Josephine Lauret: Namesake of a New Orleans Street
Though not much is known about her life, Napoleon in America character Josephine Lauret has a New Orleans street named after her. Quite a lot is known about her parents and grandparents, providing glimpses into the French-Spanish-American dynamic of the late 18th century, particularly in Louisiana.
Daughter of a Revolutionary War officer
Josephine’s father, Pierre George Rousseau was born in La Tremblade, France, in 1751. (1) His mother died when he was young, and his father brought Pierre and his brother to America sometime before 1764. Rousseau became an officer in the Continental Navy, which was the navy of the United States during the American Revolutionary War.
In 1779, Rousseau was part of a detachment sent to New Orleans to assist Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Louisiana (then under Spanish rule), in routing the British from Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. Rousseau helped Gálvez defeat British forces at Manchac, Baton Rouge and Natchez. He played a decisive role in the capture of the English brigantine the West Florida, which – renamed the Galveztown – became Gálvez’s flagship. In command of this vessel, Rousseau helped Gálvez take Mobile in 1780 and Pensacola in 1781, thus ousting the British from their last strongholds in the Gulf. (2)
In 1783 Rousseau married Marie Marguerite Catherine Milhet, an attractive Creole (at the time, Creole meant a person of European descent born in the Americas). She had a good singing voice, which she applied in French, Spanish and English. She saw Rousseau as a rugged soldier “who took his fun where he found it.” (3) Rousseau and Catherine had 12 children, of which Josephine, born in March 1796, was the fifth.
Rousseau continued to serve the Spanish after the Revolutionary War, receiving the rank of infantry captain. During 1786-1788 he was in charge of the northwestern Louisiana post of Natchitoches. He then for many years commanded the Spanish Light Squadron of the Mississippi. The purpose of this collection of galleys, galiots and gunboats was to protect Spanish posts scattered along the Mississippi and to ensure that the river remained a Spanish artery of commerce. After a temporary retirement due to illness, Rousseau in 1800 commanded a ship in the Spanish squadron that recaptured the West Florida fort of San Marcos de Apalache from William Augustus Bowles. Bowles was a Maryland-born, ex-British officer who became the self-styled “Director General and Commander-in-Chief of the Muskogee Nation” and preyed on Spanish shipping in the Gulf. (4)
In 1800, Napoleon persuaded Spain to secretly cede Louisiana to France. Spain continued to administer the territory until Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803. Wanting to remain in New Orleans rather than be transferred to Spain or one of her colonies, Rousseau requested his retirement. He died on August 8, 1810 in New Orleans, at the age of 59.
Granddaughter of an original Frenchmen Street Frenchman
Josephine’s mother, Catherine (born in 1767), was the daughter of Joseph Milhet and Margarethe (Margaret, Marguerite) Wiltz. In October 1768 Milhet – a wealthy New Orleans merchant – participated in a rebellion by French, German and Acadian settlers to attempt to stop the French transfer of Louisiana to Spain. The following August, Spanish General Alejandro O’Reilly – an Irishman who joined the Spanish army at age eleven – easily gained control of the colony. (5) On October 25, 1769, Milhet and four of his co-conspirators were executed by a firing squad in the parade ground in front of the Spanish barracks at Fort St. Charles, in the southeast corner of New Orleans. When Bernard de Marigny later built a street in his Faubourg that began near this site, he called it Rue des Françaises – Frenchmen Street – in honour of the executed rebels.
In 1776, Milhet’s widow Margarethe remarried. Her second husband was Captain Jacinto Panis, a Spanish soldier who served under both O’Reilly and Gálvez and ultimately became a breveted colonel and sergeant major. Panis is believed to have been in charge of the firing squad that killed Milhet, something Margarethe was said to be unaware of. As she was happy in her second marriage, no one ever enlightened her. (6)
Before the marriage Margarethe had to submit to the test of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) to assure the Spanish crown that her lineage was sufficiently free of Jewish, Muslim, Indian, Negro and heretical ancestry to warrant marriage to a Spanish officer. She also had to prove that she, her parents and her grandparents had never committed a crime, and her testimony had to be corroborated by notables from the community. She was expected to produce a suitable dowry, preferably including land and slaves. In February 1776, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga, wrote in support of Margarethe’s petition:
I certify that the interested party has conducted herself respectably, maintaining the best conduct throughout her widowhood, that she is of limpieza de sangre, and that she has a house with twenty-five Negroes as the following documents clearly explain. (7)
After the marriage, Panis bought land along the Mississippi River about a league above New Orleans. When he died in 1786, Margarethe inherited the property. By 1813, as the growing city edged towards her plantation, she decided to subdivide the portion closest to the river and offer city lots for sale. The planned subdivision included a street named Rousseau – after her son-in-law – running parallel to the river, and a street named Cours Panis – after her husband – running perpendicular from the river to the rear of the tract. West of Cours Panis were two streets named Soraparu and Philippe; east of Cours Panis were the streets of Josephine and Adele. (8)
Namesake of Josephine Street in New Orleans
Josephine Street in New Orleans is most likely named after Josephine Rousseau Lauret, Margarethe’s granddaughter, who was 17 years old in 1813. The other street names also appear to have been taken from Margarethe’s granddaughters (i.e., Pierre Rousseau’s and Catherine Milhet’s daughters): Soraparu was the last name of the husband of Josephine’s oldest sister Marie; Philippe was the middle name of Josephine’s second-oldest sister, otherwise known as Felippa; Adele was Josephine’s younger sister, who died in 1818.
After Margarethe’s death, the balance of her plantation became the property of her daughter Catherine. In 1818 Catherine sold her holdings to John Poultney, a New Orleans merchant, for the sum of $100,000. Poultney ultimately couldn’t pay and, as a result of various legal battles, by 1824 the firm of Harrod and Ogden were the sole holders of the disputed property. They continued to subdivide the plantation and sell more city lots. The name of Cours Panis was changed to Jackson Street and the growing suburb was called Lafayette, after the hero of the American and French Revolutions. Lafayette made a tour of the United States in 1824, during which he visited Catherine Milhet Rousseau.
Wife of Louis Lauret
Josephine married French soldier Louis Lauret in New Orleans early in 1819. They had one daughter, Nicida (birth and death dates unknown), who later married and had five children. It’s not clear what happened to Josephine. By 1830, when Lauret was living in the Georgia woods (see my earlier post), Josephine was no longer with him. She is not mentioned in letters after 1824, and Kent Gardien speculates she may have died. (9) However, when journalist Anne Royall encountered Lauret in Savannah in 1826, he must have referred to his wife in a current sense, as Royall notes:
Monsieur L-t seems to have been unfortunate since I had the pleasure of seeing him in Philadelphia. He had married! (10)
Josephine’s older brother Lawrence Rousseau (1790-1866) also had a notable career. He became one of the highest-ranking officers in the US Navy. He served in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the American Civil War, where he played a key role in putting together the Confederate Navy. (11)
- The information in this article about Rousseau comes from Raymond J. Martinez, Rousseau: The Last Days of Spanish New Orleans (Gretna, 2003).
- For more about Gálvez and his role in the American Revolutionary War, see Barbara A. Mitchell, “America’s Spanish Savior: Bernardo de Gálvez,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, November 28, 2012, http://www.historynet.com/americas-spanish-savior-bernardo-de-galvez.htm, accessed April 17, 2014.
- Martinez, Rousseau: The Last Days of Spanish New Orleans, p. 28.
- For more about Bowles, see David H. White, “The Spaniards and William Augustus Bowles in Florida, 1799-1803,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Oct. 1975), pp. 145-155.
- For more about the rebellion, see Michael T. Pasquier, “Insurrection of 1768,” KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, David Johnson (ed.), Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010. Article published January 24, 2013, http://www.knowla.org/entry.php?rec=762, accessed April 17, 2014. More personal details about the conspirators can be found in Emilie Leumas, “Ties that Bind: The Family, Social and Business Associations of the Insurrectionists of 1768,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Spring 2006), pp. 183-202. For more about O’Reilly see Samuel Fannin, “Alexander ‘Bloody’ O’Reilly,” History Ireland, Vol. 9, No. 3 ( Autumn 2001), pp. 26-30, http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/alexander-bloody-oreilly/, accessed April 17, 2014.
- Martinez, Rousseau: The Last Days of Spanish New Orleans, p. 27.
- Julia C. Frederick, “A Blood Test Before Marriage: ‘Limpieza de Sangre’ in Spanish Louisiana,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Winter 2002), p. 80. Frederick observes, “By perpetuating the practice of limpieza de sangre, the Spanish government guaranteed that bachelors in Louisiana’s small military garrison would marry suitable colonial partners who would be ‘appropriate’ anywhere in the empire…. Spain’s strict requirements for marriage ultimately meant that military personnel also tied themselves firmly to the local elite, ensuring loyal support by important colonial settlers.”
- Information about Margarethe’s land comes from “A History of the City of Lafayette” by Kathryn C. Briede (1937), as reprinted in Martinez, Rousseau: The Last Days of Spanish New Orleans, pp. 123-130.
- Gardien, Kent, “Take Pity on our Glory: Men of Champ d’Asile,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 3 (Jan. 1984), p. 262.
- Anne Newport Royall, Mrs. Royall’s Southern Tour, or Second Series of The Black Book, Vol. 2 (Washington: 1831), p. 92. For more about Anne Royall, often considered to be the first professional female journalist in the United States, see J.D. Thomas, “Anne Newport Royall: First American Newspaper Woman,” Accessible Archives, March 12, 2012, http://www.accessible-archives.com/2012/03/anne-newport-royall-first-american-newspaper-woman/, accessed April 17, 2014.
- For details, see Jack D.L. Holmes and Raymond J. Martinez, “The Naval Career of Lawrence Rousseau,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Autumn 1968), pp. 341-354.