275th Anniversary: The Rasteau Brothers and the Lion d’Or

The Vidrine Family in LA celebrates the 275th anniversary of Jean Baptiste Lapaise de Védrines’ departure from France and arrival of LA in 2018. It’s a great time to remember and reflect on the details (that we’re able to know) of his departure from France and arrival in LA as well as the 275 years of history of his descendants and the family he established in LA…as well as the people who shared that journey with him.

As Jean Baptiste Lapaise de Védrines boarded the royal ship La Charente on the morning of January 1, 1743 with the newly-appointed Governor of Louisiana, Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, there were at least two merchants – the Rasteau brothers – busy preparing their own ship to make the passage across the Atlantic with the Charente. In addition to the King’s Ship and its supply ship, the Vestale, there were at least three other ships in the fleet: the Lion d’Or of the Rasteau brothers, the Compte de Maurepas of Jean Jung of Bordeaux, and the Duc d’Aguillon of Sieur Bourgine.

However, unlike Jean Baptiste Lapaise de Védrines who was traveling across the Atlantic for the first time and would remain there for the rest of his life (as far as we know), these Rasteau brothers, as merchants, had made the voyage from France to LA many times…and would do so many more as well. It was their business, and in a real sense, their life doing so. Paul Rasteau even claimed both La Rochelle and New Orleans as home.

Apart from the Passenger List of the Charente found in the colonial records, it’s actually the logbook of the Lion d’Or of the Rasteau brothers that gives us the most information we have about the journey of the Charente 275 years ago, which Jacqueline Vidrine and her son Warren Vidrine, Jr. published in their book, Governor Vaudreuil’s Trip to LA. The first part of the journey across the Atlantic – from Rochefort to Saint-Domingue – is not included in the portion of the Lion d’Or’s logbook which survives. Instead, it begins on April 9, 1743, as the fleet begins the journey from Saint-Domingue to La Balize, near New Orleans. After recording the arrival of Governor Vaudreuil in New Orleans, it picks up again with details of the Lion d’Or’s voyage to Vera Cruz and ends abruptly just as the ship is sailing away from the Mexican coast.

To know a little more about the Rasteau brothers whose ship, the Lion d’Or traveled along the Royal ship, La Charente, during those four months at sea in 1743, and whose logbook provides us with important information about Jean Baptiste Lapaise de Védrines’ journey from France to LA 275 years ago, this is a bit of information about them:

“The organization of the Rasteaus was most tightly knit because Captain Provost of the St. Paul was a brother-in-law of Jacques Rasteau, while two sons, Pierre Isaac and Eli, also commanded vessels making the Louisiana run, and the youngest son, Paul, settled in New Orleans in 1736 as his father’s direct agent.

The Rasteaus were one of the premier mercantile families in La Rochelle during the eighteenth century. They appear to have risen to prominence in that Protestant stronghold during the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries. By the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, they appear quite frequently in the shipping annals of the port, sending vessels to Guinea for slaves and to the French West Indies. Both of these trades remained central to the Rasteau operations during the period in which they were involved in the Louisiana commerce. The family was large and the business included, as far as can be ascertained at this point, at least three sons of Jacques Rasteau, Pierre Isaac (the oldest), Eli, and Paul. Gabriel and Daniel Rasteau, Jacques’ brothers, were heavily engaged in the family’s business ventures and appear in Louisiana during the 1760s. Another of Jacques’ brothers, Jean Benjamin, was located in Cap Francois, handling the West Indian end of the operations. At least two Rasteaus, Jean Benjamin and Eli, were ship’s captains. One of the Rasteau daughters married into the Allard Bellin family of La Rochelle merchants and another married the merchant Vivier. Both Bellin and Vivier ventured with the Rasteaus and both worked through Paul in New Orleans. Another important connection resulted from the marriage of Gabriel Rasteau to the sister of the Parisian banker Jean Corrin.

Various members of the family served in the La Rochelle Chamber of Commerce during the eighteenth century and in the La Rochelle militia and, in 1777, Pierre Isaac was honored by becoming the first Protestant elected as a deputy to the Council of Commerce, a national advisory body responsible to the crown. The Rasteaus were also subscribers to the Compagnie d’assurances generales, founded in 1750 with a capital of 12 million livres, and Pierre Isaac was named a director of the branch office in La Rochelle, along with Vivier. The Rasteaus also had dealings with the powerful English capitalist Lawrence Woulfe, one of the most significant underwriters of maritime insurance during the period 1740-60.

Connections of the family extended into the Spanish empire, particularly at Vera Cruz, but the precise nature of the association is unknown at this time. This was a powerful merchant family, heavily committed to commerce with the western hemisphere and patronized by the French government.

Jacques Rasteau’s earliest ventures in Louisiana involved the shipment of goods via the St. Paul, the Perle, the Comte de Maurepas, and the Flore to New Orleans, under the direction of the ship’s captains, to be exchanged for local goods. Market conditions in New Orleans prevented immediate sales of some of these early cargoes, thus requiring that the goods be placed in the charge of a local merchant. On the very first trip, a large part of the cargo of the St. Paul, was sold in a block to a group of New Orleans merchants associated for chat purpose. Portions of later cargoes were delivered to one Tixerant and other local merchants on consignment. The return cargoes consisted of tobacco, pitch and tar, furs and skins, bear’s grease, and small quantities of other items. Letters of exchange, which became difficult to obtain, composed a major portion of the returns to France. Most of the vessels returned via St. Domingue, where additional goods were freighted. In 1736 Jacques Rasteau apparently decided that it “would be expedient to locate a member of the firm in New Orleans to handle the family’s business.”

Between 1736 and his death in 1747 Paul Rasteau managed the affairs of the Rasteau family in New Orleans, married the young daughter of the wealthy planter Broutin, and became a powerful force in the economic life of the city. Paul’s early operations were largely confined to servicing the family’s affairs: receiving imports from the twelve Rasteau vessels that plied the trade; gathering produce for export to France; collecting debts; running the retail store and warehouse in New Orleans; and relaying current economic information to La Rochelle. Rasteau fils associated, with Pierre Voisin, a merchant in New Orleans, in distributing imported goods throughout the colony. In addition, Rasteau received an increasing quantity of goods from various merchants in La Rochelle to be sold on consignment. These operations, expanded during the late 1730s and thereafter, were distinct from the family’s business.

By 1739 Paul not only received goods from merchants in La Rochelle, Rouen, Bordeaux, and Amsterdam via Rasteau vessels but sent goods on his own account to various individuals in La Rochelle, Bordeaux, and the French West Indies. A letter from a merchant in La Rochelle, soliciting cargoes from Rasteau in New Orleans, and other transactions, leads to the conclusion that the family organization in La Rochelle did not take Paul’s Louisiana goods on consignment; his private shipments were separate from the family business while he continued to receive his father’s goods. Rasteau’s private ventures to La Rochelle were successful on the whole, although numerous letters reached Paul demanding that he make remittances and take care of debts in La Rochelle. It was not always a simple matter to remit either in goods, letters of exchange, or specie, and the young Rasteau must have been as hard pressed as other merchants on occasion. But he accumulated sufficient capital to indulge in large-scale real estate speculation in Louisiana and carried on a substantial trade with St. Domingue. Yet in the years after Paul’s death by drowning off Florida, his father referred often to the confusion of Paul’s affairs in New Orleans and indicated sadly that more had been expected from him. He left sizable debts in La Rochelle, La Bayonne, and New Orleans, which left his succession in confusion through the 1760s.”

John Garretson Clark, New Orleans, 1718-1812: An Economic History, Louisiana State University Press; First Edition (US) First Printing edition (1970), pp. 97-98

We do not know how well Jean Baptiste Lapaise de Védrines might have known the Rasteau brothers, but he surely came into contact with them frequently – during the 6 months he was at Rochefort preparing to depart…during the 4-month Atlantic Journey…and during the 8 years he was in the city of New Orleans once he arrived. Thanks to their recording of the journey from France to LA 275 years ago, we’re able to know some details about the things Jean Baptiste Lapaise de Védrines experienced and shared in during that voyage.