Thursday, February 26, 2015

Latrobe's New Orleans

Some images of antebellum New Orleans.

This image of the riverfront dates from 20 years after Latrobe's visit, but gives you a good idea of the scene that greeted him.

Marie Adrien Persac, New Orleans riverfront, 1858.
Here is a photo gallery of the Latrobe Building on Royal Street, designed by Benjamin Latrobe (the father) and built in 1822.

We have been considering the changes that took place in New Orleans between 1805 and 1855, a time of rapid demographic growth and economic expansion, both in the Mississippi Valley, and also in New Orleans. Although the city grew during the 50 years between 1745 and 1795, it was nothing like what the steamboat revolution brought about.

Consider the population boom before 1860:
1810: 17,242 (7th largest)
1820: 27,176 (5th largest)
1830: 46,082 (5th largest)
1840: 102,193 (3rd largest) - passes Philadelphia and Boston. (Charleston S.C. begins decline)
1850: 116,375 (5th largest) - retaken by Boston and Philly. (Think immigrants, Irish and German)
1860: 168,675* (6th largest) - only city in South with meaningful immigrant growth.

*This does not factor the transient slave population, which could be as much as 25,000!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Antebellum New Orleans - Technology, Economy, and Development

It's really steam power that causes New Orleans to grow its urban footprint along the river as wharves, docks, and warehouses served the growing river to oceanic trade.

New Orleans benefited from all manner of economic developments in the first half of the nineteenth century. We already touched on how technology influenced the growth of sugar and cotton cultivation in Louisiana. Moreover, the development of steam travel - and in particular - steam boats, ushered in an era of rapid expansion in upriver commercial activity right at a time when the War of 1812 forever swept Native Americans from lands laying east of the Mississippi River.

Yet consider for a minute the cultivation of coffee, an agricultural product that you cannot grow in Louisiana (or in the Continental United States, for that matter.) We think of sugar when it comes to San Domingue (which becomes Haiti in 1801) but by the start of the Haitian revolution, the French half of the island of Hispaniola produced half of the world's coffee. The revolution destroyed much of this production, but places like Martinique, Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, and later Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador, etc also began to cultivate the crop. This took place mostly after their revolutions of the 1820s. (Again, we see global political events influencing broader economic developments.) Situated as it is at the gateway between the Gulf of Mexico and the vast American heartland, New Orleans became a natural port for the importation of coffee right at a time when the power of steam propulsion made it practical to navigate upstream.

Steamboats would not rule commercial transit forever, but between the first regular service in New Orleans in 1816 through much of the nineteenth century, it was an important aspect of the city's financial lifeblood. This was particularly true before the Civil War. By 1834, an average of 100 steamboats arrived at New Orleans every month. We'll consider some of the technological advancements and limitations of the day that allowed New Orleans to benefit from steam in the antebellum period.
What characteristics of this vessel do you think helped it serve its market so well?
This is the cast iron cistern at the Hermann Grima house in the French Quarter. A good example of a variety of things having to do with technology and development in antebellum New Orleans.
What is left of the New Orleans wharves today.

And what they look like on Google Maps.

Lastly, we need to consider the vast importance of the internal slave trade upon New Orleans. The city benefited greatly from the expansion of the "slave west."

A fairly famous image of a slave auction in the rotunda of New Orleans's St. Louis Hotel
The St. Louis Hotel as it appeared at the turn of the 20th Century. The building on the far right is the location of today's Napoleon House. The Royal Omni Orleans is on the site of the hotel today. You can see some of its original facade from Napoleon House. (Image New Orleans Public Library - Mugnier Collection)

The bar at the Old St. Louis Hotel (circa 1904). 

The rotunda where the slave and other auctions took place (compare with the 1850s illustration!)

The rotunda during demolition from outside. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Revolutions and the Dawning of the American Period

The "American Period" in New Orleans, which officially began in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase but had roots in events stretching into the eighteenth century, brought about tremendous change to the city. It would be easy to characterize this change as taking place slowly, then quickly, but the reality was that some fundamental changes in technology, trade, international politics, and agriculture made things begin to move quite quickly. While I am only forty-two years old, I see American today as being much different than the country in which I spent my childhood. This was definitely true of a New Orleanian at age 42 who might have been born in 1784, during the Spanish period. By 1826, the city would have been notably different than they one that person had been born into.

We need to think about trade routes and their impact upon New Orleans.

France's final defeat in the Seven Year's War led not only to the loss of New Orleans as a colony to Spain, and the loss of Canada to the British (which led to a final diaspora of Acadians to Louisiana), it opened up the Ohio Valley to American colonists. While the British attempted to keep its American colonists out of the area, a literal flood of English-speaking migrants traversed the "Proclamation line of 1763," into the Ohio Valley, the scene of much of the fighting in the French and Indian War. In addition to intense fighting in that region between colonists and Indians, substantial trade ended up working its way down the Ohio River Valley.

A flatboat plying the Ohio River, a vessel capable of going only one way: downstream!
Interestingly, one legacy of the flatboat trade is the Barge Board House. Here is someone writing about restoring theirs.
Consider the watershed of the Ohio River Valley. How does this connect the Colonial Period's Ohio Valley with New Orleans?

Once America won its independence and claim to the Ohio Valley, this commerce grew at a greater pace. It is worth noting that the Treaty of San Lorenzo of 1795 was one of the first important moments of diplomacy for the young American government. What did this treaty do and why was it so important? Consider the map below.

a Wikipedia (gasp!) map

And then there was the Haitian Revolution. 

We tend to think of Caribbean nations today as belonging to some sort of "third world" sphere, but in the late 18th Century, they were incredibly profitable slave societies. The effects of the French Revolution reached even San Domingue (Haiti) by spreading revolutionary rhetoric about freedom and the Rights of Man. On an island overwhelmingly populated by slaves, this proved dangerous and led to the Haitian Revolution. Napoleon's efforts to retake the island foundered both from stiff resistance, but also because of severe environmental hazards, particularly Yellow Fever. The army detailed to re-take Haiti from the rebels was to re-establish control over Louisiana next. With its destruction, Napoleon had lost interest in Louisiana.

The Haitian Revolution also sent its first wave of refugees to Louisiana and the other ports of North America.

The Purchase
A map of the Louisiana Purchase from 1805. Note the potential inherent in the western rivers depicted in this map. (Library of Congress)
So you can see that it is something of a misnomer to suggest that the "American Period" began distinctly with the 1803 transfer of power. But this did not mean that the switch did not bring big changes!

Agricultural Technology

Two very important technological innovations at the turn of the nineteenth century transformed the agricultural basis of southern Louisiana, and by extension both its profitability as a region and its connection to slavery. The growth of cotton did not really take off until a successful cotton gin became readily available to planters. The sort of fiber one could grow inland was simply too inferior and difficult to process to be profitable. The gin changed all that in 1793.

A model of an "Eli Whitney" style cotton gin
More of direct import to South Louisiana and the immediate New Orleans agricultural zone was the perfection on the plantation of Etienne de Boré of a process to granulate sugar from the inferior cane juice produced in Louisiana. This took place in 1795, and the first truly profitable sugar crop was harvested on lands that now encompass Tulane, Loyola, Audubon Park, and a swath of uptown that made up de Boré's plantation.

Let's think about how this might affect the society that a young William Charles Cole Claiborne had to govern.

W.C.C. Claiborne (La State Museum)
There were certainly many geopolitical and technological revolutions underway locally and nationally when Claiborne arrived in New Orleans. But it was also a time of enormous international turmoil. 

The Haitian Revolution had ramifications for New Orleans beyond its initial phases. When Napoleon launched his Peninsular War in 1808, deposing the Spanish monarchy, it set into motion a series of irreversible events in the Spanish empire. The most immediate effect on New Orleans was the eviction of French planters and their slaves who had taken up residence in Cuba during the Haitian Revolution because of their suspected loyalty to France. (You will read about this in Claiborne's letterbooks.  

The weakening of Spain precipitated revolution all over Central and South America, but much closer by, it promulgated the West Florida Rebellion of 1810. (Note, that this was still part of the Spanish Empire!) Mexico's war for independence also began in 1810, beginning a long bloody struggle. In South America, it was now the age of Bolivar and revolution. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New World Colonial Economies, Revolution, and Smuggling

One of the challenges of writing a book like Accidental City is that one must make difficult choices about the amount of information to be included within its binding. Antonio de Ulloa (pronounced oo-YO-a) had a truly remarkable career, both as a naval officer, but more fully as a naturalist. Here is a great biographical piece from the University of Chicago's "Penelope" project (an early web-based text database). Among other things, Ulloa is credited with discovering platinum.  Here is the KnowLa entry on Ulloa. We only get a comparative glimpse of Ulloa in the book.

Likewise, Alejandro O'Reilly, or "Bloody O'Reilly," made a huge impact upon the trajectory of Colonial New Orleans, but the episode was only one of many enormous accomplishments in his life. His place in American memory (i.e., Wikipedia) centers around his quelling of the Rebellion of 1768, but if you compare this with his deeds in Havana and Puerto Rico as outlined in the Online Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico, you will find that his deeds in New Orleans merit only one sentence! Our friends at History Ireland offer you a longer view.

I like this map because it helps us see the Louisiana coast how a mariner in the mid 18th century would have seen it. (Note also a significant difference in the map of 1768 and 1780 in terms of navigation. Any guesses what it is?): Think longitude.

1768 map depicting the Gulf Coast (Library of Congress)
1780 map of Gulf of Mexico
The above map considers the trade routes in the Gulf of Mexico in the age of sail.

As Powell's book emphasizes, the Seven Year's War placed into motion changes that shook the entire globe. Not only did New Orleans go to Spain, the war forever destroyed the "French Arc," which would have significant cultural import for New Orleans in the long run.

Today's chapters in Powell take us through the Spanish Period in New Orleans, and trade dominates the discussion. We'll consider what shifting definitions of "nationalism" meant for the Crescent City, and in the context of global trade. It should prove a worthy exercise in transporting our mind from the current day to a time removed.

The ubiquitous Spanish Dollar, the most widely appreciated trade medium in the 18th Century
Once again, the middle ground between power centers, whether on land or sea, is a place where liminality reigns. You could think about this also for the American backcountry where two very violent men (Simon Girty and Lewis Wetzel) lived.