C.C. Robin, Voyage to Louisiana

C.C. Robin’s Voyage to Louisiana catalogs his travels through Pensacola, New Orleans, Attakapas Parish (present-day St. Martin Parish), and Ouachita Parish from 1803 to 1805–a period that saw the French cede control of the Louisiana territory to the burgeoning United States of America. Stuart O. Landry, Jr., translator of the French account (also publisher of anti-integration literature in the 1950s), prefaces Robin’s writing by informing the reader that the official identity of C.C. Robin has not been verified, though the available evidence suggests that the author is Charles Cesar Robin, a French “ecclesiastic before the revolution, [and] a correspondent of [Jean-Paul] Marat” whose other writings addressed concepts present in Voyage to Louisiana, such as “economics, the evil effect of scarce money; natural religion; indignant polemics against dishonest persons.”

The selected excerpt details the agricultural prospects, commercial industry, military presence, government expenditures, naval navigation and tidal patterns, and general state of Pensacola, a territory that had been controlled by Spain, France, and England at various points throughout the colonial era. Additionally, Robin espouses his belief that Pensacola will come to be a nexus of superiority that will ensure dominance of the Gulf of Mexico for whichever country possesses the city. While this prognosis may have been a tad optimistic, it demonstrates the air of unpredictability and optimism that permeated throughout the colonial era of West Florida. This particular region of the southeast was–and remains–a sort of “borderland” loosely defined by a milieu of cultural influences that have shifted from competing colonizing powers to the more modern distinctions associated with the “Dixie” South and coastal Floridian culture.

 Benjamin Brothers, University of South Florida

Suggested Readings

Lloyd, Robert B. “Development of the Plan of Pensacola during the Colonial Era, 1559-1821.” Florida Historical Quarterly 64:3 (1986), 253–72.

Robin, Charles-César. Voyage to Louisiana, 1803-1805. Transl. Stuart O. Landry. New Orleans: Pelican, 1966.

Simpson, Lee M. A. “Pensacola, Florida: History and Archaeology Under Five Flags.” The Public Historian 33: 4 (2011): 63–65.


Chapter XXVIII. Description of Pensacola. What this colony was under the English; What it is under the Spanish. Agriculture, Soil, Industry, Inhabitants, Military Forces, Women, Commerce, Navigation, and the Methods of Improving it.

Pensacola, that region taken from the English by the Spanish toward the end of the American Revolutionary War, has declined considerably from what it was at that time. This town, situated on a pleasant and salubrious coast, at the end of a bay, facing its entrance, is spread out on a spacious and level plain, and is bordered on the right and the left by two streams called bayous. Behind this plain to the north, a little hillock dominates and protects it. The various streams which empty into this large bay, the long canal between the Island of Santa Rosa and the mainland, make this site a central point for the drainage of the region, a fact which will become of greater importance as the hinterland is settled. Already rye, corn and cotton are successfully cultivated here.

This propensity of English colonists for settling in the countryside, establishing economical agricultural activities which has contributed so much to their power, created numerous settlements along the harbor and along the banks of the streams. Masts, timber, naval stores, and furs, obtained from the Indians, became the most important items of commerce. The city grew proportionately. More and more neat and handsome houses, signs of increasing leisure were built. A number of jetties or wharfs were built out into the harbor where 50 or so European ships were always anchored. Under the Spaniards, tradition alone has preserved a trace of the commerce in masts and naval stores. The rural settlements, the agriculturists, have disappeared. Corn is now only obtained from the settlements at Mobile, and even chickens are imported from there. Rice and flour are bought at New Orleans as well as all European provisions and wine. The costs of transport of these provisions almost doubles the price; bread, for instance, costs twelve sous a pound, whereas it is worth at most, half of that. At the same time, for lack of consumption there is no market. No one has anything to sell and could not recover the value of it if he did. I have seen fishermen, forced to jettison a part of their catch, after having sold the best of it at a miserable price. One unfortunate, located about a half-league from the city, grows termelons (a natural crop for this country) and he has trouble getting rid of them. He is the only farmer in the colony. Oh, shameful! Fresh meat only costs three sous and this does not amount to even one sou in French money. But better, whose production requires a little trouble, costs from 36 to 48 sous in summer and in winter goes to more than three francs.[1]

Every settler has a herd of cows who stay at large in the woods, day and night, winter and summer and receive no attention except for being milked once a day. In order to do this the owners keep the calves to make the cows come in. Some have hundreds of these beasts. An English trading company, of which I will say more later, has a cowshed several miles from the city with more than two thousand animals. The cows wander at large mixed together. They are recognized by different marks which each proprietor places on them in the springtime when they are herded together. That is about the only care that they are given. A cow costs at most 30-36 francs. They are of an English strain and it has held up very well.

The soil of the town is only fine sand, so yielding that it is difficult to walk in the streets. However, it is productive of fruits and vegetables. Orange trees grow well there and the fig trees are splendid. Their fruit is delicious. Vines produce an abundance of excellent grapes. I have seen a vine or a bower loaded with fruit that was only two or three years old. The vines were as well developed as a planting eight or nine years old would be in France.

Peach trees grow with astonishing rapidity, but they also die soon because they are allowed to bear too many fruits. There are plum trees of a type indigenous to the country, whose qualities are inferior to ours. Apple and pear trees grow only moderately well in this loose, hot soil. I do not know why the apricot and almond have not been introduced as the climate would be favorable for their cultivation. The common vegetables are the pumpkin, whose marrow is sweet, the sweet calabash, related to the cucumber, whose long runners grow in such profusion that they climb on the houses and produce an agreeable shade, and all types of melons which likewise grow without cultivation.

The Jamaica pepper, or pimento, is much used. The use of this powerful astringent is doubtless salutary in this country where excessive perspiration weakens the body. Lettuces, cabbages, and most of our French green vegetables also do marvelously well here; their flavor is of the best. Both the potato, as we have in France and the sweet potato of tropical regions, are grown. One individual has made a trial planting of sugar cane on this sandy terrain. I have seen this planting and it is as fine and well established several leagues in the interior where the soil is much better! Pensacola, situated like New Orleans, beneath the 50th degree of latitude, must have a climate still hotter and therefore still better suited to the culture of crops of this sort, because of the sandy soil.

All kinds of beans do well here. There are several kinds which we do not have, more productive and more delicate than ours among them, those called flat [lima] beans. In winter the Indians bring in an abundance of game, ducks, deer (whose meat is so fat and wholesome), wild turkeys, also very fat, weighing up to 30 pounds costing only from two to five sous and that, not in money, but in kind.

Wood costs nothing, indeed, the country would benefit from consuming a great deal of it, but it does cost to transport it, and this cost may be considerable in a country where no one works, since one is not stimulated by pressing need. A cart load containing about two-thirds of a cord costs about twelve escalins (between six and seven francs). Those who own Negroes send them to cut wood at the edge of the harbor, and have it transported by water.

The streams and the sea swarm with fish. I have seen the fish schooling at the entrance to the harbor in such a great quantity that one would have thought that a light breeze was rippling the surface. Shellfish are just as abundant. In the coves, near the mouth of the river there are extensive banks of large and excellent oysters.

The air at Pensacola is so pure that invalids from Louisiana frequently come here to recuperate. The settlement is entirely military and the professions here are consequently only those serving the military. All of the commerce, therefore, turns upon the expenditures of the government. Agriculture and industry produce nothing except for a few ill-tended gardens.

Only a small corner of this land is under cultivation. It follows, necessarily, that the maintenance of both houses and individuals will be proportional to the expenditures of the government. A great number of houses, therefore, that were occupied during the period of English suzerainity are today abandoned and in ruins. Of the several wharfs which originally were built extending out into the harbor, only one is left and it is dilapidated. One of the two handsome barracks built by the English has just burned down. What the government spends in this settlement, it does not recover from the produce of agriculture and commerce, in the form of a return on the money. A military population, accustomed to an indolent life for which it requires expensive pleasures, whose members do not regard the places at which they are stationed as more than temporary habitations, is hardly disposed, or indeed, is able to take up the fruitful enterprises of commerce and agriculture. A city consisting of soldiers will certainly never show an example of economy and labor.

A billiard room is the general meeting place of everyone from the Governor down to the laborer and the humblest clerk. Here the shoemaker considers himself as good as the highest military officer. Here, in short, equality reigns. Not that of the debased, coarseness of the lowest elements of the population, but that equality which raises people to the honest customs of sociability.

This billiard room takes up that part of the means of the inhabitants that is not required for subsistence. Here, one finds neither novelist nor scholar. Here people play billiards, drink punch or other refreshments, and talk, purely for the sake of talking. Here, the treatment of travellers could not be more considerate. They are deferred to by all.

The ladies have more regard for rank. Their company is pleasant; they are affable with strangers. The wife of the governor and her charming family provide an excellent example. I cannot refrain from singling out Madame d’Alva, a Frenchwoman originally from Louisiana, married to a Spaniard, who is director of the hospital. One could scarcely carry the virtues of nursing further. Her generous benevolence extends to everyone in the settlement who needs her.

These ladies follow all of the French fashions. Their dresses are slender-waisted and short sleeved. They show off the figure without embarrassment. In this respect they should be the fashion in all centuries and in all countries, but they are especially suitable in those regions where the summers are long and hot. All of the ladies nurse their children. They owe this custom to fashion. O Fortunate mistress! If only that were always her influence! The human species has noticeably gained from this circumstance. Children nursed by their mothers are larger and healthier.

Five or six small ships blown here by contrary winds, all of them not totalling more than six or seven hundred tons, are more than have been seen here in ten years, and they have not been able to sell enough to make expenses. Four or five schooners of from ten to twenty- five tons carry passengers and freight between here and New Orleans. That is all of the commerce of this colony, except for the fur trade of which I spoke earlier.

Conquered lands which, to ignorant people, are the source of rejoicing, are, to people of understanding, a subject of melancholy, when they fail to promote the multiplication of people (the first duty and the ultimate end of all institutions). The Spanish officials themselves contemplate with shame the record of the past prosperity of this colony.

The schooners mentioned above, being broad and flat-bottomed, follow a route to New Orleans much shorter and safer than by way of the mouth of the Mississippi. On leaving the harbor they follow the coast westward to the mouth of Mobile Bay. Here they enter the sound formed by the islands Dauphine, Horn, Ship and Cat. Other little islands pressed together form several narrow channels called the Rigolets which lead into Lake Pontchartrain.[2] From here the boats enter a short stream which communicates with New Orleans by an artificial canal dug by the efforts of the Baron Carondelet, then Governor of Louisiana.[3] This route is not more than 50 leagues [125 miles] in length and can be made in two days. Sheltered from storms, one can relax in all weather, and the route is sheltered from attack by any enemy. The route by the mouth of the Mississippi would be more than 80 leagues [200 miles], and it would be necessary to proceed along the Chandeleur Islands, whose storms are frequent, and fight the swift current of the river. Moreover, the land at the river’s mouth is so low that it can be seen only when one is very near and hence is very dangerous to approach and even after getting into the river it sometimes takes twenty or thirty days to get up to New Orleans.[4]

Chapter XXIX. Harbor of Pensacola, Its importance, Its tides. Rationale of Government Expenditures in this Colony. Strange Abuses. A privileged English Commercial Establishment Still Remaining at Pensacola. Unwiseness of Maintaining This Establishment.

I learned at San Domingo the news of the cession of Louisiana to the United States and that Pensacola and West Florida would remain under Spanish dominion. This new order of things will have important consequences.

The harbor of Pensacola, because of its situation, its security, and because of the course of current events, will always be extremely important to the country which possesses it. It is the only harbor on the Gulf Coast capable of sheltering a number of large vessels against storms.

Its bottom, a mixture of sand and mud, will hold an anchor very well. Surrounded on all sides by land and communicating with the sea only through a narrow channel, somewhat oblique, and by the very narrow Santa Rosa Channel, the water is never affected by the waves of the open Gulf. The channel is twenty-one feet deep at the shallowest and the harbor can this receive vessel of sixty-guns. These advantages taken together assure control of the Gulf of Mexico to the power who knows how to take advantage of them.[5]

The hinterlands of the colony, moreover, can furnish almost all that is necessary for the refitting and construction of ships; pitch and rosin, pines and cypress for masts, hard green oak for the bows, and for planking between decks, oaks of many species, cedars, cypresses; also cordage, etc. If the active and ambitious Americans become mistress of such a place, they will soon have a formidable navy. How would Spain maintain communication with Mexico if the Americans sought to cut them off? What expense in armaments it would cost them merely to escort convoys from Havana to Vera Cruz! Would not every stream from Louisiana to Mexico which emptied into the sea be a potential base for the Americans? This state of things would bring about the loss of Mexico and the other Spanish colonies, to say nothing of the French ones. There is, thus, no place that deserves more attention from Spain and her ally, France.

While the loss of Pensacola by Spain is to be greatly feared, keeping it will serve to keep the Americans in Louisiana in check. Spanish vessels of war can leave Pensacola on the spur of the moment to block at will the difficult passes of the River and those of the Attakapas [Atchafalaya]. But how many cruel blows has Spain already allowed to fall on this property! The Americans have pushed their establishments in Georgia to less than 15 or 16 leagues from Pensacola. The upper reaches of the Mobile River from to about twenty leagues from the mouth are already in their hands. Under these conditions, it is already necessary to employ many more troops to guard Pensacola than formerly and, in addition, it is urgent that the hinterland be settled with farmers. Without this the Americans, sooner or later, will come in.

The tides at Pensacola are neither high not very regular. Strong sea winds will raise them, while strong offshore winds will diminish them considerably. For this reason, it has been hardly possible to measure them exactly. In a twenty-four-hour period the tide will be falling in the bay from 18 to 19 hours, and will rise for only five to six hours. This enormous difference must be attributed to the effect of the numerous streams entering the bay, which must furnish two-thirds of the capacity of the water in the bay. Indeed, the water in the bay is much less salty than in the open sea and becomes less so as one approaches the shore. This is an important observation for vessels anchoring in the harbor. If they anchor close enough to the shore, they have nothing to fear from the ship worm, which cannot live in fresh water.[6]

The tide seldom rises as high as three feet and sometimes does not rise at all. The currents likewise are variable, all of which as noted above must be attributed to the wind.

The streams which empty into the harbor, create currents which seriously derange the navigation of ships. What adds to the difficulties is the fact that close to the shore the water is so shallow in several places that ships must make considerable detours.

The Fort at Pensacola, raised on a mound of sand, is extremely important, as large ships must pass within half a cannon shot of it in order to enter the harbor.

This colony, although it has deteriorated under Spanish rule, is still a costly burden on the Spanish government. A garrison of 500 men is maintained, out of which only 200 are ready for duty. There is a Governor, who holds the military rank of Colonel, whose salary is three thousand piastres; a military commander of the same rank, supply and finance officers, and a host of junior officers, whose sole duty is to collect their salaries. The government pays customs inspectors who have no inspections to make or duties to collect. It employs carpenters, joiners, caulkers, blacksmiths; all of the artisans necessary for the maintenance of a fleet which consists of one small sloop.

The minor officials receive from twenty-five to forty or fifty gourdes[7] per month, in addition to their lodging, rations, and other benefits. There are storehouses from which these functionaries draw items ostensibly for the replacement of damaged goods. A certain quantity of powder is used up in firing practice, but not a single cap is fired. These prerogatives of position are ordinarily worth more than the salaries themselves. These abuses are so commonplace that no one even bothers to hide them. They extend throughout the administration of the various colonies and even an administration of the strictest probity would, by this time, find them extremely hard to suppress. There are countries where these abuses are even more glaring. How would such a government not be poor, even with such riches, or feeble with so many expenses. The miracle is that it has endured this long.

Several years ago more than 1,500,000 francs were spent upon putting the fortifications in condition, and today they are in a state of dilapidation with the exception of the fort built of brick at the entrance to the harbor, and even it is cracked everywhere because of being built on shifting sands, on pilings, no doubt, poorly sunk. Most of the buildings are already in ruins. I noted above that one redoubt on the island of Santa Rosa on the opposite side of the channel was built of wood so rotten that the least spark, such as the firing of a cap, would burn it to the ground. Artillery here would do more damage to the fortifications than to the enemy.

On the hill to the north which dominates the city the English built three sturdy forts surrounded by a deep ditch. The city itself was, moreover, surrounded by a wide ditch, whose parapet was provided with a palisade of tree trunks about twelve feet high. At the center of the city another fort formed a citadel where all of the citizens could seek shelter in time of need. Several blockhouses constructed of wood contained cannons firing over the palisade which could sweep the principal streets. Of all this defense, only a few of the wooden blockhouses remain, which, being isolated, would not be a very formidable obstacle.

When Pensacola was taken from the English, there was one commercial firm which had a monopoly of the fur trade. This monopoly has continued under the Spanish

Government. One may judge how unwise was this continuation. This firm, first known as the Planthon [Panton Leslie] Company, from the name of one of its directors, has offices in London and in the Island of Providence [Bahamas]. The company trades with the Indians for a distance of 80 to 100 leagues inland. Its agents are all English and trade only in English goods; run, powder, lead, guns, blankets, blue cloth, woolen ribbons, colored cloth, axes, knives and other knickknacks of apparel.

These savages, however fickle they may be, have certain habits, as, for instance, blankets with certain stripes, cloth of blue, woolen ribbons of blue or yellow, silver plaques of a certain shape, glass beads of milk white. They prefer guns of a certain shape, ordinary carbines, and the powder must be fine. Accustomed to trading with the English, they have become thoroughly accustomed to their goods, even to the saddles of those among them who have horses. Thus all of the advantages of the fur trade, which is the sole resource which the Spaniards could exploit, there being no agriculture, accrues to their enemies and damages the Spanish Government. At the same time, under the pretext of bringing its trade goods for the Indians, the same company actually imports merchandise for the colonists. Thus the entire colony, for which the King of Spain pays all the expenses, is run for the profit of England.

The English sell in the colony and buy furs which are sent to London, from where they are reshipped to other countries. This company sells to the inhabitants on credit and is thus able to raise prices and oblige the inhabitants to trade with them by preference. The company has all of the fur trade and almost all of the hard cash in the colony. But already recent events have exposed the colony to great dangers on account of this unwise policy.[8]

[1] 20 sous to the franc – 60 sous (translator’s note).

[2] “This description apparently ignores the existence of Lake Borgne, but is otherwise accurate. The land between the Chef, the Rigolets and Lake St. Catherine may easily be regarded as a series of islands” (translator’s note).

[3] The “short stream” is Bayou St. John; the artificial canal, the Carondelet Canal (translator’s notes).

[4] “When the wind was from the north, ascent was impossible, as a sailing ship could only move against it by tacking back and forth across the river whose current would cause the ship to lose as much, or more, distance as it gained by tacking. Ships would therefore have to anchor below English Turn and wait for a favorable wind” (translator’s note).

[5] “Ironically, control of Pensacola has never conferred any advantage whatsoever upon the nation possessing it. All of the time that the British held Pensacola the dominant power on the North Gulf Coast was either France or Spain, and from 1803 to 1819 while Florida belonged to Spain the dominant Gulf power was the United States” (translator’s note).

[6] TEREDO, actually a mollusc. (translator’s note).

[7] A monetary unit identical with PIASTRE. The gourde is still the official monetary unit of the Republic of Haiti. The original form is PIASTRE GOURDE, “thick piastre,” from Spanish GORDA, fat (translator’s note).

[8] “When the wind was from the north, ascent was impossible, as a sailing ship could only move against it by tacking back and forth across the river whose current would cause the ship to lose as much, or more, distance as it gained by tacking. Ships would therefore have to anchor below English Turn and wait for a favorable wind” (translator’s note).