Sunday, October 28, 2012

250 Years Ago ... Introducing Pierre Laclede

 *Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.

In 1762 the only news that was reaching New Orleans was bad news.  Canada had surrendered to Britain two years previously and since then Louisiana had been braced for an attack that never came. In September of 1762 the fishing fleet would have brought in the news that Havana had fallen to the British in August.  Havana was the most important Spanish harbor in the Spanish West Indies.  And although Louisiana would not know it for many months, by October of 1762 Britain had also taken Manila from Spain.  Britain now controlled the most important Spanish port in both the West Indies and the East Indies.  It looked as if Britain was on track to conquer the known world.

The Governor of Louisiana in 1762 was Louis Billouart, Chevalier de Kerlerec.  Appointed ten years earlier in 1752, Kerlerec had one of the most thankless jobs in the French Empire.  Although every Governor before him had dealt with seemingly insurmountable problems, within two years of his arrival in Louisiana war broke out with the English and Kerlerec's problems reached epic scale.  As historian Frederick Fausz has written:

Versailles considered [Louisiana] to be a financial sinkhole with few prospects for economic solvency or social stability.  France's neglect was symbolized by the failure to conduct a census for twenty-six years and the lack of responses to 162 urgent messages sent by Kerlerec in an 18-month period.  The Ministry of Marine only dispatched ships to Louisiana in even numbered years during the French and Indian War, so Kerlerec received a mere seven official dispatches from 1760 to 1762.

Lacking support from Versailles and expecting an attack any day, Kerlerec was forced to seek other means to finance the protection of the colony, working through the merchants of the City of New Orleans who had profited throughout the war from smuggling operations.  Kerlerec, like every Governor before him, knew that the viability of the colony depended on the goodwill of the Indian allies along the Mississippi and the Gulf coast.   The Indian culture required that expensive "gifts" be exchanged between allies.  In vain would every Governor of Louisiana write to Versailles pleading for the necessary goods to keep the Indians attached to the French.  When Versailles did not come through, and with war on his doorstep, Kerlerec turned to the merchants for assistance.

But Kerlerec was also thinking about the future.  He looked to trade as a way to put Louisiana on an independent footing after the war so that it would not be so dependent on convoys from France, which arrived late if they arrived at all.

The most prominent  merchant in New Orleans in the 1760's was Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent (known simply as Maxent) who had made a fortune as a successful Indian trader.  Maxent seems to have been the type of successful businessman who, in modern corporate-speak, looked on problems as "challenges" and "opportunities".  Although it could not be known what would happen to Canada after the war, Kerlerec and Maxent chose to look on the fall of Canada as an "opportunity" for Louisiana and her merchants.  Until this time, the most lucrative part of the French fur trade had always flowed north, through Montreal.  Even the furs of the Illinois Country were mostly sent north.  But now, if France was to have a fur trade at all, it would need to flow south through New Orleans, at least temporarily while the war continued.  And if Britain kept Canada, the key to the entire trade would lay in Louisiana which encompassed a vast area both east and west of the Mississippi River, particularly along the Missouri River.

Kerlerec was fairly knowledgeable about trade along the Missouri River because his brother-in-law, Pierre-Joseph Neyon de Villiers, was the commander at Fort de Chartres in the Illinois Country (and, unlike today, "Illinois" in 1762 meant everything north of the Ohio and south of the Illinois River both east and west of the Mississippi).  Kerlerec knew that the Osage Indians were the principal power south of the Missouri River and further west.  The Osage visited Fort de Chartres; they had fought on the French side at Fort Duquesne in 1755.  But not enough attention had been paid to them so far.  The French had established two forts along the Missouri River in the 1700's, north of the principal lands of the Osage, but neither had been successful as trading enterprises.   Maxent and Kerlerec decided that they now had the "opportunity" to remedy that.

In 1762, Kerlerec took a bold step without asking for royal authority.  He granted a newly established enterprise called Maxent, Laclede et Compagnie the exclusive trade with all Indian nations lying west of the Mississippi River.  The grant would last for six years and would extend all the way to the source of the Mississippi in Minnesota, but the real goal was to develop trade along the Missouri River with the Osage.  Although in the past, the French crown had granted trade monopolies, the current policy in Louisiana was one of free trade. The grant of the monopoly was in violation of this policy but when Fort de Cavagnial on the Missouri had been established in 1744, a similar 6 month monopoly had been issued in violation of the policy, so there was precedent.  As the reason for granting this monopoly, Kerlerec said that only Maxent had the capital necessary to undertake and finance such an endeavor, which would bring great profit to the colony.

But who was the Laclede of Maxent, Laclede et Compagnie?

Pierre Laclede was born on November 22, 1729 in Bearn, France, the son of a lawyer, Pierre de Laclede Sr., and his wife Magdeleine D'Espoey D'Arance.   Pierre was one of seven children. Although he was from the landed class, there were merchants in his family background.

In accordance with his family's tradition, as the second son he added the word Liquest to his name.  Always signing his name "Laclede Liquest" he would confuse future non-French historians of St. Louis.  J. Frederick Fausz, in his Founding of St. Louis:  First City of the New West writes:

By family tradition, the second son appended the word Liguest to the surname, signifying his rights to revenues from the Lacledes' grove of willow trees (ligus or saligues in Bearnais) near the village of Athas, just south of [his village of] Bedous on the opposite side of the Gave d'Aspe.  Liguest was similar to the word cadet (second son) in identifying birth order in families, and all cadets in Bearn were "promised a portion [of property or money] in return for renouncing their rights' of inheritance, according to the principle of The House.
Laclede was well educated  He was a student for a time at the Jesuit college in Pau and then later at the military college in Toulouse.  In his twenties Pierre served with the "home guard".  Then, in 1755, he suddenly emigrated to Louisiana.  According to Fausz, he sailed on the ship La Concorde from the port of La Rochelle.

No one seems able to explain what caused Pierre Laclede to emigrate to Louisiana.  He was a second son and, hence, not in line to inherit.  He didn't seem interested in his father's profession of law.  It would not have been unusual for him to set out to make his way in the world. But Fausz points out that Laclede's decision was unusual as very few people from Bearn emigrated to North America and even fewer went to Louisiana.  Fausz speculates that Laclede might have been recruited to go to Louisiana by a New Orleans merchant firm. There is no evidence, though, that he knew Maxent before he arrived in Louisiana.

Laclede left home just at the start of the Seven Years War and when he arrived in Nouvelle Orleans he became a part of the local militia.  His regimental commander was Maxent.  Maxent was also born in France and was also very well educated.  Perhaps that was why they became friends.

By 1759 Laclede seems to have been acting as an independent merchant.  Perhaps, as a merchant, he left New Orleans and went on trading expeditions to the Indians.  If so, that part of his life seems to have escaped his biographers.  I have seen no one claim that Laclede had any direct Indian experience before his experience with the Osage in Missouri.

According to a United States Supreme Court Case, it has been alleged that, in 1760, Pierre Laclede and Pierre Songy had some kind of right to a piece of coastal property in present day Deer Island Mississippi.   (US v.Power's Heirs, 52 US 570 (1850))

Fausz, in his history of St. Louis, does a good job of looking into the kind of life Laclede would have lived in France and analyzing why that background would serve him so well in the newly founded St. Louis.  But neither he, nor any other historian I've read, can explain why Maxent would choose to partner with Laclede on this venture when there were certainly many men with years of experience in the Illinois Country, on both sides of the Mississippi, who would have been pleased to have had this opportunity.

In Maxent, Laclede et Compagnie,  Maxent would finance the expedition and provide the necessary trade goods and presents for the Indians; Laclede would be the man on the ground who would actually travel to Upper Louisiana and begin to trade in that part of the Illinois Country that lay west of the Mississippi.  Although the expedition would not be ready to leave New Orleans until the summer convoy left in August, 1763, Maxent would have started in 1762 to begin the process of procuring the necessary goods.  

I imagine Pierre Laclede, 250 years ago, was beginning to think about the long journey he was to take up the Mississippi with anticipation and maybe even a little dread.