…the case for the legend
Other articles have suggested that the there is a basis in truth for the legends regarding slave smuggling into Hancock County. Without question, there was an enormous demand for Negro labor in the cotton growing areas of Mississippi and Louisiana in those years before the Civil War.
Fortunes could be made in a slave-based economy. It has been calculated that if a prospective plantation owner could arrange for financing a venture, he could pay off his debt in two years. And demand for cotton, nationally and internationally, continued to grow.
Charles Gayarre, in his masterwork History of Louisiana, had this to say: “Another source of tribulation to Claiborne was the necessity of soon preventing altogether that slave trade to which the ancient population was accustomed, and which could not continue under the new regime. It was a task which, had he been so disposed, it would have been impossible, for the present, to perform strictly and effectually. Negroes were daily smuggled into the territory through the Spanish possessions by way of Lakes Borgne, Pontchartrain and Maurepas."
The suspect areas in our county were primarily the “Pirate House” and J.F.H. Claiborne’s “Laurel Wood.” Both of these are included in other postings on this web site. In addition, discussion of this subject has been covered by Marco Giardino and this writer in a yet-to-be published document of substantial size.
The Pirate House has the stuff of time-tested tradition and oral history indicating that something happened there long ago, and that it related to pirates. Also, there is even now physical evidence remaining, consisting of the extant natural pond and ballast stone in the area. The “tunnel” that was reputed to have been accessed from under the house more probably would have been a dungeon to hide the contraband slaves.
My personal speculation is that Jean Blanque, a known slave dealer in New Orleans, was connected to the Pirate House. There is no doubt that it was he who interceded with W.C.C. Claiborne and Andrew Jackson on behalf of the Lafitte brothers.
Occupants of the Mulatto Bayou section, including Claiborne and possibly his predecessor, lived in an even more secluded area. There, it would have been difficult to discover someone in the business of smuggling. It is not just because of location in the case of Claiborne. We know that at one time he had over 100 slaves on a relatively small plantation. WPA reports indicate that there were cages underneath his house. It is reasonable to believe that these facts point to slaving.
Plus, we know that this complicated person, who could pretend to support the Confederate cause while at the same time turn in his neighbors to the Federals, was capable of rationalizing his actions. And also, by the bye, he made money on his cotton during the war, saying many years later that he was able to do so because his land was in Union control. (If that had been so, why was Nettie Koch feeding the horses of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry? Cf. Mississippi’s No-Man’s Land, Giardino and Guerin.)
There is nothing new in the above; it is by way of review. All and more have been considered before. We have also previously discussed Jefferson’s abhorrence to slavery, which was shared by Madison. (Unfortunately, they also shared personal exemptions.)
Jefferson had imposed upon the lands of the Louisiana Purchase a prohibition against importation of new slaves, while the Constitution sought to accomplish this under Art. I, Sec. 9, but without clarifying “such Persons” to mean slaves, and deferring the dictate until 1808.
Madison, meanwhile, though sharing Jefferson’s complicated reasonings to some degree, thought that the federal government did not have the authority to impose such restrictions under the Constitution, because when it had been created slavery was an acceptable part of the mix. Thus, his enforcement was lax during his tenure.
The reason for writing this piece is that new background has been found which indicates the seriousness of illegal trading and the necessity of smuggling on the part of those who would profit.
In a book I have recently been given, excellent analysis is given to explain some of the changing laws that in a way promoted the continuance of slave trading in a more secret fashion. Also, an event took place in early 19th century which led to deep changes. The latter was the arrival in New Orleans of many whites and blacks having fled St. Domingue (now Haiti) after the revolution. The book is Slavery, the Civil Law, and Supreme Court of Louisiana, by Judith Kelleher Schaefer.
Kelleher points out the degree of distaste for laws limiting slave importation: “This action caused great discontent among a population already suspicious of the intentions of the Americans. The inhabitants believed the prohibition would mean economic ruin. Their protests went unheeded, however, and in 1807 the United States Congress broadened the ban….The prohibition act stipulated that illegally imported slaves were to be sold for the benefit of the state and the informer….”
The net effect of his new wrinkle was that not only might a slaver be accused of doing something illegal, but he would also not profit. And worse still, he might even witness his prospective earnings being shared by the state and the captain of the ship which caught him.
On wonders about the suspicions of one captain for another among a group who might know each other very well.
Kelleher finds another contributing cause of dissatisfaction came about in 1809, when many refugees came to New Orleans from St. Domingue after the revolution there. This was a mixed group: whites, free people of color, and slaves. Their entry caused a reconsideration of the law of 1807. “The creole population realized that the white refugees would reinforce their numbers and serve as a bulwark against the Americans pouring into the territory. They pressured Governor William Claiborne to petition Congress not to apply the law of 1807 to the slaves brought in by the refugees…. Claiborne desperately needed to gain the support of the creole population, who resented American rule, and in the end sponsored a bill to exempt the St. Domigue slaves from the law prohibiting foreign slave importation. Congress passed the exemption with no opposition, and the refugees kept their slaves.”
Though not a point made by Kelleher, it occurs to me that this may have gone well for those who came with their slaves, but there must have been an enormous resentment by the plantation owners up both sides of the Mississippi River. It may well have been the excuse needed to push harder for more illegal traffic, and by the same reasoning, for more willingness – and reward – on the part of adventurous captains and/or their sponsors. Consideration of Jean Blanque may be in order on this point.
Returning to Kelleher, he finds more information that would explain the desire for continued slave smuggling. “It was not until 1818 that Congress approved funds and empowered the president to dispatch armed patrols to intercept slave ships bound to the United States from foreign countries. Two Congress passed a statute that made participation in the African slave trade an act of piracy punishable by death. Meanwhile, the Louisiana territorial legislature did not enact the necessary enabling legislation for the federal act of 1807 until March, 1810.”
In summary, does a review of previously considered information, when augmented by Kelleher’s revelations, prove anything about the sites in Hancock County having been secret slave smuggling locations? The answer, of course, is an emphatic no. In combination, however, it becomes clear that there was indeed a hunger for more contraband slaves, that they were filling a void created by laws, and that supply and demand would have created a market and appropriate pricing. It is at this point that we return to the beginning: the legends, the stories told by the aging ones to their progeny, the word-of-mouth records which may be too often judged as myth.