Washington City

THIS IS a view of Washington City in 1833, the year Seargent S. Prentiss argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court with Chief Justice John Marshall presiding. The case had a Catahoula Parish, La., connection. In the painting above, the Capitol Building can be seen on the hill at right. Left of center is the White House near the Potomac River. The Anacostia River is in the foreground. (Credit: Artist George Cook, City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard, 1833) 

In 1833, Mississippi attorney Seargent S. Prentiss went to Washington City to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that had a Catahoula Parish, La., connection. 

For more than a year, Prentiss had been practicing law in Vicksburg, a thriving town on the Mississippi that was attracting young men looking for fame and fortune. He had earned his law license while living in Natchez and practiced there for a couple of years before moving upriver. 

“Those were the days of the rollicking circuit-riders,” wrote Joseph Dunbar Shields in his biography of Prentiss (The Life & Times of Seargent Smith Prentiss). “It will be borne in mind we had then no railroads … The first district at that date was composed of Adams, Jefferson, Claiborne, Warren, and Washington – all river counties; the second, of Hinds, Rankin, Madison, Yazoo, Holmes and Carroll. 

“Lawyers, therefore, to attend these courts, radiating from Vicksburg had to travel (always on horseback) hundreds of miles into the interior. They would generally start together, armed with briefs and baggage in their saddle-bags. They were almost all in the heyday of young manhood and brimful of enthusiasm, and, not unfrequently ardent spirits {alcohol}” 

Prentiss’ great success as a lawyer and orator were ahead of him, but despite his youthful age of 24, he “was the recipient,” wrote Shields, “of what we conceive to be a distinguished honor – he was employed to conduct a cause before the Supreme Court of the United States. He accordingly went on to Washington City, and was admitted to practice in that court in the January term; 1833.” 

SAMPEYREAC & STEWART 

V. THE UNITED STATES 

Prentiss was employed to represent an Arkansas landowner whose case involved two men who had resided in Catahoula Parish during Spanish rule and afterward when Louisiana became a U.S. possession. The two were John T. Bowie, the brother of famous frontiersman Jim Bowie, and French-Canadian John “Cadet” Hebrard, once a property owner and ferry operator at present day Jonesville. The Bowie boys grew up nearby at Harrisonburg – then known as Pine Point -- along Bushley Bayou and Byrd’s Creek. 

Prior to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Arkansas, then part of Louisiana, was a possession of Spain, ruled by a Spanish governor based in New Orleans. When the U.S. purchased Louisiana Territory, it agreed to honor previous land grants and the courts spent the next two decades figuring out which claims were genuine and which were fraudulent. 

The case Prentiss was assigned originated in U.S. court in 1827, when Bernardo Sampeyreac’s attorney filed a bill in Arkansas superior court to confirm his Spanish land grant of about 338 acres in Arkansas. The U.S. Attorney in Arkansas answered that there was no such person as Sampeyreac, and if there ever was, the man was now dead. But following the testimony of one primary witness – John “Cadet” Hebrard -- the court confirmed the patent. 

During the early 1800s, commissioners appointed by Congress decided the validity of land grants made during Spanish rule. But in 1824, Congress allowed the territorial superior courts to decide the claims. In all, the validity of claims questioned in Arkansas totaled 60,000 acres. 

In 1828, after Sampeyreac’s claim had been deemed authentic, it was deeded to John T. Bowie, who a short time later sold the property to Joseph Stewart (Prentiss’ client). In 1829, the U.S. Government questioned all of the claims related to the Bowie brothers, both well-known land speculators who specialized in forgery. All the land sales and claims related to the brothers in Arkansas eventually became known as the “Bowie Claims.” 

Although the Arkansas superior court approved many of the Bowie Claims, these decisions were reversed in 1831. 

Two years later, Prentiss became the lawyer for Joseph Stewart, the man who in good faith had bought the Bernardo Sampeyreac property from John T. Bowie. Prentiss’ job was to seek the reversal of the Arkansas superior court ruling in the case now before the U.S. Supreme Court styled: “Sampeyreac & Stewart v. the United States.” 

CATAHOULA CONNECTION 

The key witness in the Arkansas case was John “Cadet” Hebrard, who in the late 1780s had settled in Louisiana in present day Jonesville and claimed a Spanish land grant of about 2,700 acres along the Black River in both Catahoula and Concordia parishes at the river’s juncture with the Ouachita. 

Hebrard also operated a ferry on the authorization of Spanish Gov. Estevan Miro in 1786. While documentation of the original land grant has never been found, there was no doubt that Hebrard operated the public ferry for many years and lived among the Indian mounds at present day Jonesville. It was fairly well known that he had inhabited and partially cultivated his land for 17 years beginning in 1791. 

In fact, in 1804-05, when William Dunbar of Natchez led his exploration of the Ouachita River to the Hot Springs in Arkansas, he visited with Hebrard, who provided Dunbar with a sketch of the Indians mounds, which Dunbar explored. That sketch, which apparently has been lost, was included in Dunbar’s report on his exploration to President Thomas Jefferson and later presented to Congress. 

The U.S. government approved Hebrard’s property claims in both Catahoula and Concordia. 

THE BOWIES & HEBRARD 

The Bowies moved to Catahoula frontier in 1802 and it was then that the family met ferry operator John Hebrard, a man anyone traveling the rivers (four rivers meet at Jonesville) or the Spanish road that led from Vidalia westward to Texas would have met or known. 

In a book edited by Frances Mitchell Ross (United States District Courts and Judges of Arkansas, 1836-1960), a good accounting of Hebrard’s testimony in 1827 in the Arkansas case is given: 

“One John Hebrard appeared as a witness and gave testimony in open court … that he had been alcade (magistrate) in the Province of Louisiana, between 1789 and 1791, and commandant in Catahoola {Catahoula}, from 1797 to 1803. He testified in full support of the claimants, stating that the grants from the governor were authentic, that he knew Sampeyreac, that fire had destroyed many records in New Orleans in the 1790s, and other information to that effect.” 

But more court proceedings followed and in 1829, President Andrew Jackson directed the U.S. Attorney in Arkansas to rehear the case. That occurred in 1830 when the government filed “a bill of review against Bernardo Sampeyreac and the other claimants, alleging fraud on the part of the claimants and perjury on the part of Hebrard.” 

By the time Seargent Prentiss became the lawyer for Joseph Stewart, the victim of the Bowie-Hebrard fraud, Stewart’s claim had been denied. According to the Frances Mitchell Ross’ book, “Joseph Stewart was the lone appellant” before the U.S. Supreme Court. “He claimed to be a ‘bona fide purchaser’ from John T. Bowie, ignorant of any fraud at the time of the purchase” and not to be blamed if “Hebrard had committed perjury.” 

WASHINGTON CITY 

So it was in February 1833 Prentiss was in Washington City and writing to his sister Abby in Maine, explaining that he was in town to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. While there, he also was a tourist but found on the whole that the nation’s capital – also known as “Federal City” – was “not half so handsome or pleasant a place as Portland {Maine, his hometown}. 

“The houses are very ordinary, and scattered over so large an extent of ground, that it gives the city quite a desolate appearance – as if there had been a great many fires in it. 

“I was not, however, disappointed in the Capitol. It is a most magnificent edifice … The President’s House – or, as it is generally called, the White House – is also a fine looking building; but … most of the rooms are so plainly furnished as to appear rather desolate and gloomy.” 

During a visit to the White House, Prentiss was introduced to President Andrew Jackson, then 65 and entering his second term. They visited for about 15 minutes: “General Jackson is an old looking man, and answers very well to the prints you see of him in the shops.” 

Politically, Prentiss was not a Jackson supporter. Prentiss’ family had been members of the Federalist Party, believing in a strong central government and opposed to Thomas Jefferson, a Republican-Democrat, whose shipping embargo during the War of 1812 financially ruined the Prentiss family. Prentiss’ father was a sea captain. 

Jefferson’s party had years later transformed into the Democratic Party, which had elected Jackson to office. 

About Jackson, Prentiss wrote his sister, “I think him about as fit to be the President of the United States as I am.” 

But he also opined: “Hereafter I shall have a much less opinion of great men. They are by no means so much superior to the rest of mankind … You have no idea how destitute of talent more than one-half the Members of Congress are: nine out of ten of your ordinary acquaintance are fully equal to them.” 

Yet he did meet men he considered the “most talented in the nation”: Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. 

FRAUD DESTROYS THE INNOCENT 

Prentiss biographer Shields wrote that in “spite of Prentiss’s great effort, the law and the facts were too strong against him. It is one of the curses of fraud that … it destroys the innocent as well as the guilty perpetrator. The well-laid scheme of years before, the creation of fraudulent fiction, had put money into the pockets of the creators {the Bowies}, but the putrid bubble finally burst, and the loss fell upon the honest and innocent victim {Stewart} of the fraud.” 

Chief Justice John Marshall was highly impressed with Prentiss’ four-hour argument and praised his efforts. But ultimately the High Court ruled that Bernardo Sampeyreac was a fictitious person created by John T. Bowie, that John Hebrard lied to support Bowie’s Arkansas land claim and that although Prentiss’ client Joseph Stewart had been swindled, he in the end did not have proper title to the 328 acres in question. 

(Email Stanley Nelson at stanley@concordiasentinel.com

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