Monday, August 22, 2016

A Letter to Mary Tisdale from Theresa Bienvenu

Carte de Visite by A. Constant

Theresa Bienvenu, New Orleans, Louisiana
circa 1870

This photo of Thérésa Bienvenu was in an album 
that belonged to Arabella Maria “Belle” Tisdale.
Identified by W. T. Booksh Sr.
Page 1 and 4 of letter

Page 2 and 3 of letter

Letter dated September 1, 1871 from Thérésa Bienvenu to Mary Tisdale, written in ink on 
8 3/4” x 7 ¼: paper folded in half to make four pages. Orignal in possession of writer. 
Good condition. Transcribed exactly as written.

[Page 1 - Embossed initial B top center of page]
New Orleans September 1st 1871.
My darling Mary.
You can scarcely imagine how glad I was when I received your letter, for to tell you the exact truth I thought already that you have forgotten me, and I am determined not to write you the first, I think I was perfectly right, I dont know if you do. Dear Mary, I cannot tell you how sorry I was the day you went away and to think that you have missed such a splendid party, I was thinking of you and Belle all the time, this was one of the finest

[Page 2]
party I went to, we had such a good music and delightful company. I had a very nice time, would you believe that I danced [illegible word crossed out] till half past three in the morning without missing once one dance, but I tell you I was very very tired the neset [next] day. If you was here I would have a heap to tell you about the beaux I met there, especially a certain one, but it is too long to write now. I went to see your mother last week, and there I had the pleasure to be introduce to your aunt, she told me that you have not been well lately, I was very sorry to hear it, and I think you ought to come back as soon as possible, as you seem not to enjoy yourself up there. Dear friend, you ask me for my likeness, but I cannot send it to you, I have not one for myself

[Page 3]
the last one I had was stolen by a gentleman who came home last week, but I will try to have it again, if I succeed you may be sure that I will give it to you. Ask Miss Laziness when does she intends to write to me, and tell her also that it would not hurt her much if she had said something to me at the end of your letter. I am very much afraid that I shall may not be able to come over to you this year, for we are expecting my sister-in-law to be sick, in the beginning of the month, and if this happens it will be impossible for me to go, but I hope that you will come back to us soon. I have forgotten to tell you that Mr. Scandrrell? is not in the city, he went to the country since three weeks, but we are expecting him every day. Richard Rowley is always asking

[Page 4]
for you, he send his best love to you and to Belle, also Mr Goat. Would you believe that Richard is over to Mobile since three weeks and has not come back yet, but this does not astonish me at all, when he is with Kate he does not know anything else. I hope you will excuse my writing, and spelling but you know that I scarcely write in English, French being my native tongue. But Mary, as it is getting late, I think I must close this already too long and bothering letter, so give my love to Miss Laziness, and for you my darling Mary, a sweet kiss from your
ever beloving friend
Thérésa Bienvenu
(Write soon dear)
(Dearest dont you show that letter to anyone will you?

Thérésa's letter gives us a snapshot of a young lady's life in New Orleans in 1871. Although New Orleans was still an occupied city, the social atmosphere seems to have improved. At least the young ladies are again enjoying dancing at parties. The political atmosphere was still in turmoil though. Joel Gray Taylor in “Louisiana: A History” says “The political maneuvering from 1870 to the election of 1872 was constant and almost Byzantine...”

Occupied New Orleans was still a dangerous place. It wasn't until April 24, 1877 that the last federal troops left New Orleans. In a comment on Louisiana politics, Taylor writes, “In every Louisiana election from 1868 through 1878 there was so much fraud, intimidation, and other skulduggery that it is impossible to say who won a majority of the votes actually cast or who would have won had an honest election been held. In passing, it might be noted that almost the same thing could be said for elections long after Reconstruction was over.”

It appears from Thérésa's writing that Belle has gone back to her grandparents house near Baton Rouge in August and September of 1871. It was not unusual for people in New Orleans to go “up the country” during the Yellow Fever season. There were 588 Yellow Fever deaths in 1870, which made it a moderate year. In 1869 there were only 3 deaths, but everyone still remembered that 3,107 Orleanians had died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1867. In the fall of 1871 there were only 54 deaths, but one never knew. (New Orleans Public Library web site:

Thérésa reports that Richard, mentioned in Kate's July 13 letter to Belle, is visiting Mobile and it appears that he and Kate have reconciled. Thérésa refers to Belle as Miss Laziness several times because she has not written.

Thérésa writes that French is her native tongue. The French and American communities had remained quite separate for many years after Louisiana became part of the United States. Belle's Uncle Nathan O. J. Tisdale was the first in his family to marry someone of French descent. His second wife's father was French and her mother was Irish. It is likely that Belle and Mary Tisdale became friends with Thérésa Bienvenu through their cousin Kate Tisdale and her mother Rosa Pailhes Roux Tisdale.

Gary Van Zante writes in New Orleans 1867: Photographs by Theodore Lilienthal that “New Orleans was still a polyglot though segregated city of French- and English-speaking cultures, each with its own hotel, theater, cafes, and law courts.” He quotes a visitor as writing, “New York and Paris are not so widely separated as the French and Yankee portions of New Orleans.”

I found Thérésa, age 18, on the 1870 U. S. Census living in the 7th Ward of New Orleans in the household of Alex Bienvenue [sic]. He is 45 years old and his occupation is Bill Broker. He has a personal estate of $4,500. He and the rest of the household members were born in Louisiana, but his father and mother are of foreign birth. He is old enough to be Thérésa's father, but his wife Emily is 28, too young to be her mother. Alex may be her brother and Emily may be her sister-in-law that she mentions in her letter. “...we are expecting my sister-in-law to be sick, in the beginning of the month...” This was the polite way to say that she was pregnant and her baby was due in the beginning of the month. Other members of the household are Celia Bienvenue, age 54, Ceres Bienvenue, age 27, Clerk, and Smité Bienvenue, age 78, a Domestic Servant.
(United States Census, 1870, database, FamilySearch ( citing p. 62, family 552, NARA microfilm M593; FHL microfilm 552.021)

The 7th Ward runs from the Mississippi river to Lake Pontchartrain, downriver or east of Esplanade Avenue to Elysian Fields. Rosa and Nathan Tisdale's last home before his death in 1870 was on Esplanade in the 7th Ward. Directions in New Orleans were never given as North-South-East or West, but as downriver and upriver, toward the river or toward the lake.

The only other record of Thérésa I have found is the December 9, 1877 report in the Daily Picayune of her death on December 3, 1877.
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