Laussat’s Memoirs of My Life

April 11th, 2011 by Michael Taylor

Special Collections is pleased to announce the acquisition of one of the rarest and most important books on the early history of Louisiana—the Mémoires sur ma vie of Pierre-Clément de Laussat. Born in 1756 in the Pyrenees region of southern France, Laussat served as a minor bureaucrat until the outbreak of the French Revolution. After the signing in 1800 of the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso, by which Spain returned Louisiana to France, he seized the opportunity to become colonial prefect (governor) of Louisiana. Napoleon Bonaparte appointed him to the post in 1802. Not long after Laussat’s departure for Louisiana in January 1803, however, Napoleon sold the vast Louisiana Territory to the United States to help fund his wars in Europe. His hopes for a distinguished administrative career dashed, Laussat had to settle for formally receiving Louisiana from Spain on November 30, 1803, and then, just twenty days later, overseeing its official transfer to the Americans. (He also supervised the transfer of the Spanish colonial archives to Spain and the United States.)

Laussat went on to hold administrative posts in Martinique and French Guiana, but it is as the last French governor of Louisiana that he is remembered today. His experiences in Louisiana comprise nearly a third of his Memoirs. In the forward to the English translation of the work (published by the LSU Press in 1978), Robert Bush writes that Laussat’s account of the Louisiana Purchase is important for many reasons. In addition to offering a French point of view, it provides essential contextual information about the “living conditions, personality conflicts, institutional patterns, modes of dress, local cuisine, labor relations, manufacturing and agricultural techniques, transportation problems, [and] the issue of slavery” in Louisiana at the dawn of the nineteenth century. “An amazing amount of valuable factual information is contained in thirty pages of a census report that [Laussat] compiled while visiting planters and small farmers residing along the Mississippi and bayous,” Agnes-Josephine Pastwa, the translator of the Memoirs, observes. “Added to these sources of information are several others: memoirs, questionnaires, travel accounts, charts, and records submitted at [Laussat’s] request by the knowledgeable pioneers and prominent citizens of Louisiana.”

Laussat’s memoir was privately printed for his family in his hometown of Pau in 1831, four years before his death. One authority asserts that only 100 copies were printed. Six copies are known to exist in U.S. institutional libraries today and just one in Europe, making this one of the rarest items of nineteenth-century Americana. Special Collections plans to digitize the work and make it freely available in the Louisiana Digital Library.

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