A Series of Articles on the History of Pelican Point written by Mr. Tom Robert, a resident of The Commons
PELICAN POINT....POINT HOUMAS
A brief history of this community where you have chosen to live and play By: Thomas J. Robert, 40086 Champion TifDrive
Paraphrasing Will Rogers when he spoke of memories of everyone’s early years "deep in your heart you remember the place where you first went barefoot, traded your first pocket knife, grew up, and finally went away thinking you were too big for that old farm. But that is where your heart is." I know I fit that description, and even more, since I was born and grew up here, left for greener pastures but, now have returned home. I was born 71 years ago, just a John Daly drive from the #3 tee. The house is gone but you can see some of the out-buildings today. That was on Donaldson Tract Plantation. Pelican Point is situated on parts of Clark and Donaldson Plantations. My pepere (grandfather) and memere (grandmother) together with three unmarried sons and one unmarried daughter and three married sons with their wives and several children all moved into this house in 1925 when he bought the plantation. Here were fourteen people in four separate marriages under one roof. Pepere was Jean Paul Robert, born in 1855 and, 95 years later died in this house in 1950. His plantation was 'Paul Robert and Sons" but, the name was later changed to 'Remy Robert and Brothers'. Remy, Clovis, Rene, and Octave, and Clovis was my father.
I was born into a world, without electricity or running water, or radio, or telephone. We had a wood burning stove and fireplace. Clothes were boiled in black cast iron pots on wash day and ironing was done with sadirons heated on the wood stove. Highway 22 did not exist and the usual way out from the homesite was by a dirt road out to the river road near where Houmas House is located. By the time I started school in 1932 there were about 15 of us little Robert kids on Donaldson Plantation. I went with some of them to the two room schoolhouse located between the railroad on Hwy 44 and the river. We were taken to school in a one mule cart, but often walked. We were able to get electric service in the summer of 1932 and the first thing the old folks did was to install indoor plumbing in the houses. By this time two of the married sons had moved into their own homes while my parents stayed in the big house with my grandparents and maiden aunt. In 1944 the brothers purchased Clark plantation and thereby joined the two into a single farming operation on over 3000 acres of land. All except 140 acres was sold to Ormet in 1956.
Where you play golf today, we rotated crops of rice, sugar cane and corn and at times used the land for pasture. As teenagers, we hunted doves, quail, rails, blackbirds, robins, rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels. And, if we were lucky, we could sneak up on a duck or goose that landed in the pot holes filled with winter rains. This snapshot of my youth begins a series for the Pelican Brief on the history of your community. Our story of this land begins 300 years ago. The Grand Houmas Indian Village. The first plantations along the River. A visit from the soon-to-be King of France. One of the largest plantation operations in the new world. A place named Burnside. A civil war. A great Depression. And the vision and dreams of a farsighted developer.
Those of us who live here can tell anyone who asks, that we live at Pelican Point or we play golf here and almost everyone will know where we mean. But notice, I called this history, PELICAN POINT......POINT HOUMAS, and for good reason.
As you would expect, long before the European explorers arrived, the American Indians were well established on this site. These were the Houmas (Oumas) Indians. When the first French explorers surveyed the Mississippi River and gave names to the important land marks along the course of the river, they called this 180 degree turn in the river "Point Houmas" because of the large Houmas Indian village located here. Houmas House is situated directly across the river from the actual "point" formed by the river turning back on itself. The Grand Houmas Village was also located on this side of the river, right here where you are. The Houmas had selected well. Their land was high, fertile, accessible and fruitful. These were the same assets coveted by the early explorers. And, sure enough, about 300 years ago French explorers and settlers began to trade with the Houmas and in time began to elbow them off their land. Unlike the Plains Indians, who moved about following the herds of buffalo, the Houmas were settled and built permanent dwellings. They cultivated the land and raised chickens, maize and beans. From the river and bayous and the forest they must have had easy access to fish and game. They were trading fur pelts with the French and getting glass beads in return.
The fact that the Houmas were well known is evident from the early maps of the Louisiana Territory. Maps from the early 1700's show the location of New Orleans and the next identified settlement upriver on the east bank of the river is the "Oumas Village". During the 1980's several archaeological sites were carefully studied and over 300 items were found and identified. A few of these sites are now inside the golf community. Other sites were nearby. Two of which were around the Burnside Cemetery. You can see the cemetery from #3 or #5 green. It is the dense group of trees covering about five acres across highway 22. This was the plantation cemetery established in 1831. When I was about 10 or 12, we used to play "Tarzan" in the graveyard. On occasion we would witness a funeral, since the plantation hands were still using the cemetery. Many of the tombs were well made and decorated. Usually cement plaster over brick, with headstone and cross. It was evident that the oldest tombs had used Plantation Bricks made by the slaves. Some of the tombs still exist.
Next we will begin the European settlement of the area.
From the research done by Marie Pilkington Campbell and Fr. Henry Gautreau we learn that at least as early as 1738 land was sold at Houmas Point. Possibly as early as 1729 Joseph Blanpain had purchased land in St. James Parish and soon added to his holdings by acquiring land at the Houmas Point. From court proceedings we find that Blanpain had by October of 1738 two Negro slaves and an Indian woman and at least one farm hand working under his farm manager Rene Boyer.
These land acquisitions were within the settled areas of the Houmas Indians. There existed three separate encampments of the Houmas. Located on the early maps as the "Grand Houmas Village" and the others as "petite Village du Houmas"'. As we noted earlier, the Indian Lands were most desirous for several reasons. The Indians had chosen the land because of its assets, and most important to the early colonial settlers, the land had largely been deforested. Thus, the open land could be placed into commercial farming with the least effort and time by the first settlers.
In addition to these obvious values, Blanpain recognized the strategic location of this area, which would be indispensable in moving about between the Indian tribes he was trading with and sending cargo back and forth to New Orleans and up to Natchitoches, where trading was between the Indians but, also with the Spanish.
He traded with the Houmas, Attakapas, Chetimaches, Colapissa, and the Bayougoula, and with many other tribes. He had easy access to Bayou Lafourche, Bayou Plaquemine and the network of bayous leading to Opelousas, and on to the Red River. Also running through his property was the "river of the Houmas" which is today Bayou Conway and leads to the Petite Amite, on to Lake Maurepas to Lake Pontchartrain and into the City of New Orleans itself at Bayou St. John.
Joseph Blanpain was born in Mons Belgium near the border of France and died in prison in Mexico City on March 14, 1756.
In 1754 he had been given a passport by Governor de Kerlerc to explore the possibility of expanding trade with the extensive Attakapas Nation in western Louisiana. Blanpain must have exceeded his commission and angered the Spanish in the area of the Trinity River where he built a trading post. He was arrested and taken to Mexico City. Blanpain's farming activity here at Houmas was apparently quite extensive and can easily be called the first "Plantation" up river from New Orleans. Houses were built and storage sheds, stables or corrals and fencing was installed. He was planting crops such as rice, corn, potatoes and vegetables. Cattle were in fenced pastures along with horses. We expect they were also raising pigs, chicken, and other farm animals.
Cattle were butchered at The Houmas and shipped as salted meat to New Orleans. Surprisingly, one of the most profitable products was wood. Cypress timbers and shingles were shipped out in large quantities.
Next the return of the Houmas Indians.
As we continue this history of the site of Pelican Point the year is 1757. Joseph Blanpain had died the previous year in prison at Mexico City. Although, Blanpain had an indian common-law wife in Natchitoches and had fathered a son and a daughter, neither wife or child were included in any inheritance of his plantation at The Houmas. In July of 1757, the land was passed to Thiton de Silegne after a "Public Auction". I have no knowledge that this transfer was in any way unethical but, Silegne just happened to be the First Secretary to Governor de Kerlerc.
And, who would believe that a Governor of Louisiana would cut a sweet deal for one of his close political allies.
There is no indication that Silegne did anything with his acquisition and, in any event, he was sent back to France the following year by de Kerlerc, who was himself recalled to France a couple of years later. The Houmas now lay idle and abandoned. Since the land was unused, the Houmas Indians combined with the Bayougoulas, petitioned de Kerlerc to be allowed to return to their original home site. Their petition was granted and they relocated. They were led by a Houmas Chief, named Calabee. At this point, it should be helpful to review a time-line of the major events shaping the new territory of Louisiana.
1682 La Salle claims the Louisiana Territory for France. 1718 New Orleans is founded. 1719 First significant number of German settlers arrive. 1720 First shipment of Negro slaves arrives in Louisiana. 1729 circa. Joseph Blanpain buys land at The Houmas. 1751 Sugar cane is introduced into New Orleans by the Jesuits Priests. 1761 Circa, Houmas and Bayougoulas Indians return to The Houmas. 1762 All of the Louisiana Territory, west of the river, including the Isle of Orleans, is secretly ceded to Spain by Louis XV, king of France. 1763 England defeats France and at the Treaty of Paris, gets all of Canada, Louisiana, east of the river, and The Florida Territory. New Orleans is still Spanish. 1765 Two groups of Acadians arrive this year and more in 1766. 1766 The Spanish establish firm control and appoint Don Antonio de Ulloa governor. 1774 Maurice Conway and Alexander Latil acquire The Houmas. 1776 July 4,1776, Declaration of Independence by the American colonies. 1779 Spanish governor, Bernardo de Galvez, captures the English forts of Manchac and Baton Rouge, consolidates Spanish rule over West Florida. 1783 At the "Peace of Paris" Britain recognizes American Independence. 1795 Etienne de Bore successfully granulates sugar on a commercial scale. 1800 In another secret treaty, Spain returns the Louisiana Territory to France. 1803 The Louisiana Purchase is completed. 1812 Louisiana is admitted to the Union as the eighteenth state.
A number of disparate events during the 18th century shaped the future of the "Louisiana Plantation Society". Industrious German settlers arrived, the introduction of slaves, the Acadian expulsions and resettlement, the importation of sugar cane into New Orleans in 1751, and the successful granulation of sugar by de Bore in 1795.
The Germans became Mississippi River Pioneers, and undertook the awesome responsibility of making a new life for their families with no more than hand tools and determination. In the rural language of the day they had to--"root hog, or die". Most of us know many of their descendants, Hymel, Waguespack, Toups, Friedrich, Schexnayder, Rome, Folse, and many others. When it is mentioned that all work had to be done by hand, this is not to exaggerate, there were 58 German Coast families listed in the census of 1724 and not one family owned a horse or an ox. There were six cows noted. All work was done with pick, hoe, saw and shovel.
It is impossible to over-state their desperate situation. To survive, they had to fell trees, saw the trees into lumber, build shelters, clear land, dig drainage ditches, build river dikes, plow, sow, cultivate, harvest, prepare for spring floods, take turns as scouts against Indian attacks, all at the same time as they confronted a new land of new plants, new beasts, new pests, and new diseases. They had been lured into this new land by the "La Compagnie des Indes" led by the notorious Scotch financier, John Law. Law had a trade monopoly of 25 years and committed to bring 6000 whites and 3000 Negroes to Louisiana. Promises were made. The land can produce four crops a year, wild game can be hunted by everyone, deer, bear, Indian hens, dove, ducks and geese and always, the promise of land filled with gold, silver, copper and lead. Come one, come all. There is some dispute as to how many did depart Germany. Some say 10,000, some only 2,000, but the census of 1724 records only 58 families along the river in what is now St. Charles and St. John Parishes. Most of those counted in 1724 were in place in the 1721 census and therefore had been hard at work for three years. An average farm was about 1/4 mile wide and 1 1/2 miles deep. After three years, most had cleared about 5 acres. They were mostly young families, the husband around 35 and his wife around 30 with two small children, one or two pigs, and oddly no chickens. About one in ten was a widow. There were a few slaves in the colony, both Negro and Indian.
Since these farmers had been given the concessions to farm, the French and then the Spanish rulers, exercised complete control over their land. If a farmer was not industrious enough to please the Crown, his land grant was revoked and re-assigned to someone else. In spite of what looks impossible to us today, German energy, industry and grit preserved. Hundreds perished but the survivors won. Their rows of neat white houses along the river banks were proof of their will. They not only survived, they prospered, and used to row down river to the City to sell their goods in the early French Market, in front of St. Louis Cathedral. On more than one occasion, they saved the city from extreme hunger. And when the Acadians landed, destitute, it was the same Germans who provided food and sustenance. There remains a largely unknown and unpaid debt due these builders of our state.
Once the Germans pioneers had experimented with, and determined the best crops and methods of production for the lower river lands, the richer, larger landowners used this knowledge to set up their plantations. Rice and indigo were the first successful crops. Neither crop required intensive slave labor or capital outlay. But, around 1780 the indigo plants were attacked by a devastating insect infestation which led to a rapid decline in plantings. By 1803 only 3,000 pounds of indigo were exported.
You can see large fields of indigo all around Pelican Point. This was a real surprise to me. Indigo has not been planted here for a hundred years, and yet, when the soil was disturbed and relocated for the golf course, lakes and streets, indigo sprouted everywhere. The plant is six to eight feet tall, with a slim stalk, compound leaves about 14 inches long, a seed pod which looks like a long very slim string bean. The plant has a soft green color, until it dies in the fall. Indigo Blue dye was extracted from the plant and shipped to the textile mills worldwide. Indigo dye is still produced on a minute scale for the purist, who insist on the finest.
Cotton was not well suited for the lower river lands and rice also had many problems, so it was fortunate for the plantation owners that sugar cane had been introduced many years earlier and then successfully granulated in 1795. Within six years there were 60 sugar plantations. The sugar plantation owners demanded that they be allowed to import slaves, which was banned by the Spanish. It was not until the Louisiana Purchase that slaves were again available, for a price. The sugar industry demanded a lot. Lots of capital, lots of taller, stronger slaves, lots of larger, stronger mules, lots of well ditched and drained land, and a sugar house on almost every plantation. It was said, "you had to be a very rich cotton fanner to begin as a poor sugar planter".
So with all of this background, we come back to "The Houmas". Around 1774, Maurice Conway and Alexander Latil purchased the "Village of the Houmas" for $150. This, purchase, may have been necessary to placate the Indians, since a Spanish land grant had been given to them for this land, but it is doubtful that the Indians would have understood that a King in Spain could sign a bit of paper and give their land to someone else. Latil moved to 'The Houmas' and built a small four-room house.
A few years later events in Europe, again touched “The Houmas". In 1789 the French Revolution resulted in the beheading of many royals, including the King and Queen. Anyone related to the royal family was in grave danger. One such, was the son of the Duc d'Orieans who fled to the United States. He stayed in New Orleans for some time. He also visited upriver and stayed with the Bringier family at White Hall Plantation. While at White Hall, he asked to see some of the Indian Savages. A meeting was arranged to visit the chief of the Houmas. A strange sight it must have been! A royal personage of the House of Orleans, with his full entourage, dressed in silk with powdered wig, meeting the chief of the Houmas with an animal skin tossed over his shoulder, two red-tail hawk feathers in his hair and otherwise naked. Our visitor to "The Houmas" was crowned Louis Philippe, King of France in 1830.
Next we will see the rise of the Sugar Barons.
In 1805 part of the original Maurice Conway land grant was sold to Daniel Clark (Clark Plantation) which in turn was purchased in 1811 by Wade Hampton. Hampton was a very successful and wealthy plantation owner in South Carolina who had fought in the Revolutionary War under George Washington, rising to the rank of Major General. He removed to Louisiana his plantation equipment, his knowledge and a large number of his slaves to cultivate sugar cane, which he foresaw as a lucrative business with a great future.
He also led the military effort the put down a slave revolt in 1811. At least 400 slaves from several plantations along the river near LaPlace staged a rebellion and killed two plantation owners and injured several others and were marching on New Orleans. They were met by the militia and all were arrested. The ring-leaders were executed and 16 of them were beheaded.
In 1814 he also served with Andrew Jackson at the battle of New Orleans. All at the same time, he was running a vast plantation and constantly adding to his land holdings. He had accumulated 12,000 acres by the time of his death in 1835.
His wife and children inherited the property upon his death. His daughter, Caroline, had married John Smith Preston, and it was they who in 1840 built the "Houmas House" we see today. In 1848 Caroline and John came into full ownership of the estate. Ten years later, in April of 1858, all of the property and 550 slaves were purchased by John Burnside, for $1,000,000. The town of Burnside was named for him.
John Burnside was born in Ireland and as a child of 12 or 13 signed on as a cabin-boy on a ship bound for New York. He had no means of earning a living when he arrived. He lived by his wits on the docks of the port and caught the attention of one, Andrew Beirne, a wealthy merchant and plantation owner. Beirne took the young Burnside into his own family and raised him as a son. After a stint as a plantation commissary supervisor on the Beirne plantation in Virginia-Burnside was sent to New Orleans with one of the Beirne sons to open and operate a Beirne business in New Orleans. The Beirne son soon left and went back to New York and Burnside was left in charge of the business. He proved to be extremely successful and became very wealthy. He built the largest home ever built in the City.
John Burnside continued to expand his holdings until he had accumulated the largest plantation operation on record. He had 7,600 acres in cultivation and 22,000 acres in forests, pasture, and cypress swamps. In 1860 his personal fortune was conservatively estimated to be over $1,500,000. The plantations, combined, had about 400 mules, 40 horses, 83 work oxen, dairy cows, sheep, swine, cattle, and fowls. There were almost 1,000 slaves of all ages. The previous years production was 3.4 million pounds of sugar, 300,000 gallons of molasses, 50,000 bushels of corn, 10,000 bushels of sweet potatoes, plus the normal production of vegetables and foodstuffs.
We will confront the Civil War next.
Plantation life continued much as usual for a short time after the start of the Civil War since most of the fighting was taking place in the mid-Atlantic states. But, following the capture of New Orleans and the control of the lower Mississippi by the Union forces, the old slave system was over. To remain as U. S. Citizens, all persons who owned slaves, and those persons in any political authority, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States, or else they were considered alien. Thousands refused, and fled to the West and to Mexico, but a surprisingly large number moved permanently to Brazil, where slavery was still practiced until around 1880. There exist, today the fairly large towns of "New Virginia" and "Americana" and others in Brazil, founded by these ex-patriots.
Meanwhile, here at "The Houmas" John Burnside escaped the fate of most of the large plantations. The Union forces (but, the Confederates also) plundered the homes and the plantations of the area. Many of the homes were reduced to rubble by the Union Navy gunboats. One of the reasons for shelling the homes was in retaliation for sniper fire along the river banks, which killed several Union Naval officers. My grandfather, who was about 8 years old at that time, confirmed to us that he and his older brothers and cousins would hide in the willow trees and, in his own French told us, "on tiere a les american". (we shot at those Americans] It is noteworthy that he looked upon his fellow citizens as foreigners on his lands. The family did not own any slaves.
Burnside, to save his home and holdings met with the Commanders of the Union forces and convinced them that he was in fact a British National, and a non-combatant. England was one of the largest importers of Southern produce and, had strong feelings for the South. Attacking a British subject might induce England to come to the aid of the South. The land, home and holdings of John Burnside were left largely untouched by the war. This good fortune did not extend to his continued use of slaves. They were technically free. By the fall of 1862 the situation of the freed slaves and, many whites also, was extremely grave. Soon there would be thousands of starving ex-slaves throughout the plantation south. Gen. Butler authorized those planters who had sworn allegiance to the U. S. to continue the operation of their plantations, with the same slaves! Only now, the laborers would be paid $10 per month. The federal government even set about to operate some of the idle plantations on behalf of the U. S. Government, with government employees and using ex-slaves as workers. These were trying times for all and, many military orders had to be revised, rescinded, and reissued to try and get the economy re-started. At the start of the war the value of the river plantations was estimated to be almost $200.000,000. By the end, the value was less than $30,000,000. Almost 90% of the wealth of the area was, as has been so aptly phrased "gone with the wind".
Many of the freed slaves left the area, many refused to work, and the Military forced them to work. These measures were severely criticized in the North as the same as a "re-establishment of slavery".
Next, the post-war transition to a free system.
"All is dark and dreary in the future, and the present is no better". These words are from the diary of A. F. Pugh, a former wealthy sugar planter along Bayou Lafourche. They could have been spoken, in truth, by almost anyone in the post-war sugar belt. The slaves were free, but in many cases they had no means of livelihood. Many plantations were idle. Most had been so thoroughly demolished that no buildings remained, no sugar mills, no mules, no equipment, no money, so yes, "all is dark and dreary...” So like their German Coast forebears, they began anew.
The plantations slowly recovered as the owners realized that the workers must be paid, the workers realized that they owed the owners a days work for a days pay and, the inefficient, the unnecessary, the excess and the unproductive had to be abandoned. Even though "The Houmas" was largely intact, this did not mean that the plantation could just go on as before. A large self-sustaining plantation needed a great number of highly skilled workers. For instance, coopers who could make hogsheads for sugar which intentionally leaked just the right amount and also make a barrel for molasses which did not leak a drop. Brick makers and brick masons, blacksmiths who could make any kind of farm tool, drivers who knew their mules and how to work them. Sugar boilers, and steam boiler attendants and on and on. Almost all of these jobs were done by skilled slaves before the war, and now large numbers of these ex-slaves had gone North with their skills.
Because of these reasons John Burnside imported Chinese laborers. As we mentioned earlier, the Chinese did not work out well. Immigrants were sought from Germany, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Of course, the largest number of workers were the freed slaves. A few years after the war their wages were in the order of $15-$20 per month for a good field hand, with cabin, food ration, and wood fuel furnished.
It is evident from the sugar production at "The Houmas" that Burnside must have been a uniquely skillful manager even in these trying times. By Christmas day in 1880 he reported the total sugar produced from the plantations, Orange Grove, Conway, Clark, Donaldson, and Riverton at just over 2,000,000 pounds.
The following summer on July 2, 1881, John Burnside died in White Sulphur Springs, Virginia. His entire estate he left to the Beirne family, which had been his benefactor. Within the Beirne family, it was decided that the daughter, married to William Pocher Miles, would move to Louisiana and operate the plantation. Miles continued to add to the holdings and purchased several more plantations. These vast lands were eventually incorporated as the Miles Manufacturing and Planting Company.
We have now come full circle, since it was from Miles M & P Co. that the Robert Clan purchased the Donaldson Tract Plantation in 1925.
It has been a pleasure to review family history and to research the plantation economy hope those of you who have followed this series have a better understanding of why I grew to love this place.
Saundra and I wish to express our sincere appreciation to Douglas Diez for his vision, his tireless effort and successful accomplishment here at "The Houmas·'.
And, to all members, we wish all of you a birdy on #16. . . .Thanks Doug'
And we thank Mr. Tom Robert for this great article.