Trolley Talk and Walkabout Tours
Bayou Sara and the Mississippi River
The port city of Bayou Sara began in the late 1700s as a cotton port and trading post right on the banks of the Mississippi River where the creek of the same name flowed out. Early flatboaters travelling south with the current to peddle loads of goods would pull into the calmer creek waters to spend the night, and the little settlement initially catered to their rowdy needs. In the early days, one memoir recalled it as “a notorious river town where ladies did not dare go on the street in daytime unescorted and never after dark. Barrooms and brothels were plentiful and everyone carried pistols.” The place had a sporting reputation considerably greater than its size would indicate.
It was founded by Scotsman John Mills, who would soon find himself drafted as one of the leaders of the West Florida Rebellion, momentous events culminating in the wresting of Louisiana’s Florida Parishes from Spanish control and setting off the rolling wave of revolutions that shaped the entire country. When Louisiana’s lands east of the Mississippi, called West Florida, were excluded from Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the Anglo-American settlers who were developing extensive agricultural operations chafed under Spanish corruption and revolted. In the summer and early fall of 1810, several organizational meetings were held at Egypt and Troy Plantations, after which the Spanish commandant, Don Tomaso Estevan, was visited in his Bayou Sara headquarters. Finding him in bed complaining of a sudden illness (according to early historian Stanley C. Arthur, it was probably “yellow” fever), he was presented a petition to “discuss measures to restore public tranquility.” The duplicitous response of Spanish commander Carlos de Grand Pre, seeming to support the call for a general meeting while surreptitiously sending for military reinforcements to quash the budding revolt, set the stage for the declaration of independence that would free the brave Feliciana planters from Spanish control. Thus was born the short-lived West Florida Republic, independent and carefully conceived with constitution, militia, elected officials and promise of a more equitable government. It would only last for a grand total of 74 days, but many of the structures that witnessed those events some 200 years ago still stand as testimony to the bravery of those early patriots rebelling against Spanish tyranny.
Constructed with its rare classical wellhouse on Royal Street in 1809 shortly after the town of St. Francisville was laid out, Prospect was home to Dr. Isaac Smith. Besides being active in local and state politics and a great advocate of higher education, he was one of the early physicians in the Felicianas. Next door the imposing Hillcroft home was built later on what had been Prospect’s cow lot and fruit orchard. (Open for touring)
Printer’s Cottage/The Time Piece
This post-and-beam structure’s earliest usage, according to family stories, was to house the deceased from across the river awaiting burial in the Catholic cemetery. In 1819 the property was sold to James M. Bradford, editor of The Time Piece (1811), the first newspaper published in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes. Bradford became one of the first war correspondents as he sent back dispatches from the Battle of New Orleans while serving with Captain Jedediah Smith’s Feliciana Troop of Horse. Later, continuing the association with local newspapers, in 1892 the True Democrat was begun here by May Leake Robinson, the presses located in the rear printshop built of Bayou Sara brick. When her first husband and partner, W.W.Leake Jr., died and fire destroyed the first printshop, she struggled to run the paper “with one baby at the breast, another’s tiny hands on my skirts, a son too young to be of assistance,” until the undaunted Miss May found a perfect partner in Elrie Robinson, the “horse and buggy printer,” and the Democrat survives to this day.
Propinquity was built in 1809 by the founder of Bayou Sara, John Mills, content with establishing his trading post on low land near the river commerce but seeking higher ground for his residence. He purchased 4 1/2 building lots for 900 pesos and built a sturdy brick home, the building inventory consisting of nearly 200,000 bricks, 8 bushels of hair for plaster, and a fanlight window for the attic. Mills also obtained a Spanish land grant in 1789 for property now comprising Rosedown Plantation, where he planted indigo and cotton utilizing the labor of slaves despite his disapproval of what he branded “that Inhumane commerce.” Upon his death in 1815 the property was sold to William Barrow. When 500 freedom-seeking Anglo settlers met in June of 1810 to plan the West Florida Rebellion, four influential and well-respected men were chosen as representatives of the district of Feliciana; John Mills was one of them, and William Barrow, whose correspondence with friends in the American administration would further the cause of independence, was another. By 1822 Propinquity was owned by Dietrich Holl, German immigrant, whose nephew Maximillian Holl joined him after enduring a lengthy, torturous sea journey preserved in vivid letters to family members back home.
Camilla Leake Barrow House
St. Francisville’s founder and one of the leaders of the West Florida Rebellion, John Hunter Johnson was the son of Isaac Johnson, who had come from Liverpool to partner in a sawmill with John Mills, both part of the Anglo migration southward in the late 1700s. At Isaac’s Troy Plantation, much of the substantive planning for the revolt took place. Today only a classical wellhouse remains, for in the 1880s as then-owner Dr. I.U. Ball returned by steamboat from New Orleans, he saw smoke rising on shore and exclaimed “Troy is burning,” and so it was. But the plans for the rebellion had come to fruition in 1810.
When John H. Johnson laid out his hopeful little village of St. Francisville atop the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in the opening years of the 19th century, one of the first structures erected on Royal Street was this two-story saltbox built around 1809. J. Hunter Collins added the one-story cottage section as his law office; when his partner was mortally wounded in the explosion of the steamboat Princess, Collins took William W. Leake into his firm. As his family grew to 11 children, Leake purchased the home and became a judge, bank president and state legislator. He would also go down in history as the young Confederate cavalry captain and senior warden of one of the state’s oldest Masonic lodges who stopped the Civil War, if ever so briefly, to permit burial of a fellow Mason wearing Union blue in June of 1863. Leake’s daughter Camilla married a descendent of William Barrow of Highland Plantation, another of the leaders of the West Florida Rebellion. Camilla’s husband, Dr. A. Feltus Barrow, was a horse-and-buggy doctor so large his wedding ring fit over the wrist of premature babies. When he returned home from exhaustive trips into remote regions to treat the sick, he relished his bath and installed a huge tub next to a downstairs window, out of which he would lean while soaking to recommend treatment for patients dripping with blood or to hold court as town mayor, the accused waiting outside the window for the verdict.
The Cabildo, built c. 1809 in the tradition of Spanish colonial architecture, takes its name from early Spanish governing bodies and the structures that housed them. Its central location just off the courthouse square assured its involvement in all of the important milestones of local history. Within a block were the headquarters of the Republic of West Florida after the 1810 rebellion ousted the Spanish. Supposedly in this corner, after being replaced by the Stars and Stripes, the original flag of that short-lived republic was interred; it was a lone white star on a blue field hastily sewn by the wife of Major Isaac Johnson, John H. Johnson’s younger brother and commander of the troop of mounted dragoons who captured the Spanish fort in Baton Rouge. In its early years this adaptable structure was said to have housed everything from the Smith-Mills Counting House where planters arranged sale of their goods to a monastery and a tavern operated by German-born Maximillian Nubling, who lived in Propinquity and operated a small store there patronized by artist John J. Audubon and his wife Lucy. By 1824, The Cabildo served as the first West Feliciana Parish Courthouse after the original Feliciana Parish was divided in two; court met in the upper chambers, and below was the Bank of Louisiana.
Under the control of first France, then England, by the time of most early settlement the St. Francisville area was Spanish territory. But the earliest settlers were mostly Anglos, encouraged to establish plantations by the offer of large land grants, long growing seasons, plentiful water supply and ready transportation via the Mississippi River. These Anglo settlers soon chafed under inept Spanish control, especially after this east side of the Mississippi River above New Orleans was excluded from the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Spanish commandant Carlos de Grand Pre referred to those Anglo settlers of the Feliciana district, which was the most populous area of what was called West Florida, as “inclined to insubordination and prone to insurgency,” and he would soon find out how true his words would ring through history.
In the summer and fall of 1810 the planters came together and laid careful plans for the West Florida Rebellion. Some 500 settlers met on June 23 at Stirling’s Egypt Plantation (now called Rosale), where they appointed four respectable and influential men---John Rhea, John H. Johnson, William Barrow and John Mills---to meet to lay plans for the uprising, with subsequent organizational meetings at Troy Plantation. On September 11, Major Isaac Johnson’s mounted troop of dragoons joined other forces under the command of Col. Philemon Thomas to overthrow the woefully inadequate Spanish fort in Baton Rouge, surprising the sleeping garrison by sneaking in at dawn with the milk cows. Thus was born the independent West Florida Republic, with St. Francisville its capital and an early hotel, built at this corner in 1809 by public subscription, serving as legislative chamber. This was a well-conceived republic with a militia, judicial and legislative branches, even a constitution similar to the American one, for the real purpose of the rebellion, in addition to shedding Spanish control, was to join the United States.
Distinguished diplomat Fulwar Skipwith of Montesano Plantation was elected governor and declared, “From the commencement of our Revolution, we anxiously wished and sanguinely hoped, to be incorporated into the American Union, in a way honorable and advantageous to both them and ourselves.” This grand scheme lasted only 74 days. After some wrangling over the rights of an independent republic, Gov. W.C.C. Claiborne took possession of the Florida Parishes on December 6, raising the American flag at St. Francisville. Today the focal point of Republic Park is a striking monument, its simple obelisk crowned with a single star reminiscent of the original Bonnie Blue Flag. It was designed by talented artist David Norwood, descendent of one of the original leaders of the West Florida Rebellion, William Barrow.
The Neo-Classic courthouse dating from 1903 centers the courthouse square where even earlier governmental gathering places oversaw all the political maneuverings that in the first decade of the 19th century would see the area wrested from Spanish control, formed into an ambitious independent republic of short duration, joined to the United States first as part of the Orleans Territory and then the state of Louisiana, and in 1824 separated from East Feliciana as the seat of parish government for West Feliciana. The square is shaded by enormous ancient live oak trees hung with Spanish moss, their limbs covered in the resurrection fern that in dry spells appears dead but resurrects with every passing shower, just as St. Francisville has weathered many trying times and always manages to spring back to life.
Advertised for sale in 1811 as “in the airy part of town,” this lovely little Creole cottage began with only two rooms, embellished by early owner Henry Seabrook who as the only skilled plasterer in town was responsible for beautiful trimwork in Grace Episcopal Church as well as early townhouses and historic plantations. A front gallery was added, then several rear rooms that were perhaps moved up the hill from Bayou Sara when that riverport was abandoned to the floodwaters. In the side yard, the classical wellhouse covering an original cistern was patterned after the one at Prospect just down Royal Street; it was made with only saw cuts as it would have been in the old days.
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