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Early Days

A Book from British West Florida

David Hume, The History of England. London: A. Millar, 1763.
LLMVC DA30 .H9 1763 Rosedown

Hume History of England

For the wealthy Turnbull family of St. Francisville, Louisiana, books were treasured belongings. They probably owned several hundred volumes when they built Rosedown Plantation in the 1830s on what was then still the southwest frontier. A few books in the Rosedown library were acquired by Daniel Turnbull, the family patriarch, and his wife Martha during their student days in Philadelphia. However, most appear to have been purchased during summer sojourns in the North and Europe or on visits to nearby New Orleans.

One book from the collection, displayed here, shows that books played a role in the life of the Turnbull family almost from the moment of their arrival in the New World. Daniel inherited this volume from his uncle, Walter Turnbull, who immigrated from Scotland around 1770 to West Florida, a short-lived British colony that extended along the Gulf Coast from Baton Rouge to Pensacola. Although we are not sure what Walter Turnbull’s standard of living was at that time, we know from this book that he had at least some time to devote to reading.

A faded inscription on the title page indicates that he purchased the book in 1775 from Alexander McIntosh, one of the earliest settlers of what are now called the Florida Parishes of Louisiana. McIntosh himself, according to the inscription, acquired the book from Francis Poussett, another British planter and speaker of the Assembly of West Florida during its first session in 1766-67. This inscription reveals that books were owned and exchanged in English-speaking Louisiana—initially one of the British Empire’s most distant outposts—from the very earliest period of settlement.

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Philosophy on the Southern Frontier

Claude Adrien Helvétius, De l’homme. London: Chez la Société Typographique, 1774.
LLMVC B2043 .D33 1774 Rosedown

Helvetius De l'Homme

Shown here is another book that belonged to one of the earliest European settlers of the lower Mississippi Valley. Gabriel Benoist (d. 1798) was described in the Journal of Andrew Ellicott as “a French gentleman” who from “an ardent passion for liberty… left his own country and espoused the cause of the United States.” In 1788, he settled at Natchez, a former French and Spanish trading post in what is now Mississippi. According to a descendant, in addition to household furnishings and “an exceedingly handsome” piano (surely one of the first ever seen in the Old Southwest), he brought many books with him from France. This is confirmed by a few surviving volumes with Benoist’s name inscribed in them.

The books were some of the finest products of the French Enlightenment and included fourteen finely bound volumes of the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, works on minerals, navigation and mathematics, and writings of French philosophers like Helvétius and Marmontel. Benoist’s son Robert (1795-1819), who graduated with a master’s degree from Princeton in 1816, may have used them in his studies. After Robert’s untimely death, they made their way to Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, where his widow Rosina lived for a time with her cousin Martha Turnbull.

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A French Colonial Library

Pierre-Clément de Laussat, Mémoires sur ma vie. Pau: E. Vignancourt, 1831.
Vault 020

Laussat Memoires

Born in 1756 in the Pyrenees region of southern France, Pierre-Clément de Laussat was appointed governor of Louisiana in 1802. His hopes for a distinguished administrative career were dashed, however, when, not long after his departure for his new post in January 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte sold the vast colony to the United States to fund his wars in Europe. Laussat spent just over a year in Louisiana, overseeing its official transfer to the Americans. He later wrote about his experiences in this rare memoir privately published for his family shortly before his death.

Throughout his life, Laussat was an avid reader. As a student, his Jesuit teachers forbade the reading of all modern authors except Boileau, Rousseau, and expurgated versions of Fenelon’s Télémaque. In the Basque country of Spain, where Laussat lived for a while with one of his grandfathers, he discovered Cervantes and Feijóo. Later, in Paris, he was an “enthusiastic observer” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who lived across the street from one of Laussat’s cousins. He tells us that he would often sneak into the great philosopher’s apartment to watch him read or play the piano. To learn English during the “Anglomania” of the 1780s, he “tortured” himself reading Hume, Gibbon, Blackstone, and others.

Over time, Laussat assembled a large library worth ten thousand francs, “a collection including copies of the finest authors in every genre.” He brought many books (possibly more than 500) with him to Louisiana to keep his mind occupied and pass the time. He complained, though, that the extreme heat and humidity of the Louisiana summer (“July especially moved along as if escorted by Sirius with his flaming breath”) quickly caused his books to become covered with a permanent mildew.

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A Dear and Faithful Companion

Bookplate of Pierre-Clément de Laussat, in Collection complète des travaux de M. Mirabeau l’ainé, à l’Assemblée Nationale. Paris: Devaux, 1792.
Rare DC146 .M7 A15

Bookplate of Laussat

After handing over Louisiana to the United States, Laussat embarked for Martinique. It being wartime, he had to make one of the hardest decisions of his life—the decision to leave his library behind. He says that he gave “a good number” of books away, “mostly the classics and some current works.” Others were advertised for sale in the newspaper Le Moniteur de la Louisiane. In his Mémoires, Laussat wrote a moving paragraph about the loss of his library:

One after another, I sold several of the dearest and most faithful companions of my life; it broke my heart to part with them. One lot deserted me on March 31: Montaigne—the very copy I purchased when I was nineteen and have read and reread since; J.-J. Rousseau [Laussat’s favorite author]—a small eighteen-volume set, which accompanied me on my promenades and in my travels; Montesquieu—eight volumes of twelve… ; my Corneille and my Racine, which were daily reading; and so on, and so on. They had been the witnesses and the confidants of my early studies… There was no memory, no joy, no sorrow in my life in which they had not played some part. They had followed my fate, and one of its strange aspects was that I had come to the banks of the Mississippi to separate from them. It was done! I would never see them again.

Hopefully he would be pleased that some of his books have survived and are still being used by students and scholars in Louisiana more than two-hundred years later. Laussat’s bookplate bears a Basque inscription, “He Plaa Diu Tayudi” (“Do well, God will help you”), followed by a quote from Boileau, “Le vrai seul est aimable” (“Truth alone is lovely”).

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The Favrot Family Library

Antoine Jeudy Du Gour, Collection des meilleurs ouvrages qui ont été publiés pour la défense de Louis XVI, roi des Français. Paris: F. Dufart, 1793.
Rare DC136 .A2 D44

Du Gour Collection des Meilleurs Ouvrages verso artDu Gour Collection des Meilleurs Ouvrages title page

Pierre-Joseph de Favrot (also known as Don Pedro de Favrot) was born in Louisiana in 1749. He served under the colony’s Spanish governors as commandant of the fort at Baton Rouge during the American Revolution and then of Fort St. Philip near the mouth of the Mississippi River south of New Orleans. The book displayed here was inscribed by Favrot and was part of a small library that he assembled for the use of his family. The library contained contemporary works on politics, philosophy, and natural history (including 28 volumes of Buffon’s ever-popular Histoire naturelle) as well as children’s books.

Favrot’s son Philogène shared his father’s love of literature. Stationed at Fort St. Philip during the War of 1812, he kept himself occupied by reading. Later in the war, he traveled with the U.S. Army as far north as Michigan and read books in camp, as revealed by letters to his family. Although Favrot struggled to learn English after Louisiana became part of the United States in 1803, he persisted and bought a copy of Don Quixote in English to learn “ordinary expressions in English conversation.” At some point before his death in a duel in 1822, he acquired Governor Laussat’s copy of Mirabeau’s writings, shown above.

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Starving Booksellers

Pierre-Louis Berquin-Duvallon, Vue de la colonie espagnole du Mississipi, ou des provinces de Louisiane et Floride Occidentale. Paris: Imprimerie Expeditive, 1803.
LARA F373 .B53

Berquin-Duvallon Vue de la Colonie

During his short stay in Louisiana in 1803-04, Governor Pierre-Clément de Laussat noted that “All the people in New Orleans love to read. There are no book shops or libraries, but books are ordered from France.” Laussat’s observation is somewhat surprising. It was far more common for visitors to remark on what they perceived as the city’s total lack of interest in anything having to do with books—with one exception, that is: books about commerce. In 1802, for example, the author of the book displayed here dryly remarked that a bookseller in New Orleans “would starve in the midst of his books, unless he could teach his readers the art of doubling [their] capital at the end of the year.”

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A Subscription Library

Bookplate of St. Francisville Library Co. in David Ramsay, The History of South-Carolina. Charleston: David Longworth, 1809.
Rare F269 .R17
St. Francisville Library Company membership receipt, 1815.
James Pirrie Papers, Mss. 1382

Ramsay History of South Carolina

The New Orleans Library Company, incorporated in 1805 and reorganized in 1816, was probably the largest subscription library west of the Appalachians, holding 7,200 volumes in English and French in 1824. In the same year that this library was reorganized, forty-five prominent businessmen, lawyers, and planters in rural West Feliciana Parish, about forty miles north of Baton Rouge, submitted an act to the infant Louisiana state legislature for the incorporation of a “library company” of their own. It was to be located in the parish seat, St. Francisville. Shares in the enterprise would be sold for $25 each. Additionally, subscribers would pay four dollars annually on each share, “to be appropriated as the other funds of the company.” Elected officers would include a president, clerk, treasurer, and librarian, as well as five directors, who were authorized to raise $2,000 every year for ten years by lottery, the funds to be used for the benefit of the library.

Little evidence remains as to the size and scope of this collection. The numbered bookplate shown here indicates that the volume containing it was number 76 in the library’s collection. Holdings of just a few hundred titles would not have been unusual for a library in a town of St. Francisville’s size. By comparison, in 1814 a subscription library in Cincinnati contained 300 volumes, and although slightly different in nature, a circulating library that opened in 1821 in nearby Baton Rouge—which was then only slightly larger than St. Francisville—offered access to 153 titles (226 volumes) for a small fee. Even in New England, small-town libraries of this sort sometimes owned 100 or fewer books.

St. Francisville Library Co. membership receipt

We know more about the St. Francisville Library Company’s members than about the size and content of its collection. Its charter openly states that members were “free white persons” at least twenty-one years of age, and although it does not explicitly bar women from purchasing stock, all the incorporating members were men. Most were planters, including James Pirrie and Hercules O’Connor (friends of John James Audubon during his stay in St. Francisville in 1821) and Sebastian Hiriart, a Spaniard who, in 1817, chaired a committee charged with evaluating the College of Orleans, Louisiana’s first institute of higher education. James M. Bradford—editor and publisher of a local newspaper and son of John Bradford, the “pioneer printer” of Kentucky—was a shareholder, as was Charles McMicken, a cotton merchant who left Louisiana for Ohio in 1837 and later became the chief benefactor of the University of Cincinnati.

The library company’s first librarian was David McKeehan, best remembered today as the publisher of the journal of Patrick Gass, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A schoolteacher and lawyer by training, McKeehan lost his hearing in 1801 and opened a book and stationery store in Pittsburgh, where he met Gass, transformed his journal into flowery prose, and published it. Meriwether Lewis was furious, believing it would detract attention from his own soon-to-be-published account. In the end, sales of Gass’s work were disappointing. Facing mounting debts, McKeehan moved to Natchez and then to New Orleans, publishing newspapers in both cities. By 1816 he was in St. Francisville working as a scrivener in a law office and as librarian of the town’s new subscription library.

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Books by Mail

Catalogue de la librairie de Gabriel Lavie. New Orleans: Félix Locquin, 1842.
LARA AEU0459

Catalogue Gabriel Lavie

In the 1840s, New Orleans’s publishing industry was in its infancy, but the city was home to numerous booksellers. If a book could not be purchased in a bookseller’s shop, it could be ordered from Philadelphia, New York, Boston, or even London and Paris through catalogs such as this.

Gabriel Lavie specialized in importing books from France. His catalog lists works alphabetically and by size (quarto, octavo, etc.). The list of standard works is followed by deluxe and gift books, children’s literature, religious books, and works on medicine. There are also more than 150 Spanish-language titles, including translations from French and English. New Orleans at that time was a gateway to Latin America, somewhat like Miami and Houston today. People from Spain and Mexico also settled in the countryside around New Orleans as well as in places farther afield such as New Iberia and Natchitoches.

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