Thursday, July 21, 2011

NEW IBERIA’S FOUNDING FATHER

This morning, an invitation for me to attend a fundraiser at the Bayou Teche Museum in New Iberia, Louisiana, where I live part of the year, inspired many thoughts about New Iberia’s founding father, Don Francisco Bouligny. Although I’m at my desk in Sewanee, Tennessee, I have a lot of material about this visionary in my files here on The Mountain.

Visitors to New Iberia, Queen City of the Teche, frequently and mistakenly view the city as a town settled by Acadians, but the flatboats that came up the Teche in 1779 were, in fact, propelled by Malaguenos who arrived at the bend in the bayou near the upper limits of New Iberia. A former New Iberia historian, Maurine Bergerie, who wrote They Tasted Bayou Water, tells us that the Malaguenos camped under a large live oak that stood at the intersection of Darby Lane and the St. Martinville highway. Members of the Romero, Villatoro, Segura, Ortiz, and other families from Malaga were led by Lieutenant Colonel Don Francisco Bouligny who had been sent by King Charles II of Spain to the Attakapas District of Louisiana to establish a settlement.

Today, at a different location on Main Street in New Iberia, a bust of Bouligny and a historic plaque, located behind the gazebo in the city plaza, identify him as putative founder of Nueva Iberia, and other historians claim that the City Plaza marks the gently sloping site of the original Malaguenos landing on Bayou Teche. Regardless of the site designated for the original settlement of New Iberia, Bouligny is honored as the visionary leader of the Queen City.

Who was this man who empowered a small group of Malaguenos to leave their sunny country and travel to a swampy, uncharted area of Louisiana where floods, hurricanes, and mosquitoes abounded, to build huts constructed of sticks stuck in the ground and covered with palmettos? Bouligny, their intrepid leader, wrote to Louisiana’s Spanish governor, Galvez, that Louisiana was an area which contained grass so thick that a single team of oxen couldn’t make an opening to the prairie stretching beyond.

Earlier in the year of 1779, Bouligny had attempted to establish a settlement close to a tribe of Chitimacha Indians and near the town of present-day Charenton. However, during a typical rainy Spring in April, Bayou Teche inundated the settlement and the tribal Native American villages with almost eight feet of water. Undaunted, Bouligny and his band of Malaguenos moved to the present site of New Iberia, which was then ten feet above the cresting level of Bayou Teche. After overseeing the building of rude shelters, he ordered flax and hemp seeds from Governor Galvez, and the settlers planted them. When these crops failed, they turned to raising cattle in an area near what is now called Spanish Lake. According to Maurine Bergerie, the colonists who settled New Iberia were not granted concessions but gained possession of their land by the public surveyor. Later, following the Louisiana Purchase, these families had to obtain recognition of their land titles from the U.S. government.

Just before Bouligny began his adventure to Louisiana, his wife gave birth to Francisco Joseph Ursino, and Bouligny was able to witness the baptism of his son before departing for the New World. After the settlement became established, Governor Galvez offered to bring Dona Bouligny to New Iberia to live. Bouligny thanked him graciously and never brought his wife to the primitive town on Bayou Teche.

In 1853, a single account describing Bouligny’s appearance was written by Benjamin French in his Historical Memoirs of Louisiana. He describes the Colonel as “rather tall and slight, with a noble military bearing, easy and dignified in his manner and warm in his friendship. So mild and conciliatory were his actions that obedience went hand in hand with his command; while his ardor and zeal for the service of his country seemed rather to reach the post of danger than to avoid it.” Historians question the accuracy of this flowery description, but the words certainly imbue Bouligny with a heroic persona.

An unknown artist also painted a portrait of Bouligny and his wife Marie Louise, which is now in the Historic New Orleans Collection. No one knows the date the portrait was rendered, but historians surmise that it was painted when Bouligny came to Louisiana in 1777 as Lieutenant Governor of the State. An inventory in Bouligny’s succession indicates that he had numerous books in his personal library and that he was a cultured man of the 18th Century Enlightenment. Others alluded to him as a man of confidence who was determined to make a name for himself.

Bouligny encouraged the struggling Malaguenos to build new homes of mud and moss, to construct a Royal warehouse, and to raise stock. Fifteen years after the founding of New Iberia when Etienne Bore revolutionized the sugar industry by converting cane juice to sugar, the settlers began to grow the prolific sugar cane that remains a stable industry in Teche country.

In August, 1779, only a few months after Bouligny had secured a permanent settlement on the banks of the Teche, he received a report that Spain had declared war on England and that Governor Galvez had begun marshalling forces against the British forts on the Mississippi River. Bouligny gathered a group of the new settlers of New Iberia and joined the Governor’s forces. By September 3, he was at Plaquemine with a small army of twenty-five slaves, five soldiers, two deserters, two farmers, one militiaman, two volunteers, and two Americans, according to Gilbert Din, author of Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Bouligny.

While fighting the War of the Revolution, Bouligny received word that Nicholas Forstall had replaced him as commandant of Nueva Iberia. In 1800, he died in New Orleans just before becoming a brigadier general. After the war, he never returned to his little colony on Bayou Teche, but his settlement gradually flourished and has now become a city of 32,000 inhabitants. Today, New Iberia a model in acculturation of descendants of Spanish, French, Acadians, Indians, English, German, and Creoles who live side by side in a city settled by Don Francisco Bouligny and his courageous band of Malaguenos.

Note: My young adult book of fiction about Bouligny and the Malaguenos settling of New Iberia, entitled Flood on the Rio Teche, has been placed in the library at Alhaurin de la Torre, Spain, a place that has been twinned with New Iberia. The book was purchased and taken back to Spain by Manuel Lopez, an employee of the Department of Culture in Alhaurin de la Torre who visited New Iberia several years ago. Copies of this book can be purchased online with Border Press (www.borderpressbooks.com).

Photograph of Bouligny’s statue by Kelly Roark, VP of Operations, Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce, New Iberia, Louisiana.
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