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Authors: John B. Garvey,Mary Lou Widmer

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There was a tremendous increase in the value of exports in Louisiana during the Spanish rule. In 1767, the exports consisted of indigo, deerskins, lumber, naval stores, rice, peas, beans, and tallow, valued at $250,000 annually. By 1770, the yearly total had risen to six hundred thousand dollars, and by 1802, had multiplied several times.

In 1790, wrought iron was brought from Spain. It required no painting to protect it against the elements. The date is significant because it was midway between the two great fires, the last of which caused the whole town to be rebuilt. Wrought iron decoration was an outstanding feature for both its protective and visual attributes.

By the end of the Spanish period, Louisiana was more self-sufficient
in foodstuffs. Natives had been encouraged to cultivate indigo, tobacco,
flax, hemp, and cotton as commercial crops. (Perique tobacco, for example, was grown only in St. James Parish.) Louisiana was exporting 125,000 pounds of tobacco annually. Indigo production increased for a time, but later declined because of a bug that infested it. Handling it over a period of five years had proved fatal to slaves.

The population had increased sixfold in Louisiana during the Spanish
period. Settlers trickled down from the north until the end of
the American Revolution, after which the trickle became a torrent. This
flood of people lasted until the end of the 1700s, when the population had reached the fifty thousand mark in Louisiana. Many people came from West Florida (acquired by the British in 1763), because they did not want to be under British rule. The Acadians began coming in the 1750s and continued to come throughout the Spanish period.

It was during the Spanish period that Almonester rebuilt the St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo and built the first floor of the Presbytère as a domicile for the clergy. He contributed to a retreat for lepers and rebuilt Charity Hospital when it was blown down by a hurricane in 1779. In 1789, he gave the Ursuline nuns a chapel for their convent.

Our Spanish ancestors are to be thanked for three decades of stable government, for the city’s first fire and police protection, for the Old Basin Canal, and for the first attempts made at establishing public schools in 1771. They are also to be thanked for a reconstructed Vieux Carré with its Hispano-American architecture, which is a monument to the period of Spanish domination.

In addition, credit goes to them for roofing the Indian Market on the riverfront. The market had always been a vital place of business and continues to be today. It has always been called the French Market, although it was originally the Indian Market, roofed by the Spanish, supplied by German farmers, and later on, run by Italian vendors—a typical New Orleans amalgamation.


On Becoming American: 1803-15

On April 30, 1803, when Thomas Jefferson
was America’s third president, the territory of Louisiana was purchased from Napoleon Bonaparte
, consul of France, by the United States, for the sum of $15 million. This event took place before any ceremony had officially made Louisiana French again. It wasn’t until November 30, 1803, that the Spanish flag was lowered and the French flag raised in the Place d’Armes
, although the transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France had taken place three years earlier, and another transfer had since been arranged. On that same day, Pierre Clément de Laussat
, colonial prefect of France, was given the keys to the city and put in possession of the province for France. Although de Laussat’s actions were purely symbolic (coming after the sale of Louisiana to the United States), he nonetheless abolished the Spanish Cabildo, appointed the Frenchman Étienne de Boré
mayor, appointed two adjuncts, and created the first city council of New Orleans, which consisted of ten members.

Just twenty days later, on December 20, 1803, the same ceremony was repeated in the Place d’Armes
. This time, however, the French flag was lowered and the flag of the United States took its place. William C. C. Claiborne, General James Wilkinson
(acting for the president of the United States), and Pierre de Laussat (representing France), signed the papers making the Louisiana Territory
part of America. Claiborne was to be in charge of civil affairs and Wilkinson in control of the army.

In one year, New Orleans had been under three flags: first Spanish, then French, and finally American.

Circumstances leading up to and surrounding the purchase are interesting and complex. To begin with, Napoleon, having recently lost the island of Saint Domingue
in the Caribbean, felt that his dream

Portrait of Andrew Jackson. From a miniature commissioned by Jackson, painted by Jean Francois Valle in New Orleans. Presented to Edward Livingston, March 1, 1815.

Extract of note from Andrew Jackson to Edward Livingston.

of a French empire in America had ended. He feared that it would be impossible to protect Louisiana financially or militarily if he went back to war with England, and if he couldn’t protect Louisiana against the British, he preferred America to have it. Also, badly in need of money for his European wars, he was receptive to entreaties by Livingston, US Minister to France, who urged him to sell the Isle of Orleans and West Florida
to the United States. Napoleon, through his negotiator, Barbé-Marbois
, offered to sell all of Louisiana for $15 million.

President Jefferson, without consulting Congress, agreed to the purchase, although there was a total of only $10 million in the US treasury at the time. This was an act that came close to causing the president’s impeachment.

Further reasons for Napoleon’s sale of Louisiana to the United States is given in his own words: “This accession of territory strengthens forever the power of the United States, and I have just given England a maritime rival that will sooner or later humble her pride.” The irony of the situation is that the United States had to make loans from British and Dutch banks in order to finance the purchase.

The Louisiana Territory
included 827,987 square miles, which would later be divided to form thirteen other states, or parts of states, in the nation. The territory extended from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi
River to the Rocky Mountains. Boundaries were in dispute, so it is impossible to give an exact size and value to the purchase, but nonetheless, it was the greatest real estate buy of its time.

Throughout the territory, colonists had settled the areas along the rivers and bayous: the Mississippi
, Red
, Atchafalaya,
and Ouachita Rivers
and the Bayous Teche
and Lafourche
. There were, at the time of the purchase, approximately fifty thousand people living in the territory (excluding Indians), most of whom lived in what is presently the state of Louisiana.

In 1804, the territorial government declared all land grants after 1800 null and void and confiscated all property given the colonists by a Spanish or French king. On March 26, 1804, Congress divided the land that had been included in the Louisiana Purchase
into the Louisiana Territory
and the Territory of Orleans. The Territory of Orleans consisted of the present state of Louisiana minus the Florida Parishes (later annexed) and an area near the Sabine River. The Louisiana Territory included the rest of the purchase.

In 1803, New Orleans was a city of a population just under ten thousand with a majority of whites. The population was composed of Creoles
, Acadians
, women from Santo Domingo
, men from the German Coast who spoke perfect French, Castilian soldiers, Indians, black slaves, and free people of color, as well as ex-galley slaves and adventurers. All in all, it was a great place to live.

Four of the five forts had, by this time, fallen into disrepair. Only Fort Ferdinand
remained. The city had four or five general stores, three Scottish banks, a German business firm, and eight or ten commission houses opened during the Spanish period by Americans. The largest percentage of the population consisted of French and Spanish Creoles

New Orleans was a trade center, dealing in the products of the countryside: rice, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and cotton. These were the cash crops grown for sale. Agricultural products were scarce, and vegetables were, as yet, hard to obtain and expensive.

Education in New Orleans in 1803 was poor. Few citizens could read and write. The Ursulines
taught fewer than two hundred students, including boarders. There were no colleges, bookstores, or libraries. Men worked as apprentices to learn their trades.

The city was devoutly Roman Catholic, but remarkably liberal in its acceptance of the many brothels, saloons, and gambling halls. Also accepted—or ignored—was the custom of
in which white men took quadroon girls into more or less permanent concubinage and set them up in a house in the French Quarter or adjoining the Quarter on Rampart Street. In
Fabulous New Orleans,
Lyle Saxon
wrote, “There seems to be a certain insidious chemical in the atmosphere which tends to destroy Puritanism” (1928).

Into this diverse community now came the Americans. They were certainly not all flatboatsmen, as many of the French had formerly believed. There were East Coast businessmen, southern planters and farmers, and Yankee clerks as well, very few of whom knew a word of French. New Orleans was American now—a part of their country—and they had a right to settle in the Crescent City.

William C. C. Claiborne

President Jefferson appointed
William Charles Cole Claiborne
as governor of the Territory of Orleans (after both the Marquis de Lafayette and James Monroe had declined). Claiborne was twenty-eight years old when he arrived in New Orleans, a Virginian Protestant who did not speak French. He kept on hand a French and Spanish interpreter, and wisely, he did not dispense with the French mayor, Étienne de Boré, though how they conversed on city problems is hard to imagine. Understandably, de Boré did not enjoy his role, and in six months, he resigned.

For two years (1803-5), Claiborne acted almost as a dictator in the territory. He set about learning French and translating the laws into English and re-codifying them. In 1804, he lost his twenty-one-year-old wife, his daughter, his secretary, and many friends in an epidemic of yellow fever. Five years later, his second wife, also twenty-one at the time, perished of the same disease. He wrote to President Madison about the filth, garbage, and refuse thrown into the river, which he could see from his bedroom window.

Claiborne’s opinion of the people he found in New Orleans is expressed in the letters he wrote to James Madison in 1804, when Madison was still Secretary of State:

[January 10, 1804:] The more I become acquainted with the inhabitants of this Province, the more I am convinced of their unfitness for a representative government . . . I have discovered with regret that a strong partiality for the French government still exists . . . in some circles a sentiment is cherished that at the close of the War between England and France, the great Buonaparte will again raise his standard in this country.

[January 24, 1804:] The period allowed by the Treaty for the withdrawing of the French and Spanish forces from the ceded Territory expires this
day, and still little or no preparation is made for an Embarkation. The Spanish Officers have conducted themselves with great propriety . . . I cannot speak equally favourable of the French forces . . . some of these are mischievous, riotous, disorderly characters . . . added to this [is] the ignorance and credulity of the mass of people . . . I would think it wise policy in Congress to appropriate one hundred thousand dollars annually for the encouragement of Education in Louisiana.

[January 30, 1804:] On my arrival in New Orleans, I found the people very Solicituous to maintain their Public Ball establishment, and to convince them that the American Government felt no disposition to break in upon their amusements. Gen. Wilkinson
and myself occasionally attended these assemblies . . . I fear you will suppose that I am wanting in respect in calling your attention to the Balls of New Orleans, but I do assure you, Sir, that they occupy much of the public mind . . . (Claiborne, 22).

Joseph Dubreuil, one of the wealthiest planters in Louisiana wrote:

It is not unknown here, after reading over Northern public papers, that the ceded territory has been described to Congress as some sort of “Tower of Babel,” suffering from a confusion of tongues, and Louisianians as men stupefied by despotism or ignorance, and therefore unable to elevate themselves for a long time to the heights of a free constitution.

Dubreuil and others like him considered Claiborne wholly incompetent and entirely dependent on the English-speaking people for this information. He considered the governor a stranger in New Orleans—a stranger as far as the soil was concerned, its local interests, its customs, its habits, and even the language of the inhabitants, and therefore without the most absolutely necessary knowledge to govern.

The city government, created by charter in 1805, provided for a mayor, treasurer, recorder, and a city council of fourteen aldermen. The mayor was to preside over the council and head the police force and fire department, both of which were largely voluntary. The new government did its best to clean up New Orleans. It outlawed cockfights and forbade the dumping of human waste into the river. It reorganized the police force, inspected ships for disease, added street lights, and repaired roads and bridges. It purchased more fire-fighting equipment and enacted a building code. In the first decade of the American Era, however, five epidemics of yellow fever raged.

The years 1803-5 constituted a
period of conversation.
The natives of New Orleans had been firmly French or Spanish. By the time of the Louisiana Purchase, they had become American, but they needed time to adjust, to let go of their European ways, and to learn what it meant to be a part of a democracy.

It was a
period of confusion.
Most New Orleanians spoke only French; their governor spoke only English. Communication was difficult, and many of the impressions Claiborne first expressed were due to a lack of understanding. Because of the language difference, there had to be an English court and a French court, an English police force and a French police force, and interpreters everywhere.

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