WHICH SAW THE TRANSFER OF LOUISIANA TO THE UNITED STATES
When Count Alejandro O’Reilly, Irish Lieutenant-General of Spain, entered New Orleans on July 24, 1769, he came as the avenger of the disorders that followed the transfer of Louisiana to Spain by the Treaty of Paris. After putting to death some of the leaders in the revolt, he reorganized the civil government. Among other innovations he instituted the Cabildo as the law-making body for the province, to take the place of the French superior council. The meeting place was a building on the Place d’Armes. In this square, on the coming of O’Reilly, the flag of France had been displaced by that of Spain as Aubrey said, ” Gentlemen, by order of the King, my master, I absolve you from your oath of fidelity and obedience to his most Christian majesty.” The Spanish and French officers then had gone together to the cathedral, next door to the meeting place of the Cabildo.
The original building occupied by the Cabildo was destroyed in the fire of 1788, when, in less than five hours, eight hundred and sixteen buildings were burned. The loss, amounting to three million dollars, was a blessing in disguise, for it cleared the ground for the reconstruction of the city under the leadership of Don Andres Almonaster y Roxas, who was a member of the Cabildo. He had become rich since his arrival with the Spaniards, and he had a vision of a city glorified through his wealth.
First he built a schoolhouse, a church, and a hospital. On one side of the church he built a convent; on the other side he erected a new town hall, the Cabildo. The wallswhich are as sturdy to-day as in 1795are of brick, half the thickness of the ordinary brick. Shell lime was used for the mortar. Originally the Cabildo was two stories in height, with a flat roof; the mansard roof was added in 1851. At the same time the open arches of the second story loggia that corresponded to the arcade on the ground floor were closed, that there might be more room for offices.
For eight years more the Cabildo continued its sessions under Spanish rule. Then came the news that Louisiana had been transferred by Spain to France.
Great preparations were made for the ceremonies that were to accompany the lowering of the Spanish flag and the raising of the French colors in the square before the Cabildo. Then the prefect Laussat was thunder-struck by the coming of word that Napoleon had appointed a Commission not only to receive the colony from Spain but also to give it into the hands of the United States, to whom the vast territory had been sold.
The first transfer took place on November 30, 1803. The official document was signed in the Sala Capitular, the hall where the Cabildo met, and was read from the centre gallery. Then the tricolor of France replaced the flag of Spain.
December 20, 1803, was the date of the transfer to the United States. The American Commission met the French Commission in the Sala Capitular of the Hotel de Ville, or City Hall, as the French called the Cabildo. Governor Claiborne received the keys of the city, and the tricolor on the flagstaff gave way to the Stars and Stripes. A vast company of citizens watched the ceremonies, listened to the addresses, and looked at the American troops in the square, as well as at the French soldiers who were to have no further power in the province.
Grace King, in ” New Orleans, the Place and the People,” tells what followed :
” When, twenty-one days before, the French flag was flung to the breeze, for its last brief reign in Louisiana, a band of fifty old soldiers formed themselves into a guard of honor, which was to act as a kind of death watch to their national colors. They stood now at the foot of the staff and received in their arms the Tricolor as it descended, and while the Americans were rending the air with their shouts, they marched silently away, their sergeant bearing it at their head. All uncovered before it; the American troops, as they passed, presented arms to it. It was carried to the government house, and left in the hands of Laussat.”
During the years since that momentous transfer the Cabildo has continued to be the centre of historical interest in New Orleans. In 1825 Lafayette was quartered here. In 1901 President McKinley was received in the building. In 1903 the Centennial of the Louisiana Purchase was observed in the Sala Capitular, which had been for many years the meeting place of the State Supreme Court. The great hall is almost as it was when the Cabildo of Don Almonaster met there.
Since 1910 the Cabildo, in common with the Presbytere, the old Civil District Court, a building of nearly the same age and appearance, located on the other side of the Cathedral, has been the Louisiana State Museum. The curios are shown in a large hall on the ground floor. Among these is the flag used by General Jackson at the battle of New Orleans.
From this hall of relics a door leads to a courtyard, which is lined by tiers of gloomy cells. Stocks and other reminders of the old Spanish days are in evidence.
The old Place d’Armes is now called Jackson Square. On either side are the Pontalba buildings, which were erected by the daughter of Don Andres Almonaster y Roxas, who inherited millions from her generous father. On the spot where the Stars and Stripes were raised in 1803 is the statue to General Jackson, the victor of the battle of New Orleans, to which the same public-spirited woman was a large contributor.
The tomb of Don Andres is shown in the Cathedral he gave to the people, by the side of the Cabildo which he built for the city he loved.