Erin Greenwald was newly hired when she was handed the project of a lifetime
Soon after Curator Erin Greenwald started work for The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), she was assigned a project most historians can only dream of—editing and annotating a manuscript she describes as the most significant find in colonial Louisiana history in more than a century. “I was extremely lucky,” said Greenwald. “I was the right person in the right place at the right time.”
THNOC had bought the manuscript from an anonymous seller at an auction at Christie’s in New York. “Our curators are always looking at auction catalogues, and that’s how we learned of it,” said Greenwald. “[Senior Curator] Mark Cave recognized it as something important.”
“It” was a recently discovered, unpublished memoir of a young man’s voyage from Paris to the port city of Lorient, France, and then across the Atlantic to Saint Domingue (now Haiti), finally proceeding up the Mississippi River to New Orleans, between 1729 and 1731.
Identified in the manuscript only as “Sieur Caillot,” the author was an employee of the French Company of the Indies. Caillot was a young low-level clerk who recorded his voyage across the Atlantic and life in colonial Louisiana. Although he took notes during the venture, he evidently completed the manuscript after returning to France.
The engaging memoir, handwritten and illustrated with thirteen watercolors, brims with descriptions of flora, fauna, and native peoples. THNOC acquired it in 2004, but Greenwald did not go to work for The Collection until the summer of 2007, when she returned to the city she had fallen in love with years earlier.
Born in Pensacola, she had spent vacations in New Orleans as a child, traveling with her parents and her younger brother. “I fell in love with New Orleans as a kid,” she said. “I thought it was a magical place. That motivated me to come to Tulane [as an undergraduate majoring in French].”
After graduating and briefly working in Dallas, Greenwald landed at Ohio State University in Columbus, where she got a master’s degree in French, then switched departments and got a Ph.D. in history. Along the way, she married Vasy McCoy and gave birth to their daughter Acadia.
But she never forgot what it means to miss New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, she watched the carnage on television. “I was screaming at the TV and crying,” she said. “I sat around in my pajamas all day long, watching CNN and MSNBC. I was very worried about the city and looking for ways to come down here.”
By the summer of 2007, she had convinced her husband to abandon his architecture practice and return to New Orleans to teach, which Greenwald also planned to do. “Vasy is now principal at ReNEW Accelerated High School,” she says. “I planned to work for teachNOLA.”
But before Greenwald could start teaching, she was hired by HNOC. “I had applied for a position as development director, but I wasn’t really right for that job,” she said. “But [Executive Director] Priscilla Lawrence kept me in mind, and she created a position for me as exhibitions editor. They were able to hire me in July 2007. In 2010, I was made assistant curator; and in 2011, I was made curator.”
Soon after she was hired, Greenwald was handed the Caillot manuscript, which had been translated into English by Teri Chalmers. “I read a rough first draft of the translation, and then I went back and read it in French,” she said. “I could not believe what I was seeing. It was so detailed, so unique in length and tone, and it included watercolors.”
She set to work editing and annotating the manuscript. “I traveled to nine different archives to authenticate it and to show that Caillot’s information could be corroborated by other historians,” said Greenwald, who did research at archives in New Orleans, Québec, and six cities in France—Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Lorient, Le Havre, Vannes, and Nanterre.
“We only had the last name Caillot for the author,” she said. “It took two years to figure out who he was. We had to be really careful not to rush to any conclusions. I had narrowed it down to three good possibilities. We were ninety percent sure it was Marc-Antoine. I got the proof I needed at the Archives National d’Outre-Mer in Aix, when I found his signature on a 1750s census document from India. It was an exact match with the signature on some of his watercolors. It was thrilling to finally have confirmation.”
Screaming with joy is frowned upon in historic archives, so Greenwald celebrated quietly. “You do kind of a little dance in your seat, and you smile until your cheeks hurt,” she said. “It was really, really exciting. I took twenty pictures with my digital camera and went back to my computer and compared them with photos of the watercolor signatures. Once I finished, I went to the hotel and emailed everybody I know. Then I treated myself to a lovely dinner.”
Published by THNOC last April, A Company Man: The Remarkable French-Atlantic Voyage of a Clerk for the Company of the Indies is richly illustrated with Caillot’s watercolors and period maps and prints. Caillot describes rough seas, miserable bouts of seasickness, and attempted attacks by pirate ships.
In New Orleans, he details the layout of the town, names its movers and shakers, and dwells lovingly on the charms of its fetching young ladies. (He seems to fall in love anew every day and exerts much energy trying to lure various ladies away from chaperones, rivals, and passersby so he can show them how smitten he is.)
Caillot also celebrates Carnival in drag, wearing “a corset of white dimity, a muslin skirt, a large pannier, right down to the chemise, along with plenty of beauty marks too.” He adds, “[U]nless you looked at me very closely, you could not tell that I was a boy.”
Thus attired, he crashes a wedding in Bayou St. John. “That section is really funny, and it’s very relevant,” said Greenwald. “It could have happened three months ago instead of three hundred years ago.”
Caillot also describes the fish, birds, and animals of the area, as well as Indian atrocities, particularly those of the Natchez tribe. He was in New Orleans in November 1729 when the Natchez massacred hundreds of French settlers at Fort Rosalie.
“A lot of it is corroborated by other sources,” said Greenwald. “If it happened in New Orleans, he knew firsthand. If it happened in Natchez, he got it secondhand, but he saw the company reports from Louisiana to France.” Caillot was an eyewitness to survivors of the Natchez massacre and to a scene of Natchez Indian woman being tortured by Tunica Indians and a French soldier.
By April 1731, having lost most of his possessions in a fire at the inn where he boarded, Caillot (1707-58) was ready to leave New Orleans. He set sail on May 4. He would spend his entire adult life in service to the Company of the Indies, rising high in its ranks before dying at fifty-one in a shipwreck off the coast of India.
During the five years she worked on the book, Greenwald also wrote her dissertation. “I ended up switching to a broader topic,” she said. “Much of it doubled as research for the book and vice versa, which was absolutely fantastic, a unique opportunity.” The dissertation, “Company Towns and Tropical Baptisms: From Lorient to New Orleans on a French Atlantic Circuit,” will be published by an academic press.
Meanwhile, A Company Man has been rapturously received by historians and general readers alike. “At the launch party [last April], we had to lock people out in the courtyard because we were at maximum capacity,” said Greenwald. “People in New Orleans are really interested in their history and their culture and their ancestors.”
A Company Man has been incorporated into a history class at Tulane, and digital images of the manuscript are available at HNOC. “It is already being cited in scholarly works, both articles and books,” said Greenwald.
“It’s very unusual to have something this significant. Many career historians never get a project like this.”
Ruth Laney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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