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18th century manuscripts reveal life in Louisiana under French rule

By Zeenat Hansrod

Eighteenth century documents in French and Spanish retracing life in Louisiana have been made available online, free of charge. The Colonial Documents Collection provides a unique window into the daily life of the people – free and enslaved – who then lived in Louisiana, and brings history closer, three centuries later.

“The Council declares the negro Louis guilty as charged of stealing by day and by night and of repeated burglaries and of running away… condemns him to make a public atonement before the principal door of the Parish Church with a rope around his neck, holding in his hand a fiery torch weighing two pounds, asking in a loud voice God’s pardon… after which he will be conducted on the square… to have his arms, legs, thighs and back broken alive on a scaffold… placed on a wheel, face upturned to heaven to end his pains.”

This is an excerpt of a ruling issued on the 10th of September 1764 by the Superior Council of New Orleans.

It is one among 220 thousand documents from the 18th century, handwritten in Old French and in Spanish – when Louisiana was a colony of France, then Spain – which have been digitised by the Louisiana State Museum and are now accessible online.

Researchers, students, historians and genealogists across the world no longer need to travel to New Orleans to work on this period of history but can access the digitised records from their computers anywhere in the world and for free.

“The collection has blue-prints of the city as well as maps and even playing cards that were used for bartering or trade,” says Jennifer Long, Digital assets manager of the Louisiana State Museum.

The thousands of documents record minute details of life in New Orleans and Louisiana through notarial acts, civil and criminal court cases, ledgers of slave sales or disputes among families. The documents do not only provide an insight into American colonial history but also invaluable information about the French and Spanish colonial rule in the 18th century.

Architectural drawing of a proposed school house for boys; the plan was completed in 1740 by Adrien de Bat. Louisiana Historical Center/New Orleans Jazz Museum

A French territory in the USA

The French ruled Louisiana from 1682 to 1762, a territory far larger than the current state of Louisiana. It was then ceded by France to Spain as a war debt and became a Spanish colony between 1763 and 1803.

“The first part of the collection ranges from 1714 to 1769 [the French Superior Council] in French and the second part of the collection ranging from 1769 to 1804 [the Spanish Judiciary] are written in Spanish,” explains Jennifer Long.

According to the Louisiana Historical Center's website:

The Superior Council was both the governing body and high court of France’s Louisiana colony. While virtually all of its administrative records were removed to France before or at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, records pertaining to the colony’s inhabitants remained in Louisiana.

Under Spanish rule, the Superior Council was replaced by a cabildo, or city council, with similar functions and authority; Spanish notaries continued the civil law practices of their French predecessors.

The slave trade

Among the manuscripts of the colonial collection is the 1724 edition of the Code Noir signed by Louis XV and promulgated in New Orleans. The articles of the Code Noir regulated the life, death, purchase, religion, and treatment of slaves by their masters in all French colonies. As a strategic port on the Mississippi river, New Orleans was a major marketplace for the slave trade.

“There are many accounts of slaves being brought to New Orleans from Africa, Havana, South-America. We have ledgers of names that can also be used for genealogy purposes. There are also many descriptions of very cruel acts against the enslaved,” says Jennifer Long.

There's a 1794 court case where an Antonio Lozada prosecuted a Pedro Guerrero for such bad treatment of a female slave, whom Lozada rented to Guerrero, that she had a miscarriage.

The records also provide valuable information for genealogists. According to the Louisiana Historical Center's website:

During the Spanish period many slaves of Indian ancestry petitioned government authorities for their freedom. These requests, usually granted upon proof of native ancestry, are also a part of the collection.

Outline of knife, used as evidence in a 1793 divorce case from the Spanish Cabildo Records. Louisiana Historical Center/New Orleans Jazz Museum

Old French

The handwritten documents can be difficult to read or illegible. Furthermore, they are written in Old French or 18th century Spanish. So, in some cases, there is a brief synopsis to explain the content, in others, academics translated them.

“We are constantly asking scholars when they translate documents to send them to us so that we may add them to the collection. The Old French is harder to read and understand. And we had to use several dictionaries to help translate the documents because the language is so different from what it is today,” says Sarah Elisabeth Gundlach, curator of the Louisiana Historical Center.

The process of indexing the documents revealed that the collection contains documents in other languages, so far in Latin, Catalan, German and English.

“The French were trading with other countries and colonists from other countries came to settle here so they brought their language with them,” explains Bryanne Schexnyder, Index manager of the Louisiana State Museum.

Certification written in Dutch. Part of Succession papers Louisiana Historical Center/New Orleans Jazz Museum

Preservation

Over the past three centuries, the colonial period documents weathered “hurricanes, wars, floods,” which explains the various conditions in which they are. But some “are in remarkably great conditions” and are used in exhibitions.

The scanning of the documents was seven years in the making, completed in October 2016. Indexing, transcription and translation is still ongoing. Digitisation also means that the old manuscripts no longer have to be exposed to light or excessive handling.

The preservation of the manuscripts is a delicate process, explains Jennifer Long: “The documents are re-housed in acid-free papers, put into mylar polyester sleeves and folders, kept in a temperature controlled room.”

They are archived at the New Orleans Jazz Museum in rooms kept at a stable 68°F or 20°C so as not suffer from the New Orleans humidity and its flu+ctuating temperatures.

Follow Louisiana State Museum on Twitter @LaStateMuseum

Follow Louisiana Historical Center on Twitter @lhcnola

Follow New Orleans Jazz Museum on Twitter @nolajazzmuseum

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt

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