Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Bicentennial Kick-off

West Florida Republic Bicentennial Kick-off
in St. Francisville, LA

by Anne Butler

LouisianaThe invitations aptly call it A Gathering of Forces, summoning the public for ceremonies to kick off the year-long bicentennial celebration of those momentous events that culminated in the wresting of Louisiana’s Florida Parishes from Spanish control in 1810 and set off the rolling wave of revolutions that shaped the entire country. Guests are invited to gather on September 27 at 2 p.m. on the proposed site of the memorial Republic Park beside the parish courthouse in St. Francisville, with state and local luminaries, scholars of history and costumed period re-enactors firing cannon salutes and toasting the ‘Old Republic’ as the Bonnie Blue Flag of the proud Republic of West Florida is raised and the coming year’s events are revealed. Keynote speakers include Dr. Sam Hyde of Southeastern Louisiana University and Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne.

And as these gathered dignitaries cast their eyes about them in historic St. Francisville, which in 1810 served as the capital of the fledgling West Florida Republic, they can see not only some structures which have stood witness to those past 200 years, but also some descendants of the very men who risked life and limb to lead the rebellion against Spanish tyranny. Spanish commandant Carlos de Grand Pre referred to those leaders, mostly Anglo residents of the Feliciana district which was the most populous part of West Florida, as “inclined to insubordination and prone to insurgency,” and he would soon find out how true his words would ring through history.

bayou saraTiring of the lengthy international diplomatic wrangling over just where the eastern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 actually was, depending on which treaty was cited as France and England and Spain shifted the territory among themselves, the Anglo settlers of West Florida ousted the Spanish officials continuing to claim territory east of the Mississippi River and implemented their own independent republic, carefully conceived with constitution, militia, elected officials and a promise of more equitable government.

Dispatches from the legislative chambers where the leaders of the Republic of West Florida met in the fall of 1810 came from the St. Francisville Hotel. While this structure, originally located on one corner of what is now the courthouse square, is no longer in existence, surely the ringing tones of stirring orations by local rebellion leaders like William Barrow, John Mills and John Hunter Johnson could be heard at the adjacent townhouse now called the Barrow House.

Built around 1809 by the town jailer and later owned by the local postmaster who advertised it for sale in 1812 as “well calculated for a store and private family” on a lot not inferior to any in the village, this two-story saltbox with cottage addition became home to William Barrow’s descendant Dr. A. Feltus Barrow in the 1890’s. Dr. Barrow was an old-time horse-and-buggy doctor and town mayor; when he returned from exhaustive trips visiting patients in remote regions, he relished his bath and had an enormous clawfoot tub installed next to a downstairs window, from which he could lean to hold court for local miscreants or direct the treatment of patients dripping with blood.

Illustration by David Norwood
"Ambush on Royal St." by David Norwood

One of Dr. Barrow’s numerous relatives, Capt. John Barrow, was sheriff during the trying times of Reconstruction following the Civil War and was ambushed right across Royal Street, where he had just paid a visit to his barber in the structure called the Cabildo. Capt. Barrow was handed a note and had stepped back into the shaded doorway of the Cabildo to read it out of the sun’s glare when he spotted a stranger aiming a rifle at him from the opposite side of the street as a bullet fired from another direction struck the doorway where he had been standing. Drawing his pistol, Capt. John quickly dispatched the culprits, sending one to meet his maker and the others hightailing it out of town. The sheriff lived to tell the tale to his daughter Margaret Leake Barrow Norwood, who preserved it for posterity.

By 1824 the Cabildo, a significant structure with heavy hand-hewn joists and sturdy walls of handmade bricks 22 inches thick, was serving as the first West Feliciana Parish courthouse after the original Feliciana parish was divided into two, with court meeting in the upper chambers above the local bank. Earlier uses of the building suggest the artist John James Audubon patronized Maximillian’s Tavern there, perhaps on his way to purchase art supplies at the neighboring brick townhouse now called Propinquity.


In the 1820’s German-born Dietrich Holl and his nephew Maximillian Nubling operated a store at Propinquity, a sturdy structure built around 1809 by John Mills, the Scotsman who founded the riverport of Bayou Sara around 1790. Mills held the early Spanish land grant that would become Rosedown Plantation, where he planted indigo and cotton utilizing the labor of slaves despite his disapproval of what he branded “that Inhumane commerce.” Like plantation owner William Barrow, Mills was part of the Anglo migration southward from the East Coast in the late 1700’s. He had partnered in a Natchez District sawmill venture with Isaac Johnson, an Englishman from Liverpool, until a spring freshet washed away the mill and the two men moved on down into the Felicianas. Johnson’s eldest daughter married Mills’ son Gilbert.

louisianaIt was on Johnson’s Troy Plantation that much of the substantive planning for the West Florida Rebellion would take place, just south of where his son John H. Johnson founded the town of St. Francisville on the bluff above Mills’ settlement at Bayou Sara; a namesake grandson would become Louisiana’s 13th governor. On September 11, 1810, Major Isaac Johnson and a troop of mounted Feliciana dragoons captured the Spanish fort at Baton Rouge and unfurled the republic’s famous banner, a lone white star on a blue field hastily sewn by Johnson’s wife.

Only a superb classical wellhouse remains of Troy Plantation; in the 1880’s as then-owner Dr. I.U. Ball returned upriver by steamboat from a trip to New Orleans, he spotted smoke rising on shore and exclaimed, “Troy is burning!” and so it was. But all around the courthouse square in St. Francisville are structures that bore witness to the heroic revolution and heady days of the short-lived Republic of West Florida and to the brave gathering of forces whose descendants join in celebration this bicentennial year. A striking monument, its simple obelisk crowned with a single star, has been designed by William Barrow’s descendant, artist David Norwood, as focal point of the Republic Park, where visitors are invited to gather on September 27th to kick off a year of commemorative events.

The St. Francisville area features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations every weekend to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs; during the year-long commemoration of the West Florida Rebellion, many of these programs will have a bicentennial focus.

The nearby Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, home of the country’s largest bald cypress tree, and the adjacent Tunica Hills region offer unmatched recreational activities in unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are unique specialty shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area, as well as some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts for overnight stays, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district.

For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.