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Chapter 7

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 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

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Iron railing on the Pontalba Building.

 p128  Chapter VIII

And now our city, like a woman who has been won to love her conqueror, began to assume the reconstruction that she had shed blood to resist. It was a time one loves to recall, picturesque, romantic, rich in all poetical growths of population and custom. It was this time that has most impressed this character on the external features of New Orleans.

Don Estevan Miro, too, married a Creole, a De Macarty of a noble Irish family which had followed James II to France. He continued the gentle, familiar administration of Unzaga and Galvez. One of his first acts was to free the streets from the lepers, who, gravitating to the city from all parts of the colony, infested the alleyways and corners, darting out like hideous spectres, demanding, rather than begging, charity of the passers‑by. He collected them all in a hospital which he built for them in the rear of the city, on the high land between the Metairie ridge and Bayou St. John, still designated by old authorities as "la terre aux Lépreux." It is said that under his humane treatment the pest almost disappeared, the patients in the hospital diminishing  p129 until none were left, and the useless building finally fell into decay. Ulloa had made an attempt to confine the lepers at the Balise; but the popular indignation at what seemed the heartlessness of the measure forced him to desist.

The conflagration, which in the history of every city furnishes the ashes for its Phoenix rise, occurred in New Orleans on Good Friday, 1788. It started on Chartres street, near St. Louis, in the chapel of the house of Don Vincente José Nuñez, the military treasurer of the colony, from a lighted candle falling against the lace draperies of the altar. Everything went before the flames, — church, schoolhouse, town-hall, watchtower, convent of Capuchins, dwellings, shops; the heart of the vieux carré was as bare as when Pauger first laid line and rod to it. We can feel the disaster as though it happened but a month ago, through the medium of a quaint historical fragment in the Howard Memorial Library, the Gazette des Deux-Ponts of August, 1788, which curiously, and fortunately enough for us, had a correspondent on the spot:—

"All the vigilance of the official chiefs and the prompt assistance which they brought to bear, were useless, and even the engines, many of which were burned by the heat of the flames at an incredible distance. In order to appreciate the horror of the conflagration, it suffices to say that in less than five hours eight hundred and sixteen buildings were reduced to ashes, comprising in the number all commercial houses except three, and the little that was saved was again lost, or fell prey to malefactors, the unfortunate proprietors barely escaping with their lives. The loss is valued at three millions of dollars. In an affliction so cruel and so general, the only thing that can diminish our grief, is that not a man perished. On the morning of the morrow, what a spectacle was to be seen: in the place of the flourishing city of the day before,  p130 nothing but rubbish and heaps of ruins, pale and trembling mothers, dragging their children along by the hand, their despair not even leaving them the strength to weep or groan; and persons of luxury, quality, and consideration, who had only a stupor and silence for their one expression. But, as in most extremities, Providence always reserves secret means to temper them, this time we found, in the goodness and sympathy of the governor and the intendant, all the compassion and all the assistance that we could expect from generous hearts, to arrest our tears and provide for our wants. They turned themselves to succouring us with so much order and diligence, that we were immediately relieved. Their private charities knew no limits, and the treasury of H. M. was opened to send away for assistance."

There is an editorial comment on the communication, which throws some light on the progress made in what Father Cirilo would have called religion and morals, under the Spanish regime. The comment is this:—

"The person who sent us these details adds that the fire taking place on Good Friday, the priests refused to allow the alarm to be rung, because on that day all bells must be dumb. If such an act of superstition had taken place at Constantinople, it would not have been astonishing. The absurd Musulman belief in fatality renders sacred to them all the precepts drawn from the Alkoran; but a civilized nation is not made to adopt maxims so culpable towards humanity, and this trait of fanatical insanity will surely not be approved by sensible people."

What lay in the ashes was, at best, but an irregular, ill-built, French town. What arose from them was a stately Spanish city, proportioned with grace and built with solidity, practically the city as we see it to‑day, and for which, first and foremost, we owe thanks to Don Andres Almonaster; and may the Angelus bell from the Cathedral, which times the perpetual masses for his soul, never fail to remind us of our obligation to him.

 p131  Don Andres Almonaster y Roxas was an Andalusian of noble birth, who, coming to Louisiana at the beginning of the Spanish domination, received the appointment of escribano publico, or notary public, an office rich in salary, perquisites, and business opportunities. He soon acquired wealth in it, or through it. He became an alcalde, and afterwards bought the honourable rank of alferez royal, or royal standard bearer, a distinction which lasted for life, and gave him a sitting at all the meetings of the council board. He was middle-aged when he came into the province, and, devoting sixteen years to making his fortune, he was past sixty before he married the beautiful young Creole girl, Louise de Laronde, in the parish church of New Orleans, in 1787, the year before it was destroyed by fire.

Standing amid the ruins and ashes of the town, that had been kind to him with money, honours, and a beautiful young wife, Don Andres had one of those inspirations which come at times to the hearts of millionaires, converting their wealth from mere coin into a living attribute. His first offer to the cabildo was to replace the schoolhouse. This was the first public school in New Orleans; it was established by the government in 1772, to teach the Spanish language, with Don Andres Lopez de Armesto as director, Don Manuel Diaz de Lara professor of Latin, and Don Francisco de la Celena teacher of reading.

After finishing the schoolhouse, Almonaster offered to rebuild the parish church, and did it, at a cost of fifty thousand dollars, and continuing his benefactions he replaced the old charity hospital of Jean Louis with a handsome building which cost one hundred and fourteen  p132 thousand dollars, changing its name to the one it now bears, Charity Hospital of St. Charles. He then filled in the still open space on each side of the church, by a convent for the Capuchins and a town hall, the cabildo, and he added the chapel to the Ursuline convent.

Nine years after his marriage, and as if indeed to reward the pious generosity of so good a Christian and citizen, Heaven sent a child to Don Andres, a daughter, who was christened, in the grand new Cathedral, Micaela Leonarda Antonia. Two years later, in the plenitude of his happiness and honour, Don Andres died and was buried in front of the altar of his Cathedral, where his name and lineage, and good deeds, coat of arms and motto, "A pesar de todos, venceremos los Godos," are cut as ineffaceably into the stone over his resting place, as, we trust, his remembrance is in the heart of his city.

After the death of Don Andres, his story still went on. His beautiful young widow chose a second husband, and the charivari that was given her is historical. The charivaris of New Orleans are historical, in that we read of them from the very beginnings of the city; but this one is called the historical charivari, for it was greater than any that had gone before, and none that came after ever could surpass it. Three days and nights it pursued the beautiful widow and her husband up and down the city, to and from, across the river. Finally, to get rid of it, they had to run away.

Besides his largesse to the city, Don Andres had still wealth enough to dower his daughter with millions, so that Micaela, inheriting also the beauty of her mother, was an heiress such as the city could never even have hoped to possess. It is said, one may add, naturally,  p133 that she fell in love with a young man in the city, but was not allowed to marry him. Instead, at sixteen, in 1811, her hand was bestowed upon young Joseph Xavier Celestin Delfauº de Pontalba, son of the Baron de Pontalba; and this carries us still further along in our chronicle. The old Baron de Pontalba had, under French rule, been commandant at the Côte des Allemands. His city residence was on the corner of St. Peter and the levee. Returning to France and joining his star to that of the great Napoleon, he had been ennobled by him, and his son had been taken into the royal household as page to the emperor. When Napoleon Bonaparte first took Louisiana into his schemes, he ordered his ministers to collect information on its resources. M. de Pontalba submitted a masterly memorial to him on the subject;​a fifteen days afterwards Napoleon had negotiated its cession from Spain. The marriage of his page with the Creole heiress was celebrated with great pomp and ceremony, and the young couple proceeded immediately to Paris and took up their residence in a style so elegant that it became and is still a matter of local pride and great boasting to the good folk of Micaela's native place.

The old Baron de Pontalba, haughty, severe, inordinately proud of his good French blood and of his devotion to the great emperor, lived in a magnificent chateau called Mont l'Evêque, outside of Paris, in as great a style as his daughter-in‑law inside, and, to touch lightly on the gossip of that day in Paris, the two found more subjects of difference than agreement, in their dispositions. It was at Mont l'Evêque that occurred the sensation and mystery of a moment in Paris, — where no sensation lasts longer than a moment, — Madame de Pontalba was  p134 found one morning weltering in her blood on the floor of her chamber, her body torn with pistol shots — the old Baron sitting in his arm-chair in his room in the tower, dead. . . . By a miracle, Madame de Pontalba recovered carrying to her death the bullets in her body and maintaining to the end the prestige of her wealth, position, and indomitable will. Frequenting, and frequented by, the Faubourg St. Germain, she escaped none of the horror and excitement that filled the minds of the ancien régime, when it became rumoured that the beautiful palace built by Louis XIV for the Duc du Maine, on the rue de Lille, was to be bought by the "Bande Noire," and razed to the ground; the site to be filled with smaller buildings. With her Louisiana millions she bought the palace herself, and even attempted, with the vaulting ambition of women, to live in it. Only royal wealth and attendance could, however, properly fill the pile, — four hundred rooms, it contained, — so the new proprietor, submitting, as even royal personages must, to circumstances, demolished the palace herself, but reserved all its artistic wealth of carvings, columns, ornaments, marbles, for the new hotel which she built; a hotel of magnificent state, but more in proportion to her position and means. It was sold afterwards for five million francs to one of the Rothschilds.

And here — her princely revenues from Louisiana being vastly increased, by profitable investments in France, — the daughter of the alferez real continued her rôle until it seems only the other day, in 1874, death rang down the curtain. And what a drama, what rôles had she not seen acted on the stage round about her! The fall, the double fall, of Bonaparte, the  p135 Restoration, Louis XVIII, Charles X, Revolution, Louis Philippe, Second Republic, Second Empire, German triumph, Third Republic.​b

But to return to Don Estevan Miro and his century. He also put his hand to rebuilding. Behind the Cabildo, filling all the space on St. Peter street, to within a few feet of Royal, a calaboza, "calaboose," was erected, a grim, two‑story construction surrounded by walls of massive thickness, and filled with little cells and dungeons, dark, fast, terrible beyond all possibility of need, it would seem, for the criminal capabilities of the place and the people. It was shut in by a huge iron gateway and ponderous doors, crossed and barred and checked with formidable handwrought bars. Flanking the calaboose, almost as fierce and imposing, was the Arsenal, opening into St. Anthony's alley. And, the march of improvement once started, the handsome  p136 French barracks, begun by Kerlerec, on the old site, near the Ursuline convent, was completed with the addition of a new military hospital and chapel. And a wooden custom-house was built on the square filled to‑day by its granite successor; then, however, it stood on the river bank, just inside the public road. On the open levee space on the lower side of the Place d'Armes, where, from time out of mind the market venders, Indians, negroes, hunters, trappers, had exposed their vegetables, fruits, skins, game, herbs, and baskets for sale, a shed, or butcher's market, was put up, the beginning of the arcades of the French market of to‑day.

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Doorway of the Old Arsenal.

A hotel for the governor arose on the corner of Toulouse and the levee, as we call it to‑day, Old Levee street. And all over the burnt district the old residences appeared in their new Spanish garb, bricks and stones, arched windows and doorways, handwrought iron work, balconies, terraces, courtyards, everything broad rather than high, broad rooms, corridors, windows, doorways — some of them still standing entire, as their Spanish architect left them, others represented only by vestiges, a wall, window, or door, balcony or quadrangle, but all, to the very last segment, a benefaction to the eyes, and a benediction to the Spaniard's domination, and, as has been said, first and foremost to Don Andres Almonaster.

In the midst of the activity and bustle of the new energy, came the news of the death of Carlos III and the accession of Carlos IV, and pompous memorial obsequies for the one event, and rich festivities for the other, were celebrated with great form. Hardly had Don Estevan and the city settled again into the comfortable  p137 routine of their respective habits, when the former received a reminder from the Old World that a change of sovereigns represented something more than a ceremony, even to a distant province. Padre Antonio de Sedella, a Spanish Capuchin arrived lately in the city, called upon the governor and exhibited a commission to establish the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the city. He had made, he said, all of his preparations with the utmost secrecy and caution; they were now complete and he was ready for action. So he notified the governor that he would soon, at some late hour of the night, call upon him for guards to make the necessary arrests. Don Estevan was courteous and deferential as a Spaniard should be to the priest and to his commission; but he made up his mind, and, like Padre Antonio, made his preparations with the utmost secrecy and caution, and they also were complete. The following night, while the priest was enjoying the slumbers of a good conscience before a pleasant future, he was aroused by a heavy knocking on his door. Opening it, he saw an officer and a file of grenadiers. Thinking that they came to assist him in his holy office, "I thank you, my friends," he said, "and his excellency, for the promptitude of this compliance with my request; but I have no need of your services at this moment. You can return, with the blessing of God. I shall warn you in time when you are wanted." He was informed that he was arrested. "What," he exclaimed, stupefied, "will you dare lay hands on a commissioner of the Inquisition?" "I dare obey orders," replied the officer; and the Padre Antonio, with the efficiency of his own holy office, was stowed away in a ship in port, which sailed the next day after Cadiz. "When I read the communication  p138 of that Capuchin," wrote Miro to the Cabinet of Madrid, "I shuddered. The very name of Inquisition uttered in New Orleans would be sufficient not only to check immigration . . . but would be capable of driving away those who have recently come here. And I even fear that, in spite of my having sent Father Sedella out of the country, the most fatal consequences may arise from the mere suspicion of the cause of his dismissal."

A half century later, when the old calaboose was demolished, secret dungeons containing instruments of torture were discovered, which were supposed to be some of the preparations for the disciplining of the colonists, announced as complete, by Padre Antonio.

But the serious responsibility of the Spanish governors of Louisiana, was the attempt to mew up the commerce of the Mississippi in the colonial tariff regulations of Spain. Honest foreign commerce, as expected, had been nigh driven away from the port; what trade remained was in the hands of smugglers and contrabands. But there was another trade, the volume and force of which neither the French nor the Spaniards had fully estimated. After the war of Independence, the great Middle States, the great West they were called then, burst, as it were, into their full rich development. There were then no railroads; rivers furnished the only outlet for the teeming harvests; and the Mississippi, gathering up the waters of its affluents and their freight, bore down upon its currents to only a continuous line of flatboats laden to the edge with the rich produce from above. "As many as forty boats at a time," wrote Miro, could be seen coming in to the landing. The cargoes found ready sale, and  p139 were soon the main source of food supplies to the city; the flatboats, after being unloaded, were broken up and sold for timber. But the sturdy flatboatmen, from Ohio and Kentucky, on their return, had always a long list of seizures, confiscations, imprisonments and vexations, and interferences of all kinds by the Spanish authorities, to report. The people of the States were too strong and bold in their new liberty to brook such treatment. They claimed that the Mississippi river belonged to the people of the Mississippi Valley, and they determined to have the use of it, to its mouth. The violent invasion of Louisiana, and capture of New Orleans, became a common threat with them, although the peaceable element among them applied to Congress for relief.

Miro, impressed with the importance of the Mississippi as the artery of trade to the country, and fully alive to the critical temper of the Americans, and to the defenceless condition of his province, did what he could to relieve the tension, by relaxing his restrictions upon the river trade. To fill up the country, he encouraged emigration from the west itself, into the Spanish side of the Mississippi Valley. The Acadian emigrants that came into the country were settled along the river bank, and, to increase the Spanish population, a number of families from the Canary Islands were imported and settled in Galvezton,º near Manchac, and in Venezuela, on Bayou Lafourche. The descendants of these people are still called Islingues, Islanders.

A brilliant effort was also made to secure the friendship of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians, still a formidable and always unreliable power, to the north and east of Louisiana. Miro invited thirty-six of the  p140 most influential of the Chickasaw chiefs, to the city, and exerted himself to give them a royal entertainment, receiving them with the pomp and ceremony they so delighted in; gave them rich presents, harangued them, was harangued by them, smoked the calumet with them, had a military parade for them, decorated them with medals. The Chickasaw regent, however, who attended in place of the king, a minor, would not accept his medal. Such distinctions, he said, might confer honour on his warriors, but he was already sufficiently distinguished by his royal blood. The gala wound up with a grand ball, which delighted the dusky visitors mightily. They could not keep their eyes off the beautiful ladies, wondrously radiant in their ball dresses, and it is on record that, with the true gracefulness, if not the graceful truthfulness, of compliment, one the visitors was heard remarking (what, indeed, many visitors have since remarked at New Orleans balls) that he believed the ladies were all sisters, and had descended just as they were from heaven.

The mutterings from the north still continued, and at every rise of the river, Miro feared a filibustering army of indignant Westerners in flatboats. Then, from suggestions from dissatisfied Americans, there crept into Spanish calculations a ray of possibility that the Western States might, for commercial advantages, be seduced away from the new republic, which seemed apparently a union only for the advantage of the east and north, and formed into an independent republic, friendly to and even dependent upon, Spain. And out of Miro's surmises on the subject, and the fosterings of them by American discontent,  p141 there arose a bit of political intrigue which runs through the rest of the Spanish domination.

Don Estevan, being permitted, at his own request, to retire to Spain, the province and the city were, for the next five years, confided to the Baron François Louis Hector de Carondelet. The Baron was a native of Flanders, a short, plump, choleric, good-hearted middle-aged gentleman. At the time of his appointment he was serving as governor of San Salvador, in Guatemala. Like Miro, he found himself in Louisiana wrestling with the question whether, practically, New Orleans was to control the Mississippi for Spain, or the Mississippi to control New Orleans for America; and like Miro, he wisely submitted to the violation of tariff regulations which no power could have enforced. The Western trade multiplying in volume and value, the Western boatmen, traders, merchants, increased in numbers, audacity, and independence, continued to pour into the city. Sometimes, in the wild boisterousness of their night frolics, their brawling and skirmishing with the Spanish guard, the peaceable citizens, awakened out of their slumbers, would wonder if they were not in truth making good their threats of literally capturing the place. In the wake of these pioneers came merchants from Philadelphia, establishing branch houses in the new business centre, and they drew after them from all over the country the rank and file of their offices, young Americans, keen for new chances at quick fortunes. The first dottings of American names, queer and foreign they seem, appear now among the French and Spanish, on signboards, in society, in families.

Timely warning had been sent from Madrid, in  p142 Miro's term, prohibiting the introduction of any boxes, clocks, or other wares stamped with the figure of the American goddess of liberty. It hung together with the Madrid idea of establishing the Inquisition in New Orleans, and putting the Mississippi in leading strings. But the American goddess of liberty was not the only one to be feared; there was the much more deadly French goddess of liberty, or of revolution, and every paper or letter that came from the old country brought, if not her figure, the breathing of her spirit. It was electricity to the atmosphere. In vain came the bloody details of the Reign of Terror, fugitives from France, the boat loads of terror-stricken women and children, in their blood-stained clothes, from St. Domingo and the other revolted West Indian islands; the Phrygian cap was in, if not on, every head; the "Marseillaise" and the "Ça ira" on every Creole tongue. The proclamation of the republic, the execution of Louis XVI were hailed with enthusiasm. The excitement reached tis climax with the declaration of war by Spain against France. Then the Spanish reconstruction was shaken off, like a dream, from the Creoles; they started to their feet, proclaiming themselves Frenchmen, Frenchmen still in heart, language, and nationality. As for the republic, even the most monarchical among them had been republican since Louis XV had cast them off and abandoned them to the vengeance of O'Reilly.

They saw a chance now of reasserting their will as a people and being re-annexed by liberty, to those rights of country from which an act of despotism had cast them out. One hundred and fifty of them signed a petition praying for the protection of the new republic. At  p143 the theatre the orchestra was compelled to play the revolutionary songs. The French Jacobin society of Philadelphia distributed through secret agents their inflammatory address from the freemen of France to their brothers in Louisiana, calling upon them to rise for their liberty, promising that abundant help would pour down the Ohio and Mississippi to them, a promise that the machinations of the French minister at Washington, and the well-known dispositions of the western people, rendered only too plausible. Auguste de la Chaise, grandson of the former royal commissary (nephew of the confessor of Louis XIV), and one of the most influential and distinguished of the young Creoles, threw himself heart and soul into the movement, and was sent by the French minister to Kentucky to recruit the forces he was chosen to lead into Louisiana.

But the baron was equal to the emergency. To offset the French petition, he had another paper signed by an equal number of citizens who pledged themselves to the king of Spain and the actual government of Louisiana. The gates of the city were closed every evening at dark; the militia was mustered; the orchestra at the theatre was forbidden to play martial or revolutionary music; revolutionary songs were prohibited in the streets and coffee-houses; and six of the most ardent republicans were arrested and sent to Havana, to cool their heads by a twelvemonth's quiet and seclusion in the security of the castle fortress there. And the city was fortified as it never had been before and never has been since; the baron himself going every morning at dawn on horseback to superintend the works. The maps of the time show running around  p144 the vieux carré a tight little palisadoed wall, fifteen feet high, with a fosse in front seven feet deep and forty feet wide. On the corners, fronting the river, were two forts, St. Louis (Canal street) and St. Charles (Esplanade street), pentagon shaped, with a parapet coated with brick, eighteen feet high, armed with a dozen twelve and eighteen pounders. Before the centre of the city was a great battery, which crossed its fire with the forts, and commanded the river. The rear also was protected with three forts, Forts Burgundy (Esplanade street), St. Joseph, and St. Ferdinand (Canal street). The batteries on the river were strengthened, and a fort was built on Bayou St. John.

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Gateway at Spanish Fort.

A distinguished French general, Victor Collot, who visited the province in 1796, studying its military resources, gives, in his written report of his observations, an elaborate and rather amusing description of the baron's fortifications.

 p145  It cannot be denied that these miniature forts are well kept and trimmed up. But . . . they look more like playthings intended for babies than military defences. For . . . there is not one that five hundred determined men could not carry, sword in hand. Once master of one of the principal forts, either St. Louis or St. Charles, the enemy would have no need of minding the others, because by bringing the guns to bear on the city, it would be forced to capitulate immediately, or be burned up in less than an hour. We believe that M. de Carondelet, when he adopted this means of defence, thought more of providing for the obedience of the subjects of his Catholic majesty, than for an attack of a foreign enemy, and in this point of view he may be said to have completely succeeded."

The baron himself confesses in his after reports to his government that this was his point of view, and said, moreover, that if New Orleans had not been awed by his forts, its people would have rebelled and a revolution taken place.

However deficient the baron may have appeared to the general as a military engineer, he was no lacking in strategical shrewdness as to allow so competent a critic within his lines. He sent a file of dragoons to the De Boré plantation above the city, where the general was staying, arrested him, seized his papers and maps, and lodged him in Fort St. Charles, whose value as a prison at least he had an opportunity to test. Later he was sent to the Balise, and deposited in the house of Ronquillo, the chief pilot there, situated in a swamp from which there was no escape except by boat. After six weeks' sojourn here, Collot succeeded in getting passage in a brig to Philadelphia.

As for De Boré (grandfather of Charles Gayarré, the historian),​c who was an ardent Frenchman, the baron thought seriously of arresting him also, and sending  p146 him to Havana; but he was deterred by the thought of De Boré's influential family connections, and the great benefit he had conferred upon the colony by his successful experiment in sugar making.

The United States, in the meantime, had asserted its authority, checked the intrigues of the French minister and prevented the use of its territory for an invasion of the Spanish possessions; and, by the treaty of Madrid, 1795, Spain allowed the free navigation of the river to Americans, and granted them a place of deposit, free of duty, in the city.

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Dago boats at the Old Basin.

Within the city walls, the rebuilding and improvements continued. As there had been another disastrous  p147 conflagration, the roofs, instead of being shingled, were terraced or covered with round tiles of home manufacture. The dark, ill-guarded streets, a haunt for footpads and robbers and evildoers, were lighted by eighty hanging-lamps, and a regular force of night watchmen was formed, serenos they were called, from their calling out the state of the weather and the hour of the night. But the great, the monumental, work of the baron, was the Canal Carondelet, which not only drained the vast swamps in the rear of the city, but, by bringing the waters of the Bayou St. John to a basin close to its ramparts, immensely facilitated and increased its commerce. The cabildo in acknowledgment gave his name to it.

Louisiana having been detached from the Bishopric of Havana, and erected into a distinct see, the city received, in 1794, a high and worthy addition to its population and dignity. Her new bishop, Don Luis de Peñalvert y Cardenas, arrived with two canons and took up his residence in the convent of the Capuchins, and the parish church of St. Louis was advanced to the rank of Cathedral.

The first newspaper of the colony, "Le Moniteur de la Louisiane," made its appearance also in this year. A Free Masons' lodge was established.

The establishment of the French theatre, however, antedated all these events. In 1791, among the first refugees from St. Domingo came a company of French comedians. They hired a hall and commenced to give regular performances. The success they met, it may be said, endures still, for the French drama has maintained through over a century the unbroken continuity of its popularity in the city.

 p148  The Cathedral, the Cabildo, the theatre, that is how they were ranked then — and are ranked now by the Creoles. The hired hall in course of time became the "Théâtre St. Pierre," or "La Comédie," on St. Peter street, between Bourbon and Orleans streets, and, barring a two months' respite, regular performances were given on its boards winter and summer for twenty years — classic drama, opera, ballet, pantomime. In 1808 the new and progressive "Théâtre St. Philippe," in St. Philip street, between Royal and Bourbon was opened with a grand programme: ballet, pantomime "Le Sourd," and "L'Écossais à la Louisiane." And in its repertoire during the year, there was more local drama "Le Commerce de Nuit," a Creole company with songs and patois, and "L'habitant de la Guadaloupe".º The two theatres kept up a fine company of actors and musicians, many of them marrying in the city and having representatives of their name still among us. In 1811 the "Théâtre d'Orléans" was opened on the square now occupied by the Convent of the Holy Family. When one said the "Théâtre d'Orléans," in those days, and for forty years afterwards, in New Orleans, one expressed a theatrical excellence second only to Paris. If any one doubts this, there are plenty yet alive to tell of its glories, and have we not the great prima donna still with us, the beautiful and bewitching Calvé? And he who can hear of her as La Norma and La Fille du Régiment without irrepressible longings to be three score and ten — has not the heart of a New Orleanian.

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French Opera House.

In 1797 the Baron and Baroness de Carondelet left the city and province, the baron having been appointed president of the Audiencia Real of Quito. They were  p151 the most estimable of government representatives in all the relations of official and social life. They left behind them in the city, to remember and regret them, a large circle of friends, who, although now also passed into the remembered and regretted, have left chronicled, in many a cradle and fireside story, the sayings and doings of the good, domineering little baron and his amiable wife.

Brigadier-general Gayoso de Lemos followed in the Hôtel du Gouvernement. He had been educated in England, and there, it is seriously apprehended by French and Spanish historians, acquired those habits of conviviality which carried him off suddenly, at the age of forty-eight, — to be definite, after an over-generous supper with a distinguished American friend and visitor.

Still the Americans and the Western commerce came down the Mississippi, and still from the Gulf side flowed in the immigration from the West Indies and from France. There could be no criticism now of the birth or blood of the immigrants. The class which had scoured the cities and kidnapped the villagers of France for human stock for their concessions in Louisiana, were now themselves driven into the New World by their own game, now turned into hunters. The Marquis de Maison Rouge, the Baron de Bastrop, M. de Lassus de St. Vrain came, the avant coureurs of what would have been, had their ideas realized, a whole provincial nobility for Louisiana. And, with the unexpected picturesqueness of circumstance or accident that sometimes groups dancers at a masked ball, there came across to New Orleans in 1798 the royal fugitives themselves, the Duc d'Orléans, the Duc de Montpensier, and the Comte de Beaujolais, the sons of Philippe Égalité. They were cordially welcomed by the Spanish authorities, and hospitably  p152 received by the citizens, among whom they found faces and names that had once, like Louisiana, belonged by every right to France. They were the guests of that Creole and provincial magnate, Philippe de Marigny (who had once been a page at Versailles), at his plantation, then below the city, now just below Esplanade street. Costly entertainments were given them; they became familiar figures in the streets, and frequented the houses of the prominent citizens. They visited the plantation of Julien Poydras and of M. de Boré, who had been, in his youth, a mousquetaire noir in the court of their grandfather, — everywhere professing themselves charmed with the city, pleased with the Creole men, and as enchanted with the ladies as the Choctaw and Chickasaw chiefs had been. In fact, the young royal brothers left an impression of pleasure behind them in the city, not only ineffaceable but inexhaustible; reminiscences of the most miraculous origin spring up everywhere to commemorate the glorious and honour of the visit. Houses built half a century afterwards, and in regions they never visited, show rooms which they occupied. There are enough beds in which they slept to fill a whole year of nights; and vases, tea-cups, and snuff-boxes for a population.

Philippe de Marigny, it is said, placed not only his house, but his purse, at the disposition of his guests, and their needs forced upon them a temporary use of the latter as well as the former. In time the Duc d'Orleans became Louis Philippe, the bourgeois king of France. Philippe de Marigny died, and his son, Bernard, the historical spendthrift of Louisiana, fell into evil days, having pleasured away the large fortune left him by his father. He bethought him of his father's  p153 royal friend and guest, and went to France, hoping for a return, not only of the hospitality, but of the purse of his father. But, bourgeois though he was in other respects, Louis Philippe had a royal memory. He returned the hospitality, however, and offered young Mandeville, the son of Bernard, an education at St. Cyr and a position in the French army. The young Creole became lieutenant in a cavalry corps d'élite, but found that an obligation had been shifted, rather than a debt paid; and at any rate, as he used to relate in his old age, he was too much of an American and a republican for life in France. He fought a duel with a brother officer who cast a slur upon the Americans, resigned his commission, and returned to the colony.

Upon the news of Gayoso's death, the captain-general of Cuba sent over the Marquis de Casa Calvo to be governor ad interim of the colony. Sebastian de Casa Calvo de la Puerta y O'Faril, Marquis de Casa Calvo, was a connection of O'Reilly's, under whom he had served as cadet in Louisiana thirty years before, when he had witnessed the execution of the five patriots. Curiously enough, Napoleon was just now consummating his retaliatory supplement to that affair, and, by the treaty of S. Ildefonso,º putting France aggression in possession of Louisiana. But, as before, the cession was a secret.

Don Juan Manuel de Salcedo, brigadier-general in the armies of Spain, arrived in 1801, to relieve the Marquis de Casa Calvo. Salcedo made a vigorous defensive effort against what he considered the designs of the Americans. Their immigration into the province was practically prohibited by a decree forbidding the granting of any land in Louisiana to a citizen of the United States; and, in order to put an end to the  p154 influx of Americans into New Orleans, the right of deposit was suspended by proclamation, and no other place, as provided in the treaty of Madrid, was designated. The Western people saw themselves deprived of an outlet without which they could not exist. They arose in their resentment, and addressed, not only Congress, but the whole country:—

"The Mississippi is ours," they said, "by the law of nature. Our rivers swell its volume and flow with it to the Gulf of Mexico. Its mouth is the only issue which nature has given to our waters, and we wish to use it for our vessels. No power in the world should deprive us of our rights. If our liberty in this matter is disputed, nothing shall prevent our taking possession of the capital, and when we are once masters of it we shall knew how to maintain ourselves there. If Congress refuses us effectual protection, we will adopt the measures which our safety requires, even if they endanger the peace of the Union and our connection with the other States. No protection, no allegiance."

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Transom in the Pontalba Building.

Thayer's Notes:

a Pontalba's memorial may be found onsite, quoted in extenso in Charles Gayarré's History of Louisiana, Vol. III, Chapter 7.

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b Although at the beginning and end of this chapter King gives us two handsome engravings of ironwork in the Pontalba buildings, she inexplicably omits to tell of their construction by the Baroness: Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. II No. 1, pp40‑42 repairs the deficiency, in some detail. For another biographical sketch of Micaela Almonester Pontalba, and her portrait, see this page at FrenchQuarter.Com.

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c Charles Gayarré is represented on this site by his 4‑volume History of Louisiana.

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Page updated: 28 Oct 17