EXPLORATION AND SETTLEMENT
(transcribed by Leora White, 2008)
By Tom Watson
"Carte General de Toute la Cote de la Louisianne..." Courtesy of the Geography and Map Division,
Library of Congress. The work of Alexadre Debatz, this beautiful example of mid-18th century cartographic
artistry served the political purpose of buttressing the French claim to the coast of Louisiana, which,
according to the mapmaker, extended westward from Mobile Bay to the Rio Grande.
"The [Gulf] coast is severe in the extreme and bad for shipping, especially in winter, since there are no ports for ships,
nor any more relief for those who suffer shipwreck than to suffer at the hands of barbarians."
-Juan Enríquez Barroto, April 16, 1687, written while in the vicinity of the Calcasieu River.
A River by Another Name
On Christmas Day in 1686, a pair of specially designed shallow draft piraguas, known affectionately as the “Two Ladies,” departed from Vera Cruz as part of the massive, four-year manhunt Spain conducted on land and sea to locate and destroy the French interloper René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle’s colony. The vessels, each powered with twenty pairs of oars and fitted with a single mast, were capable of maneuvering across sandbars and entering narrow inlets so characteristic of the northern shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. Their mission was daunting; they were to probe the entire northern rim of the Gulf and ferret out any sign of French presence. Juan Enríquez Barroto, who served as first pilot on one of the piraguas, kept a diary of the entire voyage.
"Carte De La Louisiane, Et Du Cours Du Mississippi," 1718.
Courtesy, the Virginia Garrett Cartographic History Library, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries
(cited hereinafter as: "Garrett Coll."). This groundbreaking map, the work of Guillaume Delisle, was the first to include
copious historical details such as the routes traveled by DeSoto and LaSalle. It also locates the villages of various Indian nations.
The inset below is an enlarged view of the local area which Delisle denoted as the home of "wandering and cannibalistic Indians."
Notice also the "Rio Mexicano," presently known as the Calcasieu.
On an afternoon in mid-April 1687, as the vessels approached the mouth of a river, the crews spotted Indians waving and making friendly gestures from the sandy shoreline. The next morning the Spaniards entered the river’s mouth and ascended the channel about a half league to a cluster of native huts on the west bank. To their amazement, a Spanish speaking Indian greeted them and explained they had arrived in the land of the Atákapas.
The Indian introduced himself as Pedro and explained how he came to be there. Some six years earlier he had been shanghaied from the Spanish mission at Apalachee, Florida by buccaneers en-route to raid Tampico. Later, while sailing eastward on another corsair, some mishap cost the crew it provisions. Facing starvation, Pedro, along with a native Mexican boy, Nicolás de Vargas, jumped ship, preferring to chance the Indians to certain death. Fortunately they found haven among the Atákapas and had remained with them for some three years.
The following day young Nicolás appeared at the encampment from a village upstream. His attire consisted only of a deerskin fastened around his waist, and his face and chest were tattooed with black lines and circles in the native fashion. Using Nicolás and Pedro as interpreters, the Spaniards queried the villagers about white men and ships. For some two weeks they followed up on leads thus obtained, even retracing their route. They entered the stream immediately to the west; one Barroto had named “Rio Dulce” because of the abundance of fresh water at its mouth, and then revisited a large estuary farther west. Finding no indications of the French, the expedition gave up the search and resumed sailing eastward early in May. Nicolás and Pedro went along, and Barroto named the stream where they had been found “Rio Mexicano” in honor of the former.
Borroto’s name for the river caught on. The Rio Mexicano first appeared on a French map of North America published in 1703 by Nicolas de Fer, the court cartographer. It was picked up in 1718 on the definitive map of the continent produced by the renowned French cartographer Guillaume Delisle. This nomenclature fell into disuse around 1755, and today the Rio Mexicano is known as the Calcasieu; Rio Dulce, the Sabine; and the estuary, Trinity Bay.
Background to the “Discovery” of Southwest Louisiana
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the size of the United States. Its former masters, first the French and then the Spanish, had barely scratched the surface in peopling and developing the colony, although Spain tried harder and achieved more. Most of this vast territory of some 800,000 square miles that stretched across the entire western watershed of the Mississippi had yet to be explored and mapped. Its precise boundary with the Spanish borderland provinces of Texas and New Mexico remained in dispute until the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. Only then did the Sabine River become part of a formally recognized international boundary. Southwest Louisiana was, in 1803, quite thinly populated, a “land without a country,” its resources waiting to be discovered.
Louisiana, 1814. Courtesy, the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection (cited hereinafter as "Rumsey Coll.")
Done in Philadelphia by Matthew Carey, this is believed to be the first published map depicting Louisiana as a state.
The absence of detail below the Red River speaks volumes about the relative lack of knowledge of southwest Louisiana at the time.
The inset below is an enlarged view of the area between the Sabine and Mermentau rivers. Carey identified the coastal features
east of the Sabine as "Impassable Swamps."
For that matter, very little of the Gulf coastal plain lying between the Mississippi and the Rio Grande had never been explored or mapped extensively. In the eighteenth century, seafarers of all nations generally kept as far away from its inaccurately charted shores as possible. Shallow banks extended out great distances, particularly west of the Atchafalaya. Sandbars, oyster reefs and other obstacles blocked the entrances of most streams and inlets. Hurricanes, “northers” and errors in seamanship had littered its beaches with shipwrecks for most of three centuries. Even worse, survivors quite often fell victim to the coastal-dwelling Indians, particularly the Karankawa. They had turned murdering helpless castaways and plundering beached ships into a cottage industry. Deserved or not, they also had an unsavory reputation of fondness for human flesh.
International rivalries in the closing decades of the eighteenth century set the stage for change. The Peace of Paris in 1763 ending the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War) drastically altered the map of colonial North America. France was ousted from the continent. Spain assumed control of former French Louisiana west of the Mississippi. Britain gained all of Spanish Florida and Louisiana east of the Mississippi except a narrow strip of land stretching from just below Baton Rouge to the sea, known as the “Isle of Orleans.” This parcel went to Spain. Britain, however, held equal rights with Spain to navigate the mighty river throughout its entire length.
Britain moved quickly to take possession of Spanish Pensacola and French Mobile. It incorporated all territory lying west of the Apalachicola into a new colony named West Florida. Its western boundary abutted the Isle of Orleans and included former French Baton Rouge and Natchez within its northern limits. It made Pensacola, with its excellent harbor, the capital of the new colony. All former Spanish territory east of the Apalachicola and below the St. Mary’s River southward all the way through the Florida Keys became East Florida. With a few flourishes of the pen, the Gulf of Mexico, in earlier times an exclusive “Spanish lake,” remained an open sea.
This underlay the motive of Carlos III, the Spanish monarch, to occupy Louisiana. He had no illusions about the difficulties he faced when he accepted the colony from France as a “consolation prize” for having given up Florida to Britain. For over sixty years France had largely neglected Louisiana, a colony that nevertheless imposed a considerable burden on the French treasury. Its value to Spain from the outset was strategic, not economic. In the Hispanic scheme, it must be converted into an effective barrier against British expansionist tendencies that threatened Mexico, the crown jewel of Spain’s North American empire, and Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. Accordingly, Spain strove to populate and develop its new colony, in order to render it both defensible and capable of defraying at least some of its administrative and defensive costs.
Successive Spanish ministries made some progress toward achieving these goals. They overcame the resistance of the French Creole elites to Spanish rule; they settled Acadian exiles, Malagüenos, and Canary Islanders in strategic locales; they attempted to foster markets for Louisiana’s tobacco, indigo, and lumber within the Spanish colonial economic network. All the while, the Spanish crown harbored an intense yearning to someday, somehow, rid Louisiana of its troublesome Anglo neighbors to the east.
The main chance presented itself in 1775 when open rebellion flared up in New England and spread southward along the Atlantic seaboard. All of a sudden Britain was preoccupied with suppressing a struggle for independence within its thirteen most populous and prosperous overseas colonies. Both France and Spain watched these developments with keen interest and secretly aided and abetted the American cause. In 1778, France took the plunge and recognized the United States as an independent nation, a step that quickly brought on a war that converted the American Revolution into an international conflict. In the following year, Bourbon France persuaded Bourbon Spain to join in as an ally.
In 1779, the Gulf Coast became a full-blown theatre of war. Armed with foreknowledge that war had been declared, Bernardo de Gálvez, energetic and youngish governor of Louisiana seized the initiative, mustered his reserves, quickly captured Baton Rouge and assumed possession of Natchez as part of the terms of surrender. In 1780 Mobile fell to Spanish arms and in 1781, the same year as the decisive Battle of Yorktown that ensured American independence, Pensacola capitulated to a Spanish siege.
Peace returned in 1783. Spain once again emerged in control of Florida, and Britain retreated northward into Canada. However, the newly independent and relatively populous United States replaced Britain as Louisiana’s new neighbor to the east. The Spanish postwar problem was to find means for containing the expansionist ambitions of the “restless Americans.”
The Spaniards employed several strategies in attempting to curb American westward expansion. They initially withheld recognition of American territorial claims below the Tennessee River. They closed the Mississippi to American commerce and then selectively opened it as a means for fomenting intrigue along the trans-Appalachian American frontier. They attempted to gain hegemony over the Southern Indian nations, keeping them aware that American expansion would come at their expense. Toward that end, they resorted to defensive alliances, gifts of firearms, and established a virtual monopoly over their trade. They paid American informants and provocateurs to instill separatist sentiment among Kentuckians and Tennesseans, whose prosperity utterly depended on access to the Gulf of Mexico. Diplomatically, they offered to open Spain to American trade in exchange for an American deferment of rights to navigate the Mississippi for a quarter century. The currents of change in both North America and Europe, however, dashed Spanish chances for success. These changes indeed wrought a chain of events that caused an ever-weakening Spain to lose the lion’s share of its American empire.
The creation of “a more perfect union” came about with the ratification of the Unites States Constitution of 1787. Its provisions enhanced the capability of the newborn federal government to conduct diplomacy, build its military capabilities, and exercise greater control over its western frontier.
On the heels of these events, revolution came to France in 1789. What began as a movement for moderate reform of the Ancien Regime shifted toward radicalism and regicide. War came in 1792. It expanded and intensified the following year after the execution of the hapless Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, his royal consort. Conservative Spain joined Britain and other European powers in an attempt to eradicate French revolutionary ideals. The war, however, went badly for Spain, whose leaders never felt entirely comfortable allied to an erstwhile archenemy. After major defeats, Spain settled its differences with France, where revolutionary radicalism had gone by the wayside. As France shifted toward marshaling its considerable resources and bidding for hegemony over Europe, it dragged Spain along as an uncomfortable ally.
Peace with France made war with Britain imminent. To mollify an immediate potential enemy, Spain in 1795 acquiesced in a treaty with the United States that guaranteed American commerce unimpeded access to the Gulf of Mexico through New Orleans. The treaty also set the American boundary with West Florida at 31° north latitude.
War broke out between Spain and Britain in 1796. Spain’s ability to maintain trade and communications with its American colonies ebbed with every passing month. While navel blockades and defeats sapped Spanish morale, heavy war spending steadily drained the Spanish treasury. Bitter political infighting set in as Spain devolved into a puppet state serving French ambitions. Conditions in Spain worsened with every step the wily Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, took as he ascended to supreme control over France.
In 1800, mutual exhaustion brought about a temporary truce between Napoleonic France and Britain. During the lull, the ever ambitious Bonaparte shifted his attention to resurrecting France’s once formidable overseas empire. Regaining Louisiana became an integral part of the overall scheme. Toward that end, Napoleon cynically promised Spain that France would convert Louisiana into a veritable “wall of brass” that would perpetually ensure the safety of Mexico from both Anglo and American expansion. Carlos IV, the somewhat feckless Spanish monarch, halfheartedly consented to the transfer in a secret treaty of 1800.
The administration of President Thomas Jefferson got wind of vague rumors of the deal and resolved to discourage France through diplomatic channels from following through. The matter reached crisis proportions when in 1801 Spain abruptly closed the port of New Orleans to American shipping. This measure created uproar throughout the trans-Appalachian west and goaded Jefferson into adopting more vigorous measures. He got a congressional appropriation to buy New Orleans or some other parcel of land that would give the United States undisputed right-of-way from the Mississippi to the sea. He also dispatched James Monroe as a special emissary to deal with Bonaparte. His instructions included strongly urging France to stay out of Louisiana, and if this failed, buying the desired access to the sea. If unable to accomplish either of these goals Monroe must cross the English Channel and conclude an anti-French alliance with the British.
Lady Luck accompanied Monroe on his mission to France. Early in 1803, Napoleon somberly reappraised his overseas plans. Troops sent to the former French colony of St. Domingue (present-day Haiti) to restore sugar cultivation and slavery suffered tremendous attrition from the twin furies of yellow fever and massive resistance. The former slaves fought fiercely to preserve their escape from bondage. The resumption of all-out war with Britain loomed ahead. Iced up harbors had delayed the sailing of an army to garrison Louisiana, rendering it extremely vulnerable to a British invasion or American attack. The cynical Corsican came to see the sale of Louisiana to the United States as the best remedy for his overseas headaches. The deal was offered to Robert Livingston, the American minister to France, before Monroe’s arrival in Paris.
The Sala Capitular, located in the New Orleans Cabildo, witnessed the formal transfer in 1803 of the Louisiana Purchase
lands to the United States. The room is furnished with replicas fashioned after the original pieces based on an inventory of its contents
made around the time of the transfer. Courtesy of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, Louisiana State Museum.
Cited hereinafter as "Louisiana State Museum."
Despite having no authority to negotiate a continent-sized real estate deal, the Americans feared that delay meant bypassing a golden opportunity. They closed on a price of $15,000,000 and overlooked such “minor points” as a clear title and well defined boundaries. These could be resolved later. Napoleon happily added the proceeds to his war chest while turning a deaf ear to Spanish protests against his perfidious duplicity. As anticipated, full-scale warfare in Europe resumed within months. Thomas Jefferson overcame his strict-constructionist constitutional scruples and sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification. It passed by a comfortable margin, and in December 1803 the Stars and Stripes began to grace the skyline of New Orleans. Meanwhile, Spain braced to counter a “liberal” Franco-American version of the limits of the Louisiana Purchase.
The Franco-American claim stemmed from LaSalle’s tragic seventeenth century episode of discovery and attempted colonization. In 1682, this French adventurer descended to the mouth of the Mississippi, ceremoniously took possession of it entire watershed, and made his sovereign, Louis XIV, its namesake. In 1685, LaSalle - through faulty geographical knowledge - mistakenly planted his stillborn colony near the head of present-day Matagorda Bay, hundreds of miles west of the Mississippi. This short-lived outpost, combined with LaSalle’s exploratory forays into the hinterlands, formed the basis for claiming the Rio Grande as the western boundary of Louisiana. Spanish researchers began sifting through mountains of musty documents to compile a convincing counterclaim.
As stated above, the boundary question awaited a formal solution until 1819. An interim “gentleman’s agreement” of 1806 created a neutral “demilitarized zone” stretching from the Sabine on the west to a vaguely defined eastern boundary that ran to the Gulf of Mexico. Ironically for Spain, the Adams-Onis Treaty, designed from the Spanish viewpoint to create as large a buffer zone between the United States and Mexico as possible, preceded Mexican independence by only a little over two years.
Meanwhile, warfare in Europe resumed in 1803. Enfeebled Spain became so increasingly demoralized that factional strife brought on an attempt to force Carlos IV to abdicate in favor of the crown prince. Napoleon interjected himself into the affair, caused both father and son to abdicate, and in 1808 foisted his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, onto the Spanish throne. This was too much. Spontaneous popular uprisings spread everywhere, and a resistance government formed. Fighting between Spanish guerrillas and French troops raged on until 1814 and Napoleon’s descent from power. In the aftermath, within seven years a weakened and faction-ridden Spain lost its empire in America except for Cuba and Puerto Rico.
This brief overview of some six decades of international rivalry, revolution and the emergence of newly independent nations in the western hemisphere witnessed sweeping changes that shaped our modern world in every conceivable way. They also encompass the years when governments and individuals began, albeit haltingly and with varied motives, to look closer into present-day Southwest Louisiana.
The Earliest Descriptions of Southwest Louisiana
Official Spanish surveys of Southwest Louisiana date from 1770. Two Irish-born officers in the Spanish service, Eduardo Nugent and Juan Kelly, set off from New Orleans late in 1769 to assess the hinterland posts of Atákapas (present day St. Martinville), Opelousas, Rapides (present-day Alexandria) and Natchitoches. They embarked in mid-November 1769 on a route through Bayou Plaquemines, the Atchafalaya, and the Teche to reach Atákapas Post, the first settlement to be inspected. There they found a population of 199 souls, mostly Acadians, with thirty-three slaves included in the mix. Cattle raising was the post’s principal occupation, but the settlers also grew cotton and flax for personal use. Proceeding on to Opelousas, they counted a community of 197 whites and 115 slaves. Atákapas and Opelousas were quite similar in most respects, they observed.
Sketch of a portion of the Gulf Coast made
by George Gauld in 1777 showing the shoreline between lakes Sabine and
Courtesy of the Archives and Special Collections Department, Frazar Memorial Library,
McNeese State University (cited hereinafter as "McNeese Archives").
In Opelousas they found livestock of all types - cattle, horses, hogs, sheep and goats, and the tiny community also raised corn, sweet potatoes, rice and flax. Open range cattle grazing, however, dominated over all other pursuits. The immense prairies sweeping westward from Opelousas and Atákapas greatly impressed Nugent and Kelly. They learned from informants that the grasslands extended all the way to Bahia San Bernardo (present-day Matagorda Bay) and were filled with enormous herds of wild cattle and mustangs. Game was also plentiful. The officers personally observed sleek cattle fattening on ample year-round pasturage. Cows weighed upwards to 800 pounds, and even at the onset of winter the grass stood five feet tall in places. Hardwood groves, called “islands” in the local parlance because of how they broke a featureless horizon comprised of a seemingly endless sea of waving grass, were interspersed across the prairie lands at three to four league intervals.
A Scot traveling by sea became the next in line to look closely at Southwest Louisiana. In the summer of 1777, George Gauld, a remarkable talented cartographer and surveyor for the British navy, paid and unauthorized visit to the Gulf coast from Southwest Pass to present-day Galveston. Stationed at Pensacola, Gauld labored for the best part of two decades mapping the eastern portions of the Gulf of Mexico. His work is still noted for its meticulous attention to detail and its accuracy, even by modern standards. Gauld’s voyage of 1777 on the sloop H. M. S. Florida turned out to be his last. Heightening Anglo-Spanish tensions stemming from the American Revolution, and the outbreak of war in 1779, kept Gauld on land at Pensacola until he departed as a paroled prisoner of war in 1781.
After taking soundings in the Mississippi’s Southwest Pass, Gauld seized the initiative to indulge in a bit of espionage - surreptitiously mapping the shoreline of Spanish Louisiana and Texas. After probing the bays, islands and inlets between the Delta and Vermilion Bay, Gauld coasted westward from Marsh Island in June. The Florida proceeded cautiously, hanging well offshore and continuously sounding the bottom along the way. After making note of the mouth of the Mermentau and passing the hulk of an unknown shipwreck, on July 20 Gauld observed the mouth of the “Cacatchouk” (Calcasieu) River and noted that “several Indian Settlements” existed upstream.
Proceeding westward, as the Florida carefully approached the entrance to the Sabine, lookouts spotted a shipwreck off the starboard bow. It turned out to be the sloop Robert that had sailed from Jamaica in November 1776 for the Mississippi. The master became confused and disoriented and somehow ran fast aground near present-day Louisiana Point. Of the original nine-member crew, three had miraculously managed to survive. They related that in dire straits they had set out in a ship’s boat in hope of reaching the Mississippi. After meandering along the labyrinth-like unknown coast for several weeks, they had returned to the Robert to replenish their exhausted provisions. To their chagrin, the castaways had found the wreck already stripped bare. One can but imagine the mood swing these miserable, famished souls experienced when they sighted the Florida.
After sounding Sabine Lake, Gauld determined to coast eastward in a small boat capable of maneuvering closer to the shore while the Florida, captained by Lt. John Osborne, continued charting westward. After passing present-day Galveston Island, Osborne reversed course on August 1 in order to rendezvous with Gauld. Meanwhile, while at the Calcasieu’s mouth, the cartographer fixed its latitude as 29° 41' north, an error of less than five miles. It was, he correctly observed, the “northernmost point” of the Gulf of Mexico west of the Mississippi. His sounding near the entrance indicated a depth of between twelve to eighteen feet.
By more than mere coincidence Bernardo de Gálvez in December 1777 dispatched the Señor de la Yedra, captained by Luís Antonio Andry, to map the coast westward to Matagorda Bay. This voyage ended in even greater tragedy than that of the Robert. Of the fourteen who sailed on the doomed Spanish vessel, only one survived to recount it fate.
Noting the Yedra’s failure to return to New Orleans, in October 1778 Gálvez began to suspect some mishap had occurred. Although months transpired transpired before his suspicions were confirmed, Tomás de la Cruz, a seaman aboard the Yedra, reached the safety of Presidio La Bahia in February 1779 and related a tale of horror. Almost a year before, Cruz declared the Yedra, low on provisions, dropped anchor in Matagorda Bay. Indians soon appeared on shore. Cristóbal Gómez, a sailor who had served in the garrison of nearby Presidio de la Bahia, volunteered to go ashore with four shipmates and ask the Indians to guide them to the Spanish outpost. The five crewmen, accompanied by the Indians, moved inland never to be seen again. After passing several anxious days awaiting the return of the Gómez party, Andry ordered the ship’s swivel gun to be fired as a distress signal. Presently two characters appeared on the shore and declared in Spanish they were soldiers sent out to look for marooned vessels. Actually they were Joseph María and Mateo, Karankawa renegades who had forsaken the harsh routine of the Spanish mission life.
Andry had the “soldiers” brought aboard. They gained his trust when they warned him against hostile natives in the vicinity and then fetched meat for the famished crew. Andry asked their help in finding the five lost crewmen, and the two set ff with three more unsuspecting sailors, ostensibly to search for Gómez.
The guileful Indians soon returned with a tale that they sent others to find the Gómez party. The three crewmen, they avowed, were delayed feasting on fresh game. By then, having carefully studied the ship, Joseph María and Mateo bided their time while more of their cohorts came aboard. The Indians then attacked the unsuspecting Spaniards with sudden, murderous fury. Only de la Cruz, in the ship’s hold when the assault commenced, escaped death. Andry’s twelve-year-old son, a naval cadet on his first extensive voyage, perished alongside his father. An intrepid Spanish Franciscan missionary, Joaquín de Escobar, rescued de la Cruz from captivity. He eventually returned to New Orleans via San Antonio and Natchitoches. The Yedra, meanwhile, had been thoroughly pillaged and burned.
In 1783, Bernardo de Gálvez returned to Spain as a conquering hero to be acclaimed and promoted for having driven the British out of the Gulf of Mexico. His influence in formulating postwar plans to secure Spain’s control over the Gulf of Mexico during aftermath of the American Revolution was paramount. Charting its northern rim, unfinished business since Andry’s tragic attempt, remained high on his agenda. He assigned the task to José de Evia, a Spanish pilot familiar with Louisiana’s waters. Evia had served under Gálvez during the naval campaign against Mobile.
Gálvez’s orders reached Evia at Havana. His mission called for a reconnaissance of most of the Gulf Coast and required around three years to complete. Having first surveyed the eastern half of the Gulf, Evia in April 1785 descended the Mississippi from New Orleans through the Southwest Pass and sailed westward to study the costa brava, so named by Spaniards because of its hostile and forbidding nature. Before departing Evia boldly wrote to his benefactor, the recently ennobled Conde de Gálvez, that he intended to map the gulf coast as far as Matagorda Bay or “die trying.”
Coat of Arms of the Conde de Gálvez, courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection. In 1783, Carlos III of Spain
elevated Bernardo de Gálvez to the nobility as a reward for his victories over the British in West Florida during the American Revolution.
Gálvez was instrumental to dispatching the Andry and Evia expeditions to survey the Gulf coast west of the Mississippi.
Evia survived, but not without experiencing serious dangers and difficulties along he way. His tiny three-schooner flotilla barely made it into Barataria Bay before having to weather a hurricane that beached the two smaller vessels. Provisions and tools for repairing storm damage had to be obtained from New Orleans before the expedition resumed its mission. The tiny fleet, hampered by thunder storms, oyster banks, and unfavorable tides, finally put into Atchafalaya Bay on June 15.
At this point, Evia pondered his options. He knew of Andry’s fatal voyage, and he had no experienced pilot to safely guide the expedition through the shoaly waters that lay ahead. Accordingly, Eviz anchored the ships and ascended the Atchafalaya River and the Bayou Teche to consult with Alexandre deClouet, commandant at Atákapas Post. Clouet summoned from Opelousas Post the most experienced men who had ventured along the western shores to share their knowledge with Evia. They opined that his ships were poorly suited to the task. Oyster banks, sandbars and shallows extending far into the sea made it dangerous if not impossible to approach the shoreline except in shallower draft boats. Evia heeded their advice, and with Clouet’s help he rented two verchas and two smaller piraguas, vessels commonly used on the Teche and other streams in the locale. Evia also added local manpower to his complement. He engaged twenty black and mulatto militiamen to row and help defend against any hostile encounters with coastal Indians. Although Evia also took along the most experienced local guide, no one who had ever ventured farther west than the Sabine could be found.
With all in readiness, Evia anchored the schooners securely in Atchafalaya Bay, and on July 3 he resumed his explorations. The party ran into numerous squalls as it maneuvered around oyster reefs and sandbars making its way through Vermilion Bay and along the westward lying coast. Evia noted passing the mouth of “Bayu del Constante” (present-day Big Constance Bayou) site of a salvage and rescue effort undertaken in 1766 when the Spanish ship El Nuevo Constante, beset by a fierce hurricane, had been beached near its mouth. Shrimper Curtis Blume rediscovered this wreck in 1979 when he snagged his trawl on its decaying timbers, setting the stage for the state’s first underwater archaeological study.
Map showing the location of the wreckage of el Nuevo Constante, lost in 1766 to a hurricane. Courtesy of the Department of Culture,
Recreation and Tourism, Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission.
The little expedition then came upon the mouth of the “Rio Mermentao” (Mermentau), but, after sounding its entryway, Evia had to ascend the channel “dos leguas” (about six miles) to find a dry campsite. They likely stayed the night on present-day Dans Ridge, near where Highway 82 crosses the Mermentau just to the west of Grand Chenier. Before dawn the oarsmen rowed downstream and on to the “Rio Carcasiu” (Calcasieu), arriving there around midday on July 9. Evia calculated the latitude to be 29° 42' near its mouth (quite close to Gauld’s measurement) and recorded the channel depth at eight brazas (around eighteen feet). He inferred that Teche country mariners customarily camped there - as did his party that particular night.
Evia gave his overall impressions of the Calcasieu-Mermentau area in a post-voyage summary. His description of the landmarks and features conform remarkably to the present. One can easily visualize the sandy, treeless beach running westward from the mouth of the Mermentau, and the live oak groves beyond the beach stretching along the Front and Grand Chenier ridges. He advised future voyagers who found themselves stranded at the Mermentau that Opelousas and Atakapas posts could be reached in three days by canoe, presumably via bayous Queue du Tortue and Nezpique and their tributaries. His landmark for entering the Calcasieu was a large lone oak located directly on the eastern tip of its mouth. This tree stood some two miles west of the lowest line of scattered groves nearest the shore. To enter the river, pilots should steer from a point about one mile due south of the “sentinel oak” directly toward the west tip of its mouth. This ensured reaching the deepest part of the channel running across the bar. Evia remarked on the abundant game and fish to be found along both rivers, which ran fresh and deep for the most part. He mistakenly noted, however, that the two streams connected at some point in the interior.
While rowing westward the next day, Evia passed the wreck of a demasted brigantine some two miles off shore. From the remnants of its cargo, he speculated it was British. The little flotilla reached the Sabine that afternoon. The crews took on fresh water and camped on a short stretch of sandy beach. Heavy thunderstorms soaked their encampment throughout the night.
When the Evia expedition broke camp in the morning, it embarked on an unknown leg of its journey. After several days of arduous rowing and sailing through drenching rainstorms and high winds, the exhausted party camped on present-day Point Bolivar. Reasoning that large inland estuary stretching northward from the peninsula was in all likelihood Trinity Bay, Evia decided to postpone surveying the area until his return from Matagorda Bay. The party left early in the morning and steered westward through the shallows that lay along the north shore of a “long island” situated across the inlet from Bolivar peninsula. That evening, apprehensive of an Indian ambush, the explorers anchored inside the passage at the island’s western tip and slept aboard. Ever on the alert, the nest day they proceeded cautiously toward Matagorda Bay. They napped and sounded the bay in a state of constant vigilance, knowing fully they had penetrated the haunts of the Karankawa.
On the return leg, Evia stopped at the "long island" on July23 and spent four days mapping the environs. He learned that the bay stretching northward from the eastern side of the island was sufficiently deep to become a commodious harbor. Accordingly, he named the island and bay Galveston in honor of his patron. The Spaniards then ascended the Trinity past the ruins of the abandoned Spanish mission-presidio at Orcoquisac (just north of present-day Wallisville) to the point where ancient trails leading to San Antonio and La Bahia in the west and, to the east, Nacogdoches, Natchitoches and Opelousas, crossed the river.
The expedition’s departure from Galveston Island was hastened by the sighting of Indian campfires across the estuary each night and a scarcity of potable water. An almost constant spate of rainstorms hampered its progress toward the Sabine. On reaching its mouth, the parch-lipped voyagers sadly learned the water had turned brackish. They rowed for hours before they reached fresh water at the mouth of the Neches and refilled their empty casks. Drenched by thunderstorms that evening at their nearby shell bank camp, they got underway long before the break of dawn and headed for the Calcasieu under a constant heavy downpour. They passed four inhabitants of Opelousas busily salvaging the wreck they had encountered earlier while sailing outbound toward Matagorda Bay.
The party finally reached the schooners anchored in Atchafalaya Bay on August 3. Heavy, wind-driven seas and violent storms had pummeled them about almost constantly after leaving the Calcasieu. Evia dismissed the militiamen, and they happily headed for home in the small boats. Sensing a strong hurricane in the offing, Evia took the risk of sending his schooners up the Atchafalaya to return to New Orleans via Bayou Plaquemines and the Mississippi. He, meanwhile, went to Atákapas Post to settle accounts. He caught up with his flotilla on the Mississippi a short distance below its juncture with Bayou Plaquemines. It reached the Crescent City by mid-month. This was the first time any sizeable vessels ever traversed that inland route.
In 1795, Joseph Piernas penned a glowing description of the Calcasieu’s countryside based on extensive first-hand knowledge. Born in Spain, Piernas came to Louisiana in 1766 with his father Pedro, one of the first Spanish officers assigned to the colony. The elder Piernas had risen to the rank of colonel and commanding officer of Spain’s Louisiana Regiment at the time of his death in 1791. Joseph at first seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps in a military career. However, his brashness and insubordinate mannerisms apparently kept him in “hot water.” Joseph was pressured into resigning his commission in 1778, probably to spare his father further embarrassment, and began drawing a sub-lieutenant’s pension at age twenty-three. Joseph had rambled extensively over Louisiana by the time he married María Adelaida LeConte in 1793. The couple took up residence on a ranch Joseph named Santa María Adelaida in honor of his bride. The ranch nestled against Bayú de las Piedras (Bayou Pierre) near present-day Converse, and area interestingly enough then under the jurisdiction of Spanish Texas.
Piernas deserves attention as the first in a line of visionaries who dreamed of making the Calcasieu the site of a full-fledged port. His glowing description of the sources of Southwest Louisiana equaled or surpassed the superlatives used by many boosters who followed in his wake. The lands of the Calcasieu were the “fairest, most pleasant and delightful” to be found anywhere in Louisiana and easily reached by land or sea. Abundant streams and springs provided pure, sweet and healthful water. Sufficient rainfall, “pure air,” and a temperate climate made soil suitable for every conceivable crop produced anywhere else in the colony. The myriad coulees and bayous that crisscrossed its vast prairies provided natural boundaries for pasturage with no need for fencing. Livestock grew larger and fared better on its lush, abundant grasslands then elsewhere in Louisiana. Its vast stands of oak, cypress, and pine endowed the locale with timber resources well suited for shipbuilding and all other types of construction. Firewood and charcoal could be obtained with little time and effort. Tall stands of pines could produce an abundance of tar, pitch and naval stores. The watershed of the nearby Sabine contained stone deposits from which millstones for grinding flour and whetstones for sharpening tools could be quarried. Moreover, the presence of mulberries, along with a cornucopia of blooming plants and medicinal herbs held promise for developing a silkworm industry, bee colonies, and pharmaceuticals.
Hogs ranging freely in its forests could find plenteous supply of nut and acorns. There was no need to fatten them on corn, as was the case in Mississippi. Large numbers of bear roamed the deep woods and canebrakes, making it possible for households to put in a year’s supply of bear’s oil with ease. Numerous herds of deer ensured that families could lay up a supply of venison as well. Firm-fleshed freshwater fish of all types could be easily caught, as well as the same varieties of seafood found at Mobile and Pensacola. These natural food sources, Piernas maintained, could relieve settlers of the need to slaughter domesticated animals for home consumption, ensuring a rapid buildup of their livestock through natural increase. He estimated these combined resources to be easily capable of supporting 4,000 households, ranches and farms.
Piernas offered to transport at his own expense and risk five hundred or more sober, industrious German and Irish Catholic families from Europe to a village site to be selected along the Calcasieu fifteen leagues (around forty-five miles) above its mouth. This would be accomplished within eight years. He promised to survey and plat a village, and to assign each family a lot for building a conformable abode. In addition, each household would be given land to work outside the village limits (presumably following the French “long lot” practice commonly in use: six to eight arpents fronting a stream and forty or more arpents deep). In addition, each family would receive the customary “starter” allotment of cattle, oxen, horses, hogs, and poultry. He pledged to erect a parish church and provide the community with a curate, a surgeon, medicines, and a Spanish schoolmaster to care for its spiritual and physical well-being. He asked permission to import tools, implements, etc. into the colony on two 200-ton barks yearly, free from all customs duties for ten years. He also promised to establish a coastal patrol at the mouth of the river to aid castaways, keep watch for suspicious movements, and chart the coast.
The little colony on the Calcasieu, Piernas envisioned, would become a valuable asset for supplying the many needs of the all-important Port of Havana, the hub for Spain’s entire Caribbean and Gulf maritime network. According to his plan, the colony’s development would be carefully directed toward that purpose.
The highest priority would be given to the cultivation of hemp and the laying of cables and rope of all types for the royal navy’s use. Presently these had to be obtained from uncertain foreign markets in Europe at great expense. In time, Piernas projected, his colony could supply the Cuban port’s entire needs for cordage at substantial savings to the royal treasury. In addition, colony could furnish much pickled beef and port, flour, rice and other provisions for the fleet, along with ship timbers, planks, spars, masts and naval stores for shipbuilding and repair. Among the many items the colony could export to the general Cuban market, Piernas listed horses, mules, bear-otter-and deer skins, cowhides, cured hams, cheeses, butter, rice, flour, and lumber for sugar crates.
Piernas pledged his rather meager military pension as surety for meeting the terms he proposed. Once he had fulfilled his obligations, he asked to be rewarded with a (presumably large) land grant. The record reveals nothing about where and how he hoped to acquire capital for financing his exceedingly ambitious scheme. Amazingly, however, it received royal approval in 1798, a time when the last days of Spain in Louisiana were numbered. His vision, nonetheless, foretold of things to come.
First Settlements Along the Calcasieu
Although Piernas never did more than make hollow gestures toward initiating his project, he did become the absentee owner of around 500 cattle pastured in the environs of the Calcasieu. He engaged an erstwhile friend, James Elliot, Jr., of Opelousas to look after his herd. The younger Elliott and is father, James Sr., ran cattle in the Natchez District before relocating in the vicinity of Opelousas in the 1780’s. James may have been a silent partner in Piernas’s settlement venture, and there is good reason to believe his ideas were included in its planning.
By 1780’s the former friends had fallen out, and young Elliott had filed suit against Piernas for non-payment of back wages. When Piernas’s dilatory tactics ground the local wheels of justice to a halt, Louisiana Governor Manuel Gayosos de Lemos intervened and ordered the defendant’s herd confiscated and sold in judgment of default.
Only then did Piernas appear at Opelousas to defend his interests. After much wrangling and counter-charging the parties agreed to permit Post Commandant Martin Duralde to organize a roundup of Piernas’s cattle along the Calcasieu. He appointed Francisco Escouffie to act as “trail boss” over the riders engaged for the task. Inasmuch as Piernas was liable for their wages and supplies, the roundup was to be completed within no more than thirty-five days. To preserve the integrity of the Piernas concession, the party was also ordered to determine whether any inhabitants, ranches, or plantations existed on either side of the river. Escouffie in July 1799 affirmed his party had discovered neither settlers nor indications of any towns or plantations staked out along the length of the Calcasieu. Nearby inhabitants named in the roundup’s statement of expenses as either hands or suppliers include Barthelemy LeBleu and his adopted son Martin Camarsac (LeBleu).
The LeBleu clan lived below present-day English Bayou, a short, wide and navigable stream for much of its length that connected to the east side of the Calcasieu upstream from present-day Lake Charles. The patriarch, Barthelemy, was perhaps born at Arkansas Post along the Upper Mississippi around 1734. He later became a pilot and acquired an understanding of the features of the Louisiana coast before relocating in Opelousas from New Orleans likely during the 1770’s. His name appears on the post militia roster of 1780. His son, Martin Camarsac, also served in the militia. Barthelemy seems to have set himself up in the cattle business on the open prairies east of the Calcasieu some time before 1779.
Martin Camarsac and Josette Lamirande, the daughter of Joseph de la Miranda, a native Louisianian residing in the Opelousas district, lived together on English Bayou without benefit of matrimony for some four decades. Their liaison was “blessed” by the church in 1820. They had at least four children; the two eldest, Arsene and Catherine, became deeply embedded in the lore surrounding the early history of Lake Charles. Arsene became one of the most prominent cattlemen in Southwest Louisiana in the early nineteenth century. He also reputedly had connections of some sort with the legendary Jean Laffite. In 1802, sixteen-year-old Catherine married Charles Sallier, the namesake of Lake Charles.
Born in 1763 in the Alpine city of Chambery, former capital of the Duchy of Savoy, teenaged Anselme Charles Sallier was brought to Opelousas in 1781 by Barthelemy LeBleu from parts unknown. He married his first wife, Angelique Fonteneau, there in 1792. Angelique gave birth to their only child, Felonise, in 1794. Angelique died within two years, and the bereaved Charles wandered to the west. His name appears on a census roll taken in 1797 in Nacogdoches, then the easternmost outpost of Spanish Texas. His whereabouts between that date and the time of his second marriage cannot be readily determined. It seems likely that he rejoined his former sponsor, Barthelemy, in some capacity before his marriage to Catherine.
Several yeas would pass before the newlyweds set up housekeeping in a crude cabin on the smallish bluff facing ancient shell madden nestled along the south shore of the small lake destined to bear the name of Charles. However, in those days it may have been called Lake St. Adelaide in honor of Señora Piernas. Wherever they resided they were near enough to witness the arrival on a late autumn day in 1805 of a Spanish nobleman and his three-ship flotilla. He was Brigadier General Sebastián Calvo de la Puerta y O'Farril, Marqués de Casa-Calvo, a former interim governor of Louisiana on a mission to investigate the western limits of the Louisiana Purchase.
Casa-Calvo was in New Orleans in 1804 serving as a Spanish boundary commissioner. He had been stunned when Pierre Clement Laussat, Napoleon’s prefect who presided over the three-way transfer of Louisiana to the United States, pronounced the Rio Grande to be its western boundary. The Marqués opined that the boundary went no farther than the Sabine - if that far.
Map of the United States, 1816. Courtesy of Garrett Coll. This map, the work of John Melish, shows the large area
to the west and north of Louisiana as "Missouri Territory." The western boundary extends to the Pecos River and closely approximates
the 1803 Franco-American interpretation of the western limits of the Louisiana Purchase based on the exploits of LaSalle.
The inset below is an enlarged view that shows the proximity of the Calcasieu River to Galveston Bay.
Casa-Calvo had departed New Orleans in mid-October 1805 ostensibly on a recuperative “hunting and fishing” jaunt along the coast and incidentally to visit Spanish Texas sites. William C.C. Claiborne, President Jefferson’s territorial governor, cordially approved the junket. In actuality Casa-Calvo had his mind set on conducting what amounted to the most thoroughgoing official survey of the Louisiana-Texas coast and hinterlands ever made up to then. His sixty-three member party included a French-born engineer, Nicolás de Finiels, a skilled surveyor and cartographer. Finiels’ impressions of the Mermentau and Calcasieu rivers complement those of Piernas in a special way. Whereas Piernas had surveyed the area from the seat of a saddle, Finiels viewed it from the deck of a vessel; one that sailed inland much farther than had either Gauld or Evia.
Finiels described the long sandbar jutting southwestward from eastern shore of the Mermentau, the cheniers, marshes and other physical features along the way to Lake Tigre (present-day Lake Arthur). He described the river’s watershed and listed its five main bayou tributaries. He located the principal habitations as being some twelve leagues from its mouth, except for two dwellings on the shore of Lake Tigre. He found the land well endowed with resources.
Finiels, however, greatly preferred the Calcasieu to the Mermentau. He reported that the entry channel ran nearest its west bank at a depth of between ten and fifteen feet depending on the tides, and deepened gradually as it approached the large lake (Calcasieu Lake) some two leagues upstream. Farther ahead the river gained considerable depth and was free from impediments to navigation. The width of the “handsome” and “picturesque” river varied from 150 to 400 feet, and was navigable close in to both banks. The greatest navigational problem stemmed from its frequent twists and turns.
Finiels praised two smaller lakes he visited upstream. The northernmost and lesser of the two (Lake Charles), “where the population is,” was almost circular and “surrounded by oaks and cypresses that seem to sally out into the water.” However, he preferred the more southerly (Prien Lake) of the two. Its larger size and irregular shape contained interesting coves and bluffs, and it emptied into a huge stand of cypress. The countryside around the Calcasieu was fertile and pretty. Its extensive prairies interspersed with groves and divided by streams that flowed into the river, endowed it as the best location for a settlement west of the present-day Red River. He placed its distance from Opelousas at twenty-six leagues.
Louisiana, 1816. Courtesy of Rumsey Coll.. Published in Philadelphia by William Darby,
this map includes greater overall statewide detail than the Carey map. The inset below shows the "Shell Bank" (barely legible)
on the southern shore of Lake Charles, the location of the Sallier home. It also shows the ancient trail network
leading to Opelousas and other points east and where it crossed the Neches and Sabine Rivers.
Interlude in Texas
The Casa-Calvo mission shaped the next several years of the lives of Charles and Catharine Sallier. The Marqués engaged “Carlos Savoyard” as a guide and pilot and also took along two others from the LeBleu coterie to assist in exploring the Sabine. Sallier, however, guided the expedition to Atascosito where Casa-Calvo found a detachment of Spanish troops. After resting, the Marqués acquired horses and his party road northward to visit Nacogdoches before returning to New Orleans via Natchitoches and the Red River.
Sallier remained at Atascosito, and Catherine eventually joined him there. Casa-Calvo had encouraged the pair as well as many other residents of the Opelousas district to migrate to a colony he planned to locate at the head of Trinity Bay near the ruins of former Orcoquisac. The settlement, he reasoned, would serve to reinforce the odds of settling the western boundary of Louisiana along the Sabine. Colonizing Texas, however, went beyond his authority to accomplish, and the Texan authorities vetoed the idea. Sallier and other Louisianans applied for, but were denied permission to settle at Orcoquisac.
The precise motives behind Charles Sallier's desire to move are indiscernible, but they conformed to the prevailing spirit of the times. Countless thousands of North American frontiersmen picked up and moved at the drop of a hat, "greener pastures” ahead always beckoning them onward. Furthermore, from the founding of French Natchitoches in 1714 the nebulous and porous Louisiana-Texas border had little if any meaning for residents on either side. Illicit two-way trade between this French outpost and the Spanish Texas ranged between points as near as Los Adaes (near present-day Robeline) and as distant as the Llano Estacado on the fringes of New Mexico. By the end of the eighteenth century smuggling had become pandemic and even necessary for a comfortable existence. On rare occasions local commandants and provincial governors paid lip service to suppressing contraband trade, but with little overall effect. In Sallier's case the Trinity and its connections to the northward must have appeared to be an ideal location to engage in smuggling in the time-honored tradition.
The Salliers remained at Atascosito at least through most of 1807. A census of the year lists Don Carlos “Sabet” and wife Catarina “LeBluit” and two children, Alejandro and Luisa. Don Carlos owned 200 head of cattle and two horses. In November he fixed his mark on military pay voucher for six months service as an interpreter of Indian languages at four pesos per month. Charles and Catherine Sallier apparently returned to the Calcasieu area soon afterward. Local tradition holds that the couple took up residence on Lake Charles in 1808. They were definitely in Louisiana in 1810, the year Catherine gave birth to their third child, Sydalise.
Troubles Across the Sabine
On September 26, 1810, almost two years before Louisiana achieved statehood, rebellion flared up in the heart of Mexico. It began with Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s call to arms in the sleepy town of Dolores. However, whatever degree of sentiment for independence from Spain that existed among the upper classes vanished quickly as unruly mobs unleashed pent up indiscriminate fury without distinction between upper class native Spaniards or Mexican-born Creoles. After the rebel priest’s forces were crushed, he and other key leaders were captured as they fled northward seeking safety. They were summarily tried, executed and made grisly reminders of the price of rebellion. Resistance movements, however, managed to hold out in isolated areas under the leadership of Father José María Morelos and others. Intermittent fighting continued until a moderate-conservative coalition achieved independence in 1821.
The sound of battle raging in far away Mexico soon reverberated across the empty spaces of Spanish Texas into Louisiana. New Orleans at various times hosted a cosmopolitan lot of Mexican patriots, soldiers of fortune, secret agents, and spies connected in various ways to the troubles in Mexico. As early as 1811 Natchitoches became a base for assembling filibustering campaigns into Texas. The first and the bloodiest, the Gutiérrez-Magee expedition, marched from there into Spanish Texas in 1812 and temporarily gained the upper hand over the colony. However, by 1813 royalist armies from interior Mexico had restored effective Spanish control over San Antonio and La Bahia. Surviving remnants of the republican cause fled eastward to escape from harsh reprisals. Perhaps as many as 600 refugees took haven in the environs of Opelousas.
International conflict over the next eight years lay at the doorstep of the small group of residents along the Calcasieu. At this juncture, however, as the War of 1812 sputtered along toward its conclusion, a contest between Britons and Americans to determine who would control New Orleans and the lower Mississippi, one of no small strategic significance, loomed on the horizon.
In 1815 the American side decisively beat the British invaders at the Battle of New Orleans, an event that produced two of the most durable legendary American heroes. The first is Andrew Jackson. Known fondly as “Old Hickory,” the Tennessee general parlayed the victory into the presidency of the United States in 1828. The other is Jean Lafitte, who sank into obscurity after 1820.
The beginning and end of the careers of the Lafitte brothers, Jean and Pierre, remain shrouded in mystery. Their activities are traceable only from their appearance on Grand Terre Island in the early 1800s until the United States navy evicted them from Galveston Island in 1820. They spent the greater part of those years operating a smuggling ring that brokered Spanish plunder taken on the high seas on markets in Louisiana.
Lafitte Brothers in Dominique You's Bar.
Attributed to John Wesley Jarvis, c. 1821. Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum.
Jean Lafitte always insisted he was an honorable privateer who preyed only on Spanish ships, not a pirate. This line of argument was specious. Spanish ships were the only safe targets around for the grabbing, if he wished to avoid the prospect of massive retaliation. Moreover, the distinction between piracy and privateering in his case rested on a technicality. Governments at war with little or no naval power normally resorted to letters of marque and reprisal. These credentials entitled civilians to arm privately owned ships, engage crews and prey on enemy shipping. Even the Founding Fathers who drafted the United States Constitution saw fit to include this practice in the powers they delegated to Congress.
Both regular naval officers and privateer captains had great incentive to capture enemy prizes. When brought to a natural or friendly port, such vessels and their cargoes could be “condemned” in admiralty court proceedings. Once adjudged legitimate prizes, the master and crew shared a large portion of the proceeds gained from the sale of the captured ship and cargo.
Jean Lafitte claimed he always operated under these very rules. However, when France shut down privateering operations in the Caribbean in the 1790s, French privateers resorted to sailing under the flags of such dubious political entities as rebel-held Cartagena, a former Spanish bastion on the Caribbean. Lafitte’s cohorts did so and also later used letters of marque issued by ad hoc rebel juntas in Mexico. Lafitte conducted admiralty proceedings on United States soil at the island of Grand Terre, without either government consent or international recognition as a legitimate port of call. As has been written, Lafitte was a “citizen of the wind.”
Grand Terre, situated as a “back door” to the market of New Orleans and environs, was well suited for the disposal of plunder. A maze of channels wound northward from Barataria Bay through the wetlands. The Creoles who then outnumbered Americans in the area could not care less about where merchandise came from as long as it was cheap - legal sanctions to the contrary notwithstanding. The Creole attitude toward les Américains, their new rulers, was largely one of indifference and distrust. It intensified when Congress in 1804 prohibited the importation of slaves into the territory from foreign sources. Despite the measure’s humanitarian undertones, Creoles scoffed at a law they saw as more evidence that Americans considered them inferior to Anglos. Creole defiance compounded the misery and degradation suffered by the large numbers of captured Spanish slaves Lafitte illegally channeled through Barataria Bay to eager customers.
New Orleans quickly became the nerve center for privateering in the Gulf of Mexico. Lafitte was notoriously open about his activities because of the friendly support he received from Louisiana’s planters and merchants. He oftentimes publicized and conducted the equivalent of modern day “flea markets” at the Temple and other such hideaways below the Crescent City. Although American customs agents occasionally attempted to ambush Baratarian smugglers, even in rare instances exchanging shots, business thrived. When the exasperated Governor Claiborne offered a $500.00 reward for the delivery of Lafitte to the sheriff of Orleans, the outlaw tripled the amount he would pay for Claiborne delivered to Grand Terre.
In 1814, American authorities finally turned the tables on Lafitte. A combined army-navy force conducted a successful surprise raid on the island stronghold. Many Baratarians, including Jean Lafitte, fled to the safety of the surrounding marshes, but the government made a large haul in captured ships and merchandise and took some prisoners. The Americans took the prizes and contraband to New Orleans for condemnation in admiralty proceedings and jailed the captives to await trial in felony court. While his brother Pierre sat in prison pending an “escape,” Jean returned to the shambles at Grand Terre to ponder his next move.
Fortunately for the fugitive smuggler, a British warship had sailed into Barataria Bay under a flag of truce just before the government raid. Its officers offered attractive inducements for Baratarian participation in a pending British attack on New Orleans. Lafitte guilefully asked for a fortnight to consider the offer. He deftly played his British “trump card” by informing Governor Claiborne of the imminent British attack and offering the services of the Baratarians in the defense of the Crescent City.
General Andrew Jackson, hard pressed to marshal manpower, finally changed his mind about accepting help from Lafitte’s “hellish banditti.” The Baratarians responded overwhelmingly, and many, if not the Lafitte brothers, made signal contributions to the stunning victory of makeshift American forces over veteran British soldiers. Never mind that the battle was fought after American and Anglo diplomats in faraway Europe had already agreed to preliminary peace terms. The victory gave Americans a happy ending to an otherwise frustrating and divisive war. That the arrogant and powerful British foes had sailed away in defeat with bitter memories of American fury lingering in their collective memory made Americans jubilant throughout the land. A grateful President James Madison pardoned the Lafitte’s and their cohorts for their timely aid. A new reality soon dawned, however, erasing from the minds of the brothers the memories of whatever accolades they had received as great American heroes.
Try as they might, the Lafittes failed to persuade the American government to restore the contraband seized during the raid on Grand Terre. With the return of general peace, many Baratarian captains slipped out of New Orleans seeking new havens for continuing their plundering lifestyles. The brothers knew their hey-day on the island hideaway was over and shifted their gaze westward toward strife-torn Spanish Texas as a likely place to resume operations. They also kept their ears closely attuned to the local rounds of intrigues and plots connected with rebellion in Spanish America. Keeping abreast was no small undertaking, for the Crescent City attracted conspirators of all stripes as long as northern Hispanic America remained engulfed in the throes of revolution.
Meanwhile strife in Texas renewed. In 1816 the French corsair, Louis Aury and a host of followers arrived at Galveston Island from New Orleans. A minister of the rebel Mexican congress made Aury the governor, and his captains began sailing under the Mexican rebel flag. The harbor began to fill with Spanish prizes which were duly condemned under Aury’s authority.
The Lafittes followed these activities closely through their connections with the local privateering fraternity and devised a clever scheme to seize the moment. Pierre had already become a secret Spanish agent, and Jean soon “allowed” himself to be recruited into Spanish service. Through duplicity, feigned sincerity and selectively feeding intelligence to the Spanish spy network, they persuaded highly placed Spaniards in Washington and Havana that they could solve Spain’s privateering problems by driving Aury and his ilk off the seas. Spanish confidence in the brothers’ plan rose high enough to partly subsidize the undertaking.
Jean Lafitte sailed to Galveston in March 1817 to do a bit of first-hand espionage. His timing was providential. Within days of his arrival he witnessed Aury loading his shops with members of the Mina-Perry expedition for an invasion of the small Mexican port of Soto la Marina. We can only wonder whether he waved bon voyage as he watched the invasion fleet depart on April 7 leaving its island base virtually undefended. Lafitte suborned the few followers Aury left behind and took over the island in a matter of days. Shortly afterward, privateers began congregating at the island, where Lafitte accepted only Spanish prizes in his “admiralty court.” When Aury returned from the debacle at Soto la Marina, where the invaders had been repulsed and scattered, he was courteously informed that his future lay elsewhere. As he sailed away to other adventures, he probably muttered expletives to himself about the perfidy of the Lafittes. Within months, the commune of Campeachy rose along the island’s northeastern edge.
On the commercial side of the ledger, its location was quite good. José de Evia had remarked on the ease of communication between Galveston Bay and the Opelousas district via the Calcasieu. A two-way traffic quickly developed along this route with provisions moving westward and contraband moving in the opposite direction. The overland trail running eastward from Atascosito to Opelousas felt the footpads of innumerable slaves taken off Spanish ships. They were marched in coffles to a crossing on the Sabine opposite present-day Niblett's Bluff. The remnants of Lafitte’s former slave barracoon still stood on the Texas side as late as 1836. Lesser numbers of slaves came up the Calcasieu, where local tradition alludes to a barracoon situated somewhere along Contraband Bayou.
Slave running started in 1816 when Aury ruled the island, but Jean Lafitte perfected this pernicious traffic in human misery. American customs officers in New Orleans began reporting heightened slave smuggling activity along the Louisiana coast almost simultaneously with Aury’s presence at Galveston. Inasmuch as Congress in 1808 had banned the importation of slaves into the United States, the American market ensured a steady outlet, and proceeds from the sale of slaves amounted to a large segment of the total income flowing into Campeachy’s coffers. But it was the one branch of Lafitte’s operations that had to be conducted with utmost caution.
Neither Jean Lafitte nor any of his henchmen ever personally transported a single slave into Louisiana. Slaves could be bought by all comers either at Campeachy or at the barracoon on the Sabine at a bargain rate of one dollar per pound in hard currency. The buyer had the responsibility of moving the slaves into Louisiana. The overland trail from the Sabine became the safer route. American revenue cutters increased their patrols, and accounts of chasing slavers into the Calcasieu and the Mermentau occasionally figured into New Orleans customs house reports. On the other hand, the Calcasieu could be reached overland from the Sabine in one to two day’s travel, and from there either Opelousas or Alexandria could be reached in a few more days.
In 1818, the Bowie brothers, James and Rezin, began buying slaves from Lafitte. From a modest beginning they parlayed their initial purchase of forty slaves into a gross profit of around $65,000.00 over a two-year span. As cynical as they were energetic, the duo devised a method of getting around the stiff penalties attached to convictions under federal contraband slave statutes. They knew the lay of the land to the west of their respective bailiwicks in the Avoyelles and Opelousas country. They certainly had connections along the Calcasieu. Rezin had set up a sawmill on Bayou Nezpique, and he developed a close friendship with Arsene LeBleu. In 1820 Rezin stood as parrain for his friend’s infant son, Arsene, Jr.
The Bowies used other friendships to “legalize” their illegitimate dealings. According to the federal statutes, anyone who “confiscated” contraband slaves and turned them over to government authorities was entitled to a bounty of half the proceeds received from their resale. It became a simple matter of establishing the proper “connections” with federal marshals and customs officers in New Orleans. No official investigators raised questions on how the “civic-minded” Bowies became so adept at repeatedly capturing such large numbers of contraband slaves. The enterprising brothers then attended the government slave auctions and successfully bid on the slaves they had “captured.” They could afford to. The federal bounty they received from the government amounted to a fifty percent rebate on each purchase. Then the instantly “laundered” bondsman could be legally resold at the pleasure of the Bowies. If they felt the need, they could salve their consciences by rationalizing they had invented an almost perfect “victimless crime.” All parties concerned, excepting, of course, the poor, dejected human bondsmen, who had no say at any rate, came out ahead. But the Bowies gained the most. They averaged over fifty percent gross profit on each and every transaction.
While at Campeachy Jean Lafitte had much more to attend to then merely counting his profits and managing a polyglot mixture of renegade corsairs, many of whom were quite ill tempered and unruly. He had to maintain vigilance in order to minimize the risk from external challenges to his operations. He had little concern for reprisals from loyal Spanish bases such as San Antonio, La Bahia, or even Havana. All of these command centers were overextended and too short on assets to pose much of a threat. The United States, however, was another matter. Free from preoccupation with dealing with such powers as Britain and Napoleonic France, the United States government became frustrated with the ease with which contraband from Campeachy crossed over American boundaries. In 1819, Congress made piracy a capital crime, and a clampdown got underway. A Lafitte corsair, one Captain Desfarges, and his lieutenant, a certain Johnson, became the first to pay the supreme penalty. Both were ceremoniously hanged from the yardarm of a United States naval vessel on May 25, 1820, in New Orleans despite local popular resistance.
Lafitte was sensitive to growing American irritation. Corsair captains sailing out of Campeachy had standing orders to take ships of Spanish registry only. Vessels flying the Stars and Stripes were very strictly off limits. The exemplary justice meted out to a certain Captain Brown and his crew is a case in point. In 1819, Brown went up the Mermentau River and raided a plantation belonging to John Lyons. As he entered the gulf with ten slaves and other plunder on his brig, the United States naval ship Lynx appeared upon the scene. Brown set sail for Galveston Island with the Lynx in hot pursuit. Brown grounded his vessel on Bolivar Point and rowed across the inlet to Campeachy. An American landing party commanded by Lieutenant James McIntosh went ashore and was graciously received by Lafitte.
McIntosh disclosed the incident, and Lafitte calmly summoned Brown to stand for trial. When the “jury” found the miscreant guilty, the gracious host proffered refreshments to the American officer while they waited for the scaffold to be readied. After Brown was hanged, Lafitte had four of his crewmen flogged and remanded into United State custody. He then regaled the officers of the Lynx with a lavish banquet and a day of hunting. McIntosh was impressed with Lafitte’s “courteous and gentlemanly deportment.”
Campeachy’s rise was meteoric. It peaked around the middle of 1818 when its transient and “permanent” population numbered around 2,000, or twice the size of the Lafitte brothers’ former base on Grand Terre. The commune had its own set ordnances for upholding civil order, and it branches of government included a rebel Mexican customs house and admiralty court, both indispensable to a nest of “privateers.” Yankee schooners and trading ships from any number of American ports anchored along its waterfront on any given day. Prizes ran the gamut of Spanish ports. These vessels, along with corsairs flying the colors of the rebel Mexican Congress, lined it harbor. Merchants from many nations went about their respective businesses in it bustling marketplace. Its somewhat ramshackle “watering holes,” shops and huts bustled with activity. Jean Lafitte occupied La Maison Rouge, its most elaborate edifice. It sat on the highest ridge at the eastern end of the island, somewhat separated from the rest of the commune. From there he could keep close watch over the harbor’s entrance. From time to time he received and conferred with “officers” representing sundry filibustering expeditions that frequently slipped in and out of east Texas. The suave and diplomatic Lafitte always treated them with formal dignity while responding to their proposals obliquely and evasively.
A group of Napoleon’s ex-officers endeavored to carry out a chimerical filibustering project between the years of 1816-18. Generals Fréderíc Antoine Lallemand, an artillerist, and Baron Antoine Rigaud figured prominently in cabal whose announced objective was to establish a colony named Champs d’ Asile along the Trinity as a place to settle French army veterans. Secretly, however, they dreamed of placing Joseph Bonaparte on the throne of Mexico and even rescuing their former Emperor from exile on the island of Saint Helena.
The first attempts to occupy the Trinity got underway in 1816 at about the same time Aury left Galveston Island. Inasmuch as the elaborate and prolonged scheming behind the project went on in many places, including Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans, the plan could not possibly have escaped the knowledge of the Lafitte brothers. It also caught the attention of Antonio Martínez, the last Spanish governor of Texas. He sent intelligence gathering patrols to the vicinity intermittently thereafter. Sergeant Antonio Aguirre, a veteran borderland soldier, led one of the first espionage missions sent from Presidio La Bahia to the Trinity. The Spaniards began their work at Atascosito, where they gleaned bits of information from nearby Indians and traced the foot prints left by a large group of men leading northward along the river’s edge. Aguirre then proceeded to the Calcasieu to deliver a letter from his commanding officer, Francisco Castañeda, addressed to “Carlos Salier alias Savoyard.” Over the next three years Sallier's name appears occasionally on Spanish documents relating to his activities as a Spanish informant.
Aguirre and the Salliers could have been old acquaintances from when the couple lived in Atascosito. At any rate, Aguirre remained at their home on Lake Charles several weeks. During that interim, he discovered that the Sallier place was a way station for Aury’s henchmen. Catherine served as the sergeant’s interpreter during his stay. Through her he heard some underlying of Rigaud’s that General Jean Humbert, who had earlier sailed with Lafitte’s captains, had left the Trinity to visit New Orleans for reasons unknown. He also heard of rich prizes taken by the corsairs. The Savoyard personally informed Aguirre of Aury’s intentions to shift operations to Matagorda Bay in the upcoming spring season. (This was partly accurate intelligence at that time. Other parties later influenced Aury to transport attackers to Soto la Marina instead.) Sallier also opined - incorrectly - that the United States government was secretly involved.
Map of Mexico, 1822. Courtesy of Rumsey Coll. This map, the work of H. C. Carey,
shows the international boundary between the United States and Spanish North America as established in 1819
under the Adams-Onis Treaty. This treaty made the Sabine River the definitive boundary between southwest Louisiana and Texas.
Aguirre sent two civilians in his party to Opelousas and Atákapas to gather information. When they returned, they linked the aging but indefatigable Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, the Mexican disciple of Father Hidalgo who led the first filibustering army out of Natchitoches in 1812 to the mysterious movements along the Trinity. The reports of Aguirre’s mission include a crudely sketched map Sallier assisted in preparing. It shows the locations of the principal rivers between New Orleans and the Brazos.
Aguirre returned to Lake Charles early in 1818. His mission was to accumulate intelligence on Campeachy and its links to the recently revived French project at Champs d’ Asile. Some time afterward, the sergeant and the Savoyard, accompanied by two of Sallier’s servants, landed near the mouth of the San Antonio River. The (four oared) boat belonged to Sallier and probably was a shallow draft, single-masted piragua. Aguirre reported to his commandant while Sallier remained with the boat. The sergeant hastened his return, and the two shoved off on a mission that became an adventuresome episode.
Castañeda reasoned the Savoyard to be a timely Godsend. His boat, background, and familiarity with the environs made him a perfect spy for the occasion. He and Aguirre departed with instructions to fathom the heightened French activity at Cayo Gallardo on the Trinity and French connections with Lafitte at Galveston. The duo arrived at their destination in mid-September, temporarily became French captives, and then endured the ravages of a fierce, two-day hurricane. The storm demolished Sallier’s boat, and he also lost a small assortment of merchandise he had hoped to sell as a sideline to espionage. Havana cigars, dry goods, cloth, rum and anisette are listed as items in his statement of losses.
The hurricane inundated and made a shambles out of Campeachy. Hundreds perished; a baker’s dozen ships were beached, damaged or completely destroyed, and the survivors were bereft of provisions and drinking water. The storm also doomed whatever slim chance Champs d’ Asile had of becoming a reality. Lafitte tried to restore Campeachy as best he could. He left for New Orleans, floated a loan, and bought provisions and supplies for repairing what could be salvaged. When he returned from the Crescent City, he found an American emissary, Colonel George Graham awaiting his arrival. The United States, the colonel divulged, would tolerate no further privateering, even for the cause of Mexican independence. Force would be employed if necessary. In the tradition of gentlemen gamblers, Lafitte retained his equanimity. He reaffirmed his loyalty to the United States, entertained his guest and implied that he would go. But left unanswered the exact date he intended to depart.
From that point on the activity at Campeachy slowly dwindled down while Lafitte temporized and sought an opportunity to recoup his loses. His hopes revived in 1819 when the third and last major filibusterer rode into Texas from Natchitoches. He was Dr. James Long of Natchez, a hero of the Battle of New Orleans and a member of an assemblage of Americans who secretly aspired to liberate Texas, rather than all of Mexico, from “Spanish tyranny.” These land-hungry expansionists seethed at the “stupid” diplomacy behind the Adams-Onis treaty that “gave away” Texas to the Spaniards.
Long led his four hundred recruits into Nacogdoches against no local resistance. A convention formally pronounced Texas to be a “free an independent” republic and “elected” Dr. Long to its presidency. Long wrote Lafitte and invited his assistance. Lafitte politely but evasively explained that he had already witnessed three failures, and the task would be difficult. The reply had its desired effect; Lafitte had not said no, and President Long gulled himself into believing he had been promised cooperation.
Long set out to confer with Lafitte in September while a Spanish expedition out of San Antonio marched toward Nacogdoches. The royalists defeated Long’s forces as he engaged in a polite exchange with Lafitte that went nowhere. The conferees were attempting to manipulate one another. Lafitte had already written Cuba about the Long menace and professed that he could be counted on to do his utmost to defend Spanish soil. As a clincher, he added the words “Spanish Spy” to his usual rubric. If only he could dupe the Spaniards again, he might somehow manage to hang on at Campeachy.
Long found Nacogdoches abandoned when he returned, his followers either slain, scattered or in refuge in Louisiana. Happily his young wife Jane and their firstborn child had escaped across the border. Undaunted, he found new backers in New Orleans and made another try, this time by sea. Long landed at Point Bolivar and hastily erected a fort before he sailed down the Texas coast. He went ashore with his small band and marched against La Bahia. His troops were surrounded by royalists and surrendered. His captors sent him to Mexico City at the juncture when the political tide turned toward independence. Dr. Long languished in captivity while liberals opposed conservatives in chaotic political turmoil. An embarrassment of sorts, eventually he was “accidentally” shot.
Meanwhile, on December 22, 1819, Charles Sallier wrote his last extant letter to the commandant of La Bahia. He alerted the Spaniard to Long’s intentions and his conference at Campeachy. In closing he denounced Long as a thief and Lafitte as a pirate. This letter eventually reached the hands of Juan Ruíz de Apodaca, Conde de Venadito, the next Spanish Viceroy who governed Mexico. Unaware that Spanish rule was nearing its end, he penned a marginal note concurring with his subordinate that Sallier was indeed useful to the defenses of the far northern frontier.
Early in 1820, the USS Enterprise called at Campeachy and its captain informed Jean Lafitte his time on the island had expired. Lafitte asked for and received two months grace so that he could settle his affairs. When the navy brig returned in May, all was in readiness. Lafitte met the naval officers from the Enterprise attired in fatigues while the small remnant of his followers went about preparing to sail. He wined and dined his guests in a small cabin on somewhat less sumptuous fare than he had served in the past. Later that evening Lafitte torched the remnants of Campeachy and sailed with his three remaining small ships in ballast. In the aftermath, as the ashes of Lafitte’s lair scattered to the winds, affairs on both sides of the Sabine grew much calmer, although the boundary remained as permeable as ever. Beginning in 1830, for two years the Seventh Infantry Regiment stationed near Natchitoches at Fort Jesup kept a company-strength detachment at Cantonment Atkinson, nestled on the northeastern shore of Lake Charles, to safe guard against contraband traffic out of Texas.
Lafitte and Local Tradition
The Lafitte legend is durable. It rests on the mystique of a handsome gentleman-corsair and American patriot who cruised relentlessly seeking personal vengeance against oppressive Spanish tyranny. Locally, the name Lafitte graces businesses ranging from restaurants to RV parks. The legend inspires Lake Charles’s annual celebration of Contraband Days, billed as the second largest of Louisiana’s many festivals. Local lore involving Lafitte’s escapes from pursuing naval patrols, buried treasure, frequent visits to Calcasieu, and his close ties with the LeBleus and Salliers have been repeated and embellished from generation to generation.
In reality there is no consensus among scholars on from where the Lafitte’s came before their arrival in New Orleans. Nor is there agreement on their ultimate fate after abandoning Galveston Island. The documented window into their lives spans less then two eventful decades. This brief span, however, affords a fair glimpse into their character and mode of operation.
An artist's conception of Jean Lafitte. No contemporary portraits or sketches of this legendary figure are known to exist.
This image follows E. H. Suydam's illustration that first appeared in Lyle Saxon's Lafitte the Pirate, published in 1930.
Suydam based Laffite's likeness on an illustration made in the mid-nineteenth century.
His work has become the "standard" depiction of the "Gentleman Corsair."
The Lafitte brothers found ready acceptance in the highest rungs of New Orleans society. They were well connected politically and socially because they provided services in high demand. They operated a clearinghouse for illicit merchandise offered at bargain prices. Enterprising citizens who backed accomplished privateer captains such as Renato Beluche, Dominique You and others profited from the Lafitte establishments at Grand Terre and Galveston. The brothers were good organizers, middlemen and opportunists who sought - and often gained - advantage from each turn of events. They were educated and gentlemanly in demeanor.
On the other hand, the Lafittes engaged in smuggling and quasi-legitimized piracy, activities considered contrary to the law within the established community of nations. Their well-being rested precariously on the ups and downs of warfare and rebellion. Their potential adversaries, both private and public, were legion. They necessarily had to maintain a constant and careful watch to survive. They artfully professed fondness for and loyalty to both Spain and the United States while crassly violating the laws of both nations. Their footholds on Grand Terre and Galveston Island were always tenuous at best.
Whether Jean Lafitte would have preferred the romanticized, carefree life style of a swashbuckling corsair cannot be determined. In any case, reality precluded him from opting for such a choice. His brief stay on Galveston Island spanned only three tumultuous years. The demands of dealing with a mind numbing array of filibusterers, corsair captains, customers and government agents ruled out either lengthy cruises after Spanish prizes or leisurely sojourns along the Calcasieu. On the other hand, corsairs out of Campeachy quite probably sailed up the river on occasion.
One local tale has it that Jean Lafitte personally transported Charles Sallier, a young French noblemen fleeing the revolutionary French Reign of Terror, to the Calcasieu. This may be discounted by virtue of Sallier’s presence in Opelousas as early as 1781, some eight years prior to the onset of the French Revolution. Another bit of local lore has it that in 1819 Charles became violently angry with Catherine on suspicion that she and Jean Lafitte were involved in an amorous affair. The enraged husband, according to the story, allegedly shot Catherine with a pistol and, believing she was mortally wounded, became a fugitive from justice never to be seen again. Miraculously, however the pistol ball had only passed through her hand and then glanced off her amethyst brooch (a gift from Lafitte?). Catherine recovered from her superficial wound and lived on until she died at seventy-four years of age.
Sallier homestead, courtesy of McNeese Archives. This photograph, taken in 1881,
shows a portion of the south shore of Lake Charles where Charles Sallier built in 1808.
The house in the background is believed to be on the exact location of where the Sallier cabin once stood.
The record suggests otherwise. Charles Sallier datelined his last letter to the commandant at La Bahia “Carcasiu,” December 22, 1819. This left only a short window of some eight days in which the alleged shooting could have occurred, and at a time when Jean Lafitte was definitely in Galveston. Moreover, on December 4, 1819, Catherine had given birth to Denise, her seventh child. Sallier’s name appeared on an affidavit dated November 7, 1823, supporting a spurious Spanish land grant claim to Louisiana Purchase lands. Although no date of death was given, Sallier’s succession was filed routinely in Opelousas in June 1825. He left a modest estate consisting of some livestock, but no land.
The six decades of Charles Sallier’s life coincided with an era of momentous social and political change. He spent his adult years in a frontier setting where international boundaries and national loyalties had little bearing on the daily lives of inhabitants. Like so many others in his milieu, he strived to listen when opportunity knocked. His brief service under Casa-Calvo, together with his two brief residencies in Spanish Texas and his episodes as a Spanish informant depict the small role he played in the struggle for control of Texas. Again, like so many others, he apparently profited little from his endeavors. His legacy lives on in a lake and city that bear his given name, along with a street and a family cemetery that share his surname, not to mention numerous descendants.
Local lore also has it that Arsene LeBleu sailed as one of Lafitte’s favorite captains, and that Lafitte often visited the LeBleu compound where large gatherings indulged in feasting, card playing and carousing. During these visits, according to tradition, the corsair lavished handsome gifts on his hosts. In reality, however, Arsene more likely developed bowlegs rather than sea legs. In 1836, William Gray, a homeward bound Virginian, met LeBleu, “a French Creole drover,” near the mouth of the Trinity River. He had ridden to Texas to buy cattle. Gray later stayed at the LeBleu homestead. It faced the Atascosito-Opelousas trail, and the headwaters of English Bayou ran near its rear. The bemused guest commented that despite LeBleu’s reputed net worth of $100,000, he got no sugar and only sour milk with his morning coffee, while some 1,200 of his host’s fresh cows grazed nearby with suckling calves at their sides.
The record is mute on the relationship that existed between Arsene LeBleu and Jean Lafitte. They probably knew one another by reputation if not personally. At the very least they had mutual acquaintances such as the Bowie brothers. Arsene occasionally frequented the Trinity Bay area, and visits to Galveston Island cannot be ruled out. The Calcasieu saw its share of filibusterers and smugglers in the early 1800’s, and Arsene LeBleu possibly had clandestine economic ties of some sort to Campeachy.
LeBleus rank as the premier
pioneer family of Southwest Louisiana. They found a way to live off and
eventually prosper from the resources they found in the area. In 1841, the
first police jury elected in Imperial Calcasieu Parish held its organizational
meeting in the Arsene LeBleu home. The first parish ordnance dealt with the
roundup and public sale of unbranded horses and cattle. Today’s LeBleu
Settlement attests to the family’s early presence in the area. Numberless
descendants, many of whom are still connected with cattle raising, are scattered
throughout Southwest Louisiana.
The lines of communication between the Calcasieu and the Galveston-Trinity Bay area remained open after Lafitte abandoned Campeachy. The Opelousas-Atascosito trail continued in use as a route for moving cattle, horses and mules to markets along the Mississippi. In less than two decades after Charles Sallier's passing, the town of Galveston emerged from the ashes of Campeachy. It quickly grew into a bustling port and the foremost city in the Republic of Texas. As such, its importance as a nearby market center fueled growth and development along the Calcasieu in the years to come.
Arsene LeBleu homestead, courtesy of McNeese Archives.
This old home, although later remodeled, was built during the early decades of the 19th century and lived in by Arsene LeBleu.
It stood slightly north of U.S. Highway 90 almost immediately west of Boys and Girls Village.
In earlier times, the LeBleu home fronted the old Atascosito-Opelousas trail.
Books, Articles and Published Documents
Benavides, Adan, comp. and ed. (1989).
The Bexar Archives, 1717-1834: A Name Guide. Austin: University of Texas
Cartwright, Gary. (1991). Galveston: A History of the Island. New York: Macmillan.
Davis, William C. (1998). Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of Davy Crockett, James Bowie and William Barrett Travis. New York: Harper and Collins.
Epperson, Jean L. (1996). Lost Spanish Towns: Atascosito and Trinidad de Salcedo. Woodville: Dogwood Press.
Gray, William F. (reprint, 1965). From Virginia to Texas, 1835: Diary of Col. Wm. F. Gray. Houston: Fletcher Young Publishers.
Hammons, Juanita, trans. and ed. (1957). The Letters of Antonio Martinez, Last Spanish Governor of Texas, 1817-1822. Austin: Texas State Library.
Hatcher, Mattie Austin. (reprint, 1976). The Opening of Texas to Foreign Settlement, 1801-1821. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press.
Hébert, Donald J. (rev. ed., 1996). Southwest Louisiana Records: Church and Civil Records. Rayne: Hébert Publications.
Holmes, Jack D. L., ed. (1968). Jose de Evia y sus reconocimientos del Golfo de Mexico. Collecion Chimalistic, No. 26. Madrid: Ediciones Jose Porrua Terranzas.
________, ed. (1968). Documentos ineditos para la historia de la Luisiana, 1792-1810. Collecion Chimalistic, No. 15. Madrid: Ediciones Jose Porrua Terranzas.
________. (1968). “The Marques de Casa-Calvo, Nicolas de Finiels, and the 1805 Spanish Expedition Through East Texas and Louisiana.” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 49, 324-39.
_______. (1962). “Joseph Piernas and a Proposed Settlement on the Calcasieu.” McNeese Review, vol. 13, 59-79.
_______. (1966). “Joseph Piernas and the Nascent Cattle Industry of Southwest Louisiana.” McNeese Review, vol. 17, 13-25.
Jackson, Jack, Robert S. Weddle and Winston DeVille. (1990). Mapping Texas and the Gulf Coast: The Contributions of Saint Denis, Oliván, and Le Maire. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.
Marshal, Gene, trans. (1999). The Memoirs of Jean Lafitte, from Le Journal de Jean Lafitte. Philadelphia: Xlibris.
Mills, Elizabeth Shown, comp. and trans. (1982). “1807 Settlers of Lake Charles, Louisiana: Jurisdiction of Orcoquisac, Texas.” Louisiana Geological Register, vol. 19, no. 1, 2-4.
Pearson, Charles E., et al. (1981). Halies El Nuevo Constante: Investigation of an Eighteenth Century Shipwreck off the Louisiana Coast. Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission, Anthropological Study No. 4. Baton Rouge: Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.
Ross, Nola Mae Wittler. (1990). Jean Laffite: The Louisiana Buccaneer. Lake Charles: by the author.
Seymour, Geneva Bailey, comp. (1981) The LeBleu Book. Rayne: Hebert Publications.
_____, comp. (1986). Sallier. Lubbock: by the compiler.
Vogel, Robert C. (1992). “The Patterson and Ross Raid on Barataria, September, 1814.” Louisiana History, vol.33, no. 2, 157-70.
Ware, John D. and Robert R. Rea. (1982). George Gauld, Surveyor and Cartographer of the Gulf Coast. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida.
Warren, Harris Gaylord. (1943). The Sword Was Their Passport: American Filibustering in the Mexican Revolution. Baton Rouge: LSU Press.
______. (1938) “Documents Relating to the Establishment of Privateers at Galveston.” Louisiana Historical Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4, 3-26.
Weddle, Robert S. (1995). Changing Tides: Twilight and Dawn in the Spanish Sea. 1763-1803. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
______. (1991). French Thorn: Rival Explorers in the Spanish Sea. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
______, et. al., trans. and ed. (1987) La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Documents. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
Manuscripts, Maps and Documents
University of Texas at Austin, Center for American History, Bexar Archives:
Photocopies of documents relating to Charles Sallier, from microfilm reels 34, 35, 52, 56-58, 61-64.
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection:
Matthew Carey, map of Louisiana, 1814.
William Darby, map of Louisiana, 1816.
H. C. Carey, map of Mexico, 1822.
Virginia, Garrett Cartographic Library, University of Texas at Arlington:
Guillaume Delisle, map of North America, 1718.
John Melish, map of the United States, 1816.
Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Luso-Hispanic Cartobibliography:
Alexandre Debatz, general map of the coast of La Louisiane, 1743.
Archives and Special Collections Department, Frazar Memorial Library, McNeese State University:
Maude Reid Scrapbooks.
LeBleu-Granger-Van Zempter Series, Box 1.
George Gauld Map, 1777.
Southwest Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Library, Calcasieu Parish Library:
Obituary Card Index File.
Charles Sallier Folder.
Texas State Library and Archives:
Nacogdoches Archives, R. B. Blake Collection, interrogatory of Sgt. Antonio Aguirre, Mar. 4, 1817, vol. 18, pp. 92-101.
Materials in Archives and Special Collections Department do not circulate.
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