Louis LeFleur, Frontiersman

Surprisingly little has been written about Louis LeFleur, who gave his name to Jackson’s Pearl River bluff and became the father of the last chief of the Choctaw Nation, Greenwood LeFlore, and much of it is inaccurate, the most glaring error being that he was a French-Canadian when in fact he was born in the tiny French colony of “Mobille” surrounding Fort Condé on the Gulf of Mexico. Louis LeFleur was born Louis LeFlau; since by custom Louis eventually came to be known as LeFleur, we’ll use that name throughout to refer to him as LeFlore will be used in reference to his son Greenwood.

Louis’ father, Jean Baptiste LeFlau came from France in the early 18th century as a soldier in the Fort Condé garrison. In 1735, he married Jeanne Boissinot, a native of Mobile, who bore him three children before her death in 1752. Jean Baptiste then married Jeanne Girard in 1753 and Louis, their third child, was born on June 29, 1762. There are no records of Louis LeFlau after his baptismal entry of 1762 until around 1790, but it’s certain that during this time he began trading with Native Americans, primarily the Choctaws, and likely operated flat-boats on the Amite and Pearl Rivers as well as in the Mississippi Sound.

LeFleur epitomizes those men of the American frontier who plied their trade along the navigable rivers in a wilderness before, during and even after the advent of steamboats and the eventual dominance of rail. In Antebellum Natchez James D. Clayton writes that “L. LeFleur (sic), father of a celebrated Choctaw Chieftain of a later era, operated with handsome profits the main boat shuttle to Pensacola, carrying produce and commodities.” He brought luxury items to the prosperous city of Natchez, including “fine apparel” which “had been ordered from Panton, Leslie, and Company of St. Marks in east Florida.” The boats LeFleur and those like him used were flatboats or keelboats that were manned by a crew of up to twenty-five people. The goods LeFleur routinely carried were much less luxurious used in his trade with the Choctaw, and the pelts he secured were sold in the trading houses at St. Marks and Pensacola. Corn and other farm products were sold in the markets at both Florida towns and in Natchez as well.

Sometime around 1790, LeFleur cheerfully adopted the Choctaw system of polygamy and married both Nancy and Rebecca Cravat, the half-French nieces of the Choctaw Chief Pushmataha. LeFleur moved his growing family—three children were born by 1798—to Pass Christian, but with the establishment of the Choctaw Agency near present-day Jackson, he chose as a location for a new home a high bluff on the west side of the Pearl River, rising some twenty-five feet above the crest of the floods and extending along the river for several hundred feet. With the opening on the Natchez Trace under the treaty of Fort Adams in 1801, LeFleur opened a way station in the same location where traders, travelers and mail carriers could secure fresh horses. This station rapidly became an inn providing bed and board as well as entertainment. The actual site of this trading post is disputed. Greenwood was the first of the “LeFlau” sons to be born at LeFleur’s Bluff on June 2, 1800. He was named for the Greenwood in the firm of Greenwood and Higginson who were the London correspondents of the founder of Panton and Leslie.

LeFleur still operated his profitable boating trade, securing commissions from General William C.C. Claiborne, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the newly organized (1798) Mississippi Territory to carry “certain goods sent by the United States as presents to the Choctaw Nation of Indians.” He also carried messages to the Governor of the Province of Louisiana. In addition to being entrusted with the delivery of merchandise making up the government annuity payments to the Choctaw Nation, Louis was asked to be present at the occasions when terms of treaties were negotiated. Louis “Leflow” is listed as one of the witnesses to the Treaty of Mount Dexter on November 16, 1805, which conveyed large amounts of land in what is now southeastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama, including much of the western portion of Clarke County, Alabama, to the United States.

By 1810, operation of the inn and raising cattle had become LeFleurs main enterprises, and he, along with Louis Durant, was said to have introduced cattle into Mississippi. Travelers from the east and from foreign lands have mentioned the accommodations at the Bluff and at the inn he established in 1812 at the place now known as French Camp. At French Camp, LeFleur had a number of buildings erected and it was here in 1812 that Major John Donly, who held the U.S. Government contract for transporting the mail on the Nashville-Natchez route, suggested to Louis that he be allowed to take young Greenwood home to Nashville with him in order that the boy might receive an “American education”, and LeFleur consented. Louis served with Pushmataha under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and was promoted to the rank of major (brevet). He also served three months in 1814 in command of a company on Russell’s expedition to Alabama. He later served in the campaign to Pensacola in 1814-15.

With the introduction of the steamboat on the Mississippi River—the New Orleans was the first steamboat down the Mississippi in 1811—commerce along the Trace fell, but LeFleur expanded his agricultural interests and in a decade tripled their acreage in cultivation and heads of cattle. Greenwood was elected Chief of the Northwestern Division of the Choctaws, but when Jackson was elected president in 1828 he pursued a policy of negating the treaties between the U.S. and the Choctaws, and with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) the Choctaws were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands. In a survey of freeholds within the Choctaw lands is a record for “Louis LeFlau, 300 acres in cultivation in the Yazoo Valley; five in family with four males over 16”. Major LeFlau was to receive two sections of land according to the Supplement to the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was a tragedy for the Choctaws and it caused deep rifts in the LeFlau/LeFleur/LeFlore family. Details are sketchy, but Greenwood is in the fifth and last level of behests in Louis’ will, which was signed April 16, 1833. Louis LeFleur died that same year, and while his gravesite is unknown, family tradition states that he was buried in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which is very near LeFlore County, Oklahoma.

(Note: This article is a brief summation of preliminary research towards a more thorough examination of Louis LeFleur and should not be considered definitive.)

Oysters Roffignac

Many of you might know the Roffignac cocktail, a fruity drink that the effete among us pretend to enjoy when they’re seriously jonesing for a beer, but for those of us with a realistic bent we have oysters Roffignac, a roguish and astoundingly good dish. This recipe comes by way of Howard Mitcham, who says the Roffignac, once on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, was the most popular restaurant in antebellum New Orleans, founded by the family of the French nobleman who became the city’s tenth mayor in 1820. Howard claims that oysters Roffignac was the first “baked” oyster dish in New Orleans, and if we can’t believe Howard Mitcham in that regard, then we can’t believe anybody. (Trust me.) You’ll not find many oyster recipes that use red wine, and even fewer using paprika as a principal flavoring, but you’re going to be immeasurably surprised at how wonderful this combination can be. Add this dish to your repertoire as a hearty alternative to a sissy Bienville or Rockefeller.

For four servings:
2 dozen fresh oysters in their shells
1/2 lb. peeled boiled shrimp (about a pound raw in the shell)
A half dozen scallions, finely chopped
About a dozen small button mushrooms, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon paprika
A dash of cayenne
About a half cup of dry red wine

Clean oysters of mud and hangers-on, shuck and reserve liquid. Heat butter, add scallions, garlic, shrimp, mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are done through. Dissolve cornstarch in about ¼ cup water, add to pan, quickly add wine and oyster liquor as mixture thickens. Top oysters and broil until cooked through. Serve with lemon and parsley.

The Ballad of Doc Bishop

This verse, written by Dottie Moore of Pontotoc County, is justly more about Texas lawman William Wise than Doc Bishop, an outlaw who murdered Wise in October, 1884. What a Ft. Worth detective was doing in Calhoun County then is complicated—and ambiguous—even when detailed in Selcer and Foster’s Written in Blood: The History of Fort Worth’s Fallen Lawmen, Volume 1, 1861-1909, which I’ll reproduce in a later entry, but his murder initiated a reinstatement of justice in an area scoured by war. Bishop was hanged on July 3, 1886, “the first white man legally hanged in the state of Mississippi since the Civil War”. Selcer says that this ballad is a “variation on the more famous ‘Ballad of Sam Bass’ and ‘Ballad of Jesse James’”. He also notes that the ballad was frequently sung—to what tune we don’t know—at folk gatherings for over fifty years.

When I lie down at night to rest
And slumber deep steals o’er me,
As I close my heavy eyes in sleep,
Dark visions pass before me.

I see a calm still moonlight night,
No breath of air is stirring;
No sound the silence breaks, except
The wings of insects whirring.

I see a forest deep and dark,
A man walks through it quickly,
Now in the shade, now in the light
Where the dark leaves mingle thickly.

A man with soft, brown, shining eyes,
And gold brown hair o’er lying,
And daring courage on his face,
On his own strength relying.

He treads the darksome forest through,
Where outlaws lie in hiding,
No fearful thought in his strong heart,
The thought of fear, deriding.

He is a bold, true officer
Attending to his duty,
No thought he gives to nature bright,
Nor the night’s calm, holy beauty.

He follows scraps of paper thrown
Into the path before him,
By one in whom his trust he placed
Who threw a glamour o’er him.

He’s walking swiftly to his doom,
But alas! He does not know it;
He sees naught of the danger there,
Oh, God! If thou would show it!

A little distance on ahead
Are two oak trees, o’er bending,
Behind which two cold hearted men
Evil faced are standing.

Crouched, with weapons cocked in hand,
Awaiting for his coming,
They make no sound to warn their prey
Of the awful risk he’s running.

He’s nearer, he’s almost in their hands,
Will nothing now delay him
From those who plotted, worked and planned
To murder and betray him?

Ah! No, for now he steps along
In the path marked out before him;
He sees the fiendish daces not,
No sense of fear steals o’er him.

Another step, Great God! A shot!
Of oaths and groan a medley;
Another shot! And the ground around
With his lifeblood, gleams redly.

“Tis done, a noble soul is sent
to the land of Heavenly Glory;
a brave detective low is laid
by hands all red and gory.

O, Heavenly Father, pity her,
Whose heart will now be broken,
Grant her in mercy, from thy throne,
Some sweet, peace-giving token.

Help her to bear the awful blow,
Her heart with thy grace cover;
She, in the far off “Lone Star” state,
Awaits her husband lover.

Be thou a friend to this fair child,
As much as to the mother,
Oh, Father of the fatherless,
Than Thee, they have no other.

The murderers, here, may still go free,
By lawyers shrewd, defended,
Free in this world, but yet the next,
Shall see their triumph – ended.
–Dottie Moore

 

Eudora’s Cereus Society

Eloquence and concision are hard to find in academic writers, but Suzanne Marrs achieves it with aplomb in this beautiful passage about Eudora’s gay circle of the ‘30s.

“Though she would join the Junior League in deference to her friends who were already members, Eudora’s interests were rather different and her circle of friends more wide-ranging. Four young men were particularly important to her, and all were iconoclastic sorts. Nash Burger had returned to Jackson from the University of the South and had become a teacher at Central High School, Lehman Engel summered in Jackson while he was studying at Juilliard, Hubert Creekmore was back in residence after attending the Yale School of Drama, and Frank Lyell visited during his summer vacations from Princeton.

During summers of the early thirties, the group gathered frequently at the Welty house to drink and talk and laugh and listen to music—literature and the theater and the New York scene filled their conversations, and they loved hearing both classical music and jazz. They also engaged in activities that Lehman eventually labeled “camp.” When Jackson ladies, for instance, advertised that their night-blooming cereuses would be in flower on a given night and invited one and all to witness the annual bloomings, Eudora and her friends attended.

They went on to name themselves the Night-Blooming Cereus Club and took as their motto a slightly altered line from a Rudy Vallee song: “Don’t take it cereus (sic), Life’s too mysterious.” Years later, in The Golden Apples, Eudora would use the “naked, luminous, complicated flower” as an emblem of life’s beauty and its fragility, and she would have a character repeat what one Jackson lady had said about the cereus bloom, “Tomorrow it’ll look like a wrung chicken’s neck.”

But at the time, none of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club members anticipated such symbolic implications of their activities. For them the cereus was and remained an emblem of good fellowship, of the pleasure imaginative individuals could share if they embraced the world around them.”

Queen of Night

 

 

 

Smith Park: A Mississippi Landmark

Smith Park is the oldest city park in the nation, and for that reason alone should be declared a Mississippi Landmark. In addition, although there has never been a formal archaeological study of the park, it represents the only undisturbed square in downtown Jackson and may hold as much archaeological value as a site as it does historical value as a park. Another compelling reason is that Smith Park is home to monuments of the state’s history and the capital city, monuments that deserve protection from the caprice and greed of municipal developers.

President Thomas Jefferson conceived of a basic municipal plan for Mississippi’s capital city in 1821, and Smith Park is the only remnant of his “checkerboard plan” that had a green space on every other square. The park was officially established on February 16, 1838, when the Mississippi Legislature voted to dispose of all unsold land given by the federal government “… except such blank squares as deemed necessary to be reserved as commons, for the health, ornament, and convenience of the city of Jackson.”

Smith Park is named for James Smith, Jr., son of James and Ann Preston Smith of Edinburgh, Scotland, who was born in 1816. Smith immigrated to the United States in 1832, and opened a hardware store on State Street in Jackson. Smith moved back to Scotland In the 1850s, due to his wife’s ill health. Smith became a millionaire from the sale of iron stoves acquired under the name of Smith’s Jackson hardware store and marketed in Great Britain and elsewhere by the firm Smith and Wellstood, Ltd. Smith died on April 11, 1886.

In May 1883, Jackson’s mayor and board of aldermen adopted an ordinance authorizing the mayor “…to solicit subscriptions of cash or donations of material for the purpose of putting a suitable fence around the square owned by the city in the rear of the Executive Mansion, and that he purchase a deficit of material needed, and at such time during the summer as he may select, that he enclose said square and put such gates as may be deemed necessary.” On January 1, 1884, Mayor John McGill wrote, “I mentioned the matter to a number of parties, and had promises of assistance, but received nothing from anyone except Mr. James Smith, a former resident of Glasgow, Scotland, who was here on a visit to his old home and friends. He gave me $100, $95 of which I paid on account of lumber purchased, and $5 to Mr. Phil Hammond on his account for building the fence.”

In the April 4, 1888, minutes of the Jackson city aldermen, a Mr. C.L. Gaston wrote: “Mrs. Gaston received a letter from Mr. James B. Smith, of Sterling, Scotland, informing her that he and his two brothers Messrs. Robert and William Smith had on hearing of the city’s improvement of the Public Park named in honor of their father, the late Mr. James Smith, of Glasgow, determined on contributing twelve cast-iron benches or settees.”

A bandstand was built in 1890, and Smith Park was open to black citizens as early as 1897. In the early 1900s, the bandstand was ordered repaired and the Jackson light and power company was asked to install lighting in the structure. Smith Park has always had a water feature, including at one time a goldfish pond and a fountain at the Amite-West Street entrance. On New Year’s Day, 1918, a pergola and fountain were erected on the southwestern edge of the park across from St. Peter’s Catholic Church as a memorial to one of Jackson’s most beloved citizens, W.J. Davis, “The man who led/Where others groped.” Davis founded the LaVernet Stock Farm near the outskirts of the city, “the means of which the advantages and availability of Jackson, Hinds County and Mississippi as a stock raising section was abundantly and decisively advertised to the world.” (Jackson Daily News, Thursday, Jan. 3, 1918, p. 6) This memorial, the oldest landmark in Smith Park, is still standing, but is not included in the proposed “renaissance” by the so-called “Friends of Smith Park” and Downtown Jackson Partners.

In April, 1934 the Order of the Eastern Star dedicated a memorial on the northeastern edge of the park to Robert Morris, whose home once stood across the park on Congress. Morris founded the Order of the Eastern Star at the Little Red Schoolhouse (Eureka Masonic College) in Holmes County. This monument to the founder of the Order is a shrine to its members, but it is not included in the “renaissance” proposal put forth by the so-called “Friends of Smith Park” and Downtown Jackson Partners, who clearly plan to destroy this vital piece of Mississippi history. Another significant landmark, the pavilion in the east central portion of the park, was constructed during the Depression, perhaps at the same time (late 1930s) as similar stone structures at the Jackson Zoo, including the former rhinoceros house, old concession stand, and old restrooms. This is the only landmark retained under the “renaissance” proposal.

On February 10, 1950, the Jackson Daily News declared, “Smith Park was donated to the city for park purposes and should be used only for park purposes,” purposes which surely include repose in the shade, leisurely walks and a soothing flow of water. In 1973, the park was redesigned, with wide walkways, an amphitheater featuring an A-frame band shell, a wooden stage with sunken seating area, and, the most beautiful and prominent feature, an artificial river designed by award-winning landscape artist and then city landscape architect Rick Griffin. This water feature includes a dramatic fountain on the northeast whose waters feed into a stream bed that encircles the park beneath walkways, in a flowing pool before the A-frame stage, ending on the southeast in a pool with a drain and pump that recirculates the water back to the fountain. The project was completed in 1975, the park re-dedicated that September. The “renaissance” proposal does not include a water feature and would also cut the oldest trees in the park, it’s only shade from the strong Mississippi sun.

In 1976, Smith Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but this is insufficient protection for the oldest park in the state. Unless Smith Park is afforded protected status as a Mississippi Historical Landmark, the site will be subject to the whims of irresponsible municipal developers. It’s time to preserve the park as a shaded jewel in the state’s epicenter.

Memory Fair

The fence separating our house from the county fairgrounds ran almost two hundred yards north to south along our property and the Becketts’ next door. There were holes through it along its length, some with a path under them, most of them cut either by the older Beckett boys Jerry and Rodney, or it might well have been Bill and Bob Cooper, since they always seemed to be up to something and usually were. It certainly never occurred to me or Tom to cut holes in that fence; we didn’t have to. We never snuck into the fair, either. Honest! Oh, there were plenty kids in the neighborhood who did, mostly boys on a dare, and some who didn’t have the price of admission. We could hear them sneaking through the woods in back of our house, and the dogs would bark until someone shouted from the trees for them to hush and they would, but we had no reason to care. We knew that it was better to sneak onto the fairgrounds after the fair, because you could always find money people had dropped; lots of change and the occasional bill. Tom found a twenty one time and spent it all on comic books, most of them Archies.

The fairgrounds had a big metal barn on the north where the canning, produce and crafts were judged and the civic organizations had their exhibits, and had roofed livestock stalls as well as a little stage in a depression on the east side of the area for shows and pageants. The midway was set on a broad sloping ground about the size of a football field, maybe a little larger, with the concessions in the center and the rides scattered around the periphery, except for the tilt-a-whirl, which always seemed to be in the middle. The Ferris wheel seemed always to be on the west side of the grounds, which meant we could see its lights turning through our windows as we fell asleep on autumn nights. I’ll never forget the year the fair included a one-ring circus and in the mornings we would awaken to the trumpeting of an elephant and the roar of a lion; magic filled the air. Barbara gave us buckets and made us get the elephant poo for her azaleas; the next April her Pride of Mobiles were frothy bonfires of pink and brilliant red.

On these warm still nights in the first week of every October from where I live now nearby the state fairgrounds, when I hear the faint barkers, the sporadic music or the occasional random shout from distant crowd, I’m a child again seeing the Ferris wheel spin above the trees, and for just a little while I’m home again, no longer an old man in a filthy city during a dry month.