06/17/2013 01:54 EDT | Updated 08/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Exhibit: How 'Pipe Dreams' of tobacco riches built up Louisiana from 1717 to 1731

NEW ORLEANS - In the early 1700s, France sent thousands of colonists and slaves to Louisiana in the belief that tobacco would refill a treasury drained by wars. That period of envisioning the state as a promised land is the focus of "Pipe Dreams," an exhibit opening Tuesday and running through Sept. 15 at the Historic New Orleans Collection.

From August 1717 to January 1731, Scottish economist John Law ran a French trade monopoly in Louisiana, which was first claimed for France in 1682. The colony grew from hundreds of residents to more than 4,000.

The tobacco enterprise ended when an Army captain's land grab triggered a massacre by Natchez Indians, who burned the plantations, according to exhibit curator Erin M. Greenwald.

When Law got his monopoly, England was producing 30 million pounds of tobacco a year and the French were buying 8 million pounds of it.

"The premise of the exhibition is people are buying into idea of Louisiana becoming a French version of ... Virginia, which is the English colony producing most of the tobacco for Europe," exhibit curator Erin M. Greenwald said. "Of course, there is no infrastructure on the ground in Louisiana at that point to support such a project. But that didn't stop John Law and his backers from promoting the colony as a sort of promised land."

The story is told in a free illustrated catalogue and more than 100 artifacts including a French snuff grater, a map of La Louisiane decorated with animal drawings, and a table from The Netherlands painted with scenes mocking the "Mississippi Bubble" — the speculative frenzy in Law's company and its crash in 1720.

Items from the museum's collection are supplemented by loans from more than a dozen institutions and collections including the Louisiana State Museum, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the University of South Alabama, Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and Musée de la Compagnie des Indes, Lorient, in France.

An illustration from a 1698 book by Father Louis Hennepin, an early proponent of both Louisiana's wonders and the mistaken idea that the Mississippi River would lead to the Pacific Ocean and Asia's rich markets, shows a Native American holding a pipe and overlooking a winding river fringed by palm trees and ending in mountains.

"I included it because it gives this kind of idyllic imagined dreamscape of what Europeans viewed Louisiana and the Mississippi River Valley as being," Greenwald said.

The exhibit also includes papers establishing Law's Company of the West in August 1717; a bank charter signed in 1716 by 6-year-old Louis XV and witnessed by his regent, Philippe, duc d'Orléans; and printed and handwritten notes from the Royal Bank.

The bank collapsed in 1720, but the Company of the West was able to struggle back because it had invested money from stock sales in such things as ships, supplies and slaves for the colony, Greenwald said.

Tobacco production was rising when, in early 1729, the new commander of Fort Rosalie ordered a nearby Natchez village emptied "so he can establish his own tobacco plantation there," Greenwald said. Instead, Natchez villages joined in a surprise attack, killing nearly every white man, torching the fort and plantations, and taking 50 women and children and more than 150 slaves captive.

The Company of the West gave up in January 1731, returning the colony to the king less than two weeks before the army defeated the Natchez.

Greenwald said officials decided, "This is simply not a place we can re-invest the millions we have invested to re-establish a tobacco empire that doesn't seem to work."



Historic New Orleans Collection:

John Law and the Company of the West:

Musée de la Compagnie des Indes, Lorient:

Propaganda book for Law's company in French and English: