THE STORY OF THE ANCIENT CABILTO
Charles Patton Dimitry
In all the vast region that once constituted the French colony and the Spanish province of old Louisiana and the larger part of which including the "island of Orleans," and this city, which was situated in it, by the "treaty of purchase" of 1803 became American territory, there is no building with which are associated memories of greater historical importance to the people of the Mississippi valley than the Cabildo, which is opposite Jackson square, the old colonial "Place d'Armes." For it was in the Cabildo that for five or six years, or from the time of its erection, about 1798, to the hour of the transfer of Louisiana by France to the United States in 1803, the very illustrious Cabildo, "or Supreme Council of Louisiana," with the governor presiding at its head, held its sessions in the closing years of the Spanish occupation of old Louisiana, and in this venerable structure also was it that, as the year 1803 drew to its close, the representatives of Spain transferred the province of Louisiana to France, the representative of which, a few days later, in the Same chamber, delivered the province to the United States, which had acquired it from France by purchase.
These are the imperishable and never-to-be-forgotten memories of the past which cluster around the rather plain looking building, with its mingled Tuscan and Ionic orders of architecture, which fronts the upper corner of the old "Place d'Armes." But there are other memories than those of the distant past that gather about the Cabildo and its vicinity, for in its adjoining St. Louis cathedral, its nearby presbytery building, and its opposite historic public square, one may read an abstract and epitome, as it were, of the history of city and State for a century past.
In this aspect of its varied interesting historical associations, therefore, we must contemplate the old Cabildo as a silent witness of and actor in those more recent years of the Civil War of 1861-65, and the still more recent days of the Spanish war, for in those stirring epochs in the history of Louisiana and her sister States, the Cabildo, waking from its Rip Van Winkle sleep of decades, saw the march of American soldiers deploying under two flags, as it had seen in
•From the New Orleans Picayune, c. 1900.
1814-15 the march, under one of these flags, the united country's banner of victory and renown, the march of Jackson's heroes to meet and defeat Packenham's invading troops on the plains of Chalmette.
It seems, therefore, eminently befitting that an American president, the incumbent of the exalted position of chief magistrate of the United States, and himself a man of lofty character and purposes, should receive in this building the testimony of the respect of the community of the chief city of Louisiana and the South.
The Cabildo, or "Supreme Council of Louisiana," was organized in 1769 by Alexander O'Reilly, the Irish second Spanish governor of Louisiana, who came to New Orleans as the representative of Spain in the year mentioned with a powerful military and naval armament to succeed Antonio de Ulloa, the first governor of Louisiana sent by Spain after Louis XV had ceded the colony to Charles III of Spain, as a free gift, by the treaty of Paris, of 1762-63, and also to mete out a sanguinary vengeance upon the chiefs of the revolutionary movement in New Orleans, which was organized to protest to Louis XV against the transfer of Louisiana to Spain, and to take steps to compel Ulloa to leave the colony as "persona non grata" to the French, former subjects of Louis.
The French "Superior Council," as it was called, was the body which had preceded the Cabildo, and as it had issued the order commanding Ulloa to leave New Orleans and Louisiana within three days' time, one of O'Reilly's first acts on his arrival in New Orleans was to abolish this body, which had been the legislative council of Louisiana from the time of its organization by the''Company of the West," shortly after that enterprise received from the French crown in 1717 its charter granting it the monopoly of the trade and commerce of Louisiana, O'Reilly replaced the defunct "Superior Council" with the "Supreme Council" (Cabildo), over which he himself presided. The Cabildo continued to be the governing council of the province during the Spanish control and up to the time of its abolishment, after the transfer of Louisiana to the United States. The former session or the "Supreme Council" in the Cabildo building associated the building itself in the minds of the community with the body that formerly met in it to deliberate. Thus it is that, as the building has survived by nearly a century the days of the "Supreme Council of Louisiana," it has continued to bear in the minds of the people of this city the appellation of "the Cabildo."
The Cabildo building was erected about the year 1798 by Don Andres Almonaster y Roxas, a rich Spanish resident of New Orleans ♦
of that day, whose daughter and only child, the Baroness de Pontalba, built fifty years agoHhe two rows of massively constructed threestory brick buildings, which form striking features of St. Peter and St. Anne streets, fronting Jackson Square. Mme. Pontalba, who greatly admired General Jackson, also beautified the old "Place d'Armes," the ancient parade ground for the troops of the garrison during the French and Spanish regimes, and by her influence induced the city council of New Orleans to change its name to that which it now bears. Mme. Pontalba also assisted materially out of her great fortune in securing and paying for the equestrian statue of General Andrew Jackson which now stands in the center of Jackson Square, on the spot where stood the flag pole from which was hauled down the French flag to make way for the American flag on the memorable transfer of Louisiana by France to the United States.
Almonaster was a liberal and charitable man, and he founded several charitable institutions of the city during his day. After the great conflagration of 1788, which laid New Orleans in ashes, more than 900 houses of the town having been consumed in its course, he offered to build, at his own expense, a handsome church to replace the parish church which had been destroyed by the flames, and which, since the year 1724, in which year it was built, had been the only place of worship in the town, on the guarantee that he should receive the contract to build the two buildings which now stand on either side of the cathedral and separated from it by only a narrow paved alley. One of these buildings was the Cabildo building, and the other was the presbytery. The Spanish provincial authorities accepted Almonaster's proposition, and the result was the erection of the present St. Louis cathedral, which was completed about 1794, and the other structures. The memory of the pious and philanthropic Don Andres is still commemorated by the offering of masses in the cathedral every Saturday evening for the repose of his soul and by the tolling of the cathedral bell as the sun sets on that day. Almonaster's remains are buried under the floor of the cathedral near one of the side altars.
The Cabildo building is two stories high, the lower story of the Tuscan, and the upper of the Ionic order. Among its historical associations within the American period is one connected with the visit of Lafayette to New Orleans in 1825, on the occasion of his tour of the country as "the nation's guest," in that and the preceding year. It was in that building that the reception rendered to the distinguished Frenchman by the citizens of New Orleans took place.
The crowning event in the history of the Cabildo was, however, that of the ceremony of the transfer of Louisiana by France to the United States after the treaty of purchase between the two countries, by which France received from this country $15,000,000 in consideration of her relinquishment to the United States of all that part of the former French colony of Old Louisiana which Louis XV had given to Charles III of Spain, by the treaty of Paris of 1762-63, and which had been returned by Spain to France by the convention between the two powers of 1800, in which year the first consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, by "moral suasion," perhaps, but more probably by secret intimidation, induced Spain to transfer to France the fine province of Louisiana, without, practically, any consideration. But there can be no doubt of the motives of Bonaparte in his policy of securing Louisiana from Spain and then making a treaty with the United States for the sale of the new easily-acquired territory for the sum of $15,000,000, which he was finally induced to accept, together with some other favorable provisions, although he originally demanded a much larger amount of compensation as the purchase price. For Napoleon, then first consul, and practically master, of France, doubtless was conspiring, if not actually preparing, for the establishment of the empire, with himself as emperor, and he needed just at that particular time about that much money wherewith to gratify his ambitious designs of imperial personal aggrandizement, which he knew could be obtained by the sale of Louisiana, if it could be secured from Spain, to the United States, the government of which country, he was aware, desired to possess it and was willing to pay a goodly price for its acquisition. When, by the conquest of Canada and all the French islands in the northeast of the continent, England was in a position to dictate to France on the subject of the possession of Louisiana, France was forced by the treaty of Paris of 1762 to surrender to England all that part of her colony of old Louisiana lying east of the Mississippi, together with Mobile and the province of West Florida, of which Pensacola was the capital. France reserved on the east bank of the Mississippi the "island of Orleans," in which was included New Orleans, which had been founded in 1718 by Bienville to be the capital of Louisiana. But as the crown of France, fearing England more than it loved Louisiana, was led, in the succeeding year, to offer to cede to Spain the rest of Louisiana, viz. the "island of Orleans," and all that part of its colony lying west of the Mississippi river, from the Gulf of Mexico to the uttermost north of the continent, Charles III of Spain, who also feared that England ultimately would take possession of this region, was reluctant to accept this magnificent but dangerous gift from his relative, Louis XV. Finally, however, he accepted the gift of the province, and the Spanish domination of Louisiana began.
O'Reilly, to continue the progress of events that finally led to the purchase of Louisiana, was succeeded as governor by Unzaga, and Unzaga, in 1777, by Bernardo de Galvez, the man who was destined to prove, next to Iberville and Bienville, the most conspicuous figure in the story of Louisiana of the eighteenth century, for it was he who, while scarcely 23 or 24 years of age, in two brilliant campaigns against the English east of the Mississippi, in Mobile and in West Florida, dispossessed England of all the territory that France had surrendered to her by the treaty of Paris of 1762-63.
With the disappearance of England's authority from the North American continent as the result of the victories of Galvez in the southwest, and the triumph of the patriots of the American revolution in the east and northwest, the only European power that remained on the continent that seemed to impede for the moment the progress of the republic of the United States was Spain, which now was in possession of all the country west of the Mississippi, even as far as the Pacific coast, and of a considerable part of that lying to the eastward of the river, included in which was all that part of what is now the State of Louisiana, east of the Mississippi, which had been ceded to England by the treaty of Paris.
The day, however, was fast approaching when the inevitable reckoning which was to be had with Spain was no longer to be relegated to the future. Fortunately, however, the acquisition of all of the Mississippi valley that did not then form a part of American territory by the United States was to be made peacefully, artd without the shedding of blood.
The "coincidence"—to apply that term to it—about the beginning of the nineteenth century of the desire of the First Consul Napoleon to acquire Louisiana without cost from Spain, in order to sell it as soon as possible to the United States, the determination of the United States to possess New Orleans and to control the navigation of the Mississippi river at all hazards, and its entire willingness to pay the first consul a reasonable price for the coveted territory, and the fear in which Spain, then rapidly in her decline, found herself, lest the United States not only should take possession of the Mississippi river and its valley, but also should advance thence, as from a stepping-stone, to her ancient territory of Mexico and New Mexico, all these conditions united to make smooth the diplomacy that was to end in the transfer, in the Cabildo, at New Orleans, on the 20th of December, 1803, from France to the United States of the immense and magnificent region which had been successively the poverty-stricken, neglected and unprofitable provinces of France and Spain, and which was called Louisiana.
The treaty of San Idlefonso between France and Spain by which the king of Spain promised to retrocede to the French republic the province of Louisiana, was framed October 1, 1800, but the first consul Bonaparte, no doubt because of concealed designs of his own, kept the fact of the treaty having been made a close secret. Then, too, there was the fear that England, if informed of what had taken place, and being at war with France, might have swooped down on Louisiana with an invincible fleet, and taken possession of New Orleans.
April 30, 1803, the treaty between France and the United States selling and transferring Louisiana to the United States was signed at Paris. It was under the operations of this treaty that what is known as "the Louisiana purchase" was effected. Mr. Jefferson was President of the United States at the time the treaty was negotiated, and the American representatives in Paris who signed the treaty for this government were James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston. Talleyrand was the minister who conducted the negotiations for France, and Barre Marbois, the French Minister, who signed the treaty. Charles IV of Spain was the crowned dupe of the extraordinary "confidence game" that had been for two years and a half in progress, in which the solitary player was Bonaparte. Charles IV deemed it consistent with his dignity to protest vigorously against the sale of Louisiana. Nothing was said in the treaty, it should be noted, concerning any division of the purchase money between France and Spain. The amount in cash finally agreed upon for the purchase of Louisiana was $15,000,000. The protest of the Spanish king against the sale of the province went for nothing. As for the first consul, apparently for a time the master of men and events, but at all times the unconscious instrument in accomplishing the purposes of Almighty God, selfishly satisfied with his work, secretive and silent to the end, he declared himself, May 18, 1804, emperor of France. And so that which was appointed to Louisiana had come at last, as certainly as that which was appointed to Bonaparte came to him, when on that hot day in June, 1815, at Waterloo, the covering of Judah was uncovered, and the armoury of the house of the forest was revealed, in the day when the thickets should be cut down with iron, and Libanus should fall. And, further, it was also appointed that on that fateful day of compensations at WaterI
loo, the repulsed and routed battalions of Packenham's army, which suffered the ruinous defeat of January 8, 1815, near this city, at the hands of the Creoles of New Orleans, a regiment or two of the United States regulars, and of many of the Kentuckians, Tennesseeans and Mississippians, who entered New Orleans with Claiborne and Wilkinson on December 20, 1803, should have formed the choice nucleus of the English army under Wellington, which humbled the pride and destroyed the power of the man who had paid for his dangerous exaltation out of the sale of Louisiana. And as for Spain, let the retributive justice of Manila Bay and Santiago Bay and San Juan Hill answer. Auspicious, indeed, in all its aspects and conditions was that hour for the little Franco-Spanish city on the Mississippi when the "sons of the American revolution" of that day— sons and grandsons of the men of 1776—who, under the eye of Washington, had compelled the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown and who had founded the republic of the United States which their valor, devotion and services had won, should march into New Orleans to hear, as it were, a revelation of the merciful purpose of God sounded by the bell of the cathedral ringing for them a new Angelus, with its solemn, one, two, three.
It was in the Cabildo, in this city, therefore, that the moving political drama of 1800-1803 found its denouement. The building witnessed two transfers of Louisiana in the same year and within twenty days time of each other. First, the transfer of the province by Spain to France, November 30, 1803, and, second, its transfer by France to the United States, December 20, of the same year. M. Laussat had been sent to New Orleans from France as the representative of the French republic during the proceedings of the double transfer, and he it was who received, as the representative of his country, from the Marquis de Casacalvo and Salcedo, the Spanish commissioners, the transfer of the province from Spain. A vast assemblage of the inhabitants of the town—the population of New Orleans was then between 8,000 and 9,000, including a considerable sprinkling of Americans from the "States"—crowded the streets around the "Place d'Armes" and the Cabildo, or City Hall, as it was also called, and filled the windows, balconies and housetops of the houses in the vicinity. On the same day Laussat issued a proclamation to the people of Louisiana, advising them of the transfer of the province to France, and informed them that it was only for a little while that the authority of France should prevail, as in a few days the American commissioners would arrive in the city with troops to occupy it, and that to these commissioners he would retransfer Louisiana, under instructions from his government, to the United States. He urged them to be satisfied and to dwell contentedly under the authority of the United States. In a few days the Spanish troops were withdrawn from the four forts, situated at the four angles of the town, and from the fortifications, and the forts and fortifications were manned by a battalion of young Americans, together with some Creoles, who had volunteered their services to preserve order in the town. The Spanish flag had been replaced on the flag-pole in the "Place d'Armes" by the tricolor of the French republic, and nearly every official vestige of the former authority of Spain had disappeared from New Orleans.
In the meantime General James Wilkinson, of the United States army, and W. C. C. Claiborne, governor of the United States territory of Mississippi, who had been named as American commissioners to receive Louisiana from M. Laussat, the French commissioner, were marching to New Orleans with troops to occupy the town in the name of the Republic of the United States. The American military headquarters at that time nearest to lower Ixmisiana were at Fort Adams, in the territory of Mississippi.
Previous to the entry into New Orleans, Wilkinson, while on his way from Florida to join Claiborne in Mississippi, stopped in New Orleans, where he had an interview with Laussat. Claiborne, as governor of Mississippi, under instructions from the President, had collected a considerable force from the militia of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, to which were added a company of volunteer Mississippi cavalry and several hundred volunteers from Tennessee, the last mentioned having marched to Natchez. The others were assembled at Fort Natchez, and marched with the garrison of that post.
December 10 Claiborne set out with his citizen-soldiery on his way to Fort Adams, en route to New Orleans. At Fort Adams he met Wilkinson, who had just come up from the capital. The troops at Fort Adams were added to the volunteer force, and to the strains of the "Star Spangled Banner" the little army of occupation stepped away lightly, with Claiborne and Wilkinson at their head in the direction of New Orleans.
December 17 the troops approached the town, probably down the old Tchoupitoulas road (now Tchoupitoulas St.) that led to the upper military gate. That night they encamped two miles above the town; that is to say, about two miles above what is now Bienville or Customhouse St. In that day all above what is now Canal Street was open fields or a series of small sugar plantations. The town extended from east to west from the rue de la Levee, afterwards Old Levee, and now Decatur street, to the rue Burgogne (Burgundy St.), beyond which extended, north and south, something more than a square distant, the ramparts of the town. From this line of fortifications originated the present Rampart St. The street now called Esplanade Ave. was the line of fortifications extending along the lower front of the town. Beyond that, stretching down the river, were more sugar plantations, the nearest being that belonging to the distinguished and honorable Marigny family. In this part of the town, on the site of the present United States mint building, stood the Spanish fort of San Carlos, one of the four forts that defended the approaches to New Orleans from the direction of the river.
Three days elapsed before the American troops entered New Orleans, the intervening days being devoted to the exchange of complimentary visits between the American commissioners and Laussat, who paid their visits accompanied by military escort. On the morning of the 20th of December—memorable day indeed in the history of Louisiana and New Orleans—the streets of the little city, with its compactly-built brick houses, were full of stirring life and animated humanity in motion. Laussat had ordered all the militia companies of the town to be drawn up under arms in the "Place d'Armes" and in front of the Cabildo, in which building, as the City Hall of New Orleans, the ceremony of the transfer of Louisiana was to take place. The cry everywhere was, "To the Cabildo." The crowds gathered in front of the building and on St. Anne and St. Peter streets and the rue de la Levee, all fronting different sides of the "Place d'Armes." There were groups also in Chartres street, up and down, in the vicinity of the Cabildo, the cathedral and the presbytery. In the alleys that extended from Chartres to Royal and along the cathedral close the people passed to and fro in a state of expectancy, and yet almost silent, or speaking in low tones of "les Americains," "les Kaintocks" (the Kentuckians), who were about to take possession of the city that Bienville had founded.
The year 1803 was remarkable in New Orleans for a "renaissance" as it were, in the texture and fashions of the attire of the ladies of the city. Luxury ruled in their costumes, and elegance and taste— so different from the conditions of the preceding few years—gave the climax to their charms, then, as now, incomparable among their sex. Of these, hundreds, together with children, could be seen at the windows of the then comparatively new two-story and attic-houses, two rows of which faced the "Place d'Armes" on St. Peter an Anne streets—houses built as dwellings by Almonaster, which
inherited by Michelle Almonaster (Mme. Pontalba) his only child, and which the Madame demolished in 1850 to make way for the present Pontalba buildings.
In the "Place d'Armes" the local militia was drawn up on one side of the square, the side opposite to them being reserved for the incoming Americans. The tricolor still floated at the top of the pole in the middle of the square.
The entering American troops were met at the southeast gate of the town by a company of militia grenadiers. "Who come here?" "Friends with the counter-sign." "Advance one friend and give the counter-sign." "The counter-sign is right—pass." Having thus been recognized as "friends" in accordance with the customs of war, Claiborne and Wilkinson, followed by the men of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, marched in and proceeded in the direction of the "Place d'Armes." At their head was deployed a flag—the flag of victory and progress and freedom—which floated that day above American territory from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains, as it floats today, a hundred years later, with splendor not diminished but added to, above a united country from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
As the troops entered a salute of twenty-one guns from the forts and the fortifications roared out a noisy welcome. In the "Place d'Armes" the American troops took position opposite the militia of the town. Claiborne and Wilkinson entered the Cabildo. The people without looked and waited. The unexpected had happened again in Louisiana. Laussat was there in the Council chamber ready to receive them, and after the reading aloud of the credentials of the American commissioners, the treaty by which Louisiana had been ceded to the United States, and the credentials of Laussat showing his authority to act in behalf of France and one or two other necessary writings, Laussat announced that the province of Louisiana was delivered to the United States, and as an earnest of that fact, handed to Claiborne the keys of the city. Then Laussat made a brief address, declaring that the people of Louisiana were no longer citizens of the French Republic, but were citizens of the Republic of the United States. He was followed by Claiborne, who also spoke to the people in language and with sentiments appropriate to the great occasion.
What the people waiting and watching without next saw was a spectacle that all could understand, and which very clearly revealed the meaning of the ceremonies that were taking place within the Cabildo, for as they waited the forms of Claiborne, Wilkinson and Laussat appeared like three fates on one of the balconies of the Cabildo, and showed themselves to the people. Their appearance was the signal for the hauling down of the French flag on the pole in the square and the simultaneous hoisting of the flag of the United States in its place. As the two flags met on their ascending and descending course a cannon was fired. This signal was recognized by the discharge of guns from the four forts and some shipping in the river, there' was a waving of hats from a group of Americans— huzza! and the ceremony of the transfer of Louisiana from foreign domination to American self-government was over. After the transfer the Cabildo or "supreme council" was abolished, and a territorial government was organized with Mr. Claiborne as governor. In 1804 Mr. Claiborne organized a municipal government for New Orleans and appointed James Pitot, mayor.
The Cabildo served for many years as the City Hall of New Orleans.
The Cabildo is now reserved for the sessions of the supreme court of Louisiana, and of the second recorder's court of New Orleans, and for the third precinct police station and, in the rear, of the state arsenal, where formerly was the armory of the oldtime Orleans Artillery. In the building, also, is the library of the Law Association.