Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Speech Details The Life of John Wharton Collins

On June 10, 1988, the great-great grandson of John Wharton Collins, the founder of the City of Covington, addressed the St. Tammany Historical Society at its annual dinner held at the Abita Quail Farm. 

 Thomas Wharton Collens


The speaker, Thomas Wharton Collens, detailed his great great grandfather's life, especially during the time he settled in St. Tammany Parish and became involved in developing the Covington area. 


He stated that John Wharton Collins was the son of Thomas Wharton. Thomas Wharton was an orphan at the age of 14 (in the year 1745), who was subsequently raised by his father's half-sister. 

"Through the efforts of a General Fletcher, at the age of 17 Thomas Wharton  was put into the army as a coronet, the lowest commissioned officer in the calvary. He went to India; spent time with Sir Robert Clyde as part of his army when there was an unofficial war going on (at that time) between trading companies of France, Great Britain, and the Dutch," Collens reported.

The young Thomas Wharton fought in several important battles in India, but after eight years he went to Scotland and joined a new calvary unit. When the Seven Years War started, he went to Hanover and fought in the Battle of Minden. He also helped capture Havana, Cuba, in 1761.


The Life Changing Event

"At this point, he returned to England and an event occurred that changed his life entirely," Collens explained. His sister Sarah was molested by a military officer and after the ordeal she retired to a quiet English village. When Thomas Wharton found out about it some time later, his sister had already died, and he challenged his sister's betrayer to mortal combat, a duel. 


When news of the duel got out Wharton was advised to resign from the military and leave England. With the help of General Fletcher, he re-located to the West Indies in 1763, becoming the private secretary to the Governor.

"That date was also the end of the Seven Years War," Collens stated," and as a result of the treaty Spain ceded all of her North American territories to England, including the territory starting at the western part of the Florida panhandle, the present states of Alabama and Mississippi, as well as that part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River and north of Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou Manchac and the Amite RIver." Thus what was to become St. Tammany Parish became known as British West Florida with its headquarters in Pensacola.


 Wharton Comes Back To America


In 1767,  the Governor for whom Wharton was working was called back to England, and Wharton accompanied him as far as Philadelphia, where he parted company and decided to begin using the last name of Collins, his mother's maiden name.  Reasons for the name change are vague, but he evidently used the name Wharton-Collins (hyphenated). There was also the fact that the first governor of Pennsylvania was named Thomas Wharton, and he possibly wanted to avoid confusion. "Nevertheless, he did this and hereafter was called Collins," declared the historical society speaker. 

In Philadelphia he went to work as a clerk in the Customs House, but in 1775, the Revolutionary War started and he was assigned as a Chief Clerk for a General Thomas Mifflod (?), who was Quartermaster General. In the next few years he was accused a couple of times of working with the British to undermine the new United States, but due to lack of evidence and his wife's appeals to General George Washington, he was pardoned and retained his job with the Adjutant General's ofice. 


The war ended in 1783, Britain lost, and Spain, as an ally to the Americans, got back West Florida, re-locating the headquarters of the "Tchefuncte District" away from Pensacola to Baton Rouge. 


John's Father Dies

Thomas Wharton Collins, the father of John Wharton Collins, then moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1788. He died
in March of 1790 at the age of 58, leaving a widow and seven children destitute. Mrs. Collins took her family back to New York and three years later she died. Shortly afterwards her oldest daughter, Sarah, married a Mr. WIlliam Gibson from Scotland. (One of their 13 children was John Gibson who has a street named after him in Covington.)

The first of the Collins family to come to Louisiana was William Wharton Collins who was 15 when his mother died. He eventually became a captain who sailed between England and New Orleans.


The founder of Covington, John Wharton Collins, was 11  years of age when his mother died in New York, and he was raised by the Gibsons, his sister and her husband. "He came to New Orleans at the age of 18 in the year 1800 and eventually opened a merchantile establishment on Magazine Street," Collens stated. 


The West Florida Rebellion


"In 1803, at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, there was some controversy over whether the Florida Parishes area was actually part of the Purchase," Collens explained. "We thought that it should be included, but France did not think it did." The issue continued without resolution for some time. 


After William Wharton Collins staked out 600 acres below the Vadon Plantation in New Orleans, John Wharton Collins and his two younger sisters Lydia and Maria joined him at that location. However, in 1810, John Wharton Collins went across Lake Pontchartrain and claimed some property that was between the Tchefuncte River and property owned by James Drule.


That same year came the West Florida Rebellion, a sort of "banana-republic" revolution that sought to end, once and for all, the confusion about the legal status of the Florida Parishes. The rebellion consisted of some people becoming dissatisfied with Spanish rule, rounding up an army "per se" and taking the capitol at Baton Rouge, suffering no losses themselves. A few Spaniards were killed, however. The newcomers raised the flag of the "Republic of West Florida," a single white star on a field of blue. "The next three months they did everything a country would do," Collens said. "They had a Declaration of Independence; they had a Constitution; they elected senators and representatives; and they elected a governor."




However, up in Washington, D.C., when President Madison heard about the commotion, he said, "What the hell! This land belongs to the Louisiana Purchase." He issued a proclamation, told Louisiana Governor Claiborne to stop all the nonsense, and General Leonard Covington was sent to the Republic of West Florida capital in Baton Rouge where, without firing a shot, he lowered the "Bonnie Blue" flag and raised the 15-starred Stars and Stripes. The three month old republic ceased to exist and that ended the rebellion. 


"In 1811, John Wharton Collins married a young emigree from Santa Domingo,
Marie Elizabeth. She was the 16-year-old daughter of Jacques Livaudais and his wife Celeste Marigny, so this was a union of two very powerful Louisiana families," Collens said. "Celeste was the sister of Ben Marigny who founded Mandeville. They gave Collins a dowry of $2000 and the couple was  given a house on Race Street, near Magazine."

The Fateful Year of 1813

In 1812, Louisiana became the 18th state in the Union. Then, in 1813, things really began happening. William Wharton Collins got a contract from the Postmaster General to operate a mail packet across Lake Pontchartrain between the Old Spanish Fort and Madisonville. He paid $900 a year for that. 


Also, 1813 was the year John Wharton Collins purchased the Drieux property next to his, probably using the dowry money, which was exactly the same amount as the purchase price. These two pieces of property, what he already owned and what he purchased, became what we now know as Covington, Collens explained. "On July 4, 1813, John Wharton Collins filed a map with Judge James Tate, District Judge, for a town that he called Wharton. That town consisted of five districts, one of them being the Division of St. John," Collens stated.


The other divisions were named after members of his family, Saint William (after his brother), Saint  Anne (after his brother's wife), Saint George (after his brother's son), and Saint Mary (after his wife). 


Jesse Jones, Early Investor

One of the first purchasers of property in the new town was Jesse Jones (later Judge Jesse Jones.) He bought two lots, one of them being at the corner of New Hampshire and Portsmouth streets.


As 1813 ended and 1814 began, the War of 1812 began to be felt in St. Tammany Parish, said Collens. "A naval shipyard was established near Madisonville, two miles south of Covington. The Governor appointed General David Bannister Morgan as Brigadier General in the Louisiana Militia and volunteers began to enlist. John Wharton Collins volunteered and was made a captain, probably due to his merchantile experience. 



 David Bannister Morgan

General Andrew Jackson came into Louisiana  to defend New Orleans, first spending the night in Bogalusa, then passing through Wharton the next day on his way to Madisonville. An aide to General Jackson described Wharton as "a small new town with a few ordinary buildings." They spent the night in Madisonville, which was described by the aide as "small and indifferently important." 


"In any event, the next morning General Jackson and his very small party boarded Captain William Wharton Collins' mail packet, and he took them over to New Orleans, arriving on November 30, 1814. A little over a month later came the Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815, with St. Tammany residents serving mostly in the 13th Regiment, 3rd Brigade. Collins served in the 4th Regiment, however.


"They saw little, if any, action," Collens said, adding that General Jackson, in his wisdom, took his Kentucky and Tennessee riflemen who had been with him through the Indian wars, and put them in the first line of defense in Chalmette, leaving the Louisiana Militia at the rear. 

The Battle of New Orleans

Some of the Louisiana militia didn't even have guns and were not really experienced in the art of war. General Morgan was on the west bank of the Mississippi RIver, charged with defending the battery of guns which were going to be directed against Packenham on the other side of the river. 


After the end of the war, John Gibson joined his uncle John Wharton Collins in Covington. Also, John Wharton Collins' youngest sister Lydia had been married to Henry Vadon, but he died and she subsequently married Louis Hornsby, another property owner in St. Tammany Parish. So, at that time, Collens explained, the Collins family, the Vadons, Hornsbys, and William Wharton Collins owned or controlled all the land west of both rivers from Wharton all the way down to Madisonville (as well as all the ferry routes.) "They were pretty well fixed for land," Collens said.


When talk started about dividing St. Tammany horizonally (carving off a piece for Washington Parish),  John Wharton Collins became interested in seeing that Covington be named as parish seat for the new, more condensed St. Tammany Parish. He was in the midst of that effort when, in 1816, legislation was introduced by Senator Chacnee Sperry of Helena Parish to change the name of Wharton to Covington. 


The Name Change

That was a blow all by itself, but during the same year his brother Captain William Wharton Collins drowned during a storm on Lake Pontchartrain. John Wharton Collins also became very ill, and he was unable to recover his health. Although friends tried to prevent the name change proposal in the state legislature, it won enough votes anyway, supposedly to honor General Leonard Covington, the war hero of 1812.




In 1817, John Wharton Collins, still suffering from ill health, made his will and turned over control of his store to his employee Col. William B. Laydon. He died shortly thereafter and was buried in the Covington cemetery near the corner of Columbia and Kirkland Streets, as he had requested. Several months later, his widow Marie Livaudais Collins married John Gibson, the nephew of John Wharton Collins. They were about the same age, 21.


Following the drowning of William Wharton Collins, his widow was put in possession of the estate and named the tutor of their son George Thomas Wharton Collins. A year later she married Judge James Tate. She died in 1820.


George Thomas Wharton Collins


The historical society speaker then pointed out that although John Wharton Collins died four years after he founded the town, there were many other people who grew and developed the community from that point on. "People like Jesse Jones, who lived to the ripe old age of 93 and made many important contributions to the economic progress of Covington," he said. "The Ellises, the Penns, the Bagleys, the Morgans, and others all made many more contributions toward Covington than did John Wharton Collins."




The Ox Lots


Someone in the audience asked who had made the original sketch of the town's layout, and Mr. Collens said it was probably drawn by John Wharton Collins himself, perhaps with the assistance of David Bannister Morgan. "And of course, you all know about the ox lots," Collens stated. "You can blame my great-great grandfather for that. It was unique. There's nothing like it in Europe or any place else in the United States."


"For those of you who don't know what the ox lots are, it's very simple. In the middle of every square there was an area reserved with a 20 foot access to it for the oxen and cattle so people wouldn't have to leave their horses and everything in the street. The controversy that exists today (in 1988)  is who owns the ox lots? That's been in litigation for some time."


When asked about the different spellings of the name Collins, namely John Wharton Collins and his own name Thomas Wharton Collens, he said that when Thomas Wharton Collins, the Judge, moved to the Creole area of New Orleans and married a French woman, he spoke French socially more than he did English. "I think the spelling of the name Collins was changed to conform with the French pronunciation of Collins, and it sounds more like Collens. So everyone who descended from the Judge spelled their name Collens, and those (descendants) who came from up north (or who now live in Texas) all spell their name Collins," he concluded. 


About the Speaker


Thomas Wharton Collens was born in New Orleans, receiving his Bachelor and Law degrees from Tulane University. After graduating, he joined the United States Foreign Service and was appointed American Vice Chancellor at Leopoldville, Belgian Congo and in Mechattsa, Zaire. In 1949 he resigned from the Foreign Service but remained in Africa as District Manager for Pan American Airways.  He returned to Louisiana in 1954 and began practicing law in Baton Rouge, also founding the mortgage banking firm Herrin & Kahn. He served as president there until 1969 when it was sold.


He then moved to Key Biscayune, FL, and remained active in the mortgage banking business through 1986, after which he became a consultant.


Abita Quail Farm, the location of the speech

The information above came from a typewritten account of Collens' speech archived in the St. Tammany Parish Public Library by the St. Tammany Historical Society. A copy was provided by Jack Terry.