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Archive for the ‘Louisiana Purchase’ Category

Location: Orange, Virginia, 28 miles north of Charlottesville

James Madison's Montpelier, near Orange, Virginia

The first time we visited Monticello on a Lewis & Clark research trip, we wanted to pay a visit as well to Montpelier, the equally grand home of James Madison and his fabulous wife Dolley. At that time, the home was closed for an extremely extensive renovation. But on our most recent trip to Virginia, the home had reopened, providing a fascinating, multi-faceted look at the “Father of the Constitution” and a terrific example of historical restoration.

James Madison’s career is inexorably intertwined with that of his mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Over the years, Madison, who was eight years younger than Jefferson, became much more than a protege to the “Sage of Monticello.” He became a close personal friend and a political alter ego, often using his calm insight and deep understanding of government to save Jefferson from his own more radical tendencies.

When he became president in 1801, Jefferson named Madison as his Secretary of State, with a standing if secret order to be on the lookout for additional territory into which the new nation could expand. Jefferson already foresaw that the United States would dominate the North American continent, though he believed the expansion would take several centuries rather than mere decades. Nonetheless he was ready to get started, with his top priority being the purchase of New Orleans from the French, which would give Americans much better access to the world’s sea lanes.

James and Dolley Madison by Ivan Schwartz (2009)

As detailed in our earlier post on James Monroe (Lewis & Clark road trip: Ashlawn-Highland), what began as a negotiation with Napoleon’s government for New Orleans turned into the fire sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million — over one million square miles of land. The Louisiana Purchase gave Jefferson legal cover to fulfill a dream he had harbored for decades: to send explorers west on a scientific and diplomatic mission to discover and map the western part of the continent and negotiate alliances with the Indians that would give America entree into the world fur trade and access to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, whatever Jefferson’s critics then and now might care to say about him, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of thinking small.

As Jefferson personally oversaw the preparations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for the Expedition, Madison had little involvement with the launch of the historic exploration. In fact, his wife Dolley took a more active role. As her niece Mary E.E. Cutts later recalled, Dolley had a huge heart, and believed that Lewis & Clark “could never could return from that land of savages.” Determined to supplement the miserly congressional appropriation of $2500 for equipment, she organized the ladies of Washington and conducted a fundraiser to provide the Expedition with sack cloth, candle wax, lamps and lamp oil, cooking spices, canned goods, dried goods, writing materials, clothing, and silver cooking utensils.

It would be interesting to know whether Meriwether Lewis remembered Dolley’s kindness on July 28, 1805. In what is still one of the more remote and beautiful spots in Montana, the Missouri River divides into three mighty streams, and Lewis named one of them after the Secretary of State, writing:

In pursuance of this resolution we called the S. W. fork, that which we meant to ascend, Jefferson’s River in honor of 〈that illustrious personage〉 Thomas Jefferson. the Middle fork we called Madison’s River in honor of James Madison, and the S. E. Fork we called Gallitin’s River in honor of Albert Gallitin [Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury].

the two first are 90 yards wide and the last is 70 yards.    all of them run with great valocity and thow out large bodies of water. Gallitin’s River is reather more rapid than either of the others, is not quite as deep but from all appearances may be navigated to a considerable distance. Capt. C. who came down Madison’s river yesterday and has also seen Jefferson’s some distance thinks Madison’s reather the most rapid, but it is not as much so by any means as Gallitan’s.

The Madison River in Montana. Courtesy Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

According to Dolley’s niece, when Lewis returned to Washington in December 1806, he returned the surviving silver service to Dolley and regaled the ladies with tales of “hair breath escapes and marvelous adventures,” along with “as many specimens as they could bring from so far off in the wilderness!” Lewis’s memos to Dolley’s husband also give a flavor of the expenses the Expedition had incurred (the final cost of the Lewis & Clark Expedition ended up being about $39,000):

“One Uniform laced Coat, one silver Epaulet, one Dirk, and belt, one hanger and belt, one pistol and one fowling piece, all private property in exchange for Canoe, Horses and c. for public service during the expedition – $135.”— Meriwether Lewis to James Madison, March, 1806

In spite of Dolley’s excitement about the Expedition, it appears that her husband was not nearly as enamored with Lewis as she or his mentor Jefferson. When Madison became president in 1809, he was less than supportive of Lewis’s efforts in his new and difficult political job, that of governing the huge territory he had heroically explored. The essential conflict is articulated in our novel To the Ends of the Earth by none other than our old friend James Wilkinson:

“Well, if you are not angry about it, then I am, sir!” Wilkinson smacked the table with his hand. “President Madison cares nothing for your fame. To him, your entire expedition—what do you call it, you’re so clever with names—the Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery? Only the greatest feat of exploration ever attempted on this continent—” He paused in mid-sentence and fixed Lewis with a disconcerting look. “Well, in Madison’s petty mind, it was a colossal waste of money.”

“That’s because he doesn’t understand what we discovered. When the expedition journals are published, he’ll see that it wasn’t a waste—”

“But that’s not the point!” Wilkinson cut him off. “The point is, Madison has no vision for what this country could be! But you do, Lewis, and so do I.”

The most fascinating part for me of visiting Montpelier was learning about the home’s incredible restoration. The Madisons lived an opulent and genteel lifestyle with over 100 slaves, but following James’ death in 1836, Dolley fell on hard times. Her only son, Payne Todd, was an alcoholic wastrel who had spent time in debtor’s prison. Dolley had already put up the mansion as collateral to pay Payne’s debts. She lost everything, and was forced to depend on friends for their kindness until her death in 1849 at the age of 81.

The Annie Dupont Formal Garden at Montpelier

After going through several owners, the house was acquired in 1901 by the duPont family, which remodeled it beyond recognition and used the property for their competitive equestrian pursuits. When Marion duPont Scott died in 1983, she donated the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation along with the money to restore it to the Madison era. After a protracted court battle with several heirs, the work began in 2003. The architects were surprised and delighted to find that some 80% of the original Madison home was intact beneath the duPont renovations. The structural renovation was completed in 2008 and work is underway to restore the interior to the appearance it would have had in Madison’s day.

We had a wonderful time in the home and gardens, along with a great lunch in the cafe. Montpelier is a very enjoyable stop for any history buff and illuminates a very human side of one of the Founding Fathers and his unforgettable wife.

More great reading: James Madison’s Montpelier (blog)

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Location: The French Quarter in New Orleans

Highly desired for gracious living today, the courtyards in the French Quarter homes of the Creoles were more practical affairs, where you would find carriages parked and slaves working on household tasks.

In 1801, when Thomas Jefferson became president and Meriwether Lewis joined him at the White House as his private secretary, few could have imagined the dramatic turn that history was about to take. The United States was still a fragile experiment in representative democracy, and France dominated the North American continent, in possession of the entire central portion between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, a place they called Louisiana. Not only that, but Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, was on his way to conquering all of Europe, and planned to rebuild Louisiana as a breadbasket to service his empire with meat, wheat, leather, and fur.

What a difference a couple of years makes. By 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana to Jefferson’s envoys for the bargain basement price of $15 million (just $215 million even in today’s dollars — less than the cost of the new Batman movie!). And the United States found itself in possession of the most exotic city on the North American continent — the port of New Orleans. It was here that the deal finalizing the Louisiana Purchase was signed on December 20, 1803. Representing the U.S. were William C.C. Claiborne, former governor of the Mississippi Territory, and our old friend General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson and his colorful, checkered relationship with New Orleans figure prominently in our novel To the Ends of the Earth (yeah, click Buy Now at the top of the page. You know you want to).

Jefferson worried about assimilating New Orleans into the United States, and for good reason. New Orleans and the district surrounding it (the present-day state of Louisiana) brought over 50,000 new citizens to the United States who were French-speaking, Catholic, and last but not least, racially mixed. Free blacks and mixed couples abounded, with expectations of rights unheard of in the rest of the United States, such as going around armed and serving in the militia. The relations between the races were governed by an elaborate cultural code that was all but impenetrable by the Americans who arrived to take over governance. American ideas about separation of the races did not completely take hold in New Orleans until after the Civil War.

Creole woman with maid, by Edouard Marquis (1867)

Recently, we enjoyed a fantastic vacation in the Crescent City and had the opportunity to immerse ourselves for several hours in the lost world of Creole New Orleans. There are a lot of walking tours in the French Quarter, but Le Monde Creole (the Creole World) specializes in history tours focusing on the old Creole culture of the city through the lives of one family, the Locouls. As was typical, this family spent the growing and harvest seasons at their sugar plantation outside of town, then kicked up their heels all winter in their French Quarter townhomes.

Our tour guide was Bill, who is also the owner of Le Monde Creole Tours. The first thing we learned was worth the price of the tour, because Bill explained to us what a Creole actually is — something I’ve never understood.

As Bill explained, the confusion over the word Creole and the people it applies to arises because “Creole” has actually had three different meanings over the years. In the early 18th century, when Louisiana was first being settled by French and Spanish colonists, creole (from the Spanish criar – “to breed” or “to raise”) meant anyone or anything that was born in the New World. A person of French, Spanish, or African descent born in the New World was a creole. It was as simple as that. A horse or a dog or even a plant could be a creole as well. Over the decades, a caste system began to develop in which creoles were denied plum positions of leadership over newcomers sent from the mother country; this was one of the factors that led to revolutionary wars in Central and South America.

When the Louisiana Purchase rolled around, the meaning of creole shifted. The Creoles of Louisiana had developed a culture that was utterly unique, an amalgam of music, food, lifestyle, marriage customs, and social mores that bore no resemblance to that left behind in France, Spain, or Africa, let alone the brash American culture that abruptly descended on them. At that point, the word Creole came to mean anyone of any race who had been in Louisiana before the Purchase and followed the old lifestyle.

This lifestyle included a degree of racial mixing that left the Americans speechless and set the stage for the tortured race relations that still plague Louisiana today. As Bill took us through shady courtyards and down every little street you can imagine, we learned how elite white Creole men traditionally had two families: a white family headed by a white wife, and a black family headed by a mistress of mixed race. These arrangements were formal and worked out in detail, generally by the girl’s mother, who ensured that the daughter was provided for materially with a home, clothes, jewelry, and support for any children born to the marriage. An entire vocabulary described the children born to these unions: mulatto (half white and half African), quadroon (one-fourth African), octoroon (one-eighth African), griffe (one-fourth white), and sacatra (one-eighth white).

Creole men of New Orleans in a vintage photograph

If the mother of one of African families was a slave, it was common for the children of the relationship to be freed. As you can imagine, Americans were generally horrified by the presence of these free blacks, as it was impossible to know how to treat them. Many of them were the children and grandchildren of elite ruling families and expected to be treated with similar courtesy as that accorded to whites. Even more unnerving from the American point of view, it was often impossible to tell whether someone was of African descent just by looking at them. The danger of intermarrying with a black person was viewed with such distaste that eventually, an entire legal code was written to try to prevent that from happening.  Bill told us about extremely elaborate laws that involved having to produce birth certificates going back for generations to prove that you were white.

I was surprised to learn that Canal Street, the major New Orleans thoroughfare that divided the French Quarter from the Garden District, had its roots in the hostility between the Creole world and the American newcomers. Americans were blocked from building anywhere in the city (today’s French Quarter) and had to establish their own settlement next to it, which they called Lafayette or “the American Quarter.” There was very little assimilation or intermarriage between the two peoples until after the Civil War.

After that point, with massive German and Irish immigration into the city and military occupation, the old Creole culture faded — except for one group that strongly upheld the old Creole ways. These were the descendants of the Creole black families. Faced with a racially divided world in which they could never be white, yet abhorring the notion of mixing with the throngs of freed slaves flocking into the city, they clung to their unique culture for dear life, thus preserving it for future generations to discover again. For this reason, when most of us hear the world Creole today, we think of the French-speaking black families of New Orleans and their culture.

We spent several hours in the delightful company of Bill, learning about the multi-cultural origins of voodoo, jazz, and New Orleans’ infamous Storyville. A huge highlight was getting to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1, the famed above-ground cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of the Creole families.

So as not to give away the tour, I’ll refrain from gushing about the storytelling thread that ran through the entire trek about the Locoul family and the many secrets, lies, and tribulations that emerged to illuminate these fascinating historical times. But as you can probably tell, I highly recommend that you spend a morning with Bill the next time you are in New Orleans (you might even get to meet a parrot), and also take a ride out to Laura Plantation, where the tour of the house and sugar plantation of the same family will illuminate the other side of the story.

Le Monde Creole Tours

Laura Plantation

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