Building of Forts Pike and Macomb


     Or, more properly, the Saga of contractor Peter Morte

     Subplot: The financial appetites of Gen. Ripley

Russell B. Guerin, Hancock County Historical Society


In the small village of Pearlington in the year 1820, there was an unusual number of people at the same place as two entrepreneurs from Washington City. In addition to a few children and one white female, probably the family of Peter Morte, there were 92 white men between the ages of 16 and 45.  Adding to that number were 37 “foreigners, not naturalized,” for a total census entry of 129 engaged in manufacturing. 


They were all at the “residence” of Bennett and Morte. So said the 1820 census.


These workers, whether truly all living at or near Pearlington at the same time, had been assembled to begin construction of Forts Pike and Macomb.  An item in Special History Study – the Defense of New Orleans, 1718-1900, states the importance of this plan. “This fort and its sister work at Chef Menteur [were] the first American permanent structures reflecting a coalition of thought on land and water defense.”


First, a bit of background, over a period of a few years, my archaeologist friend, Marco Giardino, Ph. D, and I had occasion to study three different locations in Hancock County where bricks had been made. Those investigations produced three articles previously published about this subject. They are displayed on my website.


 In two of the locations, the owners have requested that we not describe the areas in order to maintain their privacy. Without violating that trust, I must at least tell of many holes in the ground in one such location. Each has piles of broken bricks nearby, seeming to indicate the sources of the clay and the rejects of unusable pieces. The most fascinating element lay in the fact that leading away from the described area is a brick road, partially sunken below the surface now but running all the way to the water’s edge of a navigable stream. 


That road, I believe, was made to support heavy loads of bricks to be shipped out by water.


Except for a mule shoe, artifacts of the area are in short supply.


The third site is on land either owned or under easement by NASA, and includes what was once the town of Napoleon. There was found a cache of bricks neatly stacked but partially underground.  An investigating archaeologist reported that she had counted at least thirteen layers. The site is located part way up on Napoleon’s beautiful bluff. To this we connect to a story told by Etienne Maxson in his book, Progress of the Races, in which he said that bricks long before had been made at Napoleon but were not of good quality. Benjamin Wailes, in his travels through Hancock County, also recorded very specifically that it was at that area where bricks had been made for the construction of Port [sic] Pike.


I am still mystified by the location of the Napoleon bricks. There was a swampy depression lower down the incline, leading to the suggestion that the clay had been dug there and the bricks made further up the site. Had they been of acceptable quality, would they have then been moved over the bluff and down to water level of the Pearl River? The other option would have been to cart them down the incline and then along primitive roads to a landing somewhere on the river.


In summary, it may be that all three locations shared the history of brickmaking for the forts. Literally, several million bricks were required for structures of the size and strength of Pike and Macomb.


Fort Pike, Peter Morte, and Others


At this point, we must try to make sense of pieces of evidence that have been gathered from various sources, not all related. While hard evidence has been hard to come by, I must give credit to the earnest help given by the staff at the St. Tammany archives in Covington, as well as to those in the New Orleans main library, in the “Louisiana room.”


There is certainly more information out there for anyone willing to take up the challenge in the future.


Plans for Construction of Forts

The planning for forts to be at the Rigolets and Chef Menteur was part of an enormous government project to built fortifications at a wide area for the defense at both land and sea.


My interest in this topic was considerably less broad than that of the federal government. In writing about bricks I simply became curious about the person of one of the contractors, Peter Morte, and his travails.


What I did not expect to find, and for which I had no enthusiasm, was what I believe to have been a general attitude that a federal project had a lot of money behind it and that some was for the taking. While such attitude was widespread, it was not universal among those involved; nor was it exhibited in the representatives of the government and the Corps of Engineers. It did however show an ugly side, at least preferences, of he courts of both Louisiana and of Mississippi, and more specifically for some of those of the legal profession.


I will endeavor to tell the story and its pieces in a reasonable chronology.  


We have no record of how the United States government may have advertised for bids for the construction of Fort Pike and Fort Macomb, but we know that two men, said to be experienced contractors, wanted the contract. They were willing to remove themselves from the secure and structured life at Washington City to go to the wilds of the wetlands of southernmost Louisiana. So strongly was the urge that at least one of them mortgaged his home in Washington in order to have working capital.


James Bennett and Peter Morte were awarded the contract on July 20, 1818. However experienced they may have been, it was discovered later that neither had examined ground area, leading to “huge costs of wetland construction [that] overwhelmed both men.” [Pike – a Fortress in the Wetlands]


The Contract

Contractors  Bennett and Morte were committed “…well and truly to construct or cause to be constructed, at such places at or in the vicinity of Chef Menteur and Rigolet Passes…a fort or forts to be constituted of such walls, ditches, embankments, buildings, parts and dimensions” as might be prescribed by Engineer Joseph G. Swift.  They were to furnish “all the materials of such quality, and all artisans, laborers, and workmanship requisite for the construction of the forts.”


 The contract continued in detail.  They were to start work no later than December 1, 1818 and the fort or forts were to be completed by the first day of December 1821. 


An estimate of final cost was $264,517. Initial documents refer to the location of Fort Pike as Petite Coquille, where an earlier, Spanish redoubt had been situated on an accumulation of shell. The other was once called Fort Wood, changed to Macomb later.


The strategic value of the locations had becmme apparent some years before this contract was let. There is an existing ink and watercolor map of Petites Coquille Island dated 1814. Sketched into the area where the Rigolets turns into Lake Pontchartrain is the word fort. It is believed that there had been a Spanish fort at that location from 1793. It was, however, the British advance before the battle of New Orleans that caused serious concerns. Had the invaders come through either pass, the Rigolets or the Chef, they could easily have come into New Orleans through a back door. It is known that Gen. Jackson sent scouts at least as far as Chef Menteur in advance of the British landing.


Morte’s Financial Problems

Although there were multiple causes for delay and rising costs, blame seems to have been centered on Peter Morte. He had, however, at least one friend.


Early in the interaction between the contractors and the federal government, an officer named William H. Chase had taken personal interest in Peter Morte and was helpful to Morte who was often in need. Chase had been designated project supervisor for the US Corps of Engineers. Though not the contractor, this West Point graduate is considered to have been the builder of the two forts in this article, plus Forts Jackson and Livingston in Louisiana, and others in Alabama and Florida.


Other information indicates just how serious Morte’s problems were.  Lt. Chase who had “bailed” Morte when he was in jail. The book, Pike, a Fortress…, states that Chase “protected Morte when he could from his creditors, and when he could not, he usually ‘arranged’ to have the builder bailed out of the St. Tammany Parish jail…Morte pleaded with the government to allow him to complete the two years construction left.”


In a deposition by Richard Walsh, a clerk for Morte from 1818 to 1824, he was asked, “Did or did not Capt. Chase request Gen. Nixon to go bail. When Mr. Morte was arrested frequently was not Capt. Chase in the habit of requesting persons to go bail.” He answered, "Witness does not know but in 1819, 20, and 21 Capt. Chase shewd a disposition to accommodate Mr. Morte.”


Important as these projects were, their construction had never been thought to be easy. As early as 1818, James Gadsden, speaking for the Corps of Engineers, predicted problems that would lead to high cost. He noted the “…lengthy distances from New Orleans, a lack of skilled mechanics, and the difficulty of obtaining bricks of satisfactory quality.”


Enter Gen. Ripley

Work had hardly begun when a familiar name came into play. This was in the personage of Eleazar W. Ripley, an attorney in New Orleans and in Pearlington and formerly a  distinguished major general, a hero of the War of !812. He appears often in my article about Pearlington.


His connection with Fort Pike first became apparent in a photocopy of a partial authorization to pay some money. The item is barely more than a scrap, and is almost illegible because it is dimly written. I cannot make out the amount of money, but the date is clear. What can be read is the following:

Pay to El. W. Ripley on order [missing] Dollars out of any funds in your [missing] after deducting the monies which [missing] first be necessary for our current expenses. In duplicate. Only one to be paid.

Bay of St. Louis

Feby 22, 1819

James Bennett

Peter Morte

To Mr. Nath. Cox

New Orleans


I regret that it is not possible to state the significance of this directive this early in the narrative, but it will be evident below. For the moment, I would ask a reader to consider this entry as parenthetical, its meaning to become more telling later.



Things did not go well for Bennett and Morte from the beginning. The book mentioned above, Pike, a Fortress…, states that

neither of these professional builders had taken the time to examine the ground and lowlands upon which they were to construct these two great million dollar fortifications. Unforeseen difficulties and the subsequent huge cost of wetland construction overwhelmed both men. James Bennett deserted his partner, Peter Morte, early in the building process.


A report prepared for the state of Louisiana records that a representative of Washington named Gadsden informed his department of progress on November 16, 1819.

The plans for the foundations and the alterations to the original plans for the fortifications for the defense of this frontier by the Board of Engineers have been received. I leave this tomorrow for the Rigolets, to lay out the work for the protection of that pass.


Even before, the report indicates that Gadsden had contracted through military agent Cox for some timber, specifically, “fifty thousand feet three inch plank, two hundred and thirty round logs, and fourteen hundred hewed, for the foundation of the work at Petite Coquille, to be delivered in November and December.”


Military agent Cox wrote, “I am informed Bennett and Morte have large quantity of lime and sand and one million bricks prepared for commencing so soon as the foundations are in readiness.”


What pregnant paragraphs, the foregoing: alterations, round logs, hewed logs. One wonders, are these the kinds of necessities Bennett and Morte had envisioned when they signed the contract?  Did they perhaps jump ahead with the making of bricks without anticipating foundations required to prepare the surface of the land before construction could begin? Perhaps land in other places where they had worked did not present the same problems as a narrow little island surrounded by marsh and sea.


Early on, the fort was noted to have subsidence problems since its construction. [Archaeological Investigations at Fort Pike – the 1978 Investigation]


Not enough laborers had been assembled to begin excavations until December 17, 1819. In the following January, Gadsden observed that “70 to 80 Excavators, Rammers, & Rodders” were working.” [Historic Structure Report for the Preservation of Fort Pike]


By June 1820, it was said that the work was progressing. Bennett and Morte’s brick yard had 700,000 bricks to be delivered via Pearl River. However, in the same year, “the original site selected for Fort Pike was abandoned because the marshy ground at that location appeared incapable of supporting the massive work.” [Modulus, Vol. 17, University of Virginia].


In the same month, Engineer Gadsden had written that work was to be shut down in August and September, “the sickly season.” It is recorded that there was a shortage of labor, presumably because people feared yellow fever in marshy areas with its throngs of mosquitoes. Indeed, New Orleans had experienced a spike in deaths from “yellow Jack” about that time. After having only 80 and 115 deaths in the two previous years, deaths in 1819 shot up to 2,190.


Other areas besides Hancock County were manufacturing bricks. They included Madisonville and Bayou Bonfouca. By July 1821, 3,456,400 bricks had been delivered.

 The next step was to lay those bricks, requiring expert, experienced artisans. It would seem that they would have been assembles and working as soon as some of the bricks had been available.


Perhaps Morte had tried to hire bricklayers before, but our only information relative to this does not appear until September, 1821. That was when Morte advertised in a Washington newspaper for bricklayers. “Liberal wages and constant employ will be given to a number of bricklayers at the US fortifications now constructing a Petite Coquille in Lake Pontchartrain. The site of these works is considered very healthy.”


Even then, Morte may have jumped the gun, when he advertized that the site was very healthy. It was in that very same month, September 1821, that a strong hurricane visited the area, causing great damage. Project supervisor Chase wrote that “water in the new work was 7 ½ feet above the level of the county. As many as 400 logs were floated away, along with 30,000 feet 3-inch plank. Housing for the workmen and six months of supplies were lost.”


 It was said that Bennett and Morte had lost “almost everything.”


The importance of the projected was reaffirmed by Congress in 1822, allocating additional monies to replace the losses and move forward. The following is found on-line under Acts of Congress:

      May 7, 1822

An Act making further appropriations for the military service of the United States for 1822

Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives, that the following sums be, and the same are hereby, appropriated, to wit:

For the Rigolets and Chef Menteur, one hundred thousand dollars.


A great deal of money, $100,000 in 1822, and this was in addition to the funds which had been thought to be sufficient to see the project through.


It was believed in August of 1823 that work was almost complete. Expenditures to date were $183,618.  Engineer Chase estimated that the job would need an additional amount of money – $60,500 – to complete the project by February 1823. He had asked $5,000 for pilings to secure the site, “the abrasion of which being in the bend of the Rigolets is continual.” Nature and its elements continued to threaten the design of the engineers.


One wonders whether the engineers had reckoned with the enormity of the ebb and flow of daily tides between Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain.


Despite the infusion of cash, construction dragged on. Chase did not meet his goal. “The work has not progressed as rapidly during the last winter as I had anticipated owing chiefly to the inclemency of the weather….I hope to… report their final completion by the 30th June 1823.”



In 1824, opening in the fort’s masonry began to appear because of settlement. Claims began to come from diverse directions, but Peter Morte was the person who was asked to take financial responsibility. The demands had to do with accidents, a drowning, sickness, and with finances. Blame was put onto Morte. The United States wanted $25,000 from him. In those days, people were jailed for debt, and so was Morte. The number of times he was bailed out of the jail in Covington by Chase cannot be counted.  


An interrogatory of 1931 makes the case:

  Question: “When Mr. Morte was arrested frequently was not Capt. Chase in the habit of requesting persons to go bail?”

 Answer: “Witness does not know but in 1819, 20, and 21 Capt. Chase shewd a disposition to accommodate Mr. Morte.”


Often, Morte was in debtor’s prison or being sought after for arrest. The book called Pike states that Chase “protected Morte when he could from his creditors, and when he could not, he usually ‘arranged’ to have the builder bailed out of the St. Tammany Parish jail.


James Bennett was no longer a partner. He had disappeared and was blamed by Morte for some of his troubles. He was now dead. Neither his name nor his estate appear as a defendant in any of the court actions.


Ripley Reappears

Claims against Morte commenced as early as 1822. One document headed “No. 2 Judicial Mortgages” contained a large demand for $18,040. It is the first of many contested by Morte, and this one is indeed a bit more curious than others. It appears that a judicial judgment in favor of E.W. Wheelock had been assigned to E. W. Ripley in 1823. This decision had been made in a Mississippi court, and was carried into the Louisiana proceedings. 


 General Ripley had already collected at least one fee from the government in 1819.  Wheelock, however, was not known in these areas. A handwritten item reads as follows: “E.W. Ripley Judgment of E. W. Wheelock assigned to him.” Elsewhere, the reading is clearly a claim for $18,000 by E. W. Wheelock of Illinois, represented by Gen. Ripley.


Eleazar Wheelock was a grandson of a famous minister by the same name who founded Dartmouth College. Gen. Ripley’s mother had also been a Wheelock, the daughter of the minister. This makes Eleazar Wheelock and Eleazar Ripley cousins. Ripley’s first and middle names were Eleazar Wheelock, and Wheelock was known as Eleazar Louis Ripley Wheelock. The latter, like Ripley, was also a military man who had served during the War of 1812.


It is noteworthy that the younger Wheelock had invested in real estate in the period during fort construction, but I have not been able to place him or the Wheelock family members in locations such as New Orleans, Hancock County, or Washington City.



Morte’s Petition to Court

Peter Morte petitioned the court in June 28, 1824 at Madisonville.


In a scratch copy of a petition before Judge Pattillo, Peter Morte was listed as resident in St. Tammany Parish. His former partner, James Bennett, has already died. Morte’s attorney was Isaac Preston, officed at #46 Royal St. in New Orleans.


In the formal document, Morte was petitioning for relief from his debts in order to continue the work of building the fort. He had declared that he was not capable of fulfilling the contract because he had suffered great losses immediately after execution of the contract “…in consequence of disappointments and the imperfect acquaintance with the Country….Your petitioner suffered other great losses by the misconduct of his partner.”


Problems not of Morte’s making nonetheless haunted him. The first location of construction was not the final placement of the fort. The initial phase was at the site of the first fort at Petite Coquille, but it was abandoned because of land conditions. This change also brought with it additional costs.


The attorney for Morte made a strong case for his client. “Your petitioner is unable to satisfy the demands against him and is now in the actual custody of the Sheriff of St. Tammany for debt and is entitled to the benefit for the act of relief of insolvent debtors.”


Morte then made a request for a meeting of all creditors to consider that he will execute to the trustees “an assignment of his estate and effects, that he may take the oath required by law and that he may be by judgment of the Honorable Court forever discharged from all suits and actions pending against him, and from all manner of debts which he may before this time have contracted.”


There followed a long list of debts, being by count 42 in number. Some claimants were in Hancock County, others in Louisiana.  The largest was to the government of the United States for $25,000. Ripley shows up twice, the first being for “judgment of costs” in the amount of $1,171, which claim Morte was later to state was not just. The second was for the $18,000 for the Wheelock matter decided in Mississippi. Wheelock was residing in Illinois but represented in New Orleans by General Ripley, the claim relating to a contract for the delivery of provisions. In the margin is the notation “which claim is entirely disputed.”


At least ten others of the debts were said to be unjust claims. Some are noted simply “disputed.” Several others declare firmly, “Petitioner knows nothing of this claim.” 


 Many others, of small amounts, were owed to individuals, predominantly identifiable as residents of New Orleans. Still other creditors, seven in number, are shown as being estates, one of Washington City. Another is the estate of Barnes, of Pearlington. These are mentioned because the claims by so many estates seems in themselves to create question. Had there been a pestilence, or yellow fever, or other calamity, one might dismiss suspicion, but there is no evidence of such.


A few other claims are significant enough for special attention for reasons other than amount. One, for $230.95, was made by Isaac Graves, well known to this writer as the man who was without funds until he married the widow of Simon Favre. In no time, he owned almost all the property left by Favre, including his slaves. Money left by Favre and Rebecca Austin by will for an illegitimate son seems to have disappeared after Graves made himself the executor of the Favre estate.


Morte disputed the claim of Graves “in consequence of an agreement relative to a house which Peter Morte built at Pearl River – his residence is near Pearlington.”


Another item worthy of separate comment was a claim made by Thompson and Carter of New York was “on a contract for the delivery of lime.” It is noteworthy because it was for a large amount, specifically $5,000.  It too was entirely disputed. 


With no explanation other than the words, “E. Livingston New Orleans $500,” this claim takes its place among the curious ones. It was probably made by the famous brother of the more famous Robert Livingston, who was sent to Paris by Jefferson to negotiate for New Orleans and came back with the entire Louisiana Purchase. Edward too had a distinguished legal and political career, both in New York and New Orleans, but there were times when money was in short supply. Also, a claim in the latter city which was disputed for years might reflect the financial aggressiveness of Edward Livingston. It lay in his attempt to declare ownership of Mississippi River batture at New Orleans. In that case Jefferson had to intervene, confiscating the land which ultimately became city property.


The marginal comment opposite Livingston’s claim is, “Petitioner knows nothing of this claim.”


To what degree the above claims were investigated in the legal system remains unclear. A few interrogatories have been found, but their bearing on the final determination by the court remains unclear. There is no evidence that the merits of the Wheelock case were ever tested in Louisiana.


June 28, 1824 – Peter Morte’s Statement of Property

Included in Morte’s petition wa a statement of property.  Assets included his house in Washington City, mortgaged to William Brent. In addition were “seventeen negroes and two schooners employed at the brick yard in this parish and on the lake.”

While the wording regarding the negroes says “employed by,” presumably they were slaves, as they are listed under the heading, “Property.” The two schooners were probably those mentioned in the list of claims, one named Pearl, and the other, Two Friends.


His main asset, “a brick yard and the lease of the ground in this parish,” is listed. (Of note here is the word “lease,” suggesting the land for the Hancock land was also leased, and why it has not been found in deed searches.)


Finally, Morte thought to list one more asset: “A Claim against the Government of the works at Petit Coquille.” However, if this in fact was ever pursued, it has not surfaced in our research.


Although the document described above is considered a scratch copy, it was signed by Peter Morte and sworn to by Judge H.H. Pattello at Madisonville.


One single page document dated 1824 appears to be a bill made by Peter Morte to James Joynez. It details five shipments averaging 10,000 bricks at rate of $2.50 per M. Also included are 23 barrels at 50c per barrel. It is noteworthy that at this late date Morte was still buying bricks.


Pike – a Fortress in the Wetlands:

It is not knows whether construction was halted momentarily in July 1824 or whether it was continued under other supervision such as the Army Corps of Engineers, but in that month Peter Morte declared bankruptcy in Covington….Morte pleaded with the government to allow him to complete the two years of construction left, but the records are so far silent on that matter.


In the formal copy of the petition, it is noted that Morte had signed an assignment of his estate and effects to Eben Fiske, AF Borie, and El W Ripley.”


 July 17, 1824 – Peter Morte No. 1179 His Creditors

 This proceeding was in the Eighth District Court of St. Tammany, Judge Jesse R. Jones presiding. It is a lengthy document reciting what came before, in the court of Judge Pattello on June 28, 1824, including the list of debts. It is written partly in French.


Essentially it records a meeting before the creditors, absent creditors being represented by an attorney. There is a recitation of Morte’s promise:

…that he will give all his personal exertions to the completion of his contract with the Government and agree that the profits be distributed among his creditors according to law (not excepting the claim of Gen. Ripley for professional services of $1,171 which he has represented as unjust) on this condition that representative of Wheelock annul the judgment obtained against him.


Judge Jesse Jones summarized the petition before Judge Pattello, ordered creditors to meet with him on 26th of July 1824 for the purposes mentioned in Morte’s petition. Branch W. Miller was to represent the creditors. 


This new document repeats much of what came before, including Morte’s petition, list of creditors, and assets.


Clearly, Morte wanted to complete the job. He stated, “…although he had been unable to fulfill his contract with the Government of the United States, yet the Government indulged him as to time and he is now endeavoring to complete in such a manner that he receives a profit based on a formula for brickwork and excavations.” He also desired a profit of about $1500 per year for the slaves previously mentioned. He expressed hope that in this way he might one day redeem his property then held by the government.


There was a restatement of his promises, but here there was an important addition:

 “The petitioner prays leave to state and file for the information of his creditors after the discussion of this morning – that he will give all his personal exertions to the completion of his contract.” He then declared to the court:

…that there should be a distribution among his creditors according to law, (not excepting the claim of General Ripley for professional services $1,171 which he has represented as unjust) on the condition that representative of E. Wheelock annul the judgment obtained against him while unrepresented in the Mississippi State for $18,000 and agree to try the claim on its merits before this tribunal or any of the courts of New Orleans. But if the representatives of Wheelock will not consent to this he is determined to surrender his contract to the Government and not work five or six years more to pay this and other unjust claims for which he has never received the value of a dollar….At the meeting of the creditors of the petitioner he represented to his creditors the within statement and proposition for their acceptance and prayed leave to file the same which was opposed by General Ripley on behalf of E. Wheelock, Wm. Day, G R Stringer, Henry Maupassant and the Court overauled [sic] the filing the same on the ground that it was foreign to the purpose for which the meeting of creditors was convoked to which opinion the said Peter Morte excepted and prayed leave to file his exceptions. Covington July 26, 1824. Signed HH Pattello, Judge 8th District.


Much more repetition of the previous meeting followed.


Finally, Morte was reported by the judge to have made assignments of his assets to the trustees, Fisk, Borie, and Ripley, and had taken the necessary oath according to law, and therefore had been discharged from jail.


Recorded on 4th day of August, 1824, signed by Judge Jesse Jones.



July 9, 1825 Tableau of Claims

If cracks in the mortar had not collapsed the fort, a document dated August 1825 was about to crumble the estate of Morte. It seems that the petition to Judge Pattello had not been effective. The new instrument was a Tableau of Claims. It appears there had finally been a judgment, the tableau being “claims against the failure of Peter Morte placed according to the order of their privileges.”


The tableau came in three parts. The first is “Law Charges,” mostly relatively small amounts by people whose names are not familiar, except for one: Ripley billed $250 as fees in the suit of Morte vs. his creditors.


Following the above are “Judicial Mortgages,” which includes once more the Wheelock matter for $18,040. Others are less significant, but one item is worthy of note. It is a judgment for the estate of one W. Day. The name is not familiar, but it is the first of several estates said to be claimants. This estate was also represented by Ripley.


 The third section is “Chirography Debts,” which means those written by hand. It is a long list, ranging from $34 to $3,408.


First there is an up-date of Morte’s debts dated July 1825. It may seem that Morte has died, as assignees have been named “to the estate of Peter Morte.” We believe that he lived until 1831, and the word estate was meant to mean his assets.


The tableau was written at New Orleans in July of 1825. It lists three people as “Assignees to the Estate of Peter Morte”: Eben Fisk, H. D. Borie, and E. W. Ripley. 

It was filed August 31, 1825 by Samuel Hallory, Clerk, 8th District Court



October 20, 1825 – Peter Morte an Insolvent Debtor vs. His Creditors

In a document dated October 20, Judge Pattello decreed that claims should be ranked and paid according to the rule of “privilege.”


A list was rendered of certain claims, mostly small, which would be paid by the assignees the full amount of their claims. Then came a shorter list to be paid “by way of lien” on the moveable property at the time of failure of the debtor.


Next came a separate paragraph regarding Wheelock, declaring that “Eleazar Wheelock Ripley, assigns of Eleazar Wheelock, be paid “the amount of the judgment with interest…according to the laws of the state of Mississippi where said judgment was rendered.” Then followed the firm and separate instruction:

…that the same be paid by way of judicial mortgage and privilege on the land and slaves of the said Morte… of which he was owner the day on which the said judgment was recorded according to law in the office of the Recorder of Mortgages in the City of New Orleans, the said judgment being rendered before the Circuit Court of said State of Mississippi in March term in  the year 1823 for the Sum Eighteen Thousand dollars damages, and forty dollars costs of suit.


A group of chirographic creditors followed. They were to be paid without any privilege or mortgage.

Signed by H.H. Pattello, Judge of 8th District


The amount previously listed which was a claim by the government for $25,000 was not included. The document is simply silent on that matter.



May 26, 1830 – 21st Congress

Public Statutes at large of the United States, Vol. 6, p. 428

21st Congress.

Be it enacted that the Secretary of the Treasury be, and he hereby is, directed to pay, out of any money in the Treasury, not otherwise appropriated, the sum of $9,340 to Isaac T. Preston, Eleazar W. Ripley, and Eben Fisk, for and on the account of Bennett and Morte, late contractors for building the forts at Petite Coquille and the Rigolets Pass, in Louisiana to be distributed and paid then to the Creditors of said Bennett and Morte, according to law.’

Approved May 26, 1830

[There is no mention of Chef Menteur. The names given above were to designate two forts, either Petite Coquille or the Rigolets having been mistaken for Chef Menteur.]



February 1, 1831Tableau of Distributions

This document reflects the above appropriation by Congress of $9,340 for the benefit of the creditors …”according to the judgement [sic] of the District Court of the 8th District of the State of Louisiana, dated the 20th of October 1825, three dividends having heretofore been made among the creditors.”


Amounts are listed in two columns, one for the total amount, and then another calculated at 36 ½ %.  The amount for Ripley was $9,090, reduced by the percentage and paid at $3,318,



Widow Morte’s Inventory – Undated


Mrs. Morte’s inventory is undated, but of course it would have been done after the death of her husband, sometime in 1831.


Whatever the efficacy of all of the legal pronouncements of the courts of St. Tammany, none must have been adequate to finalize the Peter Morte affair. Claimants and the courts then had to go after his heirs.


 After he had died, his widow found it necessary “pursuant to the order of the Honorable the Probate Court in and for the Parish aforesaid,” to make an inventory of all the property removable as well as immovable, situated in this Parish belonging to the Succession of said Peter Morte, deceased.”


His widow had been adjudged unable to pay her creditors, eventually listing all her assets for the court. Included were a sawmill, houses, and lumber at Bayou Tchefuncta west of Covington. They were grouped together, and were by far the most valuable of her assets, in the amount of $18,000.  Three slaves were valued at a total of $3200. Other assets were minimal, such as an unfinished carrylog worth $40, and a pair of small andirons at $2.


Total value came to $21,664. This was the value that was to be split among creditors, “according to privilege.”


One comment that I have found states that she “was hounded by her husband’s creditors well after his death.” [Pike – a Fortress in the Wetlands]  The children of the Morte family were also affected. They were Ann, Jane, Henry, John and Thomas Morte. The last was of majority age, was one of the attorneys for the absent heirs.


It is recalled that Peter Morte had filed against the government of the United States. There is no evidence available to the effect that a suit was ever processed and a verdict rendered.  As no mention of this appears in her inventory, it may be assumed that Mrs. Morte had not received a judgment in favor of the estate.



Final Costs

The final costs of Fort Pike were approximately double the initial, projected amount of $264, 517.  One must wonder, were there others who contributed to the cost overruns besides Pieter Morte and his family?






Legal documents, such as interrogatories and depositions, have been studied. Most of these are illegible due to poor handwriting of the scribe and poor filming, but one dated October 14, 1831 is of particular interest. It reflects questions to and answers from Richard Walsh, clerk for Morte from 1818 to 1824. Although the meaning is not totally clear, it is apparent that there was suspicion about Gen. Ripley and Gen. Nixon, and whether Morte was executor of estate of McKinley. (Wm. McKinley is listed in Morte’s debts for $400 with the notation, “Judgment in the Mississippi state.”)


October 14, 1831 Deposition – Richard Walsh

Suspicion is that Ripley tried to take over case of McKinley. In deposition, Richard Walsh testified that he had known Wm. McKinley…

when in employment of Bennett and Morte and that McKinley had obtained a judgment against Peter Morte for the sum of four hundred dollars at Bay St Louis and that deponent was in court when said judgment was obtained. Deponent further states that the said McKinley died at the brickyard B.[ayou] Paquet Parish of St. Tammany near Bonfouca.  Deponent also knows that the estate of McKinley is administered to by Peter Morte. Or in other words that the said McKinley who had obtained judgment in the state of Mississippi is the same man on whose estate Peter Morte is legal administrator.


 October 14, 1831 Interrogatory – Richard Walsh

This interrogatory with witness named Richard Walsh is about one William McKinley who died at the brickyard in St. Tammany. Morte was said to be the administrator of McKinley’s estate, even though latter had secured a judgment against Morte in Mississippi. Mention is also made of Chase, Nixon and Ripley.  

Ques. How long was you clerk for Mr. Morte?

Ans. From 1818 to 1824.

Ques. Did you know all the men and laborers about the works and the names of all the people with whom he dealt?

Ans. I knew the names of all the men with whom he dealt and he knew personally all the men about the works.

Ques. Did Mr. Morte ever deal with a man by the name of Ripley?

Ans. Witness never knew of his dealing with a man of that name nor did he ever know of a man of that name. Witness frequently did business personally for Mr. Morte at the Bay of St. Louis and Pearl River and elsewhere.


If Ripley had tried to make himself attorney for McKinley, he failed.  In distribution of claim for McKinley, it was JT Morte, i.e., John Thomas Morte, son of Peter, who receipted payment.  He acted as attorney for some of the absent heirs.



May 28, 1830 – US vs. Ripley

Concurrent with the legal negotiations of Morte, another claim had been processed by the federal government, independent of the Fort Pike matter. It was an action against General Eleazar Ripley for $13,163. 


The suit actually began on September 27, 1822, and was decided by the Supreme Court on May 28, 1830, or so it seemed.


While this proceeding does not relate directly to Fort Pike and Peter Morte, it has merit with regard to the person of Gen. Ripley. No criticism of his military accomplishments is intended, but it may show that in finances he was indeed aggressive.


Following are excerpts from the Supreme Court case:

The United States brought an action against General Ripley for a certain amount of public money he had, as was alleged, failed to account for and pay over as the law required. The defendant was in the service of the United States from 1812 to 1817, and was promoted at different periods until he resigned his commission as major-general by brevet in the latter year. During this period, he rendered distinguished and active military services to his country, and received the pay and emoluments to which his rank entitled him, under the law and regulations applicable thereto. Large sums of moneys passed through his hands and were disbursed by him for the supplies of the troops under his command. He claimed a commission on these sums, and offered evidence to prove that similar allowances had been made to others. He also claimed extra pay or compensation for services performed by him not within the line of his duty in preparing plans of fortifications and for procuring and forwarding supplies of provisions, &c., to troops of the United States, beyond his military command. These claims were resisted by the United States on the ground that no other compensation could be allowed to him than such as was mentioned or defined by the laws of the United States, by instructions of the President, or by the legal regulations of the War Department.

In the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the United States, on 7 September, 1822, instituted proceedings by two petitions, claiming in one "the sum of $13,163.10 as due by Eleazar W. Ripley, late major general in the army of the United States, which, on 9 April, 1821, at the Treasury Department, was found against him on a statement and settlement of his account," and claiming in the other "the sum of $4,154.95, which on 5 May 1821, at the Treasury Department, was found against him on the settlement and statement of his account."

To those petitions the defendant pleaded that he was not indebted to the United States, and the case was afterwards, on 28 May 1830, submitted to a jury, and a verdict was found for the defendant in the following terms:

Amount of his account, less $500 lost . . . . . . . $13,060.22

Extra services at Washington. . . . . . . . . . . . 2,000.00


Deducting therefrom balance due the United States . 11,929.32

$ 3,140.90

New Orleans, 29 May 1830

New Trial

This was not the end. A new trial was begun by Ripley when he “obtained leave to amend his answer and pleadings,” again under the direction of the district court. This time, on May 29, 1835, the jury declared for him an even higher amount, that being $20,596.

Meanwhile, by an Act of Congress, it had been decided to pay Ripley his accumulated pension, coming to $7,350. Deducting that amount, Ripley claimed $13,246.

Ripley died in 1839. G.W. Munday became the curator of the estate. Subsequent legal actions were pursued in the name of his descendants, ultimately Mrs. L.E.L.A. Lawson, Ripley’s only surviving daughter.

Many more actions and negotiations could be described, but this is one of those long cases that dragged on until October 18, 1859. By this time, it had reached the Court of Claims. Still hanging in the balance was the original finding that the United States was due $11,929.

After seventeen years the decision must have caused shock in all those concerned.

It was said that Administrator Munday was mistaken in saying that the court had rendered judgment for $26,596.


In the Court of Claims

George W. Munday, Administrator of Eleazar W. Ripley vs. The United States

Solicitor’s Brief

The settled rule of this court, as the solicitor is informed, is to the same effect.

For these reason, the plaintiff is not entitled to recover any amount from the United States.

R.H, Gillet, Solicitor

March 17, 1859


In the Court of Claims

October 18, 1859

Eleazar W. Ripley’s Administrator vs. the United States

Scarburgh, J.

The judgment amounts to nothing more than that the plaintiff takes nothing by their suit. Nothing was certified. What the court says  as to its being certified, etc., is no part of the judgment, but is mere surplusage….and the verdict of the jury, his only other evidence, is void for want of authority in the jury to render it. The United States, by virtue of their sovereignty, cannot be liable to a verdict of judgment for any sum of money, except in the case of proceedings by their consent.”

Sovereignty was said to protect the United States from liability for verdicts and judgments for money. 

The rest of the entry made by the court was a mere certificate that the plaintiffs were indebted to the defendant….But the certificate is not in the form of a judgment, nor was it designed to be a judgment…It is not sufficient to maintain the claim set up by him in his petition. There is no such judgment as the petitioner has insisted upon….I concur in the opinion of the court that the petitioner is not entitled to relief.