Exploring Colonial Records at Kew

The area currently called West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana is a relatively recent entity, but one with a long history of Euro-American settlement. Prior to 1824, when it was under American administration, the area had been one half of a larger territory simply referred to as Feliciana Parish, with the remainder of the parish extending eastward to the Amite River. Prior to American period, which began in 1810 (it was not included in the Louisiana Purchase), West Feliciana Parish had also been part of several colonial Empires. Between 1784-1810, it had been part of the Spanish Empire. Prior to that, it had been controlled by the British, who obtained it from the French at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. Although the imprint of French settlement was faint in the parish, one still sees the French colonial influence in place names and surnames of inhabitants. Each successive colonial administration governed the organization and sale of territory to settlers. As a result, land claim and land tenancy records of these early settlements exist in a number of locations, both in Louisiana and in Europe.

West Feliciana Parish is flanked by the southern edge of Mississippi, the Mississippi River to its west and East Feliciana Parish to its east. Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Louisiana_highlighting_West_Feliciana_Parish.svg

The National Archives at Kew in the UK house some of the earliest records of British tenancy in the region. Under British colonial administration, West Feliciana Parish was part of a larger area known as the “Natchez District.” It was during the British period that West Feliciana Parish saw its earliest significant European settlement and the records for this movement of people now reside in Greater London. The National Archives contain a large collection of British land claims and exchanges. They also contain early surveys and other cartographic data related to the Natchez District. It was the chance to (digitally) obtain these maps that drew me to the UK this week. Ordinarily, this trip would be infeasible, especially for so short a visit. Since I was already in the Netherlands working on other research, however, the opportunity to visit the archives seemed too tempting to pass up. London is only a cheap and (relatively) quick train ride away from Amsterdam.

My interest in the property and cartographic history of West Feliciana Parish relates to a larger project I have been conducting with Dr. Sara Sundberg at the University of Central Missouri, which explores the social, gender, and environmental history of the region. West Feliciana was a borderland region during the Early Republic, recognized by settlers to be a location of significant economic potential due to its proximity to major trade routes along the Mississippi River and its fertile agricultural soils. Women and men settled the area in the 1780s under British rule and continued to expand their families and fortunes into the American period. The initial stage of this project was to map out the economic role of women during the transition from Spanish to American rule. We discovered that women played a disproportionately large role in the buying and building of family estates in the early 19th century, a fact made possible by legal and social rules facilitating this process. This part of Louisiana history has been explored by Dr. Sara Sundberg in her article “Women and Property in Early Louisiana: Legal Systems at Odds,” Journal of the Early Republic 32 (Winter 2012), 633-665 . Both Dr. Sundberg and myself expanded on this subject in a recent article in the journal Agricultural History that investigated the environmental and agricultural context of women’s land use decisions, entitled “Happy Land: Women Landowners in West Feliciana Parish Louisiana, 1813-1845” (2016). We have since expanded our scope to include the earliest settlement in the region. Who were the earliest settlers in the region and where did they site their plantations? What role did women play in the earliest settlement? Did people prioritize specific parts of the parish and why?

For a description, see: Hadden & Pearcy “1774 Map of the Mississippi, from Machac to the Yazous River” Source: Army Corps of Engineers – http://cdm16021.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16021coll10/id/8744

The first steps in resolving these questions were taken last summer with the help of my research assistant Miranda Lonsdale. Miranda, a graduating senior at Creighton University, cross referenced land title information she obtained from the American State Papers and with digitized documents available through the Louisiana Office of State Lands A summary of that early work can be found in an earlier blog post. As interesting as this information was in revealing the condition of settlement after 1819 when the Felicianas were officially incorporated into the Union, they gave only faint clues about early settlement. For this information, we are now turning to colonial records, in particular early maps.

Prior to the American period, the most thorough surveys of the Felicianas had been conducted by Vicente Sebastián Pintado, the Spanish Surveyor General of Spanish West Florida. His work included both cadastral and topographic detail and his papers can be found in the library at LSU and at the Library of Congress. Several dozen of his surveys can be found online in publicly available, digitized form through the Library of Congress website. An undergraduate researcher at Creighton, Cole Fournier, is currently georeferencing several of his maps that cover our study area. His work will help extend our scope back to the Spanish era. Although the Spanish had officially claimed the region since the 16th century, true settlement only began under the French in the 18th century and the British were the first to actively settle the Felicianas. One of the most significant early British maps of the Felicianas (indeed, the entire Natchez district) can also be found online courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers. This “William Wilton map” (1774) is a large, beautiful cadastral survey of this entire region. It gives a clear, though by no means comprehensive, overview of early British settlement, including the area of West Feliciana Parish. This was not the official map produced for the British government, however. Those maps were produced by surveyor Elias Durnbar and are available at Kew. They lack the topographic detail of Pintado’s later production and the scope of the Wilton maps, but provide additional information about the location and names of early settlers. Light Townsend Cummins has already traced the lineage of early British settlers using primary Spanish and American archives to established the enduring presence of about 30% of these settlers in the Parish. His work did not explore the geographic or demographic character of this settlement, however. These maps give us the first clue about the important connections between geography, gender and the environment in Colonial Louisiana.

The facade of the National Archives at Kew and the retaining ponds in the front of the building

The National Archives at Kew are not picturesque, not particularly accessible, nor are they the tourist draw that you see in the US or in other European countries. That said, they are incredibly well-used and thoughtfully organized. Constructed in the early twentieth century in an area that has witnessed numerous floods preceding and following their construction, the sole visually impressive feature of its exterior are a series of ponds. They are home to a family of swans and other waterfowl, but they double as a reservoir. Inside the building, the archive runs like a well-oiled machine. The combination of an online “discovery” portal and self-service monitors that allow you to request material and check on the status of your orders meant that much of the work of “getting to know” the archive was streamlined and I was easily able to explore the collections with little assistance. To make my work easier still, all of the material I was interested in were housed in two related repositories, both within the Records of the Colonial Office, Commonwealth and Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, Empire Marketing Board, and related bodies.

This example of a Durnbar survey required an entire oversized table to read. It listed the names of each grantee and depicted their location along the Mississippi (or near it)

All of the maps arrived in rolls and because of the nature of settlement (“vertically” up the Mississippi), they were typically several feet in height. Four of the five maps I requested yielded useful information about the original British land grants. Receiving “grants” from the British government did not mean that claimants actually resided in these areas. Indeed a number received grants in locations as far away as Pensacola Florida. Others received multiple grants in the same general area. An example of this latter category was Frederick Haldimand who was granted two, non-adjoining sections. The grants themselves listed a number of requirements of grantees that needed to be fulfilled within three years (including bringing land into cultivation and building a house). Even so, land grants were subject to land speculation. Grantees could lease their lands. Looking over the grantee rolls, one sees a number of familiar names, not the least of which were Elias Dunbar (the surveyor), William Wilton (mapper), and Peter Chester (Governor of West Florida). Government service apparently paid. It certainly did for veterans for the recent French and Indian War who were also allotted land in West Florida as payment for services rendered during the war.

All of the grantees with an “R.O” beside their name were officers who fought in the Seven Years War.

The map notes the presence of Tunica Indians in the bend of the Mississippi in the southwest corner of the Parish.

The relationship between land grants and later residence is a subject that warrants further investigation, as is the spatial organization of early settlement. Even a cursory analysis of the maps reveals some clear patterns. Early arpents were granted along major watercourses. Naturally, the Mississippi River was prime real estate, although the swamp on the east bank of river in the southwest of the Parish appears to have been reserved for the Tunica tribe. Settlement even extends to the bluffs of what are now the Tunica Hills. “Clark Creek,” or what is called Bayou Sara today is another nexus of settlement, as is Thompson’s Creek. This creek would eventually divide East from West Feliciana, and already in the 1770s, it saw numerous grants on both sides of the river. The triangular area between the Mississippi and Thompson Creek appears to have the greatest density of early grants. It is somewhat surprising how widespread the grants are across the parish at this early date. Long lots appear in a number of physical regions, from the alluvial swamps in the southwest, to the oak, pine, beech uplands and lowlands that clustered around Thompson Creek. The single unifying factor was access to water-based transportation. This may be an indication of the limited familiarity grantees had with the area.

These and other conclusions remain, however, tentative. I still need to georeference the surveys and add this British grant data to the master map. This data did not provide complete answers to my initial set of questions either. Much of the Parish remained unclaimed (and certainly unsettled) by the time the British administration ended. Large expanses of the interior of the parish would later by granted and settled under the Spanish, a problem and project for another day. Now, however, its time to hop the train for the Low Countries, on my way to The Hague and a return to Dutch disasters.

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