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Charles Gayarré

New Orleans native Charles Gayarré wrote the first complete history of Louisiana: a four-volume series entitled Louisiana History (1866).

Charles Gayarré

Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection

Charles Gayarré. Lion, Jules (Artist)

New Orleans native Charles Gayarré wrote the first complete history of Louisiana: a four-volume series entitled Louisiana History (1866). Originally written in French, his study focused on the region’s domination by France, Spain, and then the United States. Many of the components for this work came out of public lectures that Gayarré began giving in the 1840s. He also wrote and published other histories, political tracts, government reports, plays, novels, biographies, and articles in numerous journals, establishing himself as one of Louisiana’s literary pioneers.

Early Life

Charles Étienne Arthur Gayarré was born in New Orleans on January 9, 1805. His French mother, Marie Boré, and Spanish father, Carlos Gayarré, were Creoles in the earliest sense of the term: native-born people of European descent. After his father’s death in 1813, Gayarré grew up on the large plantation of his maternal grandfather, Étienne De Boré, outside the city limits of New Orleans (the area is now Audubon Park). De Boré became the first mayor of New Orleans when Louisiana became a state in 1812. He also invented a significant sugar-refining technique. Gayarré inherited slaves from this grandfather and remained a slaveholder until emancipation; he believed in the inferiority of African Americans all his life. He was educated at the College of Orleans and admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1828 and the Louisiana bar in 1829.

Gayarré’s first publication, Discours adressé à Législature, en réfutation du rapport de M. Livingston sur l’abolition de la peine de mort (Address to the Legislature in Refutation of the Report of Mr. [Edward] Livingston on the Abolition of the Death Penalty), was issued in pamphlet form by New Orleans printer Benjamin Levy in 1826, and launched Gayarré’s literary career. Essai historique sur la Louisiane, published in 1830, was Gayarré’s first attempt to write Louisiana history; he followed this with Histoire de la Louisiane in 1846–47 and Romance of the History of Louisiana (1848). His publications established him as part of the literary fabric of Louisiana, yet there was a strong political undertone to his writings.

Public Service

Gayarré’s personal life was dominated by his public service. Before the Civil War he held the following offices: representative of the City of New Orleans to the state legislature in 1830, assistant state attorney general in 1831, and presiding judge of the City Court of New Orleans in 1832. In 1835, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, but was forced to resign before assuming his seat because of chronic bronchial asthma.

Governor Isaac Johnson appointed Gayarré secretary of state in 1846, and Governor Joseph Walker reappointed him in 1850. As secretary of state, Gayarré recognized the importance of collecting and preserving Louisiana colonial records, and was instrumental in developing the colonial records collection with the Louisiana Historical Society and the Louisiana State Library. Because of his work for the latter institution, he is known as the father of the Louisiana State Library. In addition, he was a founding member of the Louisiana Historical Society and served as president of that organization for twenty-eight years (1859–1887).

In 1853 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. Like many Americans frustrated with the leading political parties, Gayarré joined the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist party whose anti-immigrant and racial beliefs appealed to him. But Gayarré was a loyal Catholic and, although elected as a delegate to the 1855 national Know-Nothing Party convention, he was refused admission because of his religious beliefs. Gayarré strongly supported slavery and Louisiana’s secession from the Union in 1861. In 1863, at an assembly held at Osyka, Mississippi, he proposed arming slaves for the defense of the Confederacy.

Gayarré served as a delegate from Louisiana’s Union Democratic party to the national unity convention at Philadelphia in 1866, and ran unsuccessfully for the U. S. Senate in 1867. From 1873 to 1877, he was a reporter of decisions for the Supreme Court of Louisiana. During the latter legislative term, state voters ratified a new constitution that accelerated the Americanization of the state, destroying a way of life that Gayarré cherished.

Later Life And Writings

Gayarré’s historical and fictional writing was primarily a sideline until financial adversity forced him to rely on his writing for his livelihood. His novels and plays include The School for Politics: A Dramatic Novel (1854); Dr. Bluff in Russia; or, the Emperor Nicholas and the American Doctor (1865); Philip II of Spain (1866); Fernando de Lemos, Truth and Fiction: A Novel (1872); and Aubert Dubayet; or The Two Sister Republics (1882). He also published articles in the nineteenth century’s leading journals, including the North American Review, Harper’s Magazine, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Belford’s Magazine, and Catholic World.

At the age of fifty-one, Gayarré married Shadie Ann Sullivan Buchannan, the widow of Henry Buchannan of Columbus, Mississippi. In 1859, he and his wife acquired 533 acres in Tangipahoa Parish, ninety miles north of New Orleans. They named it Roncal after the Spanish region that was home to Gayarré’s ancestors. They resided there or in New Orleans until Roncal was sold in 1881, making them permanent residents of New Orleans for the rest of their lives. The couple had no children. (Gayarré’s only child was born of Delphine Le Maitre, a slave in his household when Gayarré was twenty-one. The child, named Charles Gayarré, was baptized in the St. Louis Cathedral of New Orleans.)

In his senior years, Gayarré was discouraged about his life’s work and had financial difficulties. Although he offered the Confederate cause his staunch support, the war cost him what little he had left financially. In the 1860s he began a friendship with New Orleans writer Grace King, who became much like a daughter to him and inherited his papers. King encouraged Gayarré’s writing in his later life and sought financial support for him through many schemes and solicitations. At his death on February 11, 1895, Gayarré was poor but well respected by his friends and colleagues as the father of Louisiana history and one of the state’s literary pioneers. At Gayarré’s death, King wrote that the “early cultural history of the state” was being buried with him.