Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Battle of Lake Pontchartrain

The Battle of Lake Pontchartrain - September 12, 1779- (Between the Tender Morris and the British Sloop West Florida)

     The British Sloop of War West Florida had been cruising Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas since February of 1778 when hostilities heated up between Spain and England. The "lakes" were the International boundary line between the Isle of Orleans and British West Florida. After the raid by American Captain James Willing on the British plantations from Natchez to Manchac in February of 1778, Governor Peter Chester and the Council in Pensacola decided it would be imperative to protect the British subjects in the western part of the Province. During this period of tension between the two nations the Sloop West Florida sailed repeatedly close to the Spanish Fort at Bayou St. John. Not only that, it often stopped and searched small Spanish vessels they encountered on the lakes. Governor Bernardo Galvez complained to British authorities but to no avail.

     War had been declared between the Spain and England in the spring of 1779 but word would not reach the Gulf Coast for two months. Governor Galvez received word first and immediately made preparations to attack the Fort at Baton Rouge. American Olivier Pollock merchant and agent for the American Colonies at New Orleans and aid to the Spanish Governor Galvez ordered Captain William Pickles, then in command of the captured tender Morris to capture the West Florida.

     On receiving his orders from Pollock in early September, he set sail for Ship Island where the West Florida was last sighted. Governor Galvez and Oliver Pollock were presently laying siege to the Fort at Baton Rouge. Captain Pickles, not finding the West Florida at Ship Island, the Tender Morris turned around and headed for Lake Pontchartrain with Lt. Pierre Rousseau, his second in command. 

     They entered the Rigolets and after passing through headed southwest toward Bayou St. John. Almost immediately, after entering Lake Pontchartrain, they sighted a sail on the horizon. Getting closer they could make out it was the West Florida, commanded by Lt. John Payne. Lt Payne was very familiar with the Gulf Coast and Lake Pontchartrain. He had been an assistant to George Gauld when he surveyed the Coast and Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas ten years before. He presently had a large plantation on the west bank of the Pearl River.

     He was appointed Captain of the West Florida just seven months previously and as luck would have it part of his crew was at Manchac . He was down to thirty men and was waiting for 15 officers and crew to return to the ship. The Tender Morris was a smaller ship than the West Florida but was manned with over fifty personnel.

     As the Tender and West Florida got within shouting range Lt. Payne asked "whose ship are you and where are you from"? Captain Pickles, playing for time to get closer, yelled back "that he was a British merchant out of Pensacola on their way to Galveston. The Tender Morris was flying the British flag as a disguise. Lt. Payne then answered that he was satisfied, and to pass on. Captain Pickles, now close enough, shouted back "you won't be" and hauled down the British flag and then hauled up the Flag of the American Colonies. Each ship immediately prepared for battle.

     Captain Pickles ordered the Morris in close to the West Florida and for Lt. Rousseau to board. The West Florida had nets set up to prevent boarding, which made it difficult for Lt. Rousseau and boarding party. The battle had begun and Lt. Rousseau was first repulsed by his first attempt, receiving a wound. Captain Pickles, seeing this, ordered Rousseau to try again and he, Pickles, led his own boarding party. 

     Seeing this, Lt. Rousseau, immediately led his own men again in the second attempt of the West Florida. When he got to the bridge of the West Florida, it was all over. Lt Payne was lying on the deck, dying from his wounds, with several British sailors, wounded and crying for mercy. This was immediately granted by Pickles and Rousseau and the fighting was over. The Morris, with Captain Pickles in command and the West Florida with Lt. Rousseau in command put into and anchored at the Fort at bayou St. John. The West Florida was re-rigged and renamed Gálveztown.

     Captain Pickles immediately ordered a small, well armed boat boat to the Rigolets to prevent any aid coming from Pensacola. It also prevented any British inhabitants from fleeing the lakes by boat to Pensacola or Mobile. (This is just what happened to the McCullough Brothers, Lt. Col. William Steil, Frederick Spell, and Gerard Brandon who escaped down the Iberville River when Manchac was attacked by Governor Galvez).

     Immediately after the Battle, which took place on September 12,1779, Pickles landed at Bayou St. John and put ashore his dead and wounded then continued to patrol in his vessel the lake and the Mississippi Sound, where he captured a small British vessel which was carrying a number of slaves. Turning back into the Lake Pontchartrain he landed at Bayou Castin on September 21, and accepted their surrender of the British habitants.. 

     Most of the settlers on the Tchefuncte and at Bayou Castin had fled and only a handful remained. (A. G. I. Cuba, Lego 701) With the threat of an Indian attack and British forces, Captain Pickles put on shore a detachment of men for the remaining settlers protection. They stayed at Bayou Castin from September 21 until Pickles returned on October 16, with his "Oath of Allegiance" to the American Colonies. (Claiborne, J.F. H., Mississippi as a Province, Territory and State; Jackson, Powers and Barksdale, 1880, Reprint Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1964)

     There were only nineteen settlers who signed this oath. The Smiths, Spells, Geofigons, and Ambrose families had signed. Paul Labyteaux, Lewis and Landon Davis and William Webb on the eastern side of Bayou Castin names were absent although they kept their land grants after the Peace Treaty of 1783 was signed.

     The McCullough Brothers, Lt. Col Steil, Frederick Spell and Gerard Brandon, who had taken refuge there, also signed the 'Oath". Half of the signers-SU were not residents from the north shore. They and others were from various parts of the province. What is surprising is just how few signed the "Oath" considering that a year previously it had a population count of 250 to 300 on the Tchefuncte River and Bayou Castin area alone. (An estimate of 41 land grants and an average of five members of each family plus their slaves.)

     Captain William Pickles was very deficient in literacy. He had difficulty in composing a letter to the Commandant of New Orleans after the Battle on the lake. Who drew up the "Oath of Allegiance" and had the north shore inhabitants sign? It may have been drawn up when Captain Pickles returned to Bayou St. John or possibly by Morgan Edwards Huett. 
     Morgan Edwards was well educated and a part of Pickles crew. Morgan Edwards did not return up north with Captain James Willing and his other Lieutenants after the raid. He stayed in New Orleans with a handful of American Marines and they volunteered for Captain Pickles's crew. This could be the reason that Governor Estevan Miro was so quick to grant Edwards a large land grant of abandoned British land at Bayou Castin. Morgan Edwards Huett met the Smith family at Bayou Castin when he was part of Pickles's detachment from September 21 to October 16, 1779. 

       We know that Mary Smith and son Samuel did sign the "Oath in October". Less than two years later Morgan Edwards was living at Bayou Castin and married to Margaret, the daughter of Morris and Mary Smith. 

Captain William Pickle's Oath of Allegiance to the American Colonies

     Captain Pickles prevented, by his patrolling the lake, the McCullough Brothers, Lt. Colonel William Steil, Frederick Spell and Jared Brandon from passing through the Rigolets and escaping to Pensacola. On October 16 , 1779 Pickles landed his ship at Bayou Castin and summoned the remaining settlers.He had a document drawned up for the inhabitants to sign. They signed the following surrender document:

    We, whose Names or Marks are hereunto set and Subscribed being settlers and Inhabitants on Lake Pontchartrain between the Bayou LaCombe and the River Tanchipaho, do hereby acknowledge ourselves to be Natives as well as true and faithful Subjects to the United Independent States of North America. And whereas on the Tenth Day of last month William Pickles, Esquire, Captain in the Navy of the Said States did arrive in this Lake and make prize of the English armed Sloop West Florida who had kept possession of the Lake for near two years before, and the said William Pickles, Esquire, did on the Twenty first of the same month land some of his people and take Possession of this settlement and gave us all the Protection against Indians and others that his Force would admit of, and suffered us to remain on our possessions till further orders; We therefore consider ourselves belonging to the said States. And are willing to remain here and enjoy our Property and Privileges under the said States.

    Signed/ Paul Pigg, James Farro, Daniel Tuttle, Abel Geoffigon, Matthew McCullogh, Edward Foreman, Francis Fisher, William Dickinson, John Spell, William Stiel, Jacob Ambrose, Alex McCullogh, Fredk Spell, James Mosely, Benj Curtis, Mary Smith, William Fisher, Samuel Smith, and  Jared Brandon.

    Shortly after the Battle Pickles came to the defense of the remaining inhabitants living on the north shore. He not only landed some of his men for their protection but wrote a letter to Pedro Piernes who was commanding at New Orleans.

Captain William Pickles Letter

    In his letter he told of having knowledge of private vessels that were invading the northshore and plundering the people and property there. "I am certain we have a number of friends there," he said in his letter, "and they have been obliged to stay there on account of their families and what little property they had."

    He said that it was his opinion that in order to make all the friends they can, he wanted to secure the lake as soon as possible. Captain Pickles put a stop to the raiding of the settlers on the North Shore of the "lakes" and thus saved the English settlers at Bayou Castin and Bayou Chinchuba. If he had not done this action, Mandeville would be different today as the families of the first Anglo/American settlers would probably be different.

    "I may come across this vessel in the night and may do him some mischief. Don't blame me for it, for I trust no one," he went on to say. His main concern was to protect the residents of the north shore from plundering. 

    Under the Treaty of paris of September, 1783 which concluded the revolutionary War, and the concurrent wars between England and the French and Spanish, West Florida was ceded to Spain by the English. Any British settler who did not want to swear allegiance to or live under the Spanish Crown were given 18 months to leave the Province. In 1784 the British Ship Porcupine left New Orleans with the last of the British settlers desiring to leave.

    The "Oath of Allegiance" Document was signed on October 16,1779 after Baton Rouge had surrender and the fighting stopped around the "Lakes". It is likely that Morgan Edwards was a part of Pickles men who were at Bayou Castin from September 21, 1779 until signing of the "Oath on October 16, 1779. Pickles had given the settlers protection from any threat from raiders or Indians allied with the British. Morgan Edwards met the Smith family living at Bayou Castin and fell in love with Margaret, the young daughter of Morris and Mary Smith. In two years he would be living on the north shore and married to Margaret.

    Signers of Captain Pickle's "Oath of Allegiance"

    Gerard Brandon - went to Opelousas area, then Manchac and finally to Mississippi Territory near Natchez. His son Gerard Brandon later became the Governor of Mississippi.
Alexander McCullaugh, who had eight children, came to West Florida from South Carolina in 1770. (See the Book the South Carolina Regulators) He was appointed Provost Marshall under Governor Peter Chester and later Deputy Secretary. He had land grants and holdings at Manchac, Pensacola, Amite River and Bayou Castin. He died interstate at Pensacola in 1805. His nephews Alexander and Matthew McCullough tried for many years to claim his land under United States law but were unsucceful.

    Abel Geoffigon - died soon after signing the "Oath" at Bayou Castin. His widow Maria Christina Weeks stayed on the grant and died there in 1806. In 1794 she remarried to a Jacob Miller. The daughters married and moved away and Jacob Miller left in 1808.
Edward Foreman - married -------Perry, possible relation to John Perry, the first settler
at the mouth of bayou Castin. An Edward Foreman was listed as living in St. Martin Parish. He moved to Attakapas circa 1785 to Bayou Chicot.

Jacob Ambrose - was likely the husband of Rebecca Ambrose as they both received land grants in 1774. Jacob died a few years after signing the "Oath", circa 1783. He wife and children were up in the Natchez District by 1787. Son Elijah was living in the Baton Rouge area in 1790 and son Thomas in Plaquemine Parish in 1788.
William Fisher - was listed as having a land grant on the Tomibigee River under the Spanish in 1790s.

John Spell - stayed on his land with family and signed the "Oath". He was deceased by 1786.

Morris Smith - He was deceased when the "Oath" was signed but his Widow Mary and son Samuel signed and lived at Bayou Castin for many Years. Mary seems to be deceased by 1799 and Samuel by 1830. He died in 1839 on the Bogue Chitto River.

Paul Labyteaux, a carpenter from New York, who came to West Florida in 1773 was in Pensacola in 1779 when hostilities broke out. He returned with his family. He remained at Bayou Chinchuba until 1810 when he died.


Several of the signers moved up to the Natchez District after the Peace Treaty was signed in 1783 and obtained Spanish land grants.

     For more information on this theory read "A Mystery Solved: The True Identity of Morgan Edwards Revealed". A copy is on deposit at The Center of Southeastern Louisiana Study, the Simms Library, Rayburn Room, Southeastern Louisiana University, and Hammond, Louisiana.

     Oliver Pollock, who ordered Captain Pickles to go out and capture the West Florida drew a map of where the battle was fought for the members of Congress. He was trying to recoup some of the money he loaned for the Revolutionary War while agent at New Orleans. He never was successful.




In his book, "St. Tammany Parish," Steve Ellis wrote some background information about the events leading up to the battle. He wrote that "As early as the spring of 1776, before the Declaration of Independence was signed, there had been trouble between American and British ships on the Mississippi River at New Orleans. The British had made prizes of several American vessels there, without objection by the Spanish authorities. After that time, however, the Spanish attitude took on a strong pro-American cast.

     "In 1776, Oliver Pollock, a wealthy American merchant who lived in New Orleans, wrote to the Continental Congress offering his services to the new nation, and in 1778 he was appointed Commercial V Agent of the Congress in New Orleans. Pollock, an unsung hero of the Revolutionary War, gave financial support which made possible the successful campaign of George Rogers Clark in the Northwest Territory. He was to impoverish himself by using his own credit to obtain supplies for the United States. Pollock immediately busied himself trying to ship needed goods from New Orleans by sea to the east coast of North America and up the Mississippi River. His efforts were seconded by his close friend, Bernardo de Galvez, the young and able Spanish Governor of Louisiana, who was very sympathetic toward the American cause.

     "Since January 1776, the British had maintained an armed sloop, * the West Florida, on patrol in the lakes and in Mississippi Sound. The West Florida, which was the only armed naval vessel in the area, gave the British control of the lakes and Mississippi Sound, and protected the lines of communication between Pensacola and the settlements on the Mississippi River. In April 1777, the West Florida captured three boats in Lake Pontchartrain which the British contended were, American boats engaged in smuggling tar to New Orleans from the north shore. Galvez, contending that the captured boats were Spanish and not American, immediately retaliated.

     "For some ,time, trade had been carried on openly between the British and Spanish at Fort Bute, a British post situated at the point where Bayou Manchac meets the Mississippi River. Galvez seized all British shipping in the river south of Bayou Manchac, claiming that they, too, were engaged in smuggling. This charge was technically all too true, although the activity had been known of by the Spanish and winked at by them for some years. Among the vessels taken was the Norton, of British registry, which was owned and commanded by William Pickles, a Philadelphian.

     "Lengthy diplomatic negotiations relative to the incidents were carried on between Galvez and Peter Chester, the British Governor of West Florida. Just as the trouble seemed to be dying down, an American military expedition again strained British-Spanish relations to the breaking point."

The actual battle is described in great detail in Ellis' book on pages 51 through 57.





According to an article in Wikipeda, following that successful expedition in south Louisiana, Pickles sailed on to Philadelphia, where the ship was sold.

"Pickles was then given command of Mercury, and charged with transporting Henry Laurens to the Dutch Republic on a diplomatic mission. The ship was captured off the coast of Newfoundland, and while Laurens were imprisoned in London, Pickles was imprisoned in Mill Prison in Plymouth. Pickles escaped from Mill on May 16, 1781, and eventually returned to Philadelphia."


According to Volume 13 of the Pennsylvania Colonial Records, he died in Philadelphia on September 9, 1783, after being assaulted by a gang of Italian sailors. The prosecution of his murderers was complicated by a legal question: whether statutes previously enacted by the British Parliament were still in force in the now independent state of Pennsylvania.Two of the sailors were sentenced on October 8, 1783, to hang ten days later.