THNOC’s latest exhibition looks at early Louisiana colonial commerce

Items on display illustrate regional Indian cultures, tobacco economy under the Company of the Indies

NEW ORLEANS — Long before New Orleans became the Queen of the South and Louisiana made a name for itself in shipping and trade, the area was a fledgling colony struggling to turn to a profit. The Historic New Orleans Collection’s latest exhibition, “Pipe Dreams: Louisiana under the French Company of the Indies, 1717–1731,” invites visitors to discover the experiences of one company that took the ultimate risk, invested millions in the region and lost it all. Opening Tuesday, June 18, at 533 Royal St., the free exhibition will be available to the public Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., and Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., through Sept. 15.

The history of the period

From 1717 to 1731 the French Company of the Indies monopolized Louisiana, controlling trade, construction, military presence and diplomatic relations with the colony’s Indian groups. The mastermind behind the plan, a Scotsman named John Law, hoped that with major investment Louisiana could become a tobacco colony rivaling British settlements in Virginia.

“‘Pipe Dreams’ brings together objects that illuminate French attempts to establish plantation agriculture in this region at a time when Indians outnumbered Europeans and Africans by 14 to 1,” said Erin M. Greenwald, curator and historian at The Historic New Orleans Collection. “By looking at Louisiana’s early colonial past through the lens of trade and agricultural expansion, this exhibition will illustrate the complex and often conflicting nature of official company policy in France versus the actual experiences of the colony’s inhabitants.”

Despite the Company of the Indies’ economic failure in Louisiana, its presence helped to grow the colony tenfold and secure France’s claim to the vast territory. Company investment facilitated the creation of new settlements and a new capital at New Orleans. It furthered the development of existing settlements and underwrote the passage of countless individuals—from engineers and scientists to clerks and religious personnel—whose combined work helped bring structure to the chaos of colonization.

“The company period was one of tremendous expansion in terms of immigration—forced and voluntary—and infrastructure,” said Greenwald. “If Louisiana had not been the beneficiary of company investment during this time, it is unclear whether France could have retained its footing in the lower Mississippi valley.”

About the exhibition

In addition to surveying the company’s activities in Louisiana and its effects on the region, “Pipe Dreams” will explore the colony’s place within the global market, the development of tobacco culture and the interactions among Louisiana’s Indian, European and African populations. The war between the Natchez tribe and the French and their Indian allies during this period also figures prominently in the exhibition.

More than 100 items will be on display, including engraved maps; contemporary artworks and drawings; archaeological artifacts from Port Dauphin, Old Mobile, Natchez and New Orleans; manuscripts and three-dimensional items related to the company’s origins and collapse; and trade items circulated throughout the company’s global networks.

The exhibition will also feature the original illustrated manuscript—and a digitized version—of a young clerk for the Company of the Indies. Marc-Antoine Caillot was 21 when he made the treacherous journey to the New World, where he spent two years working for the company in New Orleans. THNOC, with Greenwald as editor, recently translated and published Caillot’s memoir as “A Company Man: The Remarkable French-Atlantic Voyage of a Clerk for the Company of the Indies.”

“The Historic New Orleans Collection holds one of the most significant collections of material documenting John Law and the Company of the Indies in the United States,” said Priscilla Lawrence, executive director at THNOC. “‘Pipe Dreams’ is an opportunity for all of us to see and enjoy this collection and to better understand why our area is the diverse and vibrant place it is today.”

Related programming

See below for programming related to the exhibition “Pipe Dreams: Louisiana under the French Company of the Indies, 1717–1731,” on view June 18–Sept. 15, 2013, at 533 Royal St. All of the events will take place at 533 Royal St., allowing extended viewing hours for the exhibition, and they are free and open to the public, unless otherwise noted. Call (504) 523-4662 or visit www.hnoc.org for more information.

Wednesday, June 26

Exhibition opening reception

6:30–8 p.m.

Free and open to the public.

Friday, June 28, and Saturday, June 29

Fine Print Book Club

A discussion of “A Company Man” with editor/historian Erin M. Greenwald

12–2 p.m.

Registration is required and includes lunch. The rate is $10 per person through June 19, increasing to $20 on June 20. For reservations, call (504) 523-4662 and indicate your preferred session.

Tuesday, Aug. 13

“Dropping Anchor: Company-Owned Slaves in the Louisiana Colony”

A lecture by exhibition curator Erin M. Greenwald, editor of “A Company Man”

6:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public. Seating is limited. For reservations, call (504) 523-4662 or email wrc@hnoc.org.

Wednesday, Sept. 4

“The Company of the Indies and the Natchez Indians”

A lecture by Jim Barnett, director of the division of historic properties, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

6:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public. Seating is limited. For reservations, call (504) 523-4662 or email wrc@hnoc.org.

About The Historic New Orleans Collection

Founded in 1966, The Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum, research center and publisher dedicated to the study and preservation of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South region. For more information, visit www.hnoc.org or call (504) 523-4662.

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