river, were reserved for the parish church of St. Louis, with the priest house on its left and guard house and prison on its right. In front, was the Place d'Armes. The government magazines were on both sides of Dumaine street, between Chartres and the river. The rest of that block opening on the Place d'Armes, was then, as now, used as a market-place. Facing the levee between St. Peter and Toulouse streets, was situated the "Intendance," intendant's house. The house of the Company of the West was on the block above, and on the block above that was the Hôtel du Gouvernement, or governor's house. Bienville, however, built a private hotel on his square of ground, which included the site of the custom house of to‑day. The powder magazine was placed on what would be now the neutral ground in front of the custom house. A view of the city, taken in 1718, about the time it was founded, for Le Page du Pratz, the historian, shows the levee shaded with trees, with buildings on both sides of the river, those opposite the city being on the plantation of the king, upon which Du Pratz afterwards served as physician. He said that the quarters given to the "bourgeois" (our first citizens) were overflowed three months of the year. He calls these blocks, therefore, "Islands; Isles," which is the origin of the Creolism "Islet" for street or square.

A map of 1728 shows the buildings indicated on the margin of Pauger's plan, all put up, and the squares from "Bienville" street to the barracks, and out as  p44 far as Dauphine street, are pretty well filled with houses.

The list of the settlers' names made by Pauger is still printed on the margin of his map. Their houses soon dotted the squares about the central parade and market-place and on the river front, and a thin line of them extended back to the high road, the old portage, and to the bayou that connected with lake Pontchartrain. This little bayou, Tchoupic (Muddy), was christened St. Jean in honour of Bienville's patron saint. Meandering into the city from the lake, with slow, somnolent current, it is still the favourite water-way for the leisurely traffic of sailing craft. In the time of the Company of the West, the whole stream of emigration to the Mississippi lands flowed through it: the gaping eye of French peasant and Parisian cockney taking in, despite the lapse of a century and a half, the general features of the same panorama that to‑day passes, with their dreams, before the half-closed eyelids of the Dago and Malay fishermen, reclining on the decks of their schooners; — low, rush-covered banks fringing into the water, moss-laden oaks, and the buttressed trunks of slimy cypresses. But the rush-covered banks of to‑day extended then into vast swamp prairies, athrill with life, and scintillating with the light and colour of the low-lying heavens. The moss-covered oaks were forests, arching their shades into majestic mystery and solemnity; the buttressed trunk of that single cypress, and those straggling clumps of palmettoes, were then a tropical jungle, choking in the coils of its own inbred growth of vines.

One single settlement of Indians, the Tchouchoumas, a vestige of the great river tribe, the Houmas, who had  p45 fled here from one of their internecine wars, dwelt then on the banks of the bayou. That genial first historian of Louisiana, Le Page du Pratz, who came to the colony in 1718, in the first excited rush after the Louisiana boom, selected his farm on the Bayou St. John, in the neighbourhood of these Indians. It was of them he bought that incomparable slave of an Indian girl, who, from the twilight moment when she rushed out with an axe to relieve the critical situation of her master, face to face with an intrusive alligator, awakes the interest of the reader, even as she did that of her master, and charms us into credulity, even as she did him through all the years of her services, with her marvellous explanations and stories. In truth, she might, with some appropriateness, be called the muse of Louisiana history.

Despite the great mortality at Dauphin Island and Biloxi, the number of emigrants and slaves maintained a steady movement into the colony, and they were not all the nettings of Paris streets. For his concessions on the Arkansas, Law sent out a shipload of frugal, hardy, thrifty Germans; incomparable colonial stock they proved. Entire plantations also were equipped from the best peasant class of France. Concessions along the Gulf shore were filled in; and plantations were cleared on the Mississippi above and below the city; and saw mills and brick kilns and other industries were established at points advantageous for work and transportation. As Bienville had designed, and as he laboured, New Orleans became the centre of all colonial activity, and Biloxi became more and more a mere official bureau. Finally, in 1722, Bienville's repeated arguments and representations to the Company of the West produced an effect, and orders were sent to transfer the  p46 seat of government to New Orleans. They were immediately carried into effect. In June, De la Tour and Pauger, led the way, by sailing a loaded vessel through the mouth of the river. As soon as word was brought to Biloxi that they had passed the bar, other vessels followed with building materials, ammunition, and provisions.

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Villa on Bayou St. John.
Under De la Tour's supervision, the city took form and shape. The church and government houses were built, levees thrown up, ditches made, a great canal dug in the rear for drainage, a cemetery located, the old St. Louis of to‑day, back of Rampart street, and a quay constructed, protected with palisades. Bienville arrived and took up his residence there in August. But, in the midst of the building and transportation, the September storm came on with a hitherto unexampled violence. For five days the hurricane raged furiously from East to West. The church and most of the new edifices were destroyed, and three ships were wrecked in the river. And then, as if to complete the disasters, a fever broke out which devastated the population as the storm had the buildings. The indomitable Bienville himself fell ill, and for a time his life was despaired of. But the momentum once acquired, the city advanced steadily, as over slight obstacles. The prostrate buildings were re‑erected, and incoming population filled the vacancies caused by deaths. For still they continued to arrive, those ships loaded with all the human history of France of that day, adventure, tragedy, comedy, lettres de cachet, the Bastile,º houses of correction, the prison, with an occasional special cargo of misfortune. Voltaire relates that among the German emigrants sent  p47 by Law to his concession on the Arkansas, there was a most beautiful woman, of whom the story ran, that she was the wife of the Czarowicz, Alexis Petrowitz. To escape from his brutal treatment, she fled from her palace and joined the colonists for Louisiana. Here she was seen and recognized by the Chevalier d'Aubant, who had known, and, it is said, loved her in St. Petersburg. She married him, and after a long residence in the colonies accompanied him to Paris and afterwards to the Ile de Bourbon. She returned,  p48 a widow, to Paris in 1754, and died there in great poverty.

It was about this time, 1720, when the Company of the West was still booming its scheme, that occurred the incident which has been so unaccountably neglected by the artists of the bouffe drama. The commander of the French fort in the Illinois country had the inspiring idea of impressing his Indian friends with a real sight of French power, and France by a sight of the Indian "au naturel." He therefore induced twelve warriors, and some women, to accompany him on a visit to their great father across the water. Among the women was the daughter of the chief of the Illinois, who was young, very beautiful, and in love with the French commander. A sergeant, Dubois, joined the party, and all arrived in New Orleans, where with a great flutter of excitement, talk, pow-wow, smoking, feastings, joking, and laughing, and every manifestation of curiosity and fear, and every possible send‑off and farewell, they took ship for France. Arrived, they were conducted to Versailles, introduced at court and presented to the king with brilliant success. A deer hunt was gotten up for the warriors at the Bois de Boulogne, a kind of Wild-West show, that entertained the Court immensely. Upon the women, and particularly upon the daughter of the chief, were lavished the caresses of the high-born court dames, for whom they in return performed Indian dances upon the floor of the Italian opera. In a flash, the Indian belles became the sensation of the day. The chief's daughter, or Princess, as she was called, was converted to Christianity, and baptized with great pomp and ceremony at Notre-Dame; and,  p49 to perfect her patent as Christian and Parisian, she was forthwith married to Sergeant Dubois, who, to be made fit for so illustrious an alliance, was raised by the king to the rank of captain and commandant of the Illinois district. The bride received handsome presents from the ladies of the Court, and from the king himself; and for the occasion the entire savage company was clothed in the gala costumes of the day, the squaws in fine petticoats and trains, the warriors in gold embroidered coats and cocked hats. Very much elated they were, the savage guests, when they re‑embarked for home. They had another grand ovation in New Orleans, at the expense of the Company, and supplied with boats, rowers, and an escort of soldiers, they proceeded in state up the river. Dubois took possession of his new post and dignity, and it is said, for a brief season, enjoyed it. His wife, however, took to visiting her tribe more and more frequently. At last, one day, she helped her people surprise the fort. The whole garrison, including Dubois, was massacred. She, stripping herself of her fine but cumbersome French dress and religion, gaily returned  p50 to her savage life and companions — her civilization frolic over.

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Indian weapons.

Bienville was none too soon in the incorporation of his city. In 1724, the political cabal against him in the colony secured his recall. Confident in his record, upon arrival in France he answered the charges against him, with the memoir of the services that had filled his life, since the time when a mere stripling he had followed his brother Iberville in quest of the country, for the government of which he was now, a middle-aged man, called to account. He was nevertheless disgraced, deprived of his rank, and his property confiscated.

Perier was appointed to succeed him.

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Page updated: 21 Sep 05