The time was 1781. North America was the prize territory sought by the three world superpowers at the time: England, France and Spain. The United States had just implemented the Articles of Confederation and were in the throes of the Revolutionary War. The Louisiana Territories, west of the Mississippi, were bouncing around from superpower to superpower like some prized political football. Nineteen years earlier, King Charles III of Spain had secretly obtained the lands from his cousin Louis XV, the King of France, in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. It wasn’t until two years later that King Louis bothered to inform his French governor that Charles III “his Catholic Majesty will be pleased to give his subjects of Louisiana protection and good will.”
King Charles, or as he was affectionately called by his subjects “Old Mule Face”, had a nose that would have made Cyrano de Bergerac proud, the product of years of royal inbreeding within the Spanish House of Bourbon. Charles had one key goal for Louisiana: Keep out the English. The English and Americans were pouring through North America and breeding like rabbits. They were staking out more and more land and pushing westward across the Missisippi River. Charles III had a plan. Create a populated buffer zone, a similar policy being used in the disputed areas of Israel today. Establish forts throughout Louisiana for protection and the creation of vital trading posts. Spain also gave empressarios, land grants given conditionally to individuals who could move large numbers of settlers into the region by a certain time. Imagine the fortunes to be made. Rich, fertile, but untamed land, all for the taking, just with one string attached: move people into it. Much of the migration was fueled by this promise of free land to the hardy, brave souls who would come. Also imagine the cast of characters this type of offer would attract.
The newly appointed Spanish governor Estevan Miro implemented King Charles’ plans, taking steps that would have great impact in Northeast Louisiana. Miro was a true, dyed-in-the-wool hero. He was born in Spain and raised in the military, winning accolades for his martial prowess. He came to America as part of Bernardo de Galvez’s forces that successfully battled the British in West Florida during the Revolution. Only a few years later, Miro would become a hero on a much greater level. On March 21, 1788, the Good Friday Fire destroyed most of New Orleans. Miro didn’t react like later Governor Blanco, George W. Bush or FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. He did something. Arranging tents for displaced residents, bringing in food from warehouses, and sending ships to Philadelphia for aid and supplies to rebuild the city. And that’s exactly what he did. He oversaw the construction of the French Quarter as we know it today, requiring it to be rebuilt according to strict codes like thick brick (not wood) walls and courtyards. He also laid the cornerstone for the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Oh, for hero like Miro today.
In 1783, Miro sent one of his best men into this area. Jean Baptiste Fihiol a/k/a Don Juan Fihiol (no joke), the new commandant of the Ouachita District. He was also a military man, a captain in the Opelousas militia. Miro wanted a fort on the Ouachita River and a centralization of the trade among the Indians and French who lived here. Filhiol hated the French, appalled at their affinity for strong liquor. He wrote that their laziness and immorality caused even the Indians to look down upon them. Filhiol also received a land grant of lands on both sides of the Ouachita River. He successfully built and established Fort Miro. That’s Monroe, to you and me.
A 1788 census of the Ouachita district showed a population of 232 for the entire area. Filhiol was less successful in his colonization efforts. He reported on the cultivation possibilities of the region. Of the lands between Boeuf River and Bayou Macon, he wrote that the lands were plagued by flooding in high water and that when drought occurred, “not even a pirogue could navigate the Boeuf”. Not exactly a glowing report on our area. By 1800, he wrote the governor that most of the settlements outside of Fort Miro were failures and that the immigrants have “an unfavorable character.” Filhiol reported that the inhabitants were not only lazy, but also derelicts and criminals:
“...these men are composed of the scum of all sorts of nations, several fugitives...who, as well as the others have become fixed there through their attachment to their idleness and there independence, perhaps even to escape from the pursuit of justice before there was a command.”
Not a glowing review of our ancestors, either.
I hate to burst your bubble, but this area seemed to be a magnet for reprobates. Filhiol was under strict orders to keep undesirable out of the area. He required passports of all who hunted in his area. He tried to exile criminals, including the “half-breed” Louis dit Blainpain from hunting the Boeuf and Ouachita Rivers. Blainpain was considered to be “very dangerous”. Now, you know the origin of outlaw hunting in this parish.
In 1797, an interesting character appeared on the Northeast Louisiana scene. He was a 38 year old “man of many names” Back in those days, name changes were synonymous with a criminal background. That’s true of this fellow. He was born Phillip Nering Bagel in Dutch Guiana (South America). He moved back to Holland with his parents and became a tax collector, a crooked one. He was charged with embezzlement, but before his case came to trial, he escaped to Spanish Louisiana to seek his fortune. He left with a price of 1000 gold pieces on his head. Once here, he passed himself off as Baron de Bastrop, a Dutch nobleman. People believed him, including new Governor Carondelet. He secured what would become the most famous(or infamous) of the empressario land grants in the Louisiana territories. It covered a massive amount of land along the Ouachita River, the southeastern corner of which jutted into what is now Richland Parish. Twelve square leagues of property, one million acres. Baron de Bastrop made a fortune, which he later lost. He moved to San Antonio, changed his name again to Felipe Enrique Neri, and helped Stephen F. Austin colonized Texas with the same empressario methods. He became mayor of that town and served in the Spanish legislature of Texas for many years, but died broke. It was only a year or two after his death that his true identity came to light. And who said politicians don’t come from good stock?
The Baron de Bastrop’s land grant fared about as well as he did. He had contracted to bring in 500 families to settle here. However, rather than establishing a Spanish controlled buffer zone, Bastrop recruited Americans living in Kentucky, whose loyalties rested with the Stars and Stripes, not New Spain. On February 15, 1797, Bastrop published this notice in Louisville, Kentucky:
“I will give to any family industrious and well recommended, 400 acres of land–take where you please–six months provisions, all kinds of seed to plant. And when your registered boys come of age, 400 acres will be given to each of them.”
Carondelet became alarmed over the developments as Spanish-American relations deteriorated. He suspended Baron de Bastrop’s contract. A later decree prohibited the grant or sale of any Louisiana lands to a citizen of the United States. Bastrop ignored the restriction. His questionable transactions produced one of largest land title problems in history. It wasn’t cleared until 1850, when the United States Supreme Court finally rejected the land grant outright. The high court ruled that those pioneers who had lived and cultivated the lands where they lived for at least 20 years would be granted ownership. This is the noble person for whom the City of Bastrop is named.
One of the people recruited by Baron de Bastrop was Abraham Morehouse, the namesake of Morehouse Parish. The Baron sold a large chunk of his land grant to this man from New York before a justice of the peace in Kentucky. Morehouse was quite a character himself. He claimed to have been a Colonel in the New York militia. He was really a husband and father who abandoned his young wife and two small sons to seek his fortune in land deals in Kentucky and Louisiana.
I suppose, Louisiana was something of a place of new beginnings for people in those days. Morehouse made the best of his here. In a scandalous wedding ceremony that wasn’t before a priest, Morehouse married Eleanor Hook before Commandant Don Juan Fihiol in Fort Miro, without ever bothering to dissolve his prior union. He built a plantation near Bayou DeSiard. He soon relocated it to the fertile lands of Prairie Mer Rouge. Despite the colonization failures of the others, Morehouse moved over 100 families (ancestors of some of the most prominent families in the area) into the settlements of Prairie Mer Rouge (modern day Mer Rouge) and Prairie Jefferson (modern day Oak Ridge), which were two of the earliest settlements in the area. These areas were called “prairies” because the Indians had cleared these extremely fertile lands many years before. Even the Indians knew “ice cream” land when they saw it.
Louisiana became a political football again in the superpower quest for a foot hold in the New World. Under keen pressure from Napoleon in 1800, Spanish king Charles IV secretly gave it back to France in the Treaty of San Ildefonso. Charles IV wasn’t the brightest king of Spain, but he was one of the strongest. Not militarily, but physically. He was fond of wrestling the strongest men he could find in the countryside. People thought he got it from his great-grandfather Augustus II The Strong, King of Poland. Augustus was nick-named “Iron Hand” due to his habit of breaking horseshoes with his bare hands. While Charles IV was staging his own WWF matches, the great Spanish Empire was crumbling. The loss of the Louisiana territories was the first blow of many that would soon mark its staggering decline.
Napoleon Bonaparte, the little emperor of France, didn’t hold onto our lands for very long. He was having his own financial difficulties, and, in 1803, sold not only New Orleans (which was all the US wanted to buy) but all of the Louisiana territories stretching as far as portions of Montana and Colorado for $15,000,000. James Monroe and Robert Livingston pulled off the deal of the millennium. Napoleon’s reasons were political as well as financial. He said, after the sale was done, “this accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride.”
After acquisition by the United States, Fort Miro’s name was later changed to Monroe in honor of James Monroe, who also became the nation’s fifth President.
Stephen Girard was one of the richest men in the history of the United States and also had a hand in settling this area. He founded a large cotton plantation in the southern tip of lands known as the Baron de Bastrop land grant. Girard was born in Bourdeaux, France in 1750. He began as sailor, then captain and eventually the head of a global shipping empire that was based in Philadelphia. He branched into banking and provided most of the financial credit for the United States government during the War of 1812, sinking almost everything he had to keep the war effort going. His investment paid big dividends. Forbes estimated his fortune in 2008 dollars at almost $ 100 billion. That’s billion with a “b”. Girard is believed to be the fourth-wealthiest American of all time, ranking behind only John D. Rockerfeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Jacob Astor. He dabbled in everything, including buying large tracts of land. By 1830, Girard had purchased over 200,000 acres in the Baron de Bastrop land grant, property formerly owned by Abraham Morehouse.
Girard was a strange mix of hero and villain. He was a professed atheist, but devoted much of his wealth to helping the poor and orphans. Rather than leaving the city of Philadelphia during a yellow fever outbreak in 1793, Girard stayed to care for the sick and dying. On the other hand, Girard’s wife Mary was committed to an insane asylum and gave birth to a stillborn child there. The true life events inspired a play, The Insanity of Mary Girard, which speculated that Girard had his wife sent to the asylum after she had cheated on him.
Girard was just an example of the “Eastern” money that flowed into this area though land speculation. Girard had grand plans to establish a cotton plantation near the Bouef River, but the settlement was ultimately doomed to failure. Girard sank substantial funds into its development, including $15,000 for twenty slaves purchased in Natchez. Girard collected vegetable and fruit seed from across the world. He sent grape cuttings from the finest collections of France, Spain and as far as Malalya to our area. Girard could afford the best, and he wanted only the best in his settlement. The best seed, the best tools, and the best livestock. In one of those strange quirks of fate, the dinner tables of this area were home to Dutch Savoy cabbages, red Antwep raspberries, South American pumpkin and grapes from Bourdeaux and Burgandy. He also established the most modern and expensive cotton gin in the area, but even the financial strength of Girard could not overcome the inhospitable wilderness that this area used to be. Before the plantation could get a firm foundation, Girard grew ill and passed away in Philadelphia without ever havingset foot on his beloved plantation. Several of the slaves died of illness, a prize bull drown in the river and the cotton gin caught fire and burned to the ground. To add insult to injury, it was later discovered that “Girard’s settlement” wasn’t even built on his lands.
That’s the tale of our modern day Girard...And now you know the rest of the story. My special thanks to Rick Hixon and his thesis, “The Antebellum History of Richland Parish”, C.C. Davenport’s little book, Looking Backward, and Glen Lee Greene’s A History of the Baptists of Oak Ridge, for providing many of the colorful facts described above. As you can well see, we truly have a “rich” heritage of history in our area.