Waterford: Agriculture to Industry – Chapter 3 (Perret & St. Martin 1797-1849)

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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.

Molasses, a sugar by-product, was used as gifts and to make “pulling candy.” (From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

Into the 19th Century

In the closing years of the 18th century, Louisiana was filled with turbulence. Careless accidents and brisk winds caused two great fires to spread rapidly through New Orleans in the years 1788 and 1794 leaving over 1,000 buildings (over $2.5 million in property) in ashes and a staggering loss of life. Structures which remained standing after the fires or were rebuilt by the fifth Spanish Governor, Baron de Carondelet, were subject to destruction by three successive hurricanes which hit the city and surrounding plantations. A revolt of the free people of color, as well as slaves in Saint-Domingue, the former French colony of Haiti, brought the French Revolution closer to the shores of the North American continent, and in June of 1793, thousand.s of the islanders fled to New Orleans seeking sanctuary. 

In other interesting developments of the times, progress had been made through the experimentation of a New Orleans druggist, A. A. Peychaud, who brought forth the creation of a new “tonic” known today as a “cocktail.” Eli Whitney made a step towards advancement in the cotton industry in 1793 by creating the cotton gin and the latest inventions in sugar production spurred the farmers to increased production.

Charles Perret Buys Darensbourg’s Property

In 1791, Pierre-Frederick Darensbourg had given consent for his daughter, Louise Darensbourg, to marry Charles Perret of St. Charles Parish. Six years later in 1797, Charles Perret bought most of the plantation’s property from Pierre Darensbourg’s widow. The grounds of the main house, garden, and surrounding areas remained the property of widow Elizabeth Deselle Duclos Darensbourg. 

By 1804, Charles Perret owned slightly more than half of the land destined to become the Waterford Plantation. The remainder was owned by Pierre B. St. Martin, Sr. Later in 1804, the United States Congress established the Territory of Orleans, and a Civil District was set up which divided St. Charles and St. John the Baptist Parishes. 

In the 1804 general census, Charles Perret was described as a sawyer with a wife, four sons, two daughters, two white engage’s (pronounced: au-gar-jay; meaning Perret had obtained their services through a limited-time contract), one black engage’, eleven male slaves, six female slaves, one free male Negro, and one free female Negro. Charles Perret was a sugar farmer and also traded in lumber.

A House Divided

The 1820s brought the issue of slavery into public debate that would last until the country engaged in the Civil War, testing the fabric of the nation. The first attempt to prohibit slavery from expanding was in 1820 when the Missouri Compromise was adopted. Nevertheless, slavery continued.

St. Martin Family Exerts Political Power…

In 1812, the young American Republic was embroiled in yet another war with the British. Amid this turmoil, Louisiana again became the focus of strategic importance. P. B. St. Martin, Sr. (Figure 3-1), controlling a major section of the “Old Darensbourg Plantation,” as it was called, brought the French Acadian influence to bear upon the area. The St. Martin family had felt the pressure of the British upon their expulsion from Canada and had the benefit of a distinguished heritage. Sources indicate that a St. Martin was one of the first white children born in French Acadia. P. B. St. Martin, Sr. served in the military affairs of the Louisiana colony, attaining the rank of colonel in the “Infantry of the Marines.” He later resigned his commission and engaged in planting crops such as indigo and rice. 

Most sugar cane planters of the Louisiana colony had become involved, not all by choice, in the political affairs of these turbulent years. In 1812, Louisiana became the eighteenth state to join the Union. Records indicate that P. B. St. Martin, Jr. was the stepson of the widow Ranson, his father’s second wife, and so shared the inheritance of his father’s estates with her. Several sources indicate that the Darensbourg, Perret, and St. Martin families intermarried allowing land holdings to remain in tight control. 

Having had a taste of British rule through his French Acadian ancestry, P. B. St. Martin, Jr. quickly aligned himself with the United States. He was noted for his sense of humor and his prudent judgment. As a result, he was appointed Parish Judge of St. Charles Parish and thereafter became speaker of the first Louisiana Legislature assembled in New Orleans in 1812. 

No doubt he influenced the affairs of the young colony as the war of 1812 raged about the city of New Orleans. P. B. St. Martin, Jr. married the daughter of Charles Perret and they had a son, Louis. Records indicate that in the year 1838, Pierre B. St. Martin, Jr. was still a slave owner.

Pierre Beauchet
Figure 3-1: Pierre Beauchet St. Martin. Source: The Times-Democrat (From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

…and Survives Chaotic Times

The Battle of New Orleans took place after the Treaty of Trent had been signed and thus was fought after the War of 1812 had ended. This American victory not only saved New Orleans from conquest by the British and made the Mississippi River an American resource, but it opened the way for westward expansion into the continent. 

Following the victorious war, New Orleans continued struggling with epidemics and natural disasters. Beginning in 1817, New Orleans was infected with twenty-three yellow-fever epidemics. The “Bronze John” took the lives of almost 30,000 New Orleanians. Additionally, in May of 1819, a devastating flood covered 220 city blocks in New Orleans and drove an estimated 12,000 people from their homes. Louis St. Martin became a Louisiana State legislator, held the post of Registrar of the Land Office-by· appointment of President Polk {some sources indicate that President Van Buren awarded him the appointment), and subsequently became a U. S. Congressional representative. The Civil War intervened soon afterwards, and Louis St. Martin volunteered for Confederate Army duty, attaining the rank of colonel as did his father. Following the war, Colonel St. Martin returned to the U.S. Congress.

Perret / St. Martin Sugar Production

The sugar cane planters lived full lives as they strove with a measure of success to build a graceful society on the foundation of sugar cane and Negro slaves. Planters used a vertical or horizontal mill with three wooden rollers to grind the raw cane with presses driven by animal power. In the 1820s, sugar mills were built on many plantations in order to be close to the harvest, to extract as much juice as possible from the cane. 

In 1828, Perret’s Plantation produced 550 “hogsheads” of sugar with St. Martin’s producing 210. The “hogsheads” is a unit of volume derived from the capacity of the casks or barrels used to collect the sugar and is now standardized to 63 U.S. gallons. At that time, the hogshead barrels might hold as much as 140 gallons of sugar. 

Achievements in the industry were due in part to the introduction of the first steam engine, which was successfully put into operation ·on the plantation of D. Delacroix in 1817. In 1825, the first steam-powered mill was operating in New Orleans. In 1827, the New Orleans Steam Ferry began operating between the city and the west bank of the Mississippi River permitting the transfer of crops from the plantations to the city.

In the 1830s, hand implements and plows were the primary cultivation tools for planters. The first vacuum pans, a new sugar-making process, were introduced by Thomas A. Morgan of Plaquemines Parish. This was an improvement from the open-kettle system because the new process used less fuel. By 1830, Louisiana produced half the sugar consumed in the country. 

During the 1840s, many experiments were made with steam plows, but their development did not pass the experimental stage. The fuel for the mill at Perret’s plantation changed from wood to mainly coal, but others used bagasse (from the Spanish “bagazo”), the residue which remains after the juice is extracted from the sugar cane. 

There were four kinds of sugar cane grown in Louisiana in these years: creole, otaheite, and two kinds of ribbon cane. The creole variety reportedly came from the Canary Islands via Cuba and was brought to Louisiana by Etienne de Bore to make rum. It is said that one of de Bore’s workers noticed that this variety would make good sugar and found it to rattoon (i.e., sprout for a second season from the same root system) but was difficult to cultivate. The other varieties did not rattoon and were harder to grind. Cane seed is difficult to produce in Louisiana, so efforts were made early in its cultivation to produce a variety which rattooned, was soft enough to grind and produced abundant juice.

Grande, Flambeau, Sirop and Batterie

The harvest of the cane extended over the period from October to January each year, and planting was done either immediately before or soon after the harvest. After milling, the cane juice was passed through a trough to a receiving box located near the first of a successively smaller series of kettles. The kettles were named from largest to smallest: Grande, Flambeau, Sirop, and Bat­terie. The kettles were heated by a furnace in the boiling house. Raw cane juice was then mixed with lime in proper proportion and boiled. Impurities rose to the top and were skimmed off. The remaining liquid was then poured in reduced amounts to the other kettles in succession. 

When the liquid reached the smallest of the kettles, it was boiled down to the sugar” or crystallizable stage. It was then cooled and placed in hogsheads which allowed for the escape of the molasses and the retention of the crystallized sugar. This method of production resulted in low yields per ton of cane and was not conducive to the adequate control of the temperatures needed for extraction. Precious fuel was wasted and lower grades of sugar resulted. Vacuum pans, a process of single-effect evaporation produced a ·more perfect crystallization under more controlled conditions. This single vacuum process greatly improved sugar output.

View of the Sugar District
Figure 3-2:
View of Sugar District
2. Stripping & Cutting
3. Bringing in the Cane
4. Plantation Quarters
5. Planting
6. Planter’s Residence
7. Young Sugar Cane
Source: Green Fields – Two Hundred Years of Louisiana Sugar (From Waterford: Agriculture to Industry, November 1988)

Sweet Sugar and King Cotton

By the mid-1830s, cotton plantations, served by the steamboats, were producing more than half a million bales of cotton each year and New Orleans was becoming the world’s largest cotton market. Cotton was “King” and the city had half a dozen cotton compresses and storage _warehouses. New Orleans had grown to become the fourth largest city in the United States in population and second only to New York as a port. 

In contrast, in 1833 sugar was a large constituent of the productive commerce of the state, not withstanding the tariff policy of the U.S. government. Consequently, the agricultural industries of Louisiana were hurt by the tariff in 1833 which gradually reduced duties on foreign goods by 20 percent.

Economic Depression

In 1837, a rupture in the previously strong local economy caused a general panic which seriously disrupted business and finance in the New Orleans area. On May 13, 1837, fourteen banks in New Orleans suspended currency payments. The economic distress in the area was exacerbated by the tariff which had depreciated the value of American sugar by reducing the duty on foreign sugar products. On many local farms, sugar cane was destroyed and cotton planted in its place. The fledgling American government had a strong influence on farmers’ prosperity in this period. For example, between 1789 and 1858, fifteen sugar and molasses tariff acts were passed as revenue bills. Essentially, the world’s sugar industry gained access to a protected U.S. market through these acts of the government. More than 160 Louisiana sugar plantations ceased operations in this period and cotton was destined to restore prosperity. 

No matter whether the slaves were located on cotton or sugar plantations, in the late 1830s, agitation of the slavery issue spread with growing concern. Congress was becoming the scene of unseemly debates and resisted any attempts available by constitutional means to abolish slavery in any portion of the Union. 

In the new tariff of 1842, rates on brown sugar were retained, but the rates were increased on white, clayed, and powdered sugar. From 1843 to 1844, sugar plantations saw an increase of manpower, steam engines, power mills, and estates. Until 1845, the tariff tended to keep world sugar prices above domestic levels. However, another tariff in 1846 changed the old specific rate to an ad valorem rate of 30 percent, both on brown and refined sugars, much to the detriment of the industry.

Perret Consolidates His Holdings

By 1844, the Perret and St. Martin land holdings were consolidated with Charles Perret and Company listed as the property owner and sugar producer of the plantation. However, in the following year, 1845, the partnership of Charles Perret, Sr., St. Martin, Delhonde, and Peroux was listed as the owner of the land, showing a continued influence by the St. Martin Family.

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