Lafayette, We Are Here. Y’all Come!

American Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette was as beloved by Mobilians upon his visit to the area as he was one-hundred years later.

Above Portrait of Gilbert Motier, the Marquis De Lafayette as painted by Joseph-Désiré Court. Image courtesy Wikicommons

Just shy of two hundred years ago, in 1825, Lafayette visited Alabama. A hundred years later, in 1925, Mobile put on a big commemoration and parade on the Centennial of the visit. While the city may not revisit the occasion in three years, it is worth remembering the original visit.

Lafayette was a smart young Frenchman who believed in the idea of the American Revolution and decided to come here to help. Benjamin Franklin, our Ambassador in Paris, wrote George Washington to introduce the two, and urged Washington to treat Lafayette like a son. Washington, who had no children of his own [his wife Martha did from a former marriage], became quite close to Lafayette. The marquis was a general in our Revolutionary Army and a wounded war hero to boot.

Fast forward almost half a century. Lafayette, by 1824 the only still-living U.S. Revolutionary War general, was invited by President James Monroe to visit the United States as a guest of the nation, and he accepted. America sent a new frigate, The Brandywine, to France to bring Lafayette to the United States. He came with his son, named Georges Washington, and his secretary Auguste Levasseur, who arrived in the U.S. in August of 1824, spending seven months or so on the East coast.

Back in Alabama, Governor Israel Pickens and the legislature decided to invite the general to Alabama as our guest. Senator William Rufus DeVane King, later vice president, invited the revered soldier and he accepted. 

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But Lafayette was the guest of the Creek Indians as much as of Alabama. The Creeks still owned most of the land from the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in the East of Alabama, to Line Creek near Montgomery. On February 12, 1825, the Creeks had signed The Treaty of Indian Springs, selling those lands for $200,000, the unwritten details making clear the money was to be paid in installments to the main Creek Chief, William McIntosh, commonly called simply “McIntosh.” The most nativist of the Creeks, the “Upper Creeks,” concluded that McIntosh had sold their birthright and pocketed the money. Shortly after Lafayette’s visit, the Upper Creeks murdered McIntosh to get even. But that had not happened yet when Lafayette arrived.

Lafayette and his secretary and son, traveling in a light horse-drawn buggy called a sulky, arrived on the Georgia banks of the Chattahoochee River about where Fort Benning is today. He crossed the river on a ferry and was in Alabama, or more accurately Creek Indian Country.

Lafayette’s sulky was met in the river flats by 200 Creek Indians, dressed and feathered, who attached ropes to the Sulky and pulled the visitors up to the riverbank, where they were also met by Alabama state troops under the command of Gen. Thomas Woodward, a hero of the Creek Indian War and part Indian himself. The main show, however, was the Indians, who were led by Chilli McIntosh, the son of Chief William McIntosh. Every Indian grabbed Lafayette’s arm in the full-armed Indian handshake.

Chilli McIntosh in his twenties was in the prime of life; handsome and strong, and completely at home in both the Indian and white worlds. He told the visitors that the Creeks would not go to war against the whites again. The closest thing they had to a real war, he said, was an Indian ball game, and they put one on for Lafayette. These Creek ball games were very rough, and it was not unusual for men to die. Chilli stole the show. As Levasseur wrote in his journals of the trip:

“An Indian detached himself from the group to some distance, returned on a run, spring into the air, and after making several somersaults, threw himself on the shoulders of the other players, leaped into the circle, seized the ball, and for the 7th time, cast it beyond the mark. This player was McIntosh.”

But Levasseur was even more impressed by Chilli’s archery skills; “he had the arm and eye of William Tell.” Levasseur said, “if I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t believe it,” but Chilli showed him how Indians would lie on the ground and shoot an arrow in a sort of “bank shot,” ricocheting off the ground and upward to the target. Chilli explained that was how Creeks could shoot whites without the whites’ knowing where the arrow came from. 

Chilli and about 200 Alabamians then led Lafayette over land toward Montgomery along the “Federal Road” roughly where I-85 goes westward from Lanett, staying a night or two in taverns en route. 

Clockwise from top left William McIntosh from “History of the Indian Tribes of North America.” Image courtesy Wikicommons
The Masonic Lodge #3 at Perdue Hill (c. 1824). Image courtesy the writer
Portrait of William Chillicothe McIntosh. Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The Lafayette Hotel on the corner of St. Michael and Royal. Image from “From Fort to Port: An Architectural History of Mobile, Alabama, 1711-1918” by Elizabeth Barrett Gould

A few days later, they were in Montgomery and at the end of the land-based trail. From there on to Mobile, and later on to New Orleans, would be by steamboat. In Montgomery some 3,000
people and a New Orleans’ band led Lafayette to the festivities. He went to church and stayed in the best house there, that of John Edmondson. 

There was a dance at Freeney’s Tavern in Montgomery and, as always, the young ladies loved to be kissed by Lafayette, who was glad to return the favor. Levasseur said there was a “ball, at which we had the pleasure of seeing Chilli M’Intosh dance with several beautiful women, who certainly had little idea that they were dancing with a savage.”

The French group really liked Chilli, who left them in Montgomery. Levasseur said “the parting of M’intosh with the general was a melancholy one.”

Late the next night, the group got on the Mobile Steamboats Henderson and Balize and headed downriver, with Montgomerians following by steamboat, all headed down the Alabama River toward Mobile.

The next day, they made an unscheduled stop at Claiborne. Most likely two people engineered the stop. Sam Dale had for years operated a ferry on the Alabama just below Claiborne, and also a store just below Purdue Hill, which he said lost him a fortune because he could not refuse credit to the hungry traveling families. And, James Dellett of Claiborne was the First Speaker of the House in Alabama. Details of this visit are sketchy, but supposedly Lafayette visited the building, which was then the local courthouse and Masonic Hall, moved in 1860 to Purdue Hill, just up the road. Dellett’s plantation — the oldest continuous farm in Alabama, according to legend—on the west side of the Alabama River is now owned by Ann Bedsole. Interestingly, although the Alabama River is a natural boundary between Monroe and Clarke counties there on US Highway 84, Dellett got the legislature to extend Monroe County over the river some six miles or so to include his lands. Dellett made a speech and Levasseur said that Dellett “acquitted himself with an eloquence we were astonished to meet in a spot which, but a short time before, only resounded with the save cry of the Indian hunter.”

Levasseur loved the trip down the Alabama. The steamboats arrived in Mobile on Thursday to cannon fire from Fort Condé. The city threw a big parade, and the worn-out Lafayette took a nap in an old bed in Spanish Government House. Lafayette signed the register at the Masonic Lodge.

Mayor Garrow sent a carriage to take him to a grand ball at the Lafayette Hotel, as it came to be called, on the corner of St. Michael and Royal, supposedly built in 1809 by Louis DeMouy.

An incident from that event not recorded by historians was noted by Mobile’s wonderful amateur historian Erwin Craighead, who wrote of it in his book “From Mobile’s Past.” Mobile had a French expatriate named Charles de Lage. Lafayette on his visit gave de Lage a book on a blank page of which de Lage wrote: 

“Took Virginia to reception given in Marquis’ honor. Enjoyed it immensely. Some person played joke on assembly and shouted ‘fire’ through the building, and Marquis, frightened very much, jumped out window in Michael Street. Assembly dispersed. Virginia too frightened to play, returned home — Charles L. DeLage.”

The next day, Mayor Samuel Garrow hosted a reception at his home on Government Street. A historic sign there is the only outward indication in Mobile that Lafayette visited. 

The next day Lafayette, his son and his secretary left on a steamboat for New Orleans, taking the Gulf route, almost sinking en route in the rough waters.

Three tragedies shortly followed the Lafayette visit.

First, remember that they viewed the parting with Chilli McIntosh to be “a melancholy one. He appeared overwhelmed with sinister presentiments.” As well he should have been. Just three weeks later, 200 Upper Creek warriors angered over the Treaty of Indian Springs attacked the home of Chief McIntosh and burned him out and murdered him, stripping the clothes off the women of the home. Chilli, in an outbuilding, escaped, and a little later moved with the tribe to Oklahoma. During the Civil War, he fought for the Confederate states in an Indian unit. 

Second, in another post-visit calamity, the two steamboats, the Henderson and the Balize collided at Claiborne — where they had taken the Lafayette party — three weeks later, the Henderson carrying many barrels of fine whiskey. In 1829, the water went down enough to see the boat. Thomas Gaillard and Richebourg Gaillard, ancestors of most anybody in Mobile named “Gaillard,” tried to salvage the whiskey but could not. It’s still there if you can find it, but a little free maritime legal advice: The wreck and the whiskey are nearly surely owned by the State of Alabama by now. And they seem to cherish their monopoly on whiskey.

Above The home of Mayor Samuel Garrow on Government Street, where a reception was held in honor of Lafayette. Image from “From Fort to Port: An Architectural History of Mobile, Alabama, 1711-1918” by Elizabeth Barrett Gould

Third, it was said that the state was almost bankrupted by all the costs of Lafayette’s trip, but that seems to have been an exaggeration. The cost was one-fifth of the state’s budget that year, and the bills have survived.

A hundred years after the visit, Mobile threw a grand ceremony well-covered by The Register, with a parade of more than thirty floats, and “thousands lined the sidewalks of the business section.” Mobile can throw a parade. The float of the Convent of Mercy was judged best. Mary Johanna Hatcher dressed like Liberty holding the reins of an eagle “perched regally on the radiator of the car.” There was a French flag made from 300 roses. Lafayette (Miss Rella Glennon) sat back regally, with George Washington (Miss Louise Norris) and Martha (Miss Ethel Miller) and nine maids to escort them. The UMS cadets marched, along with the girls of the Wright School for Girls, “150 strong,” while four “flying machines” from the Navy in Pensacola circled overhead. There was a French vocal solo by C.M.A. Rogers, namesake of later generations. The judges were lawyer Matt Mahorner (a founder of the Mobile Rotary Club in the category “Breeder of Blooded Bulls”), Mrs. D.T. McCall, Mrs. Clara Simms, and Mrs. Marshall Turner.

Be sure to volunteer for the committee if you think we should do that again in three years, on the 200th Anniversary. I’ll come to the parade, but I won’t be on the committee.

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