Waterford: Agriculture to Industry – Chapter 2 (The Darensbourg Family 1721-1797)

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NOTE: The following research material is included on this website courtesy of Entergy and was prepared in 1988 for Louisiana Power & Light Company (presently Entergy) following their purchase of one of the most historical properties in St. Charles Parish dating back to the earliest settlements on the German Coast. Originally known as the Darensbourg Tract, this site at the time of purchase was Waterford Plantation, one of the last surviving plantations in St. Charles Parish.

Charles Darensbourg
Charles Darensbourg. (Source: The Settlement of the German Coast of Louisiana and The Creoles of German Descent – From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

The New World

In the beginning of the 18th century, the New World across the Atlantic Ocean offered the opportunity of freedom from war, poverty, and political dilemmas for people of many European nations. The Germans had suffered through the terrible “Thirty Years’ War” (1618- 1648) followed by the rule of the .”Sun King,” Louis XIV of France. During that period, large portions of the German Empire were devastated. Countries and people along both banks of the Rhine River suffered terrible destruction, including pestilence, famine, and religious persecution. The Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto had discovered the Mississippi River on May 8, 1541 and moved his starving band of men onward, toward the west. Almost one hundred and fifty years later in 1682, the French explorer Rene’ La Salle lai J claim to all of the lands drained by the Mississippi River and named this territory Louisiana after Louis XIV of France. The French ruled Louisiana until 1762, when the Louisiana Territory was ceded to Spain. The Spanish presence in the New World and in Louisiana continued against a backdrop of international dispute, so that both French and Spanish influences colored early Louisiana history.

Company of the Indies

In 1715, John Law (Figure 2-1), a Scottish gambler and manipulator, devised a scheme that called for the combining of the Royal Bank of France with a North American land speculation company, the Company of the West, to give land concessions to settlers. The origin of the plantations in Louisiana began with these concessions – initial, often speculative, enterprises which emerged throughout the lower Mississippi valley in the 18th century. These concessions were intended as large-scale agricultural enterprises created to aid the French in laying claim to the Mississippi valley, and their dispersed nature required many of them to be self-governing and to some degree self-sustaining.

On May 2, 1716, John Law signed a contract with the government of France and was awarded a trade monopoly for Louisiana and with it the right to issue and sell an unlimited number of shares of stock. Law designed a brilliant publicity campaign unlike anything Europe had ever seen. Handbills and giant posters (Figure 2-2 and 2-3) depicting the pastoral glories of the Louisiana provinces and the Mississippi River were worthy of the grossest artistic license. John Law’s “Mississippi Scheme” became the talk of Europe. In October of 1718, the Company of the West (later reorganized as the Company of the Indies) approved the location of New Orleans, which was about 110 miles above the mouth of the Mississippi River. 

John Law became one of the largest concessionaires and the president of the “La Compagnie des lndes” (Company of the Indies). In addition, the Company offered the emigrants inexhaustible mineral treasures, the fabulous wealth of its soil, and the promise of immense revenues to be derived from trade monopoly: The scheme attracted the rugged people along the Rhine who had lost considerably with the events occurring in Europe, and when Law received his grant in 1719, many individuals were eager to explore the potentials of the Louisiana territories.

John Law
Figure 2-1: John Law Enticed Darensbourg to Louisiana. (Source: Historical New Orleans Collection – From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

Across the Atlantic

The promise of wealth in the New World and its accom­panying peace, and political and religious freedom was irresistible. The people who were led to this prospect encountered severe hardships. Many lost their lives from diseases and hunger on the extensive voyages across the ocean which often lasted six months and longer. Sickness and starvation were not the only dangers faced by the emigrants. Rebellious buccaneers, who had been driven from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico by the Spaniards in 1717, pursued the shipborne arrivals, plundering provisions, arms, ammunition, and money. After surviving the turmoil of the trips, the passengers too frequently found that their promised land was not everything it had been described to be upon departure from their homelands.

Karl Friedrich

The propaganda from posters and pamphlets showing such glowing descriptions of Louisiana and the Mississippi River enticed Karl Friedrich, who was at the time serving as an officer in the Swedish army, to apply for a Company of the Indies commission. The principal work of reference for historians studying the settlement of 18th Century Louisiana has been that of J. Hano Deiler, The Settlement of the German Coast of Louisiana. More recently Reinhart Kondert in his 1970 publication German Immigration to French Colonial Louisiana: A Reevaluation, called attention to Deiler’s work as containing inflated figures of the numbers of German settlers thought to have come to Louisiana during this time. Consensus is that Karl Friedrich sought to lead hundreds of German families to settle the enchanted land of the Louisiana Colony. Their ship, the “Portefaix,” must have encountered the hardships of travel so common to those times as one of several ships assigned to transport passengers by the Company of the Indies.

Charles Darensbourg

Several names have been used for Charles Darensbourg, leader of the original settlers. It is believed that Karl Friedrich changed his name several times for somewhat different reasons. The most probable reason for the original change in his name was that Friedrich had lived in Arensburg on the Island of Oesel and moved to France to escape Russian occupation. While applying to the French for his colonial concession, he signed his name “Charles Frederick” and added “d’Arensbourg”, signifying that his birth place was Arensburg: His commission was issued under the name “Charles Frederick d’Arensbourg” because the French officials mistakenly took “d’ Arensbourg” to be his family name. He later took the name of Charles Frederick Darensbourg (which subsequently will be used for this report). 

Darensbourg set out from the Port of Lorient on the Brittany Coast of France in search of the Louisiana Territory of John Law. Records indicate that Darensbourg was not directly in the employment of John Law; his commission was made directly from the Company of the Indies. John Law had gone bankrupt while final arrangements were in process, and he had fled from Paris to Brussels on December 10, 1720. Darensbourg was not sent with the first ships to depart Lorient; the “Portefaix” brought up the rear of the contingent arriving at Biloxi, on the Gulf of Mexico, on June 4, 1721. There the settlers saw the sad relics and the few survivors, mostly widows and orphans, of ships on prior excursions.

Leipzig Advertisement
Figure 2-2: Leipzig Advertisements Attracted German Emigrants. (Source: The Settlement of the German Coast of Louisiana and the Creoles of German Descent – From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

German Coast

Darensbourg merged the survivors of his and earlier concessions into one body and departed with them west to the Mississippi River where they settled on its banks up­river from New Orleans at the place later to become known as the “German Coast.” Only about 300 German settlers finally reached Louisiana. The Louisiana Governor Bienville, who had founded New Orleans in 1717, drew a favorable impression of Darensbourg and the settlers, and taking pity on the survivors, settled them on excellent farm lands which had already been cleared by the Oachas Indians. Deiler indicated in his book that Darensbourg selected the site. Concession settlements in these times were laid out according to land measurement units developed in reference to the rivers. Surveys were based on the French arpent measure (1 arpent = 192 ft.) in which the widths of holdings were established along the river at so many arpents de-face (front), while the depths were measured from the river bank toward the backswamp.

Early Agriculture

The concessions were steadily increasing in the area of Darenbourg’s settlement. – The ce·nsus of 1722 illustrated the beginnings of permanent settlements and commercial agriculture in southern Louisiana. Some concession settlements developed into significant agricultural enterprises producing a variety of cultivated crops. Native and imported mulberry trees, as food sources for silkworms, became the basis for the immediate establishment of a silk industry. Likewise, wax myrtle trees provided an immediate source for vegetable wax which became a successful export. Rice, maize, beans, and other foods were of commercial importance though most were consumed within the colony. In the 1720s, indigo and tobacco became leading export crops and continued as such for many years. 

Indigo had been found growing wild in the lower delta area of southern Louisiana. However, it was not until 1722 that indigo seed was introduced from Santo Domingo and cultivation of the plant was begun. By 1738, indigo had become an established commercial crop produced on about 15 plantations in the New Orleans vicinity. Within 16 years, indigo plantations had increased in number to 47 and were operating along the Mississippi between Pointe Coupee and a point 20 miles south of New Orleans. Early descriptions and inventories of the concessions and subsequent indigo plantations illustrate the settlement components of these progenitors of the sugar plantations. 

Hardships and difficulties were encountered by the German pioneers under the command of Darensbourg. Before establishing their settlement, many of the villagers had been drowned by the storm waters of the “Great Hurricane of 1721,” which, it is said, lasted for five days. However, Kondert indicated in his book that within a decade the Darensbourg settlement had become self­sufficient. 

At that time, New Orleans was under constant attack from the elements. The river annually overflowed its banks, inundating the newly cleared settlements. Deiler indicated that a great flood hit the area in 1719, and Kondert places a great flood in 1722 and again in 1724.

Friendly Inhabitant
Figure 2-3: Friendly Inhabitant, Mountains and Wealth Depict Louisiana as John Law Lured German Settlers. (Source: Historic New Orleans Collection – From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

French Problems

Although the concession establishments provided a basis for the later plantations, economic failure almost destroyed the system. Part of this failure was attributed to mismanagement by the Company of the Indies, a lack of hearty French settlers and delays in providing supplies and materials. The Company of the Indies collapsed in 1731 and the loss of its support caused a number of struggling settlements to fail. 

However, some of the concessions offered positive returns. According to Deiler, by 1724 a population of 5,000 persons had established permanent settlements on the Mississippi River where land, been cleared, drained, and levee-protected. Considerable progress in agriculture developed, and settled farms and cultivated lands had begun to assume a plantation-like appearance. Kondert claims that this figure is somewhat exaggerated.

Rise of the Tobacco Plantations

Out of the rugged terrain emerged private plantations – smaller-sized enterprises which were somewhat similar to the earlier concessions, and yet were starting to set the stage for individual ownership. With the breakdown of the large concessions, a number of these smaller enterprises began to raise tobacco because it was a good market crop that did not require the elaborate ditches and equipment needed in indigo production. Although the principal centers for tobacco cultivation were at Pointe Coupee (False River area) and Natchez, it was also grown to a limited extent just north of New Orleans on the German Coast (Figure 2-4). It was during this time that planters began experimenting with the cultivation of a new crop – sugar cane.

Introduction of Sugar Cane

The census of 1724 shows that Darensbourg and his people settled the “second old German village” on the German Coast when the first village and part of the second village were abandoned after the Great Hurricane. Darensbourg remained on his land which was situated between the two old villages. Soon, three German villages thrived along the banks of the Mississippi River. In spite of the hardships, including an Indian uprising in 1729, the pioneers endured with energy, industry, and perseverance. They wrested from the soil not only a bare existence, but in the course of time, a high degree of prosperity and- with it the admiration of the French government. Deiler indicates the presence of several villages; Kondert disputes this finding. This area contained rich alluvial soil, raw materials and an Sugar abundance of wildlife that rendered it ideal for settlement. 

Charles Darensbourg served for more than forty years as commander and judge of the German Coast of Louisiana. He became one of the most prosperous and prominent planters of sugar cane after its introduction from Santo Domingo into the colony by the Jesuits in 1751.

Spain Exerts its Influence

The territory gradually became the treasured land for which the Germans had hoped. On November 3, 1762, with the Treaty of Fountainbleau, Louisiana was ceded by France to Spain.- ·Don Antonio-de Ulloa, the first Spanish Governor, arrived in New Orleans on March 5, 1766, and found the population hostile. A spirit of insurrection quietly smoldered in New Orleans and was aggravated by new Spanish regulations, including the prohibition of the importation of any wines except those produced in Spain. On October 27, 1768, an insurrection arose out of basic economic grievances exacerbated by Ulloa’s edict banning illicit trade. This so-called illicit trade was a prime source of wealth to the colonists who feared that their exports – lumber, indigo, fur, tobacco, cotton, and sugar – would not have the benefit of open markets. 

Darensbourg, the patriarch of the German settlers, played an important part in the insurrection of 1768 .. It was Darensbourg’s word and influence that enabled the march of 400 settlers from the German Coast to New Orleans where they took the Tchoupitoulas Gate on the morning of October 28th. Ulloa was forced to leave New Orleans on- November 1; -1768, on-a French vessel sailing for Havana, Cuba.

French Acadian Influence

The revolt was of great importance to the settlers of the German Coast. Ulloa had taken provisions from the settlers and given them to the French Acadian exiles who had arrived in 1763 from the French provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In this Revolution of 1768, Darensbourg defied the Spanish government and, though several of his men were killed, Darensbourg proved to be a man of action in the defense of his people. Spanish rule became more understanding of the local people’s problems and was gradually assimilated into the culture of the French and German settlers.

Map of the German Coast
Figure 2-4: Map of the German Coast. (Data taken from: The Settlement of the German Coast of Louisiana and The Creoles of German Descent – From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

Darensbourg’s Death

When Charles Frederick Darensbourg died in 1777, his son, Pierre-Frederick Darensbourg, became the owner of the property that was later to become known as the Waterford Plantation. During this period came political change. The American people declared their independence from Great Britain, and several years later in 1788, the United States Constitution was ratified. 

In 1789, a tariff was imposed on raw sugar as a means of raising revenues to support the newly formed United States government. At the time, import duties and domestic excise taxes were the principal sources of government receipts, and the sugar tariff accounted for about 20 percent of the monies collected through import duties. The tariff was repealed in 1890, but was reinstituted in 1894 for the protection of the domestic sugar industry; it remained in effect until 1934.

Boré Granulates Sugar

Just as government regulations and political climates changed, the sugar industry itself was transformed by two major events. The first was in 1791 when Spanish sugar cane planters, Mendez and Solis, began to plant more extensively and began making syrup and “taffy,” a spirits liquor, from the sugar cane. Perhaps more outstanding was the discovery by Etienne de Bore of the process of granulating sugar on his plantation in New Orleans which is now known as Audubon Park. These occurrences led to the extensive development of the sugar industry and produced for these planters an enormous potential for profits. 

The Creoles of German descent now flourished with an economy driven by sugar production and their descendants spread out over the area and intermarried with the French Acadian families.

Treat of Ildefonso

The transfer of the Louisiana territories from the Spanish back to the French occurred by the secret treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. As a result of Napoleon’s European conquests, Spain could not resist French power in the New World.

Louisiana Purchase

With the sale of Louisiana from the French to the United States in 1803, the population of the territory increased with new arrivals of Americans mixing with the local population of Creoles and Cajuns. The American Revolution caused significant increases in trade with the Louisiana territory and developed the trade routes of the Mississippi valley. It was these trade routes that Thomas Jefferson sought to protect with his negotiations for the Louisiana Purchase. 

In the course of time, great changes occurred among the descendants of the early Germans. Thanks to their inherited energy, a culture was developed out of adverse conditions and Louisiana entered into a new era of prosperity. With the technological advancements of the sugar industry, the land that their ancestors conquered became an agricultural heartland wrested from the mighty Mississippi River.  

This concludes the research material on Waterford Plantation, originally the Darensbourg Tract.