Pointe Claire, the Russ house, and Cannons

 
…..a strange mix
 
            Every now and then, several subjects converge. Each one may stand alone, and be of some interest. But when they converge, whole new concepts come to light, thus giving new meaning to all.
            Such is the case of these three subjects.
 
            Pointe Claire, as we find it in French, or Point Clear, as it is called in English, might in itself be called a fascinating place, if only we could know for sure what place we are speaking of.
 
Point Clear Plantation
            The French version is found in some of the early documents made in years when many of the settlers spoke French as their first language. I believe that it was generally what we now call the town of Lakeshore.
             The owner of a huge claim circa 1830 covering that area was John Joor, an absentee planter. Joor was a wealthy landowner and military general who lived primarily on his Hills Plantation, in Woodville, MS.
             Though it might be expected that he would have used the French name,
he called his holdings Point Clear in his will, dated 1833.This is also the name given the area in the 1830 tax rolls, showing him to be in possession of 3,940 acres – more than six square miles – valued at $7,880.
            In his last will and testament, Joor left to his wife, among other things, “five hundred acres of land to be laid out in a square on any part of my Pt. Clear Plantation which she may think proper to select, also the following negro slaves with their future increase….” He then named, one by one, 57 slaves.
 
Point Clear Island
The area we now refer to as Point Clear Island is a strip of high land running between two marshes on the west side of the mouth of Bayou Caddy. This is part of a pattern of marsh islands leftover from the Pleistocene Period. Another such high land, running parallel to Point Clear Island, is found crossing Bayou Caddy near Bordage Marina, just a bit down the bayou from the marina.
My friend Marco Giardino and I once explored part of Point Clear Island. I noted that the land is scarcely higher than the marshes, and it contains many small cacti with thorns like large needles at about ankle height. When I was much younger, I fished the tip of the island several times, and once, when accompanied by a friend, attempted to cook lunch there. However, we were chased up trees by wild pigs as soon as the aroma of a can of pork and beans filled the air.
Such excursions tell me that Joor and his 57 slaves would not have planted the wilderness on the island with success. I conclude that the Joor plantation land was the high ground which we now call Lakeshore.
Still, the names –Pointe Claire Plantation and Point Clear Island – are essentially the same, and on balance I believe they describe an area on both sides of Bayou Caddy. Land grants in those early days often consisted of huge blocks of acreage, with little regard for a slim waterway being a natural boundary. Unfortunately we can find no clear legal description or map for the Joor claim.
 
Russ Island
            I first heard of Russ Island from someone at the Bordage Marina. I recall being surprised when it was described as a hill. I think I said, disbelieving, “A hill? A hill in those marshes?”
             Subsequently, I inquired about it in an interview with Poss LaFrance. The following is quoted from that interview:
 
Guerin: Someone at Bordage fishing camp recently mentioned Russ Island. Is that the same as Point Clear Island?
 
LaFrance: No, no. You can go from here and go through this pass there – years ago, they called it Fig Orchard on this side. The bank owns a piece of ground there that belonged to the Russes on this side, on the north side. Russ is just on the other side of the railroad, between – you know where Bayou Pistache is? – after you leave Bordage’s there is a bayou you turn to the right. It is a small bayou. On this side of the bayou, between there and the railroad, it runs all the way to the railroad. It runs all the way across. That’s Russ’s. That’s called Russ’s Island; they had a big house there.
 
Guerin: There was a big house?
 
LaFrance: Oh yeah. Bordage’s uncle – they called him Johnny Lakeshore – I don’t know why, but they called him Johnny Lakeshore, but he was a Bordage – he used to take care of that. He trapped the land, and he’d take care of the house over there.
 
Guerin: But the house is gone now.
 
LaFrance: Oh yeah, the house is gone.
 
Guerin: Whose house was it originally?
 
LaFrance: It belonged to the Russes. I imagine it went in the ’47.
 
            Russ Island is indeed a hill. While the surrounding marshes measure no more than four feet in elevation, Russ Island is thirteen feet high, probably a result of the Pleistocene era as with the islands above.  On the other hand, Point Clear Island is only about five feet elevation at its highest.
            Marco and I explored this too, and we were fascinated to be on top of a virtual promontory, looking down on boats going by well under our level. We found a couple of minor artifacts, but were convinced that this hill was prime real estate at one time. It is the highest natural formation for many miles around, even extending north into the forested lands. It would have been a favored place for native Americans seeking shelter from storm tides, as it certainly would have been a chosen place for a landowner to build a house.
            I believe that the owner was Asa Russ, the same as the man who invested in several parcels in the Pearl River towns, the same as the seller of land to Christian Koch near Logtown, and who sold the lease of the 16th section which is now Buccaneer Park to Andrew Jackson, Jr.
            Like Joor, Russ called the area Point Clear, as that is the heading he used in a letter to JFH Claiborne. It is datelined “Point Claire, September 5, 1855,” using a combination of the French and English names. It is reasonable to conclude that he was writing from the house on the hill. The island is only a short distance across Bayou Caddy from Lakeshore.
 
Mysterious Cannons
            It was a separate conversation with my informant at Bordage Marina in which I was told a puzzling story.
            It was about several visitors who came to the marina a long time before. They were pleasant enough, but not very talkative about their purpose as they launched their own boat.  They were not prepared to go fishing. Their car license tag indicated they were from Florida.
            They were gone quite a long time. When they returned, their boat had an unusual load, consisting of several cannons.
            It can only be guessed where they found cannons. They must have known where to look, having had advance information about where they were to search and for what.
            They made no comment to my storyteller and left, presumably for Florida.   
 
            Cannons at Bayou Caddy? One must ask the obvious question: For what possible purpose would there have been cannons at or near Bayou Caddy? It is after all, a small, lazy waterway whose largest activity now consists of the comings and goings of a few shrimp boats and oyster luggers.
            The short answer is, possibly several.
 
Some assumptions
            There are places to launch boats elsewhere in the county, namely along Pearl River, Mulatto Bayou, and at Ansley. One of the less likely places to begin a search of anything significant to history would be Bayou Caddy, unless the objective might reasonably be between Bayou Caddy and Ansley. Except for the roads and the forested lands all else is marshes, swamps and waterways.
            Perhaps Asa Russ Island might have been chosen to fortify his area, maybe against intrusion during the Civil War.  Russ, a wealthy man from a prominent family, may have guarded his large house and possessions from the lawlessness being experienced by the settlers in nearby Logtown and other places along Pearl River, as found in the Koch family letters.  After all, there were Jayhawkers and cavalry from both sides, and atrocities being committed against the families trying to survive.
 
            On the other hand, an equally valid assumption might be that cannons were salvaged from a derelict or sunken boat.
            On that last point, another suggestion is the possibility that Cadet Lafontaine might not have been as alone as is surmised. Indeed, when he sailed up to the narrowest part of the bayou, beyond which he could go no more, surely the area where he built his home was a secluded, lonely abode. Visitors, however, might have been involved in piracy.
            This is brought to mind by the recall that one other Lafontaine, one Augusto or Augustin, was a pirate. Following is from the Englis papers in the historical society, a collection of translated Spanish documents. Note that Augusto Lafontaine, whom I recall from another source to be a relative of Cadet, was complicit in the piracy of contraband slaves when the Peytavins were arrested at the Pirate House [cf. my article, “Pirate House Revisited,” on my web site].
 
1807. GC 1807-07-12/002 
[Margin Note by Addressee] “Transcript on 24 of July
“I send to your hands the Inventory of the Seizure of the house of don Antonio Peytavin that I delivered to don Juan Bautista Nicollet who is depositor of it and who has taken Charge of that which is expressed in the Inventory.
Likewise the seizure of the Schooner of the free black Carlos with is corresponding inventory, being in charge don Josef Labat.
That of the Boat of Agusto Lafontaine without Inventory as it is completely ruined and underwater.
The proceedings practiced to conserve the Schooner of Cadet darbour. 
Sending to you the declarations of the inhabitants of Biloxi that were with don Antonio Peytavin in transporting the Blacks of the Frigate of which it relates, to the Territory of Baton Rouge as appears by the declaration of don Francisco Missonet.
Likewise two Blacks and one black woman of the four that Came from said Frigate, for having died one black woman about a month ago which appears in the Information taken, which I also direct to you.
A Protest of don Enrrique Peytavin regarding the Seizure of the named house, for you to decide that which is most convenient.
[Signed] Juan Bautista Pellerin”
 
Juan Bautista Pellerin, Pass Christian, to Vicente Folch, Number 18, July 12. 1807. GC 1807-07-12/003  “I place in your notice having Embargoed the habitation that was of don Antonio Paytavin, by Order of the Senor Commandant of Mobile don Maximilliano de San Maxent, in virtue of the process which is ordered by the Señor Interim Intendant don Juan Ventura Morales.
Likewise, the Schooner of the free black Carlos, the Boat of Agusto Lafontaine, as the remission of two backs and a black woman that came from the Cargo of blacks of a Frigate, that the expressed Peytavin received, which I inform you for your intelligence.
[Signed] Juan Bautista Pellerin”
 
            Cadet Lafontaine himself, being the first white man to settle the secluded area in the early days, might have installed some small cannon for his own protection. His relative, Augusto, may well have done so to protect his piracy activity, or if he were being hunted, may have scuttled his boat, cannons and all.  
 
            Probably nothing more than coincidence, but my research on the Joor family turned up the following information: “John Joor furnished the cannon for the Battle of New Orleans and largely from his present means for the support of his command on June 14, 1814.” It is at least curious that the first  owner of Point Clear, the absentee land owner with 65 slaves working his land, had cannons to donate in prior years.
 
            It does not take much stretch of the imagination to think that Point Clear Island, a pleasant sight viewed from the end of the beach road, once had greater significance. In that it
overlooks the mouth of Bayou Caddy, it could have been the logical place to install protective military-type hardware against whatever forces that might have coveted others’ treasures, of whatever nature, in the lonely hinterland beyond.
 
            Today, the tip of Point Clear Island is a lovely, serene, natural white sand beach framed by a few uprooted scrub oaks, remnants of the last big storm. No more than a seagull’s glide form the mouth of the bayou, it can only be reached by water. Such is the case with much of what lies west of the bayou.
 
            The mystery remains.
 
rbg