Jacques de La Chaise and Karl Frederick d’Arensbourg: Challenges of Colonial Administration in French New Orleans

Daniel H. Usner – Vanderbilt University

Jacques de La Chaise landed at New Orleans in his late fifties or early sixties as a royal commissioner in charge of inspecting and monitoring Company of the Indies finances. With experience as the company’s clerk in port town of Lorient, maybe he was adequately prepared for the disorder and corruption awaiting him here. La Chaise’s obsessive vigilance and incessant accusations made himself more enemies than friends, alienating supporters of Bienville on the council along with Jesuit priests and even Ursuline nuns. His firmest ally was Father Raphael de Luxumbourg, Capuchin pastor of New Orleans, who would conduct La Chaise’s funeral service in February 1730.

La Chaise’s relatively brief career in early New Orleans was a rather typical example of imperial administrators from Europe clashing with officials of colonial origin. That role in Louisiana implicated the commissioner very deeply in the colony’s formative relationship with Lower Mississippi Valley Indians, which is the focus of my remarks. La Chaise’s efforts to tighten expenses and reduce costs for the Company of the Indies included objection to what he considered an overly generous distribution of gifts to Native allies—a practice robustly practiced by Bienville in order to accommodate Indian custom. After Bienville’s (temporary) departure from the colony, the Choctaws were most vociferous in appealing for his return, while military officers still in Louisiana accused La Chaise of jeopardizing the colony’s security with his orders to reduce both the payroll of soldiers and the volume of Indian gifts. Meanwhile the commissioner wrestled rather ambiguously with more intimate dimensions of Indian-colonial relations. Fed up with women “who do nothing but cause disorder” and “are ruined with pox,” on one front, La Chaise wanted the council to send them “into the interior among the Indians.” But on another front, he complained about missionaries who sanctioned marriages between colonial men and Native women in violation of the royal ban. This did not keep the commissioner, though, from sending a missionary to the Creek Indian town of Coweta in 1729 “in order to keep the English away from them.”

As a member of Louisiana’s Superior Council, Jacques de La Chaise regularly engaged in diplomatic relations with American Indians. In addition to participating in routine receptions of Native delegations in New Orleans, he tried to court Chickasaws away from their British alliance and called for establishment of a warehouse among the Choctaws, where both tribes “will be able to find what they need in exchange for their peltries.” Among the colony’s most valuable exports at the time, deerskins produced by Native people were a significant commodity requiring the commissioner’s careful attention in company warehouses. At least once, he traded thousands of pelts with a ship captain for money to pay clerks, sailors, and other employees. La Chaise licensed Diron d’Artaguette to trade with the Choctaws and Chickasaws, but then sided with Father Le Petit when Diron complained that the priest was bartering with Choctaws at low prices detrimental to his profits. On another occasion, the commissioner also objected to Diron’s decision to advance goods on credit to keep them from turning to the British; he feared that this practice would only motivate the Choctaws to escalate demands for better terms from the French.

The centrality and complexity of Indian relations with French Louisiana also resonated through the career of Charles (Karl) Frederick d’Arensbourg, who as a 28-year-old Swedish-born captain accompanied German colonists to Louisiana in 1721—two years before La Chaise’s arrival. D’Arensbourg served as commandant of the German Coast for a half century. His daughter Marguerite married a son of Jacques de La Chaise, also named Jacques. The German Coast commandant is perhaps best known for permitting his grandson-in-law Joseph Villere to lead militiamen downriver to New Orleans in the 1768 revolt against Spanish rule. (Joseph had married Jacques de La Chaise and Marguerite d’Arensbourg’s daughter Louise.) For playing that indirect role in the rebellion, d’Arensbourg was forced to sell his German Coast property and move to New Orleans, where he would die in 1777.

But let’s take a quick look at Charles d’Arensbourg’s involvement with Louisiana Indians. The German Coast was previously occupied and farmed by Ouachas and other Native Americans whose world had already been turned upside down by epidemics and slave raids. An Indian presence there, however, never completely ended as Houma, Chitimacha, and Biloxi Indians formed their own villages just upriver and, like the German settlers along the Mississippi, participated regularly in the region’s frontier exchange economy as reliable suppliers of food and services. Maintaining peaceful relations with Indian neighbors was an important responsibility for German Coast commandant d’Arensbourg.

One year in particular, however, proved especially challenging after a civil war erupted within the Choctaw nation, colonial Louisiana’s most populous and valuable Indian ally. This conflict resulted from widening division between Choctaw towns being enticed by British traders and officials from Carolina and those determined to preserve their alliance with France. In 1748 pro-British Choctaws targeted the German Coast in multiple raids for plunder and captives, most likely intending to provoke Louisiana into war and thereby drive all Choctaws into a British alliance. As post commandant, it was d’Arensbourg’s duty to defend area farms and plantations which happened to be a major source of food for New Orleans. Under such pressure, he would be reprimanded by governor Vaudreuil for showing “timidity” in his response to Choctaw attacks. The governor probably did not fully realize, however, that the circumstances at German Coast were rather daunting for any colonial officer. A complicating factor was the almost constant movement of fugitive slaves across the region, as enslaved Africans and Indians seeking freedom took refuge in forested wetlands and were pursued by bounty hunters, who were oftentimes men from neighboring Indian communities. The spring of 1748 saw plenty of motion and confusion around the German Coast, with runaway slaves appealing to Choctaw war parties for support and with slaves being captured by Choctaw raiders for possible wartime ransom. Colonial soldiers and militiamen in pursuit of Choctaws responsible for attacking the German Coast would at one point confront Indian enemies and colonial slaves fighting together. But at another, they could also find one group placing blame for the violence on the other.

High stakes and top priorities in the careers of both Jacques de La Chaise and Charles Frederick d’Arensbourg indeed represented many significant intricacies of a colonial society being built with enslaved African labor in a country that was still very much Native land.