Maison Rouge Spanish land grant

THE MAISON ROUGE Spanish land grant is shown in the shaded area. It stretched from Bayou Calumet in Caldwell Parish to the Monroe area, denoted as Prairie des Cantos (Prairie of the Canoes). Shown at the bottom of the map are Prairie Villemont and Bayou Louis at present day Harrisonburg in Catahoula Parish. (Credit: Library of Congress) 

 

 

During the 19th century, the Ouachita River in northeastern Louisiana attracted self-proclaimed royalty – a Marquis and a Baron. Even the former vice-president of the United States had a financial interest in the region. Each gained access to vast acreage and each purported ambitious settlement plans. 

But in the end, all three were revealed to be frauds. 

When the Marquis de Maison Rouge arrived at the Ouachita Post (Monroe, LA) early in the 19th century he brought with him his carriage and his entourage. 

A French writer reported that the carriage “came dismounted” in the same boat that carried the Marquis. But when he arrived, the Marquis “found neither roads on which to drive … nor vassals to admire the munificence of their lord. The carriage was sent back the way it came, without ever having rolled over this virgin land.” 

C.C. Robin, the French writer, arrived at the Ouachita Post in the spring of 1804, a short time after the Louisiana Purchase. Robin later wrote about his travels in a book (Voyage to Louisiana, 1803-1805). 

As he traveled up the Ouachita River and visited Fort Miro and countryside, Robin met the people – white, black and Native American -- and wrote about them. His visit came just a few months before the exploration of the Ouachita in 1804-05 led by William Dunbar of Natchez and Dr. George Hunter of Philadelphia. 

The Marquis had fled Europe during the French Revolution. In New Orleans, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, according to Spanish documents, “permitted Messrs. De Maison Rouge … and other persons of their suite, to pass on to Ouachita, to examine its position, and there to form a settlement … we agree and contract with the Senior Marquis de Maison Rouge ... to bring into these provinces thirty families, who are also emigrants, and who are to descend the Ohio, for the purpose of forming an establishment with them on the lands bordering upon the Washita {Ouachita}, designed principally for the culture of wheat and the erection of mills for manufacturing flour.” 

According to Robin, the Marquis “had promised to have his huge domain speedily settled, and indeed it would have well repaid the trouble to do it. It stretched for thirty leagues along the river (the Ouachita) containing fine fields, traversed by streams and bayous and bordered by magnificent forests. In addition, the Governor provided an ample sum for each family who would undertake to settle there. 

“But M. de Maison Rouge, who loved the arts, brought in clock-makers, jewelers, and other artisans of this type. Crude farmers were not to his taste. Thus, as soon as the King’s stipend was exhausted, these artisans moved on ... ” 

 

BASTROP MARKED BY DISASTER 

 

And there was the Dutchman known as Baron de Bastrop, wanted in Europe for stealing government money. He arrived in America, changed his name and convinced the Spanish to give him land to develop in the Ouachita District as well. 

Wrote Robin: “The Dutch baron … was to bring in a group of settlers … In order to make some money, he obtained the privilege of trading with the Indians. A New Orleans merchant, named Delisle-Serpi, rich but active in trading, had made some coups in the trade, and he furnished ample funds. I found this establishment going full blast, vast warehouses and directors, clearing agents of various kinds and two interpreters. 

“… In addition, there were arrangements with the military authority, to insure their protection of the enterprise, and, of course, the Baron helped himself to whatever he needed. ‘What an enormous volume of trade,’ I said to myself, ‘it must take to support so many people with the inevitable waste that their maintenance must curtail.’ A month or two later the bankruptcy of the unfortunate Sarpy put an end to my astonishment.” 

Robin wrote that a clerk named Cortes “received at least part of the loot (if we may compare small matters to large) in much the same way the great Fernando de Cortes repaid the hospitality of Montezuma. 

“During the three months that the establishment lasted, the Dutch Baron occupied himself, in beginning with the construction of tearing down, and rebuilding, a saw-mill for the future inhabitants of the Ouachita. When the weather permitted he employed twenty to twenty-five workers on this project, at a wage of one piaster {$1 dollar} per a day, paid, of course, from the funds of Delisle-Serpi. At the same time, he took great care that his trading rights on the post were strictly enforced, and because his watchfulness was both effective and far reaching he insured that the inhabitants lacked almost everything and paid dearly for what they got. 

“His blind cupidity prevented him from noticing that he was the principal victim of this policy. If he had generously provided for the provisioning of the district, he would have enticed great numbers of settlers to come there. He could have made an immense fortune overnight, and by the most honorable of means, but far from getting people to come as settlers into the wildernesses, becoming for them a father or at least a protector, he repelled from his concession those who were nearby.” 

Of the Baron, Robin wrote that “few men on the surface ever seemed so interested and trustworthy. A sturdy figure, a calm and pleasant face, simple and relaxed in manner, a style of conversation affable, if not brilliant, always obliging, and the best of masters in his own household, his defects were rather vices of the mind than of the heart. 

“Fatally attractive, without much knowledge or ability, he had ruined all who joined him in his projects without especially enriching himself, as in Kentucky, as in the United States, his every step was marked by disaster. In Louisiana, all of the Governors and men of substance were captivated by him. He left the Ouachita without having earned a cent and having done more damage than the wickedest of men.” 

 

BURR’S OUACHITA DECEPTION 

 

Bastrop’s land attracted much attention, even garnering the interest of former Vice-President Aaron Burr, who had served under President Thomas Jefferson, But was Burr’s interest in the Bastrop’s Ouachita lands simply a decoy for a grander scheme? 

In the fall of 1806, a border confrontation in the vicinity of the Sabine River between the U.S. and Spain required the attention of U.S. Gen. James Wilkinson, who was in command of American troops and encamped at Natchitoches, La. There, Wilkinson received a ciphered letter from Burr, who informed the general that he would soon be departing for Natchez, adding: "The gods invite us to glory and fortune." In a note from another man, Wilkinson read these words: "Are your numerous associates ready? Wealth and glory, Louisiana and Mexico!" 

Two months later on January 10, 1807 -- 40 miles above Natchez at Bruinsburg -- Burr found out that Wilkinson, a hard-drinking, well-paid spy for the Spanish government, had betrayed him. 

Burr's flotilla of 100 men arrived as the temperature dipped to 11 degrees. For weeks, rumors had circulated in the Mississippi Territory that Burr was out to dismember the western states of the Union and that he intended to invade Spanish lands. When word arrived that the President wanted Burr's flotilla stopped, there was a general alarm among the populace. To counter the alarm, the vice-president quickly pointed out to Mississippi authorities that his goal was not war but agriculture. He said he and his men intended to settle along the Ouachita River. 

In his 2011 book ("American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America"), author David Stewart writes: "Burr knew the game was up, his hopes destroyed. There was no war with Spain. Wilkinson had abandoned him. The government was opposing him ... The Floridas, Mexico, New Orleans -- all were receding from his grasp. But there was more than bitter disappointment and rage; now there was a risk of arrest or even attack by other Americans." 

Stewart’s book has two fascinating local angles: Burr's capture, arrest and escape from Natchez and his cover for the expedition -- settlement along the Ouachita River in northeastern Louisiana. 

During that winter of 1807, Burr spent 26 days in Natchez after being arrested for conspiracy and brought before a Mississippi Territory Grand Jury, which found him guilty of nothing and complained that local authorities were acting by and large on orders of Jefferson and had unfairly treated the vice-president and his men. 

Burr had previously been vilified politically after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel that had been considered a fair fight. 

“I concluded that Burr fostered much of the confusion about his goals both to protect himself if the plan went awry (as it did) and so he could adjust the plan in mid-flight as opportunities shifted. In short, he was hoping to do as much, or as little, as he could get away with. If it involved creating a new American empire, then so be it,” Stewart said in a 2011 interview. 

Burr maintained that he was leading young men to the Ouachita River to property claimed by Bastrop. Stewart described the Bastrop property as "largely virgin meadow and forest between the present cities of El Dorado, Arkansas, and Bastrop, Louisiana," anchored on the east bank of the Ouachita River. 

In 1806, Burr acquired a big chunk of the Bastrop tract, putting down $5,000 in cash and going into debt for the rest. Stewart writes that although the baron's project failed and he never obtained legal title, that didn't stop "the smooth-talking Bastrop" from initiating "a series of transactions that illuminate the slack ethical standards of frontier land deals. Speculators often swapped rights to far-off lands that neither party had seen." 

Supreme Court Judge John Marshall, who presided over Burr's treason trial in Virginia, found that Burr did not consider "the Ouachita as his real ultimate object" when he journeyed down the Mississippi in 1806-07. 

"The Southwest was key to Burr's hopes and plans," Stewart said "The planters of Natchez were particularly receptive to his ideas about invading West Florida and Mexico (both Spanish possessions), and they were open to the possibility of secession. The Natchez and Ouachita areas were very far from the center of the United States, and the people felt that distance in their daily lives. 

"The people on the frontier tended to be hardy folks who were open to adventures of the sort that Burr was proposing.” 

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