A Little Garden of Eden

Historian John Sledge leads us on a stroll through the streets of Spanish Mobile.

“Ft. Conde during the Spanish Administration,” oil painting by C. A. Marshall, 1850. This fanciful view more resembles a Mediterranean port with its hills, crenellated fort, stone quay and turbaned figures than marshy Spanish Mobile. Nonetheless, it represents an important early artistic attempt to conjure a slice of Mobile’s colonial past. Photo courtesy the History Museum of Mobile

Several years after Mobile’s capture by the Spanish in 1780, a French military officer and backwoods diplomat named Louis LeClerc Milfort paid the town a visit. Milfort found Mobile’s riverside situation “pleasant,” and delighted in the residents’ private gardens neatly fenced by cypress pickets. He toured brick Fuerte Carlota with the post commander, noted the productive turpentine industry in the surrounding piney woods, and stated that the inhabitants, though by no means wealthy, were completely happy. After all, there were fruits and vegetables “as good as there are in Europe” outside their back doors, and the hunting and fishing were “excellent” practically within the town limits. “Mobile is a little garden of Eden,” Montfort concluded, “which induced me to go there often.”

Spanish Mobile lasted 33 years, 1780-1813, throughout which it was a small military outpost with limited trade. Fuerte Carlota was the dominant feature, its overgrown glacis and inferior brick ramparts brooding over river and town. Military observers were generally dismissive of its defensive strength. Pierre-Joseph Favrot — Milfort’s guide — considered it useless and grumbled that “a good cannon shooting a four pound ball would raze it in two hours.” Nonetheless, others admired its tidy parade ground and orderly barracks. Among its amenities was a well and among its terrors a dingy dungeon. An American merchant forced to spend the night in the latter described it as “a dismal place, the water dripping from the arch, and the floor very wet.” 

South and west of the fort there was limited settlement because the British had cleared fields of fire during the late siege. The notable exception was the property of the Spanish treasurer, Miguel Eslava, whose lot included a house, garden, and little cabins for enslaved people west of what is now Monroe Street. North of the fort, Government Street, so named as early as 1788 for the “Government House,” or royal warehouse that sat where the Exploreum is today, stretched roughly between the river and modern Jackson Street. At the foot of Government, a 380-foot-long wharf constructed on cedar pilings and decked with two-inch cypress boards fingered over the muck and into the stream. The wharf was anchored by Montuse’s Tavern, a popular watering hole well stocked with wine and clay pipes managed by a former barrel maker and his wife. 

Royal Street ran north hemmed by muck and marsh on the east. Water Street did not yet exist. Dauphin Street, then called St. John, and Conti (St. Peter) were the principal east-west routes. All of these streets were relatively narrow, and other than oyster shells scattered over mud holes or heavy wooden planks thrown over rivulets, were unimproved. The town’s core blocks lay between Government and St. Anthony Streets and the river and Claiborne Street, where the Campo Santo, or cemetery lay. Most observers described the burial ground as unfenced and unkempt except for one or two well-built brick tombs. Beyond lay wilderness as far as the eye could see, threaded by paths oftener trod by the Indian’s moccasined toe than the soldado’s booted heel. 

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Besides the fort and cemetery, prominent landmarks included the parish church at Royal and Conti Streets, oriented so that it faced north. One traveler was unimpressed by Catholicism’s local seat, remarking that it resembled a barn with a cross perched atop the gable, and that its interior religious items included cheap tin plate and a lackluster painting. The hospital dominated the block where Bienville Square now sits, and stables, lean-tos and small houses cluttered the nearby lots. 

Spanish Mobile’s population was never much above a thousand souls — whites, blacks, Indians and mixtures of all three. Royal rule was mild in this far-flung colony, and free people of color owned property and held skilled jobs. Josiah Blakeley, who had a small plantation on Blakeley Island that he called “Festino,” counted 90 houses in town, “all of wood and but one story high.” Many dated from the French period (1711-1763). These sat on cypress pilings a few feet high and consisted of timber framing infilled by brick, mud and moss. They were roofed either by clay tile, or more frequently, bark slabs. Some had wraparound galleries, and most vegetable plots, fruit and nut trees. Little pig or chicken enclosures were ubiquitous. 

Modest as it was, Spanish Mobile was coveted by the boisterous new young nation on its northern doorstep. Its somnolent rule by a distant monarchy whose restrictive trade policies and tariffs choked access to the Gulf of Mexico was intolerable by American lights. At last in the spring of 1813, federal troops under the command of Gen. James Wilkinson bloodlessly seized Fuerte Carlota and raised the Stars and Stripes. As the Spanish troops filed out, the existing residents contemplated how their little town might change. That it would change significantly none doubted. And so it did.

John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”

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