New Calais History
Pre Colonial Era
From artifacts found in former settlements along the Mississippi and White rivers, archaeologists have dated early habitation of the New Calais area to 8000 B.C. The eight earthwork mounds remaining in the city (two of which can be found on Talbot University campus) were built about 5000-3500 BC by later indigenous peoples of more complex cultures. The mounds were not used for burials, but researchers believe they had religious and social purposes. Their descendants were ancestors to the Natchez and Choctaw Native American tribes that later made the region their home,
The Coming of the French
La Nouvelle-Calais (New Calais) was founded March 12, 1716, by the French Architect, Phillippe Du Lac, on land largely abandoned by the Choctaw under the Direction of the French viscount Francois d’Ambois. It was named for the French city of Calais, from which most of its settlers hailed.
From its founding the city has grown ever eastward, toward the Mississippi River, whose water reached the original settlement (now called “Old Calais”) by way of its tributary the White River, which flows through the city to this day.
La Nouvelle-Calais was not alone in the bayous of Louisiana, in 1724 the French colonist Daniel l’Evêque founded la Porte de l’Evêque as a waypoint between Biloxi and New Orleans, upsetting the few remaining Choctaw in the process as the whole area was filled with Sacred burial mounds that, up until now had been left alone by the French.
The two settlements maintained a tense friendship, though the influx of English settlers into la Porte de l’Evêque causes some tension. It was one of these Englishmen, a wealthy British Colonial by the name of John Teesdale, who upon arriving in 1745 began building upon the largest of the mounds found in la Porte de l’Evêque, that caused the remaining Choctaw to finally abandon the region, to the dismay of many in la Nouvelle-Calais. By 1747, when the Englishman had finished his “Bishopsgate”, not a single Choctaw settlement, trapper or trader remained in the region and many of those Natives who once did business with the settlement refused to continue, despite the insistence of Mayor Louis du Lac that the settlements were not related. Many began to refer to the rival settlement as “Bishopsgate” to spite of l’Evêque.
Louis du Lac, himself the grandson of Nouvelle-Calais’s founder, finished his own plantation, the Lake house in the spring of 1756, though local legends claim that the plantation house in fact belonged to Francois D’Ambois, the mysterious benefactor of Phillippe du Lac, if this is the case, there are no records of Phillippe du Lac ever having built such a place, nor is it likely that such construction would be possible so early in the colonial period.
In 1763 following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War, the French colony west of the Mississippi River—plus New Orleans—was ceded to the Spanish Empire as a secret provision of the 1762 Treaty of Fontainebleau, confirmed the following year in the Treaty of Paris. This was to compensate Spain for the loss of Florida to the British, who also took the remainder of the formerly French territory east of the River.
Louis du Lac and his family had planned a New Year soiree to uplift the spirits of the wealthier families of la Nouvelle-Calais in 1764, in part to allay their fears of losing of their holdings. The family’s screams were heard by the arriving party guests, but Louis and his family were never found. The scandal rocked the city and had reverberations all the way in New Orleans. Shortly thereafter in 1765 the home of John Teesdale burned to the ground, rumors of arson and reprisals between the two communities nearly plunge them into war.
A year after the bloodless rebellion of 1768, Spain reasserted control of Louisiana, executing five ringleaders and sending five plotters to a prison in Cuba before formally instituting Spanish law. Other members of the rebellion were forgiven as long as they pledged loyalty to Spain. Although a Spanish governor was in New Orleans, it was under the jurisdiction of the Spanish garrison in Cuba, leaving la Nouvelle-Calais in relative peace, sending only a single administrator, Enrique Guzman, to conduct a census the following year.
In 1795 and 1796, the sugar processing industry was first put upon a firm basis. The last twenty years of the 18th century were especially characterized by the growth of commerce on the Mississippi, and the development of those international interests, creating a boom for the ever growing la Nouvelle-Calais whose trade in Indigo and Sugar were made easier by the Canal du Plaquemine, which opened in 1794, connecting the Bayou Plaquemine west of the city to the Mississippi.
The population of New Calais suffered from epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, and smallpox, which would periodically return throughout the 19th century. Doctors did not understand how the diseases were transmitted; primitive sanitation and lack of a public water system contributed to epidemics, as did the burgeoning population of sailors and immigrants, who found their way to the city by the Canal du Plaquemine.
In 1800 Spain and France signed the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso stipulating that Spain gave Louisiana back to France, though it had to remain under Spanish control as long as France wished to postpone the transfer of power.
In April 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana (which then included portions of more than a dozen present-day states) to the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase. A French prefect, Pierre Clément de Laussat, who had arrived in New Orleans on March 23, 1803, formally took control of Louisiana for France on November 30, only to hand it over to the U.S. on December 20.
The American Era
The 19th Century
The Haitian Revolution ended in 1804 and established the second republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first republic led by black people. It had occurred over several years in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Thousands of refugees from the revolution, both whites and free people of color (affranchis or gens de couleur libres), arrived in Louisiana, often bringing African slaves with them. While Governor Claiborne and other officials wanted to keep out additional free black men, the French Creoles wanted to increase the French-speaking population. As more refugees were allowed in Louisiana, Haitian émigrés who had first gone to Cuba also arrived. Those who wished to find more expansive prospects outside the port cities of New Orleans and Bishopsgate found their way to New Calais. Among them the incredibly wealthy, Lewis Sheridan, who along with his wife Louise soon founded Green Lawn, one of the largest Indigo Plantations in Louisiana.
Though the war of 1812 never reached the city, it was during this influx that rumors of pirate ships on the Mississippi river and of hidden treasure began to make their rounds in the city due in no small part to the addition of the likes of Jean Lafitte and Cervantes Santos had been recruited by the American Government. Santos himself does eventually call New Calais his home. 1812 also marks the year that Louisiana officially joins the Union.
The population of the city doubled in the 1830s to 51,000 with an influx of settlers, including textile magnate Norman Talbot, who built the grand Cornish Park estate on the edge of Dulac Park. It is because of Norman Talbot that New Calais was able to thrive even as its contemporaries, Bishopsgate and Midland found themselves all but abandoned by 1850. With the introduction of natural gas (about 1830); the building of the B Rail-Road (1830–1831), one of the earliest in the United States; the introduction of the first steam cotton press (1832), and the beginning of the public school system (1840) marked these years; foreign exports more than doubled in the period 1831–1833. Altogether there was much of the wildness of a frontier town, and a seemingly boundless promise of prosperity The crisis of 1837, indeed, was severely felt, but did not greatly retard the city’s advancement, which continued unchecked until the Civil War. In 1850 telegraphic communication was established with St. Louis and New York City; in 1851 the New Orleans & Jackson Railway, the first railway outlet northward, now part of the Illinois Central, and in 1854 the Talbot Outlet, now the Southern Pacific, were begun.
In 1836 the city was divided into three municipalities: the first being Old Calais, the second being Cornish Park and the third being Calais Proper. For two decades the three Municipalities were essentially governed as separate cities, with the office of Mayor of New Calais having only a minor role in facilitating discussions between Municipal governments.
The Civil War
Southern states seceded from the Union largely due to disputes over taxation and slavery. The first state to secede was South Carolina in December of 1860. Others states quickly followed.
In January 1861, Louisiana elected delegates to a state convention to decide the state’s course of action. The convention voted for secession 112 to 17. New Calais raised a number of volunteer companies for Confederate service, including the Pelican Guard, the River Guard, the Creole Rifles, and the New Calais Cavalry; about one-third of the town’s male population eventually volunteered.
The Confederates abandoned New Calais (which had a population of 5,429 in 1860) with little resistance, deciding that the city wasn’t important enough to defend. In August 1862, Union troops entered the city and began the occupation of New Calais. The local gaurd made a valiant attempt to retake New Calais but lost the battle and the town was severely damaged, especially in what is now called West Clay. However, the city escaped the level of devastation faced by other cities that were major conflict points during the Civil War and many of the city’s oldest structures survive to this day.
The migration of many freedmen into towns and cities in the South was reflected in growth in the black population of New Calais. They moved out of rural areas to escape white control and to seek jobs and education more available in towns, as well as the safety of being in their own communities. In 1860, blacks (mostly slaves) made up nearly one-third of the town’s population. By the 1880 U.S. census, New Calais was 60 percent black. It was not until the 1920 census that the white population of New Calais exceeded 50 percent of the total.
During the Reconstruction era, elections were increasingly accompanied by violence and fraud as whites sought to regain power and suppress black voting. Following a disputed gubernatorial election in 1872, in 1874 thousands of paramilitary White League members took over state government buildings in New Orleans for several days. Blacks continued to be elected to local office. Before the end of Reconstruction marked by the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877, the white Democratic Party politicians regained control of the city’s political institutions. They had benefited from the violence and intimidation by white paramilitary groups such as the White League to suppress black voting.
It was during this time that the perhaps the strangest story of the post-war south. The Sheridan family, owners of the Green Lawn Plantation and a number of properties within the city itself, abandoned their home after signing over the deed to Robert Greel, a former slave. The Greels converted the plantation into a haven for freed slaves that eventually grew into an independent community before being annexed by New Calais in 1883.
By 1880, New Calais was recovering economically from the war years. The population that year reached 83,142 and the city’s boundaries had expanded. The biracial coalition of the Reconstruction years had been replaced at the state level by white Democrats who loathed the Republicans, eulogized the Confederacy, and preached white supremacy. At the end of the century, white Democrats in the state legislature effectively disfranchised freedmen and other blacks, including educated Louisiana Creole people, by changes to voter registration laws and the state constitution. They passed laws imposing legal racial segregation and “Jim Crow,” imposing second-class status on African Americans. This system held into the 1960s until after passage of federal civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to enforce constitutional rights to vote.
In the 1890’s The arrival of the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railway, and the construction of the New Calais Grand Railway Terminal, stimulated investments in the local economy, attracted new businesses, and led to the development of more forward-looking leadership.
The Modern Era
Early 20th Century
The city constructed new waterworks, promoted widespread electrification of homes and businesses, and passed several large bond issues for the construction of public buildings, new schools (which were racially segregated), paving of streets, drainage and sewer improvements, and the establishment of a scientific municipal public health department. Due to the exclusion of blacks from politics through disfranchisement, the segregated facilities and residential areas for African Americans, ranging from schools to infrastructure, were underfunded. This population was historically underserved, although they received no relief from paying taxes.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the city was being industrialized due to its strategic location for the production of petroleum, natural gas, and salt. In 1929 the Northridge Aircraft Company (predecessor of present-day Northridge Industries) built a facility that lured other manufacturers. Although the Riverfront and Overbend (which was annexed in 1901) were flooded in 1912, the city escaped extensive damage then and in the 1927 Great Flood, which did extensive damage in the Mississippi Delta of Mississippi and Arkansas.
Throughout World War II, military demand for increased production at the Northridge Aircraft plant contributed to the growth of the city, generating many new defense jobs.
The Civil Rights Movement
On June 26, 1953 black citizens of New Calais began an organized boycott of the segregated municipal bus system that lasted for eight days. As they made up 80% of the riders, their boycott strongly affected city revenues and they objected to having the number of seats they could use be limited and to being forced to give up seats to white riders.
The boycott, was modeled after the Baton Rouge boycott and was led by the newly formed United Defense League (UDL), under the direction of Walter Greel, later publisher of the New Calais Chronicle; Reverend Jamie Bryce and Richard Isaacs. A volunteer “free ride” system, coordinated through black churches, supported the efforts and helped provide transportation for African Americans. Just like the Baton Rouge Boycott, the New Calais city council adopted an ordinance that changed segregated seating so that black patrons would be enabled to fill up seats from the rear forward and whites would fill seats from front to back, both on a first-come-first-served basis. They avoided problems of an earlier ordinance by stipulating that the races did not sit in the same rows.
The wave of student sit-ins that started in Greensboro NC on February 1, 1960 reached New Calais on March 28 when seven Lamont College (LC) students were arrested for sitting-in at a local lunch counter to seek service. Public education was still segregated and LC was a historically black college. The following day, nine more students were arrested for sitting-in at the Greyhound bus terminal. The next day John Lamont, an LC student and descendant of its founder, led more than 200 students on a march to the town hall to protest segregation and the arrests.
John Lamont and the 16 students arrested for sitting-in were expelled from LC and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state, threatening their education and future livelihoods. LC students organized a class boycott to win reinstatement of the expelled students. Fearing for the safety of their children, many parents withdrew their sons and daughters from the college. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of the arrested students. In 2004 they were awarded honorary degrees by Talbot University (which had absorbed Lamont College in 1967) and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor, along with students from Southern College.
In October 1961, LC students Davie Benz, Roger Trudeau and Veronica Romero founded a New Calais CORE chapter. After negotiations with downtown merchants failed to end segregation in retail stores, they called for a consumer boycott in early December, at the start of the busy holiday shopping season. Fourteen CORE pickets supporting the boycott were arrested in mid-December and held in jail for a month. More than 1,000 LC students marched into Calais Proper on December 15 to protest. Police attacked them with dogs and tear-gas, and arrested more than 50 of them. Thousands rallied on the LC campus against segregation and in support of the arrested students. To prevent further disturbances, LC administrators closed the campus four days early for Christmas vacation .
In January 1962, U.S. Federal Judge Gordon West issued an injunction against CORE that banned all forms of protest of any kind at LC. The university expelled many activist students and state police troopers occupied the campus to quell further protests. Judge West’s order was finally overturned by a higher court in 1964, but during the intervening years, civil rights activity was effectively suppressed.
In 1964 and 1965, passage of federal civil rights legislation ended legal segregation and began to enforce African Americans’ constitutional right as citizens to vote and sit on juries.
Modern New Calais
In the 1970s, New Calais experienced a boom in the pharmaceutical industry that resulted in expansion of the city away from the original center, resulting in the modern suburban sprawl. In recent years, however, government and business have begun a move back to the central district. A building boom that began in the 1990s continues today, with multi-million dollar projects for quality of life improvements and new construction happening all over the city.