Count O’Reilly and Spanish Law

“Cruel O’Reilly,” (From a miniature in possession of Hon, Charles Gayarre, of Louisiana.)

One morning toward the end of July 1769, the people of New Orleans were brought suddenly to their feet by the news that the Spaniards were at the mouth of the river in overwhelming force. There was no longer any room to postpone choice of action.

Marquis, the Swiss captain, with a white cockade in his hat (he had been the leading advocate for a republic), and Petit, with a pistol in either hand, came out upon the ragged, sunburnt grass of the Place d’Armes and called upon the people to defend their liberties. About a hundred men joined them; but the town was struck motionless with dismay; the few who had gathered soon disappeared, and by the next day the resolution of the leaders was distinctly taken, to submit. But no one fled.

On the second morning Aubry called the people to the Place d’Armes, promised the clemency of the illustrious Irishman who commanded the approaching expedition, and sent them away, commanding them to keep within their homes.

Lafreniere, Marquis, and Milhet descended the river, appeared before the commander of the Spaniards, and by the mouth of Lafrénière in a submissive but brave and manly address presented the homage of the people. The captain-general in his reply let fall the word seditious. Marquis boldly but respectfully objected. He was answered with gracious dignity and the assurance of ultimate justice, and the insurgent leaders returned to New Orleans and to their homes.

The Spanish fleet numbered twenty-four sail. For more than three weeks it slowly pushed its way around the bends of the Mississippi, and on the 18th of August it finally furled its canvas before the town. Aubry drew lip his French troops with the colonial militia at the bottom of the Place d’Armes, a gun was fired from the flagship of the fleet, and Don Alexandro O’Reilly, accompanied by twenty-six hundred chosen Spanish troops, and with fifty pieces of artillery, landed in unprecedented pomp, and took formal possession of the province.

On the 21st, twelve of the, principal insurrectionists were arrested. Two days later Foucault was also made a prisoner. One other, Brand, the printer of the seditious documents, was apprehended, and a proclamation announced that no other arrests would be made. Foucault, pleading his official capacity, was taken to France, tried by his government, and thrown into the Bastile. Brand pleaded his obligation as government printer to print all public documents, and was set at liberty. Villere either “died raving road on the day of his arrest,” as stated in the Spanish official report, or met his end in the act of resisting the guard on board the frigate where he had been placed in confinement. Lafreniere, Noyan, Caresse, Marquis, and Joseph Milhet were condemned to be hanged. The supplications both of colonists and Spanish officials saved them only from the gallows, and they fell before the fire of a file of Spanish grenadiers.

The volley made at least one young bride at once an orphan and a widow. For the youthful De Noyan had been newly wed to the daughter of Lafrénière. Judge Gayarre, in his history of Louisiana, tells, as a tradition, that the young chevalier, in prison awaiting execution, being told that his attempt to escape would be winked at by the cruel captain-general, replied that he would live or die with his associates, and so met his untimely end.

Against his young brother, Bienville, no action seems to have been taken beyond the sequestration of his property. He assumed the title of his unfortunate brother, and as the Chevalier de Noyan and lieutenant of a ship of the line, died at St. Domingo nine years after. But Petit, Masan, Doucet, Boisblanc, Jean Milhet, and Poupet were consigned to the Morro Castle, Havaha, where they remained a year, and were then set at liberty, but were forbidden to return to Louisiana and were deprived of their property. About the same time Foucault was released from the Bastile. The declaration of the Superior Council was burned on the same Place d’Armes that had seen it first proclaimed. Aubry refused a high, commission in the Spanish army, departed for France, and bad already entered the liver Garonne, when he was shipwrecked and lost. ” Cruel O’Reilly “-the captain-general was justly named.

There could, of course, be but one fate for the Superior Council as an official body, and the Count O’Reilly, armed with plenary powers, swept it out of existence. The cabildo took its place. This change from French rule to Spanish lay not principally in the laws, but in the redistribution of power. The crown, the sword, and the cross absorbed the lion’s share, leaving but a morsel to be doled out, with much form and pomp, to the cabildo. Very quaint and redolent with Spanish romance was this body, which for the third part of a century ruled the pettier destinies of the Louisiana Creoles. Therein sat the six regidors, or rulers, whose seats, bought at first at auction, were sold from successor to successor, the crown always coming in for its share of the price. Five of them were loaded down with ponderous titles; the alferez real or royal standard bearer; the alcalde-mayor-provincial, who overtook and tried offenders escaped beyond town-limits; the alguazil-mayor, with his eye on police and prisons; the depositario-general, who kept and dispensed the public stores; and the recibidor de penas de cámara, the receiver of fines and penalties. Above these six sat four whom the six, annually passing out of office, elected to sit over their six successors. These four must be residents and householders of New Orleans. No officer or attaché of the financial department of the realm, nor any bondsman of such, nor any one aged under twenty-six, nor any new convert to the Catholic faith, could qualify. Two were alcaldes ordinarios, common judges. In addition to other duties, they held petty courts at evening in their own dwellings, and gave unwritten decisions; but the soldier and the priest were beyond their jurisdiction. A third was sindico procurador-general, and sued for town revenues; and the fourth was town treasurer, the major-demo-de-propries. At the bottom of the scale was the escribano, or secretary, and at the top, the governor.

It was like a crane, all feathers. A sample of its powers was its right to sell and revoke at will the meat monopoly and the many other petty municipal privileges which characterized the Spanish rule and have been handed down to the present day in the city’s offensive license system. The underlying design of the cabildo’s creation seems to have been not to confer, but to scatter and neutralize power in the hands of royal sub-officials and this body. Loaded with titles and fettered with minute ministerial duties, it was, so to speak, the Superior Council shorn of its locks; or if not, then, at least, a body whose members recognized their standing as guardians of the people and servants of the king.

O’Reilly had come to set up a government, but not to remain and govern. On organizing the cabildo, he announced the appointment of Don Louis de Unzaga, colonel of the regiment of Havana, as governor of the province, and yielded him the chair. But under his own higher commission of captain-general he continued for a time in control. He had established in force the laws of Castile and the Indies and the use of the Spanish tongue in the courts and the public offices. Those who examine the dusty notarial records of that day find the baptismal names, of French and Anglo-Saxon origin, changed to a Spanish orthography, and the indices made upon these instead of upon the surnames.

So, if laws and government could have done it, Louisiana would have been made Spanish. But the change in the laws was not violent. There was a tone of severity and a feature of arbitrary surveillance in those of Spain; but the principles of the French and Spanish systems had a common, origin. One remotely, the other almost directly, was from tile Roman Code, and they were pointedly similar in the matters which seemed, to the Creole, of supreme importance, the marital relation, and inheritance. But it was not long before he found that now under the Spaniard, as, earlier, under the French, the laws themselves, and their administration, pointed in very different directions. Spanish rule in Louisiana was better, at least, than French, which, it is true, scarcely deserved the name of government. As to the laws themselves, it is worthy of notice that Louisiana ” is at this time the only State, of the vast territories acquired from France, Spain, and Mexico, in which the civil law has been retained, and forms a large portion of its jurisprudence.”

On the 29th of October 1770, O’Reilly sailed from New Orleans with most of his troops, leaving the Spanish power entirely and peacefully established. The force left by him in the colony amounted to one thousand two hundred men. He had dealt a sudden and terrible blow; but he had followed it only with velvet strokes. Ills suggestions to the home government of commercial measures advantageous to New Orleans and the colony, were many, and his departure was the signal for the commencement of active measures intended to induce, if possible, a change in the sentiments of the people, one consonant with the political changes he had forced upon them. Such was the kindlier task of the wise and mild Unzaga.

Creole, History,

Cable, George Washington and Pennell, Joseph. The Creoles of Louisiana. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1884.

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