Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Jean Joseph Humbert, A French General in New Orleans, 1815

General Jean Humbert of France
One of the many fascinating people who aided the American cause at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814-1815 was a French general named Jean Joseph Amable Humbert (1767 - 1823). General Andrew Jackson had an assortment of exotic volunteers on his side from Choctaw Indians to Baratarian pirates. General Humbert, with a romantic past, fit right in with Jackson's motley crew.

General Humbert made his name fighting for Napoleon Bonaparte in Ireland. He made an ill-fated attempt to land at Bantry Bay in Ireland in 1796. Bad weather and a powerful British Royal Navy prevented his invasion. In the Irish uprising in 1798 (often called "The Year of the French" in Ireland), Humbert successfully landed and fought alongside Irish rebels against the British who then controlled Ireland.

General Humbert had a small force of 1,100 men, a few light cannon, muskets with bayonets, gun powder, and other supplies. As he marched, Irish locals joined his army eager to rebel against the oppressive British. He defeated a larger British force at the Battle of Castlebar in Ireland and declared Irish independence -- the Republic of Connacht.  He was defeated, however, at the Battle of Ballinamuck by a vastly larger British army and taken prisoner. The British commander at that battle was none-other-than Lord Charles Cornwallis, who had surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in the American Revolutionary War.

Among the British forces fighting against Humbert and the Irish was an English officer who was born in Ireland, who was the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington. His name was Edward Pakenham.

As time passed, after Humbert was released in a prisoner exchange, war against the British continued. This time the battlefield was near New Orleans, Louisiana; and England's enemy was not France but the United States. After his distinguished service with Wellington in the Peninsular War against the French in Spain, Pakenham was chosen to lead a large British invasion force to capture New Orleans. This was to be the final and most decisive battle of the War of 1812.

The battle actually occurred after a peace treaty had been decided, but the combatants did not know this. And although it was called The Battle of New Orleans, it actually occurred about four miles downriver from the city at the Chalmette Plantation on a cut sugarcane field between the Mississippi River levee and the cypress swamp -- with more fighting across the river on the West Bank.

General Humbert had traveled to the city because of its French connections. Possibly because of his friendship with Jean Lafitte, he decided to lend his hand to fight the British once again. General Andrew Jackson had Humbert serve with the American army on the West Bank across the river from Line Jackson.

Although he did not play a major part in the Battle of New Orleans, he was nevertheless in harm's way and served honorably, winning the thanks of General Andrew Jackson. Edward Pakenham, Humbert's English enemy from his days in Ireland and again at New Orleans, was killed on the Chalmette battlefield. Humbert died in 1823 and was buried in New Orleans in St. Louis Cemetery Number 1.

Adrian McGrath

For more information, see
Also see an Irish song book called "Blain na Bhfrancach: Songs of 1798 The Year of the French" by Duchas, 1982. The book has Irish songs of the period and brief historical information. It discusses Humbert and New Orleans.
The drawing of General Humbert above is from Wikimedia Commons and in public domain.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Sangria: New Orleans and Old Spain

My Homemade Sangria
New Orleans is often seen as a French city. It is certainly true that the city was founded by the French Canadian brothers Iberville and Bienville. It is also true that the original city was build by the French, and the city today still has French culture and customs. It is also true that New Orleans -- and all of the Louisiana Territory -- was sold to the USA by Napoleon Bonaparte. But for many years New Orleans was owned and controlled by Spain, from 1763 to 1803. And like France, Spain has left its influence on Old New Orleans.

There are many stories of Old New Orleans which deal with Spain -- such as the notorious administration of Governor "Bloody" O'Reilly and the military adventures of Bernado de Galvez. These would make for good stories for this history blog. But today, in honor of Old Spain, I will reveal my "secret recipe" for my own version of New Orleans Sangria. This is a superb drink to make on a hot and humid summer day in the Crescent City. 

My recipe is simple and light for a refreshing drink in summer. You will need a basic dry red wine. It can be an inexpensive table or jug wine since we will be adding many things to it. Then you need brown sugar, club soda or sparkling water, and fresh fruit like oranges, lemons, limes, and perhaps pineapple. You can also use orange juice, lemon juice, and pineapple juice, optionally. You will also need a large pitcher (clear glass or even plastic is good) and ice.

To prepare simply add the wine to the pitcher and add enough brown sugar to reach the taste you like. I like it just barely sweet, but not too much.  To get this, just slowly add sugar and taste and repeat until you reach your desired taste. Then slice the fruit and squeeze some of the juice into the pitcher. You can add the extra fruit juices of your choice at this point, optionally.Then add the remaining sliced fruit into the pitcher.  Mix to the proportions of your choice.

To serve, place ice and a splash of soda water into a tall clear glass, then add your Sangria. Stir and top your glass with some sliced fruit. And that is all.  Do other glasses the same way.

Some people like to add a shot of brandy or cognac to the Sangria, but I don't usually do that since I like the drink as a refreshment on a hot day. The brandy or cognac simply makes it too strong to drink as a refreshment in the New Orleans heat. But I suppose in the evening, this might be OK.

Sangria is a fine drink and reminds us of the wonderful things Old Spain added to New Orleans' history and culture.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

New Orleans Cuisine -- Creole, Cajun, and more


My homemade Mardi Gras Salad
New Orleans is famous worldwide for many things -- its Jazz music, Mardi Gras, the exotic architecture in the Vieux Carre (better known as the French Quarter), the dominant port on the Mississippi, and a history filled with strange and romantic characters including people like Jean Lafitte, Andrew Jackson, Marie Laveau, and Tennessee Williams. But there is one other thing New Orleans is famous for  -- food. Just like Jazz is a unique American art form created in New Orleans, Creole cuisine is a unique culinary form created in New Orleans.  People come from all over the world just to get a taste of La Cuisine Creole. (See my earlier article at

The foods and recipes of Old New Orleans (Old NOLA) are many, but three of the oldest are fairly simple dishes, inexpensive, and served almost daily anywhere in restaurants or eaten at home in New Orleans. These are the classic dishes of Red Beans and Rice, Gumbo, and Jambalaya.

New Orleans shares some of its cuisine with its neighbors in Acadiana, the Cajuns.  Cajuns make jambalaya and gumbo too, for example. But there is a difference between Creole food and Cajun food.

Cajun food is country food and comes from the Cajun people who are of French Canadian descent, mainly from Nova Scotia. They were exiled by the British during the French and Indian War. Some Acadians went to France or other French colonies around the world. And others came to Louisiana because of its strong French background. They did not settle in the city of New Orleans as much as in the neighboring countryside, south and west of the city.

Creoles, on the other hand, are the American descendents of French and Spanish settlers in the City of New Orleans. So, Creole food will have a mixture of French and Spanish ingredients and have an urban style to it rather than a simpler country style.

My homemade jambalaya

As an example, Cajun jambalaya will be brown while Creole jambalaya will be red. This is because the Creoles usually add tomatoes or even tomato sauce to their jambalaya, in the Spanish style, while Cajuns simply brown the meat in oil which gives the Cajun jambalaya a brownish color.

Another example would be gumbo, a thick soup generally believed to be of African origins. Both Cajuns and Creoles make a roux first. This is a mixture of flour and oil cooked slowly in a pot. It thickens the soup and provides flavor.  Then to this are added various seafoods and/or meats like shrimp, smoked sausage, Andouille, ham, chicken, and for seafood gumbo perhaps even oysters and crab or crab claws for flavor. Vegetables are usually "The Trinity" in Creole and Cajun recipes which consists of celery, onions, and green bell pepper.  (In French cooking this would be onion, celery, and carrots. In New Orleans the carrots go away, and the more exciting bell peppers come in.)

To this gumbo the Creoles would add tomatoes, but the Cajuns would usually not.  The Creoles would thicken the soup, after it is done cooking, by adding file' to individual bowls. This is a spice discovered by the local Choctaw Indians. Cajuns usually would make their roux so dark and thick that file' would not be necessary.

Additionally, Creoles might use okra instead of file' which thickens the soup and adds substance. Cajuns almost never use okra.

Red Beans and Rice is really just a New Orleans dish. It is Creole and not really Cajun. Red kidney beans are soaked overnight, then cooked slowly on low for many hours with The Trinity (celery, onions, and bell pepper) and Creole spices (salt, pepper, cayenne, garlic), and some meats are usually added, although Red Beans can make a fine vegetarian dish as well. The meats are usually ham, sausage, or pickle meat (a type of pork), or Tasso (a type of smoked pork).  The beans are usually served over white rice and eaten with French bread on the side.

My homemade Muffuletta
 There are many, many more Creole and New Orleans dishes. Many New Orleans dishes reflect the other cultures which came to the city especially the Italian and Sicilian recipes.  It is typical for a neighborhood New Orleans restaurant to feature two main cuisines -- New Orleans seafoods like crawfish (never pronounced or spelled as "crayfish" in New Orleans), shrimp, oysters, crab, and catfish or other fish and secondly Sicilian Italian dishes in a New Orleans style like stuffed artichokes, fried eggplant sticks, crawfish pasta, lasagna, and meatballs and spaghetti.

Another popular New Orleans dish is the Muffuletta, a great Sicilian sandwich, invented in New Orleans. It has various Italian meats -- like ham, pepperoni, or salami -- and various sliced cheeses -- like Provolone and Swiss -- placed inside a loaf of seeded Italian bread. Also inside would be an olive salad which is made from green and black olives, olive oil, garlic, diced califlower, carrots, and celery, and various spices. It is the best sandwich New Orleans has along with the Fried Shrimp and Roast Beef Po-Boy. (The Po-Boy is a large sandwich served on French Bread.)

My homemade Boeuf Gras
Two other dishes usually served for Mardi Gras time are the Boeuf Gras (fatted beef) and the Mardi Gras Salad.  Since carnival means "farewell to meat," it is appropriate to eat lots of beef on Mardi Gras. The Boeuf Gras would, therefore, be a beef roast but cooked "debris" style. In New Orleans this means to cook the beef on low and slow until the meat is falling apart. This beef with gravy is placed on French bread and "dressed" with shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, mayonnaise, and pickles to make a real New Orleans Roast Beef Po-Boy!

The Mardi Gras Salad is a salad which contains the three colors of Mardi Gras -- purple, green, and gold.  This could include, for example, purple cabbage, green spinach or lettuce, and gold bell pepper. Or you could use any other vegetables or fruits with those colors. Then serve with a dressing which does not take away from those colors, such as a simple vinegar and oil base.

New Orleans cuisine is unique and sensational, even decadent. It is one of the things that makes New Orleans a great place to visit.

Adrian McGrath

Note: The photo above is my own homemade dish of  jambalaya, made with smoked sausage. Also seen are my photos of my homemade Boeuf Gras, Muffuletta, and Mardi Gras Salad.

Monday, August 20, 2012

New Orleans in 1862

Union Fleet in New Orleans, 1862
New Orleans was the largest city in the South at the start of the Civil War with a population over 160,000. (In fact it was larger than several other major Southern cities combined.) It was a major source of military supplies and men for the Confederate cause early in the war.  Some of the troops included the Washington Artillery, Zouaves, and many of the Louisiana Tigers, especially the Irish unit called the Wharf Rats. These troops left the city early in the war usually going by train to Virginia where battles were raging.

New Orleans was also the home to some of the first African American soldiers in the war. A unit called the 1st Louisiana Native Guard was originally on the side of the Confederacy, composed of freemen of color who did not serve in a combat role but were a "home guard". When the Union forces captured New Orleans, this same unit joined the Union cause. Its ranks then were filled with runaway slaves who were fighting to abolish slavery.  (For more on this see the Louisiana State Museum's site for the Cabildo at Louisiana State Museum cabildo and also the wikipedia site at 1st Louisiana Native Guard Some of the Union Army's 1st Louisiana Native Guard troops were in combat at the battles at Port Hudson, Louisiana.

New Orleans was the second most important port in all of America, only behind New York City. All of the commerce on the Mississippi River and its tributaries -- the Ohio, the Missouri, and other rivers -- had to pass through New Orleans before heading into the Gulf of Mexico and then overseas. Various commodities like rice and sugar and especially bales of cotton were always abundant on the wharfs of New Orleans. The cotton, in particular, was placed in the holds of ships bound for England and France.

Cotton was King. Fortunes were made in selling cotton to Europe to feed its hungry textile mills, and New Orleans was the key port for cotton exports. It should be noted, at this point, that this rich industry in cotton and other enterprises in the South were built on the backs of enslaved people. New Orleans was a major center for the slave trade as well as the cotton trade. It would be many more months before President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect, but the political and moral issue of human slavery in America was nevertheless significant already. The slavery issue would grow in importance to the nation to the point where, from the Union perspective, the war would have two major goals -- preserve the Union and free the slaves.

New Orleans had regular commerce with the North. It was a historic and international city with close links with many major foreign powers and the gateway to the Caribbean Sea and South America. Many foreign nations had consulates located in New Orleans as well; the city had a huge foreign-born population. Controlling New Orleans meant controlling the Mississippi River which in turn split America into two parts. In addition to river and sea travel, New Orleans became a center for railroad travel in the South. Thus, the city and port had tremendous economic, diplomatic, and strategic military value.

For all of these reasons, New Orleans was a priority target for the US Navy at the start of the Civil War. At first the Federals were satisfied to blockade New Orleans. The Rebels responded at the Battle of the Head of Passes, a naval skirmish near the mouth of the river. Then by April of 1862, a Union plan was devised to capture the city by sea, going up the Mississippi River.

The man in charge of defending New Orleans from a Federal invasion was Confederate General Mansfield Lovell; he replaced General David Twiggs who was old and in ill health. Lovell was born in the North in Washington DC, had graduated from West Point, served in the Mexican War, and just before 1861 lived in New York. The most likely candidate to defend New Orleans would have been General PGT Beauregard, who was from New Orleans and knew the area and the people well, or even Braxton Bragg who was born in the South. Nevertheless, Lovell was placed in command.

Despite its importance, there seemed to be an odd lack of concern and even incompetence by the Confederate government to properly protect the city. The government in Richmond, Virginia seemed to think New Orleans was invulnerable from attack because there were two large forts down river protecting the city and other smaller forts and barriers around the city like Fort Pike and Fort Macomb in Eastern New Orleans. Confederate soldiers who could have been used to defend the city -- making a defense similar to that in the War of 1812 -- had been removed from the city and sent upriver to oppose Union forces coming down the Mississippi valley. (At this time General Ulysses S. Grant was moving through Tennessee towards Mississippi and had just fought at the Battle of Shiloh.) So, by the time the Union Fleet began its attack from the Gulf of Mexico, there were only about 3,000 unprepared militia troops left to defend the city.

In the end, everything depended on the two great forts and their big guns south of the city, which were on either side of the river near each other -- Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson.  The man the Union chose to get past these forts and capture New Orleans was a 61 year old sailor named Admiral David Farragut.

Farragut was born in the South, in Tennessee. His wife was from the South too, and they lived just before the start of the war in Norfolk, Virginia. (This meant that the Confederate general who defended New Orleans, Lovell, was originally from the North; and the Union officer, Farragut, chosen to capture the city for the Federals was originally from the South.) Nevertheless, Farragut was totally opposed to secession and moved to New York state just before the start of hostilities in 1861. Farragut had served his country at sea for many years, having been in combat in the US Navy in the War of 1812 fighting against the British.

Admiral Farragut 1863 by Mathew Brady
The Rebels had tried to prepare three ironclad ships to help defend the city, the CSS Louisiana, CSS Mississippi (which was still under construction), and the CSS Manassas, an ironclad ram which had one cannon. The Louisiana's engine was not operable and she had trouble using her guns. None of these ships proved very effective in battle. The Rebels had some other smaller vessels which were also not effective. Furthermore, command of these Confederate ships was divided and not fully under Lovell's control, which lent to confusion during combat. All of these ships were stationed just above the Forts Jackson and St. Philip which were about 75 miles south of New Orleans.

Farragut had about 40 warships with over 240 heavy cannons. He greatly outgunned the Rebel forts, whose cannons -- it would later be learned -- had inadequate penetrating power. Farragut's fleet overcame natural obstacles at the mouth of the river and proceeded to the forts where another obstacle, a chain across the river, was located. The chain, bouyed on rafts and ship hulls, was designed to slow down the Union fleet while the Rebel cannons fired on the attacking warships.

In reality the chain had little effect as Union sailors were dispatched to break a hole in the chain for ships to pass. The Union fleet, complete with siege mortars on some ships, fired over 13,000 shells on the forts for 96 hours starting on April 18, 1862.  The Rebel forts still stood, despite the tremendous pounding from the Union fleet.

Finally, Farragut in a bold move charged forward with 13 warships which passed by the forts and then up river, defeating the Rebel fleet easily, then going past smaller Rebel land-based batteries at Chalmette near the old battlefield of 1815. By April 25th the guns of some of Farragut's ships were pointed at the city of New Orleans. The river was high at this time making it possible for the Union cannons on their warships to aim directly at buildings in the city. Other Union ships remained down river near the forts as did Union transport vessels carrying Union infantry under the command of General Benjamin Butler.

The situation for the Confederates was now grave. There were not enough troops or cannons to defend the city, and any resistance could have meant a pointless and destructive battle for the city. So the poorly armed and inexperienced Rebel militia under Lovell evacuated New Orleans. Any equipment that could help the Federals was evacuated to Vicksburg or destroyed. Countless bales of cotton were either burned or dumped into the river. The city was now an "open city" which meant it would no longer fight.

Union officers came ashore and demanded that the mayor, John T. Monroe, surrender the city. Spurred on by an angry pro-Confederate crowd, Monroe at first stalled for time. Monroe tried to get General Lovell to take responsibility for the surrender, but he refused as he was planning to evacuate his troops, giving the issue back to Monroe. Monroe refused saying he would bring the issue to the city council. The city council in turn refused and said they needed time to discuss the issue.

Farragut with Union soldiers came ashore and set up cannons at Lafayette Square near the City Hall (today called Gallier Hall).  He decided that General Butler could deal with the issue of surrender as the general was arriving with troops to govern the city. Meanwhile, word finally came to the city that the two forts, Jackson and St. Philip, had been abandoned or surrendered by the Confederates. Finally, Union ground troops arrived in New Olreans under Benjamin Butler on May 1, 1862. Confederate rule in New Orleans had reached its end.

The Union lost 39 men and had 171 wounded. Confederate casualties were higher -- 85 killed, 113 wounded, 900 prisoners-of-war. Though the loss of any man is a tragedy, by Civil War standards where thousands of men were lost in a single battle often for no real purpose, the cost of taking the city of New Orleans was small indeed.

The Confederate States of America had lost its largest, richest city and most vital international port after the first year of the war.  Although the Civil War would drag on until 1865, the fall of New Orleans was arguably "the night the war was lost" to use the expression of a noted New Orleans historian, Charles "Pie" Dufour. The loss of New Orleans was a profound economic, strategic, and psychological defeat for the South from which it never could recover. (See the book The Night the War Was Lost by Charles L. Dufour.)

Sources and Further Reading:
A Short History of New Orleans by Mel Leavitt, 1982.
Queen New Orleans by Harnett T. Kane, 1949.
The Night the War Was Lost by Charles L. Dufour, 1960.
Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, vol.3, Richard  N. Current, Editor-in-Chief, 1993
Wikipedia article Capture of New Orleans, . Wikipedia article David Farragut, .
Both images are in public domain from Wikimedia Commons -- Union Fleet in New Orleans is from Campfires and Battlefields by Rossiter, 1894 and David Farragut by Matthew Brady, 1863. For more on the 1st Louisiana Native Guards see
Louisiana State Museum Cabildo website at  and

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The New Basin Canal, 1832 - 1838

Celtic Cross monument for the Irish workers

Between 1832 and 1838 thousands of Irish immigrants died in the swamps north of Old New Orleans. The Irish, who had been victims of politcal and religious persecution at the hands of the British Empire which then controlled Ireland, came to New Orleans seeking employment and a new life in a new land. Some came directly from Ireland while others came from cities up north in the USA, especially from Philadelphia.  

    When the Irish arrived in America, they discovered that prejudice and discrimination existed here too. Many Irish immigrants, most of whom were poverty-stricken and poorly educated, were greeted with signs which said: "No Irish Need Apply." This meant that no one would hire the Irish except for the hardest and worst types of manual labor.

    When the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company planned to build a canal which went from Lake Ponchartrain to the center of the business district of New Orleans, cheap labor was needed. The canal was called the New Orleans Navigation Canal, but it was usually referred to as the New Basin Canal. This construction would increase city commerce as the lake was actually a bay open to the Gulf of Mexico through the Rigolets and Chef Pass waterways to the east. The canal would thus provide an alternate route to the city besides the Mississippi River, at least for smaller vessels.

New Basin Canal at left, West End Park 1915

     In the ante-bellum South, slaves were considered too valuable a commodity to ruin or lose in a project such as this -- using pick and shovel to dig a large ditch through swamps filled with snakes, alligators, and disease-carrying mosquitoes. So, the banking company decided to use Irish immigrants. Desperate for any work, the Irish could be paid very little; and if they died from the terrible working conditions in the hot, humid swamps, new Irish immigrants fleeing from terrible conditions back home could always take their place.

    The Irish, and also some German immigrants, dug the canal from 1832 to 1838. It is not known for certain just how many Irish died in the process. The generally accepted estimate is around 10,000 people. (Many probably died from Yellow Fever spread by mosquitoes from the swamps. In New Orleans history this disease appeared several times and was called Yellow Jack.)  Some may have been buried in local cemeteries; others may have been buried near the construction site.

New Orleans in 1834

    Today the canal no longer exists. It was filled in during the 1950's, and the canal route became a  modern boulevard and expressway.  (The New Basin Canal begins by the pier reaching into the lake at the top center-left of the map; it runs south, then southeast into the city. The waterway to its right is Bayou St. John.)

    All memory of the Irish who died has disappeared, except in 1990 the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans established a monument to the fallen Irish. A Celtic Cross now stands in their memory on the neutral ground (median) on Ponchartrain Blvd, which is near to where the canal once started, coming from the lake. 

-- Adrian

Sources and further reading:  "The Irish and the New Basin Canal of New Orleans" by Adrian McGrath, Irish Eyes newspaper, Vol 1, No. 6, July 1994. Lake Ponchartrain by Catherine Campanella, Images of America series, Arcadia Publishing, 2007. "New Basin Canal" article at

My favorite source on Irish history in old New Orleans is a great book by Fr. Earl F. Niehaus called The Irish in New Orleans 1800 - 1860. Fr. Niehaus discusses the canal and many other topics in Irish New Orleans in his excellent book published by LSU Press in 1965.

The photograph is one I took of the Celtic Cross on the neutral ground on Ponchartrain Boulevard.

The old map is from Wikimedia Commons and is in public domain, from 1834 designed by Zimpel. The old photo is from Wikimedia Commons from 1915 from the Library of Congress and in public domain.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jean Lafitte: Rogue, Pirate, and Hero

This old drawing depicts a meeting among the three men who saved the city of New Orleans from a massive British invasion in 1814 -- Governor William C. Claiborne, General Andrew Jackson, and the buccaneer Jean Lafitte.  Claiborne handled the politics. Jackson handled the army. And Lafitte handled the pirates.

Without the help of this man of questionable repute, New Orleans would almost certainly have fallen to the British Army.  The Americans desperately needed Lafitte's stores of gunpowder and flints for their firearms; and Lafitte's pirates would man most of the American cannons on the battlefield at Chalmette. Precise gunners, with, shall we say, much professional experience on the high seas, the pirates slaughtered the invading Redcoats as they marched against the American lines near the levee of the Mississippi River just south of New Orleans.

Many of the facts of Lafitte's life are unsure. Where was he born? Maybe in France or in the Caribbean. Where did he die?  Maybe in Louisiana or Texas or in Mexico or somewhere in the Caribbean. He was an absolute hero in the city of New Orleans, but he is still seen as a scoundrel and a man of mystery. He and his brother, Pierre, were smugglers and did a very successful business peddling stolen goods in the city. For his own security, he set up a base in Grand Terre Island in Barataria Bay, about 100 miles south of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

Pierre would operate the family trade in New Orleans, while Jean ran the buisness in Barataria -- organizing privateer raids and transferring the stolen goods by small boats through the swamps and bayous to New Orleans. These activities, needless to say, annoyed the United States government which eventually sent warships to smash Lafitte's base in Barataria and imprison many of Lafitte's pirates.

Despite this, Jean Lafitte decided to support the Americans when the British plotted to invade New Orleans in 1814. The British had actually offered Lafitte British citizenship and land grants in British-held areas of the Caribbean in exchange for his help in the invasion. Additionally, should he refuse to help, the British threatened to attack and destroy his base.

The odds were certainly with the British. They had a large navy and a large army of seasoned troops who had experience fighting the French under Napoleon. They were well equipped (they even had a new technologically advanced weapon called the Congreve rocket), and had high morale. The Americans, on the other hand, had faced defeat after defeat by the British elsewhere on American shores.

American troops had fled in terror at the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland as the British infantry advanced with a bayonet charge. The British burned the White House, and President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison had to evacuate the city. (Dolley Madison is credited with saving priceless American documents, as she fled the White House, including the Declaration of Independence and the original copy of the US Constitution.) The American situation looked bleak indeed.

Now at New Orleans Andrew Jackson did not have much of a professional army to speak of. He had some regular US Army troops; but many were Tennessee and Kentucky volunteers, civilian volunteers including Freemen-of-Color and Creoles from New Orleans, Choctaw Indians, and some sailors and Marines.  But Jackson had one other force ... Lafitte and his pirates.

Lafitte's reasons for supporting the Americans are unclear. But it is clear Lafitte felt it was in his interests to support them and not the British. Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans to find the city poorly prepared. He needed supplies and men. Jackson therefore met with Lafitte and made a deal. Lafitte's men would be pardoned and freed from jail if they agreed to help the Americans against the British. As a result many of the pirates served on the battlelines at Chalmette where the Battle of New Orleans actually occurred, about four miles downriver from the city.

The American victory on January 8, 1815 at Chalmette was stunning. Several British generals, including the overall commander Edward Pakenham, were killed and over 2,000 redcoats died of wounds. (Pakenham was actually the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington who would defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.) The Americans suffered only minor casualties. Much of the credit for this victory went directly to Lafitte and his pirates. Andrew Jackson would later become a US president largely because of this incredible victory.

Lafitte eventually moved his smuggling business (including a trade in smuggled slaves) to Galveston, and it was said he died at sea in a battle with Spanish ships.

He was a scoundrel, a pirate, a rogue, and a hero.  Jean Lafitte remains one of the greatest romantic figures in all of New Orleans history.

(Note: The sketch above is from Wikimedia Commons which states it is an engraving originally from a book published in 1837 called The Pirates Own Book: Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers by Charles Ellms from a copy on  The map is an early 19th century map from Wikimedia Commons in public domain depicting the main battle on the East Bank of the Mississippi River in Chalmette a few miles below New Orleans. For more information on Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans see Also see the books The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans by Robert Tallant and Lafitte the Pirate by Lyle Saxon.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"La Cuisine Creole" -- The First Creole Cookbook

New Orleans has for long been known as a city of outstanding and unique cuisine. In short, we have great food! Although this tradition goes back many years to the time of the French colonial days, the first cookbook on New Orleans food was not published until 1885.  The author, who was part Irish and part Greek, was a subject of Great Britain; he became a journalist and travelled the world, living in many exotic lands and reporting on his adventures. At various times he lived in Europe, the Caribbean, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Japan.  His named was Lafcadio Hearn.

Although he was usually very poor, despite his writing career, one of the ways he would deal with his limited ability to buy all the fancy foods he wanted, was to write about them. So, when he got to New Orleans, he began to compile all the recipes he could find from the local cooks. The result of this was the first ever published New Orleans cookbook -- La Cuisine Creole.

As was typical -- and we see this even today -- a total stranger to New Orleans could immediately fall in love with the place. Despite the many ills of the city, the allure and charms of New Orleans were overwhelming. For Lafcadio the main charm of the city was its food. Hearn stayed in New Orleans from 1877 to 1887.

Hearn did not specialize in writing about food but wrote on many cultural topics. Additionally, he wrote about, what we would call today, the paranormal. He was interested in ghost stories.

Some of Hearn's recipes are basic compared to more modern versions of dishes. For example, his "Jambalaya of Fowls and Rice" is essentially this: Stew a chicken, add rice and ham, and salt and pepper. Cook.
He sometimes adds comments to recipes, such as for the jambalaya, "Southern children are very fond of this..."  But he adds, "... [it is] very wholesome as well as palatable; it can be made of many things."

Many of the recipes are suitable for cooking even today despite the changes in cooking technology, although some seem very antiquated and are more for historic value than anything else.

Hearn eventually moved to Japan and wrote about Japanese culture. He became wildly popular there, and there is even a memorial museum to him in Matsue, Japan. He took a Japanese wife and became a Japanese citizen. He is claimed by the Irish, the British, the Greeks, and the Japanese.  But his real fame is in writing down all those great New Orleans recipes.

You can read more about him at Hearn spent time writing for two Cincinnati newspapers, and that city claims him as well.

(In the photos we see a copy of La Cuisine Creole from the Cincinnati Library website, and a photo of Hearn himself from the same site. Also see Pelican Publishing's 1967 version of La Cuisine Creole with an introduction by Hodding Carter. Tulane University's library also has good material on Hearn in its special collections section.)
-- Adrian

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen

In all of the mysterious and unique history of Old New Orleans, there are few individuals who can match the legendary status of Marie Laveau. Although she was born in the late 18th century (she lived from 1794 to 1881), there are people -- often tourists -- who visit her grave today and others who still claim to see her ghost. She was a hair dresser, a devout Catholic, a healer, a nurse, and, above all, the most famous -- or infamous -- Voodoo Queen in the history of New Orleans. Her very name is synonymous with voodoo and witchcraft.

Voodoo -- or Vodu -- was originally a spiritual religion from Africa. It was brought with the slaves to the West Indies -- especially to St. Domingue which was later called Haiti -- and then to New Orleans. As the religion travelled to New Orleans, it changed. From being mainly animism (or a nature/spirit religion) when in West Africa, it developed oddities such as zombies while in Haiti. Zombies were called the living dead, and it was believed these were people who had died but returned to life, more or less, as soulless beings who followed the will of a witchdoctor. In reality, we now know that "zombies" were living humans who had been drugged and were under the psychological influence of a Voodoo Queen or Voodoo Doctor. The "power of suggestion" plus drugs from nature (sometimes derived from the puffer fish) were the real causes of zombiism in Haiti.

Zombies, however, were never really popular in New Orleans voodoo. What was more common was magic -- white magic (which could be positive like a love potion) and black magic (which could be deadly). But the most powerful magic of all was the one used so well by Marie Laveau; this was "gris-gris". This comes from the French word for grey (gris) and was a mixture of both white and black magic. Much like the "power" to create zombies, the power of gris-gris (pronounced in New Orleans as "greeh greeh") was the power of suggestion and the gullible disposition of the voodoo believer. Gris-gris bags were created to help with magic spells. These were very small sacks into which various herbs and natural items, such as hair, were placed. Marie Laveau would make these gris-gris bags, tell a voodoo believer that they had magical powers, and her followers would believe it.

Backing up her power was her ability to know secrets about people in positions of wealth and influence in Old New Orleans, usually these would be white Creoles, descendants of French and European Spanish heritage. Marie would obtain these secrets, she claimed, through voodoo. In reality she learned these secrets from her network of voodoo-believing slaves who worked for the Creoles or from her personal work as a hair dresser to the wealthy people in the city. Foolish wealthy people would chat away while Marie worked on their hair, oblivious to her presence. Marie kept her ears open and learned a multitude of secrets from financial information to aspects of personal lifestyles.

In a world that was male dominated and white dominated -- slavery still existed in America then-- Voodoo was dominated by African-American women. There were some males who were voodoo practitioners, like Doctor John; but women were the most powerful. Marie Laveau became the most powerful of them all.

Marie was not a slave. She was what was called a "free woman of color"; her mother was African and her father French. She was most likely part American Indian as well on her mother's side. St. Domingue (Haiti) was the scene of a violent and bloody slave revolt when Marie was born in New Orleans. Her exact past is uncertain. Some historians actually claim she was born in Haiti. But most believe she was born in New Orleans and that her father, a wealthy French planter, possibly fled Haiti because of the revolt there. Marie lived in the Vieux Carre' (the "old quarter" or the French Quarter today) and married a free "mulatto" or a person of mixed heritage named Jacques Paris. According to some historical accounts, her marriage was performed by Pere' Antoine, the chaplain of the St. Louis Cathedral. (Today there are two very famous alleys alongside of the Cathedral. One is "Pirates Alley" named after Jean Lafitte's pirates, and the other is called "Pere Antoine Alley" named after the chaplain. )

After Jacques Paris died, Marie lived with --and possibly married-- Christophe Glapion and had many children -- some accounts say 15 children! (Years later, people would often confuse Marie with her daughter, who resembled her; and they would conclude that Marie Laveau could appear in two places at once through her voodoo magic.)

In one of her most famous voodoo spells, Marie Laveau took possession of a cottage on St. Ann Street in the French Quarter. A prominent white Creole sought her help when his son got into serious trouble with the law and was on trial for murder. His lawyers told him his case was basically hopeless. But Marie Laveau saved the son by allegedly using gris-gris bags placed under the judge's bench. The more probable explanation is that Marie discovered some secret information about the judge through her spy network of voodoo-believing slaves and used this to "influence" the judge's judicial decisions. With his son now freed, presumeably from Marie's voodoo, the grateful Creole father gave Marie the cottage on St. Ann Street. This case made Marie immensely influential in New Orleans as now even some in the white Creole community began to believe in her magical powers. So, whether it was a love potion or something more sinister, Marie was highly sought after.

Another amazing story about Marie Laveau was her work as a nurse. Her knowledge of herbs allowed her to actually help the sick, and she often volunteered her time bringing homemade gumbo (a seafood soup) to prisoners in jail in New Orleans. Sometimes she would spike the gumbo with special herbs to help calm or heal her patients. It is also claimed that in her youth she worked as a nurse at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

In those days in New Orleans, slaves were sometimes allowed to hold dances at Congo Square which was behind the French Quarter. Although Voodoo was not encouraged by the white rulers of the city, it was tolerated to some degree. Marie would hold spectacular voodoo events on the shore of Bayou St. John in New Orleans. She did this mainly for show and to promote a belief in voodoo, and hence a belief in herself. She would sometimes dance there holding a large snake named Zombi. It was just for show, however, and these dances were often very sensual and enticing. That also attracted many influential visitors from higher levels of society who snuck away to see these spectacles.

Marie's real voodoo practices were done in private homes. Sometimes she would mix Catholic religious beliefs with voodoo --using statues, candles, etc. It was said that Marie Laveau would frequently attend Catholic mass at the St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter while also being a Voodoo Queen, even though Catholicism was clearly opposed to voodoo beliefs.

Marie Laveau lived to be over 90 years old, and she was given a Catholic funeral and buried in a very old and famous cemetery called St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 on Basin Street in New Orleans. Later in her life she renounced voodoo and publicly accepted Catholicism. Nevertheless, to this day she is known for her voodoo practices. Many tourists and voodoo believers go to her grave and some write an "X" on the grave and invoke her spiritual powers.

Marie Laveau remains one of the most famous and controversial persons in the history of Old New Orleans -- perhaps the most famous.

A wonderful traditional Jazz tune -- played so well by the Olympia Brass Band -- is a song about the life of Marie Laveau. Another famous New Orleans musician named Dr. John also has a fine version of this same old tune simply called "Marie Laveau". Some of the words go like this:

"There lived a conjure lady, not long ago, in New Orleans, by the name of Marie Laveau.

"Believe it or not, strange as it may seem,

"She made a fortune selling voodoo and interpreting dreams...

"Folks would come to her from miles around,

"To see her put that voodoo down...

"To the voodoo lady they all would go,

"The rich, the educated, the ignorant, and the poor,

"She'd snap her fingers and shake her head,

"She'd tell mighty lovers, living and dead...

"O, Marie Laveau,

"O, Marie Laveau,

"Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen.

"She got rich from Voodoo in New Orleans..."

Yes, that is so true. She got rich -- and famous -- from voodoo in Old New Orleans.

To read more about Marie Laveau, see this article I wrote over 10 years ago for now hosted at --"The Voodoo Queen."

Also see Great Characters of New Orleans by Mel Leavitt and Robert Tallant's book Voodoo in New Orleans.
(The photo is in public domain from wikimedia commons. It is allegedly of Marie Laveau.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Dr. Antommarchi: Napoleon's Death and New Orleans

A connection exists between the death of Napoleon Bonaparte and the city of New Orleans. The link is a medical doctor named Dr. Francis Antommarchi. When Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena (see stories below), he was assigned a medical staff by the British. Napoleon never trusted the British doctors, and relied instead on his own physician from Corsica named Dr. Francis Antommarchi. (Napoleon, of course, was also from Corsica originally.)
The death of Bonaparte is a controversy. While most historians believe he died of natural causes (stomach cancer), some suspect that he was slowly poisoned -- most likely by the British who feared his possible escape and re-emergence to power as he did after his first exile to Elba in the Mediterranean.
As was common in those days when a "great man" died, Dr. Antommarchi made a cast of Napoleon's face from which a "death mask" was made. This death mask was carried by the doctor, on one of his travels, to the city of New Orleans -- which was then decidedly pro-French -- and donated to the city. The mask eventually made its way to the Cabildo which was once a functioning government building -- the Louisiana Purchase was signed there-- and then a museum.
The death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte is still at the Cabildo today, and it reveals the strong ties between New Orleans and France.
(Note: In the photos we see the death of Napoleon on St. Helena, a portrait of Dr. Antommarchi, a photo of the death mask of Napoleon, and a photo of the Cabildo in New Orleans. All of the photos are in public domain from Wikimedia commons except the one of the Cabildo which I took pre-Katrina.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Napoleon's Civil Code and New Orleans

Napoleon Bonaparte did more than leave behind a legacy of war and glory. He also created a code of laws which last to this day in many parts of the world. In 1804 Napoleon assembled a small body of jurists who devised the Code Civil. This was a revolution in the history of law. Now law was for the common man, not just for the elites. The code was the will of the legislature, and it set out in clear terms how society would be governed in matters relating to persons (such as marriage), property (including community property which gave greater rights to women) and to obligations (contracts or the aquisition of property).
The Code Civil was based on ancient Roman Law, and it was different from the British Common Law. Furthermore, it reflected the spirit of the more egalitarian French Revolution.
Long after his defeat at Waterloo and his demise at St. Helena, Napoleon's Civil Code endured. It became the basis for many laws in the state of Louisiana in the USA. (All the other states in the United States use law based on British Common Law, but Louisiana is based on Napoleon's Civil Code.)
The term worked its way into New Orleans history also through literature. There is a famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams where Stanley Kowalski says, "Now we got here in the state of Louisiana what's known as the Napoleonic Code..." Stanley was so right; we are so different down here.
(In the photos above we see a painting of Napoleon at the battle of Jena with his Imperial Guard. There is a street in New Orleans named for this battle, Jena. We see a photo of a page from the French Civil Code. Finally, we see a photo of the title page from my copy of the Louisiana Civil Code -- which was given to me by my sister and my brother-in-law many years ago. All three photos relate to the influence of Napoleon on New Orleans. The photos of Jena and the French Code are from Wikipedia Commons and in public domain. I took the photo from my Louisiana Code.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Isle of St. Helena and New Orleans

Somewhere lost in the South Atlantic Ocean between South America and Africa is St. Helena. It is a rocky, even mountainous, volcanic island about 47 square miles big (or small); and it is one of the most isolated places on Earth. In fact, the nearest large land mass, Africa, is about 1,200 miles away. As in olden days, it is accessible today only by ship. Because in the 18th century it had value as a supply depot for ships of the British Navy as they travelled between Europe and the East via the Cape of Africa, the British controlled the island with a small military force and sea power. Other than that, St. Helena had no real value and could have disappeared into history... except for the unfortunate presence of one extraordinary resident of the island. This resident was in fact the most famous person in the world in the early 19th century. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France, the man who almost became the ruler of the world.

In 1815 after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon had a vain attempt to escape to America -- which had been an enemy of Britain in the recent War of 1812. That war between the United States and Great Britain had ended with the stunning victory for the Americans by General Andrew Jackson and his pirate allies led by Jean Lafitte at the Battle of New Orleans. But Britain ruled the waves and foiled Napoleon's escape attempts. Not wishing to repeat the mistake of exiling the Emperor of France to a nearby location, as when they had earlier exiled him to Elba in the Mediterranean Sea from which he did escape, the British decided to isolate Napoleon on the distant, bleak Isle of St. Helena. So, from 1815 until his death from cancer in 1821, Napoleon remained on that wind-swept island. (Note, there are some historians who now speculate that Napoleon was in fact poisoned secretly by the British to prevent him from escaping again. It would have been too vulgar and politically controversial to execute him publicly.)

Oddly enough, although it is thousands of miles away, St. Helena has a connection to New Orleans. Although some historians see this as more legend than fact, the assertion is that the wealthy pro-French mayor of New Orleans, Nicholas Girod, formed a plot with former French Army officers now in exile in New Orleans and pirates from Barataria led by Jean Lafitte -- who had fought the British at the Battle of New Orleans -- and his brother Dominque You to send a pirate ship to St. Helena, over power the British garrison there, free Napoleon, and take him back to New Orleans. Mayor Girod had in fact already prepared a house for Napoleon on Chartres Street in the Vieux Carre' (French Quarter).

A small island called Tristan da Cunha which was south of St. Helena had been captured by the British earlier to prevent it from being used as a base by the French or anyone else planning a rescue attempt of Napoleon. So, a rescue attempt was not seen as being far-fetched to the British Admiralty.
As the story goes, on the very day that the pirates were to set sail under the command of Dominique You from New Orleans, word arrived in the city that Napoleon had died. Thus the rescue plot was cancelled.

What would have happened had Napoleon actually arrived in New Orleans? It is something historians would love to speculate about. Certainly the British would have questioned the involvement of the American government, and this could have possibly led to another war. Would Napoleon become a man of peace suddenly and be content to live in the French Quarter in New Orleans or would he embark on some new military adventure? Would he join the American Army and lead US troops? Well, of course, no one knows. But it is interesting to think of such things.

The reality is that Napoleon Bonaparte died on lonely St. Helena, a prisoner of his lost glory. The Irish, who often saw Napoleon as a savior from their British enemy, created a sad song long ago, which now has many variants, about Napoleon and St. Helena. It lives on as a popular folk song to this day:

"Oh, Bony he has gone from his wars and all his fighting
He has gone to the place where he takes no delight in.
And there he may sit down and tell the scenes that he's seen of
When full long doth he mourn on the Isle of St. Helena ...
No more in St. Cloud will he appear in great splendor
Nor step forth from the crowd like the great Alexander.
He may look to the east while he thinks of Hana
With his heart full of woe, on the Isle of St. Helena...

... so, all you with wealth, pray beware of ambition.
For it's a degree of fate that may change your condition.
Be steadfast in time, for what to come you know not of
For fear you may be changed like he on the Isle of St. Helena."
(My favorite version of this song is by Mary Black, by the way.)

Napoleon never did make it to the French Quarter in New Orleans. But we have a street named after him. Several streets in Uptown New Orleans are named after his famous battles -- Marengo, Austerlitz, and Jena. A street by City Park called De Saix is named for one of his generals. A Mardi Gras parade is named after Napoleon. And, of course, as the story goes the house in the French Quarter which Mayor Girod had set aside for the Emperor now bears the name of Napoleon and is a popular bar and restaurant listed with the National Historic Registry.
New Orleans knows how to treat a man who would be the ruler of the world.
For more about the pirates' plot to rescue Napoleon, see Lafitte, the Pirate by Lyle Saxon.
(Note: In one photo above we see Napoleon standing next to British officers in his exile on the Isle of St. Helena. In the second photo we see the three pirate brothers Pierre and Jean Lafitte and Dominique You, who was to lead the expedition to free Napoleon. These two pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and are in public domain.)
-- Adrian

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Photo from Jimmy LaRocca: Remains from "Old" Salaparuta

As I reported two stories below, Salaparuta, Sicily suffered its own Katrina in 1968 in the form of a massive earthquake. It destroyed the entire town and made the whole population of 3,000 people homeless.
The people who returned after the disaster rebuilt the town in a different location. Today the new town is prospering, and it has a new cultural center called the "Nick" LaRocca New Orleans Jazz Cultural Arts Center. It is attached to the auditorium, the "Nick" LaRocca Concert Hall.
The "Old" Salaparuta is just ruins today. The photo here from Jimmy LaRocca is a small piece of the floor from a destroyed church in "Old" Salaparuta which he acquired on a trip to Sicily in 1999.
Like Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquake of Salaparuta makes us realize what we have lost, and that we should never take things for granted.
To learn more about the "New" Salaparuta and the new Jazz cultural center, see
Thanks again to Mr. Jimmy LaRocca for the great photograph.

Photos from Jimmy LaRocca: ODJB and the First Jazz Recording Ever

These two great photographs come to this blog courtesy of Jazz musician/bandleader Mr. Jimmy LaRocca himself. After doing research on Salaparuta and its amazing connections to Jazz in New Orleans, I emailed Mr. LaRocca for information. He was kind enough to send to this blog three excellent pictures which I am posting here and above. The first photo is of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band with"Nick" LaRocca, Jimmy's father, on cornet when they were in New York in 1917.
The photo of the record is of the first Jazz song EVER recorded by anybody. It is "Livery Stable Blues" recorded in New York by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) with "Nick" LaRocca -- Victor #18255. It sold over 1,000,000 copies in 1917. As Mr. Jimmy wrote, "It was recorded February 26, 1917 and released March 7, 1917. It's the recording that changed forever how music would be interpreted."
"Nick" LaRocca was born in New Orleans, but his father was born in Salaparuta, Sicily. Mr. Jimmy LaRocca follows in the footsteps and leads the ODJB today. Read much more about the tremendous influence of the LaRocca's on New Orleans Jazz and connections to Salapuruta at
Mr. Jimmy also pointed out something else to me that we will see more of on this site later. The Sicilian immigrants not only influenced New Orleans music, but they also absolutely influenced New Orleans' great food. Another point he made is that many of the early Jazz musicians in New Orleans were actually Sicilian. What could be more New Orleans than great food and great music? Yes, we have a lot to thank Sicily for if we really love New Orleans.
Once again, our profound thanks go to Mr. Jimmy LaRocca for sending us these great photographs.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


The levees did not break in Salaparuta; the earth did. For this small town in western Sicily, January 26, 1968 was the same as August 29, 2005 for us in New Orleans, the day Hurricane Katrina came. During the night of January 26 a massive earthquake tore through the town and the nearby region. A village that had existed for 900 years was totally destroyed in a matter of 30 seconds. All of the ancient, historic buildings lay in ruins. The 3000 inhabitants of Salaparuta now had to wait on the slopes of a hill for the quake to pass. When the land finally became quiet again, the entire town was left homeless. The people eventually did rebuild their 900 year old town, but not in the same place. Many of the citizens left the town for good, but some returned. Again, in its own way, it was like Katrina.

People had been leaving Salaparuta for a long, long time, however, long before the 1968 catastrophe. In the 1800's people left because of poverty and civil instability. Some went elsewhere in Sicily or Italy or in the Mediterranean region. Others sailed across the Atlantic to America's eastern seaboard and New York City. But some came here to New Orleans.

From some research I did, I recognized some of the last names of families from Salaparuta who came to America since the late 1800's and specifically to New Orleans -- Palumbo, Bruno, Cangialosi, Capo, DiMaggio, Drago, Ippolito, Lupo, Mandina, Navarra, Oliveri, Prima, Russo, Trapani, and Giarraputto. (See )

Among the multitudes of poor, desperate Sicilian immigrants was a man who, seemingly, had no connection whatsoever to New Orleans and its unique culture of exquisite foods, priceless architecture, and the only truly unique art form ever created in America, namely, Jazz. This impoverished son of Salaparuta was named Girolamo LaRocca who married Vita DeNina, also of Sicily. They immigrated to New Orleans, where many Sicilians faced strong discrimination initially, and had a son named Dominic, who was called "Nick" for short. And "Nick" LaRocca became one of the most famous and most significant Jazz cornet (trumpet) players and Jazz bandleaders in all of New Orleans history. He became the director of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band which sprang from New Orleans but influenced Jazz across the country in Chicago and New York.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) is credited with the first ever recording of a Jazz song, "Livery Stable Blues," which was recorded in 1917 and which made the band internationally famous. The ODJB was also said to be the first Jazz band to tour Europe before a large audience, and this made Jazz extremely popular there to this very day.

Nick LaRocca died in the early 1960's but his son still continues the tradition of New Orleans Jazz with the ODJB. (See The mayor of New Orleans sent a letter to Salaparuta acknowledging the historic ties between the two cities. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana sent a certificate to the mayor of Salaparuta for honoring New Orleans Jazz music. (Again see which has copies of the letter and the certificate online.)

In August 2008, three years after Katrina, a Jazz center -- Nick LaRocca Cultural Arts Center -- was established in Salaparuta in honor of Nick LaRocca and his family who helped connect that small town in Sicily, which was destroyed by an earthquake, to a large city in America, New Orleans, which was devastated by a hurricane.

But earthquakes, hurricanes, immigration, exile, poverty, prejudice and every other hardship known to woman or man could not stop the beat of the drum and sound of the cornet and a genuine love for music which exists like no place else on Planet Earth except for New Orleans ... and Salaparuta.


(Note: The ODJB photo above is in public domain from Wikimedia Commons. "Nick"is playing the cornet in the photo, third from the left. The certificate from Lt. Gov. Blanco appears with permission of Mr. Jimmy LaRocca and is from the attachments file at

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Palermo: Gen. Patton and WW2

Here's one more thing to add about Sicily and Palermo: Not only did Sicilians come to America, but Americans once went to Sicily. In this case it was between 12 July and 17 August, 1943 in what was called Operation Husky. The British 8th Army under Bernard Montgomery and the US 7th Army under the famous Gen. George S. Patton invaded the island and drove out the Nazis.
Although the Itlalian Army was present and did some fighting, it was clear that the average Italian soldier, and certainly the vast majority of civilians, did not like the Germans and did like the Allies; especially they loved the Americans. As a result large numbers of Italian troops quickly surrended to Patton's Army, and Gen. Patton was warmly welcomed as a liberating hero in the streets of Palermo. I am not certain how many US soldiers from New Orleans were present in this operation, if any. That, of course, is a detailed research question. A good source of information on the invasion of Sicily would be the National World War ll Museum in New Orleans. (The museum began as the D-Day Museum and has grown over time. See
After taking Palermo (which, by the way, Patton did on his own without orders), the general drove to the Straits of Messina trying to trap the Nazi Army on the island of Sicily. But the Germans escaped and went to mainland Italy where they would fight again until the war's end.
In the photos above we see a team of US soldiers with a mortar as they fire on German positions near Palermo. The next photo shows Gen. Montgomery and Gen. Patton shaking hands in the liberated city of Palermo. In reality, they did not like each other very much, as was shown in the famous movie with George C. Scott. Lastly, is a US Army map showing the movements of the US troops in the invasion of Sicily. Palermo is in the middle at the top. (Note: Both photos and the map are in public domain and at Wikimedia Commons.)
-- Adrian

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More About Ustica and New Orleans

The relationship between Ustica and New Orleans is fascinating, and I was fortunate to be able to interview via email two people who live in the New Orleans area who are partly of Ustican descent. One is the manager of the outstanding website called which has the most accurate and detailed information on Ustica and its relationship to New Orleans that I have found. He is Chris Caravella.
And the other is a New Orleanian, now living in Houma, Louisiana, who is a lawyer and an expert of Sicilian/ Ustican genealogy. He also happens to be my cousin, Kerry Byrne. His last name is Irish, but his mother's side of the family -- Debelo/DiBello -- is from Ustica.
I asked Chris about the percent of people in New Orleans who could be descended from Ustica. He said, "A typical 3rd or 4th generation Italian American can probably claim a few cities in Sicily as our grandparents freely intermarried in the US thus clouding the dictinction of being 'from Ustica.' The closest I've come to generating statistics is the 1880 census. From that census, I estimate that the Usticese were about 15% of the total Italian American population of New Orleans. The 1880's were just the start of the mass migration from Ustica so I would expect the percent [would increase] in the following decades. Today [there] are estimated that easily 30 to 50,000 Italian Americans in New Orleans area can claim some ties to Ustica."
Chris added that Usticese people are Sicilians and share the same culture and language.
"What set them apart, " he said, " were the circumstances of living on an island that is only a mile and a half across." The island became over populated and thus people needed to leave. The largest population of emigrants went to New Orleans, California, Algeria, Tunisia, Sardinia, and Naples. Some went to New York.
I asked Chris about the infamous lynchings of Sicilians in 1891 in New Orleans (discussed in my other article on Ustica below). He said that no one from Ustica was lynched in the incident, but that the restaurant called the Oyster Restaurant was somehow involved in the incident and was owend by a family named Verdichizzi which was from Ustica.
Chris also mentioned that the foods on Ustica are Sicilian and that Ustica is known for lentils and capers and wonderful desserts called Giggi (which is like Piniolata) and Cassateddi, a horseshoe-shaped pastry.
Here is Chris' link to Usticese pastries
He added that Palermo, Sicily is the closest large city, and that this means there have been many ties between the two. But most of the people on Ustica originated from the island of Lipari near Messina.
My cousin Kerry had some other interesting things to say about Ustica. The island of Ustica started with about 300 families, most from Lipari. This grew to a population of about 5,000. Then people transplanted to New Orleans where there are about 50,000 Usticese descendants today. The population of Ustica today is only about 1,500.
Kerry said that about 95% or more of the people in New Orleans claiming to be "Italian" are actually Sicilian or from the nearby islands like Ustica.
Of his own family --and mine through my uncle-- some of the Sicilian or Ustican names are Mascari, DiBello, Caezza, and Verdichizzi. Also, he told me that several mayors of Kenner, Louisiana (a suburb of New Orleans) were of Usticese descent. Most of Kerry's Sicilian relatives came to New Orleans in the 1860's and 70's.
The impact on the city of New Orleans of the Sicilian and Usticese culture has been tremendous affecting various fields from operating small businesses and groceries, to food services, restaurants, to even participation in law and politics and, of course, religion. (Note: The map above is from Wikimedia Commons of Ustica and the region.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


The photograph is that of the island of Ustica taken from a ferryboat as it approaches the coast.
Ustica is an island about 50 miles northwest of the city of Palermo in Sicily. A ferryboat runs regularly between the island and the city. The island itself is very small, just a few square miles; and it would seem to have little or no significance to people thouands of miles away in New Orleans.
But, amazingly enough, it has a major connection to the Crescent City.
Although my own background is mainly Irish, I first learned of the existence of Ustica from my aunt whose family has roots there. Most of the people historically called "Italians" in New Orleans are actually from just one part of Italy -- Sicily. And many of the people we call "Sicilians" actually can trace their ancestory back to another single place -- Ustica.
One of the leading sources of information today about Ustica and New Orleans comes from the San Bartolomeo Society (St. Bartholomew Society). This society was created in New Orleans in 1879, although many people came from Ustica to America from the 1850's. Incredibly, most of the immigrants who left Ustica for political or economic reasons came to settle in one place in the world, New Orleans. The society was at first created to help immigrants re-settle, but today it is a way to help preserve a unique and amazing heritage and history. (See more about the San Bartholomeo Society at )
As an example, one of the most famous musicians from New Orleans was the trumpet player Louis Prima. (I recall seeing him in person only once when he visited Jesuit High School in New Orleans when I was a student there and also a trumpet player in the school band.) His mother was actually born on Ustica, although she eventually came to New Orleans. Other members of Trumpeter Prima's family came from Palermo, Sicily; and it appears that there were many historical ties between those two locales -- Ustica and Palermo. (From my days studying military history, I recall the epic campaign of Gen. George Patton during World War ll when he drove the Nazis out of Sicily by taking Palermo and then racing to Messina. Although Italy was technically "the enemy" under the rule of the Fascists, the Sicilian people clearly sided with the Americans and welcomed Gen. Patton.)
Another amazing connection between New Orleans and Ustica is the world-famous, superb resturant Commander's Palace in the Garden District. Although today it is associated with Brennan's (a restaurant in the French Quarter), originally in the 1880's it belonged to Emile Commander. Emile was born in New Orleans; but his father, Peter, was from Ustica. Peter Commander -- whose actual name was Pietro Camarda -- is thought to be actually one of the first people from Ustica to come to New Orleans. Peter's family had ties to Palermo; for business purposes, most likely, he changed his name from Camarda to Commander.
The Italians (really Sicilians) came to New Orleans and settled right in the French Quarter where rents were actually low in the 1880's. The old Vieux Carre' became known as "Little Italy." It was there that the Sicilian and Ustican influence was felt first in New Orleans. The famous muffuletta sandwich was invented there at an Italian grocery called The Central Grocery on Decatur Street. The Progresso Food company began in the French Quarter in New Orleans by a Sicilian named Giuseppe Uddo. Today its products are sold nationally.
Many Sicilians -- despite the many cultural benefits they brought to New Orleans-- suffered from terrible discrimination upon arrival here. This culminated in a notorious case of lynching in 1891where many Sicilians (perhaps some were from Ustica) were faslely accused of a crime, and though found innocent, were hanged to death by a bigoted mob, some from lamp posts. It took a long time for the Sicilians to gain acceptance in the city.
Ustica itself has a long and fascinating history. Its modern history began in 1763 when 100 families came from the island of Lipari north of Messina to Ustica. The Government was afraid of pirates operating in the region and felt the best way to stop this was to inhabit the island of Ustica -- which had been a pirate base -- with civilians and then defend those civilians with soldiers. There is a very interesting yet complicated history about all this concering the "Kingdom of Two Sicilies." And a real study of the island's history could go all the way back to the days of the Roman Empire.
But for our purposes in modern-day New Orleans, it is just fascinating to think that so much of our culture in music and food in the Crescent City (and even relatives of my Irish family) come from a tiny island north of Palermo that, for most of my life, I never knew existed.
The best source of information I have found on the internet about Ustica can be found at; much of the information in my little story here came from that excellent site which also has wonderful color photos of the island.
For more about the history of the Sicilians in the city, see Beautiful Crescent by Joan Garvey and mary Lou Widmer, Queen New Orleans by Harnett Kane, and A Short History of New Orleans by Mel Leavitt. (Note: The photo above of Ustica is from Wikipedia Commons and in public domain.)
-- Adrian