Micaela Almonester, Andrew Jackson, and Myths
History will always be reinterpreted. Sometimes the change comes from new information being discovered or more commonly, rediscovered. Yet, there is another deeper reason. Every age needs new myths and old ones are discarded. As a New Orleans tour guide I have seen in real time one myth get replaced by a new one, even as the facts are readily available. Yet, to find those facts a guide would have to read a book and its always easier to accept a story that confirms your beliefs. It does not help that in New Orleans folklore is treasured and often seen as a cultural memory worth defending. The antebellum era in particular is infested with them. New Orleans lives both in the shadow of slavery and a long economic decline from the heady days of 1830-1860, when the Crescent City was among the richest in the world. Such a world, combined with Voodoo, ghost stories, and yellow fever epidemics, is ripe for Gothic romance.
A fixture of any trip to the French Quarter is a stroll beside the famed Pontalba Buildings that flank Jackson Square. Next to them people purchase paintings, take photographs, and tour guides speak. Tour guides though do not merely talk of their splendid architecture, but also of Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba, the woman who had them built She was the daughter of Don Andrés Almonester y Rojas and Louise Denys de la Ronde. He was a Spanish noble, civil servant, philanthropist, and businessman. She was among the most ruthless and effective businesswomen of New Orleans history.
Micaela’s mother had her daughter marry Joseph-Xavier Célestin Delfau de Pontalba in 1811. This arrangement would merge the wealth of two Creole families. The Pontalbas were also on the rise. Célestin served under Marshal Michel Ney in the Pennisular War while Joseph Delfau de Pontalba advised Napoleon I on colonial matters. Yet, the marriage proved to be hellish due to fights over money, Célestin’s emotional weakness, Micaela’s difficult temperament, and most of all Joseph’s derangement. In 1834 Joseph shot Micaela four times in her Paris home. She lived, but Joseph killed himself. Micaela separated from her husband and moved back to New Orleans.
The attempted murder caused a stir, but it really entered local lore when Micaela’s had the Pontalba Buildings constructed in 1850. They were a means to beautify the area. Within a few years the Place d’Armes was renamed Jackson Square and a copy of the Washington D.C. Andrew Jackson statue was erected. The current St. Louis Cathedral, finished in 1851, was meant to complement the buildings. In 1860 public executions, a fixture of the old Place d’Armes since the city’s founding, stopped as the park became a place of recreation. The buildings offer a tour guide a dramatic tale of violence, triumph over trauma, and beauty. The story needs little embellishment to keep someone’s interest. Yet that is exactly what happens to this and other stories, whether they be the battle of New Orleans or the crimes of Delphine LaLaurie. This tendency has led guides to lie, either purposely or by willful ignorance. Those lies though tell one much about the times in which the lies are popular.
The Pontalba Buildings are home to two myths that involve Andrew Jackson. Micaela knew Jackson and his statue faces her former residence in the Pontabla Buildings. The old myth was that she was in love with Jackson, but could never be with him. So she had the statue put up to ensure that he was always looking into her window and tipping his hat to her. This myth was from an age when Jackson was a popular hero, the man who saved the city from the British with his remarkable victory on January 8, 1815.
The truth is more mundane. In 1830 Micaela visited America. Jackson sent Secretary of State Martin Van Buren to bring her to the White House, in Jackson’s personal carriage, as his guest. Jackson had several reasons to do this. Many of her relatives had fought under him in the defense of New Orleans. Furthermore, the Creoles were mostly Democrats, and she came from the highest Creole stock of Louisiana. The two though liked each other and exchanged letters. Based upon that, some made baseless accusations of a love affair that nearly everyone found ridiculous. When money was being raised for the Jackson statue, Micaela donated $1,500. However, by the time the statue was erected, Micaela was again living in France. Jackson’s statue never tipped its hat to her.
There is a new myth I hear guides recite. In this one Micaela was a free woman of color. Jackson refused to tip his hat to her when they met because he was an evil racist. So she had the statue put up with him always tipping his hat to her. In this myth she also designed the Pontalba Buildings single-handedly despite having no training. The great Irish architects Henry Howard and James Gallier Jr., who did work on the buildings, do not even get a mention.
The new myth is good in only one way. It gives Micaela credit for the buildings. She was involved in the design and certainly had an eye of aesthetics. Who precisely designed them is a mystery. Gallier did some consulting but never claimed them as his own. Micaela had a difficult relationship with Howard, and refused to pay him what he asked. As such, Howard did do work on the buildings, but less than Micaela wanted. Samuel Stewart, the builder, said they were mostly designed by a man in New York City, possibly Henri Labrouste. He made no claim, although Labrouste’s style was increasingly popular in New Orleans and the Pontalba Buildings at least drew some inspiration from his work. At any rate, Stewart, whatever his faults, deserves most of the credit. He navigated between Howard and Micaela to finish the buildings despite their bickering. He was also given insufficient directions at key moments and sometimes had to work without proper plans from Howard or Micaela.
The real story is interesting, but it does not suit many. Rather than being another privileged product of the Franco-Spanish Creole aristocracy, it is better to make Micaela a free woman of color who was snubbed by one America’s great villains. In this tale, she got her revenge and in the process designed two of the most beloved buildings in America. Outside of her role in designing the buildings, the story is worthless. In addition while I have found no evidence of what Micaela thought of the Confederacy, she was likely supportive. The Confederacy had wide support from the Creoles. In the city white unionists were mostly found among the Germans and recent Northern transplants, although even there the war divided them. One thing Micaela did mourn was the war’s effect on her beloved buildings. The conflict destroyed property values and crime skyrocketed. The buildings were too near the docks and the Union troops camped in Jackson Square. The wealthy fled and the rent she collected was cut in half. One of the buildings was used an unofficial homeless shelter. One reporter in 1866 opined “They look as though they might be mausoleums.” Not until the 1920s did they once again become somewhat upscale as artists and writers such as Sherwood Anderson moved into them.
To fight the new myth is impossible. Most simply refuse to believe the truth or find it too rewarding to tell a lie that makes for a good story, confirms their proclivities, and might secure an extra tip. In the end, humanity is mostly attracted to myth instead of truth. History will forever be at the service and whims of the present age for the dead do not speak. They cannot defend themselves. Indeed, the very words they used are often taken out of context, edited, misattributed, or just misunderstood. If a myth is to fade away it is often because a new myth will overtake the old myth. New Orleans once wanted Jackson to be a hero and yarns were spun about him, many of which still infest books on the battle of New Orleans. Today he is not a hero, and his statue, still gazing into Micaela’s old residence, lives on borrowed time.
4 Responses to Micaela Almonester, Andrew Jackson, and Myths
So true! We’ll said Sean.
OK so is it Almonester or Almonaster (like the road)? Inquiring minds want to know.
It would be a shame to see yet another statue go, especially the namesake for Jackson Square.
The waiting list for one of those apartments in the Pontalba is ten years, folks say. One of my cousins got one in the early 90’s. If memory serves, they had to wait about ten years.
The only thing I will say here pertains more to terminology usage than the article’s content.
I personally refrain from using the term ‘myth’ anymore in historical writing. I think in wide-spread historical use, this term has been so changed from intention of meaning from what it originally meant that other terms are better used.
In the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘myth’ has several sub-definitions. All boiled down together holistically, what is meant by a ‘myth’ is broadly one of two things-
A) What is commonly ascribed to of a person/place/thing/etc, can not be at least reasonably supported by the known, credible evidence.
B) What can not be disproven by means of the known and credible evidence that is commonly ascribed to a person/place/thing/etc, is more important that what the said evidence can in point of fact substantiate.
Especially in the field of American Civil War/War Between The States history and historiography, the term ‘myth’ has come to essentially mean, ‘what is being argued is ridiculous and those who put the argument forth and/or support it to any extent are deserving of the ridicule they receive.’
What is deemed a ‘myth’ needs very little besides wide-spread popularity/lack thereof, to decry it as such and the point of applying the label is to, at least a great extent, justify only the presentation of evidence/argument that would posit such; not to rigorously assess the countering evidence/argument.
For example, it is no ‘myth’ to describe Robert E. Lee as ‘kindly’; all of the work within Adam Serwer’s article of the opposite title that argued otherwise explicitly evaded engaging with the ocean of evidence that challenged his views.