Oliver Pollock: Forgotten Patriot

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By Ward Bond

Oliver Pollock became an American citizen when independence from England was declared in the summer of 1776.  He was a resident of Spanish New Orleans and a wealthy merchant who owned plantations along the river from New Orleans to St. Francisville.   At one point, he owned the land where LSU in now situated.

 Few of Pollock’s personal papers exist.  Ironically, they were destroyed in the 1860’s by the U.S.S. Essex when it bombarded St. Francisville during the Civil War.  His portraits were destroyed.  There is no known likeness of him.

We may never know fully why this man, located hundreds of miles from the rebelling colonists and living under the secure regime of the Spanish King in Louisiana, decided to risk his all, including his life, for the American cause.  We have some indication of his commitment to his new country from a letter he sent to Congress after the Revolution.

He wrote: “I have the pleasure to reflect that from the beginning to the end I was deaf to every motive except an ardent appreciation for our righteous cause.” (1)

After he was placed in debtor’s prison for debts he accrued for the American cause, he wrote to the Legislature of the State of Virginia to whom he had loaned money to fund the George Rogers Clark victories at Kaskaskia and Vincennes:  “From the opening of the Revolution my soul panted for the success of American arms, nor could I omit any opportunity of manifesting the sincerity and ardor of those feelings, when it was in my power to be useful either to the public interest or to any individuals who had embarked their fortunes and their lives in an enterprise so hazardous and so glorious.” (2)

Less than three months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Oliver Pollock had purchased, fitted out and dispatched a vessel up the Mississippi River loaded with 9,000 pounds of gun powder and other supplies to George Washington at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania.  Later, he noted that the shipment: “…not only arrived in safety, but was a signal and seasonable supply.”

 hough happy to serve without pay, he requested that the Continental Congress give him an official title so that if he were captured by the British, he would be treated as a prisoner of war.  In making his request, he wrote: “Permit me therefore to make tender of my hearty services and assure you that my conduct shall ever be such as to merit the confidence and approbation of the country to which I owe everything but my birth.”

On June 12, 1777, he was appointed Agent of the Continental Congress in New Orleans.  Additionally, he was appointed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, as its agent in New Orleans.

Pollock was an ally first, of Governor Luis de Unzaga, and then Governor Bernardo de Galvez, both of whom were anxious to see the new American nation come into being and to drive their ancient enemy, Britain, from the continent.   He wrote to Congress: “My eagerness to seize every opportunity of serving my country has led me into such frequent importunities to Governor Unzaga that I have just reason to fear his displeasure.”

Far from causing Unzaga’s displeasure, we find that when Unzaga turned Louisiana over to the new governor Bernardo de Galvez, he described Pollock as a “faithful and zealous American” in whom Galvez “might place implicit confidence.”  Pollock noted that the new governor “gave me the delightful assurance that he would go to every possible length for the interest of Congress.”

In 1778, a secret committee of Congress sent a naval contingent under Captain James Willing down the Mississippi River to New Orleans to disrupt activities of the British in West Florida.  Pollock persuaded Galvez to give them harbor at New Orleans, potentially an act of war for Spain was, as yet, officially neutral in the conflict in the British North American colonies.  Galvez aided Pollock in the sale of plunder collected by Willing from British plantations in West Florida (including Baton Rouge) on his way down the river.

Pollock, using his own funds, fitted out the captured British corvette, Rebecca, to engage British ships on the lower Mississippi River and Lakes Ponchartrain and Maurepas.  This ship was renamed the Morris after Pollock’s friend and partner, Robert Morris of Philadelphia, later to be known as the “financier of the American Revolution.”  Pollock and Morris owned several plantations together.  In a remarkable action on Lake Ponchartrain, Captain William Pickles and the Morris crew captured the larger British sloop, the West Florida.  Pickles thus achieved domination of the Louisiana lakes, discouraging thought of a possible British attack by way of Manchac and the lakes around New Orleans and aiding in the capture of the British colony of West Florida.  The Morris was sunk in a hurricane only a few days before it was to join the forces of Galvez in his march against the British at Baton Rouge in September of 1779.

One result of the of these naval victories was that people residing at the time in the Lacombe area on the northern shore of Lake Ponchartrain became some of the first citizens of the new American nation.  Captain Pickles administered them an oath written by Pollock and reading in part: “We do hereby acknowledge ourselves to be natives as well as true and faithful subjects of the United Independent States of North America…” (3)

We know from the writings of Captain George Rogers Clark that Pollock shared his victories at Kaskaskia and Vincennes.  As the agent in Louisiana of the Commonwealth of Virginia, he was called upon by that government personally to honor drafts and invoices paid by Clark during his campaign in the upper Mississippi Valley.  This campaign resulted in the eviction of the British from the upper Mississippi Valley.  The new United States and Spain controlled the Mississippi River from its source to its mouth.

Pollock’s monetary contributions ultimately exceeded $300,000 ranking him among the top individual contributors to the American Revolution. By the fall of 1779, his credit was exhausted, his plantations had been seized by his creditors and his family was destitute.  It was at this time that Bernardo de Galvez decided to move against the British forces at Fort New Richmond, the name that they had given Baton Rouge.  Pollock again rose to the occasion.  He departed with Galvez as his Aide de Camp, accompanied by nine Americans and 1,500 Spanish Regulars, Louisiana militiamen made up of Spaniards, Frenchmen, Germans, free blacks and Indians only days after a hurricane had destroyed his home and the vessel Morris.  In a campaign of 25 days, the forts at Manchac (Fort Bute) and New Richmond were taken by the Galvez forces.  Galvez wrote that Pollock “attended me in person until the surrender.”  After the Marcha de Galvez, Galvez tried to get Pollock to accept a commission in the Spanish Army which Pollock refused.  He later wrote:

“I felt it my duty to decline this offer, the feeble services which, with nine brother Americans, I had been able to render were under the banners of America.  We took them with us into the field…” (4)

Pollock had urged the capture of Fort New Richmond at Baton Rouge by the Continental Army and was only partly satisfied to see it fall into Spanish hands.  He wrote to Congress only a few months before the March de Galvez:

“I cannot imagine what has deterred you from sending an expedition this way before now.  As it surely must come sooner or later, I live in hopes as I make no doubt you know the value of West Florida too well to give it up by treaty on anywise to any power on earth.”   (5)

Pollock had no way of knowing that, in a secret alliance with France in 1778, the Congress had agreed not to expand American territory into the Floridas. (6)

At this point years of struggle lay ahead for Pollock in seeking reimbursement for the funds he had advanced to the Congress and the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

In November of 1779, Thomas Jefferson, Governor of Virginia, wrote to Bernado de Galvez: “We have contracted considerable debt at New Orleans with Mr. Pollock, besides what is due your state.”  He went on to explain the Virginia had no way of immediate repayment of the advances to Pollock saying: “In this situation of things, we cannot but contemplate the distress of that gentleman, brought on him by services rendered to us, with utmost concern.” (7)

Pollock would experience the horrors of debtors prison in Havana; arrested there while the Agent of the Continental Congress to Cuba.  Only the intervention of his old friend and then Viceroy of Mexico, Bernardo de Galvez, saved him from years of undeserved confinement.  He would be accused of having profiteered during the war, an accusation utterly false and later withdrawn, but deeply hurtful.  He would still be found petitioning Congress for the payment of his advances twenty years after the end of the war.  And yet, Oliver Pollock miraculously managed to re-establish himself and repay all those who had lent him money for the American cause.

 Little is recorded of the last twenty years of his life.  He ran for Congress in the district of his family home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania but was defeated.  His last petition to the Legislature of Virginia drew the comment: “He is a public servant, whose services, age, infirmities and misfortunes might be offered as sufficient causes to ask even more than this…though not more meritorious ground of right.”  He spent the last nine years of his life in Pinckneyville, Mississippi just over the state line from his Tunica Plantation in Louisiana which he had been able to recoup from the possession of his creditor Charles Trudeau.  He was living with his daughter and son-in-law, Dr.  Samuel Robinson.

He had a home at Tunica Plantation which can be found today at the intersection of the Old Tunica Road and the Angola Road (now the Tunica Trace) rotting into the ground from neglect of a State and Nation which have little regard for the contribution that this patriot made to our liberty.

He died in 1823.  His grave is in the long lost Pinckneyville Episcopal Church cemetery.  The simple marker of the American Veteran can be found just over the state line on the right-hand side of the road from his Tunica Plantation house to Pond, Mississippi.

After the American Revolution, Pollock wrote to Congress:  “It has not been my fortune to move on a splendid theatre where the weary actor frequently finds in the applause of his audience new motives for exertion.  I dwelt in an obscure corner of the universe, alone and unsupported.  I have labored without ceasing; I have neglected the road to affluence, I have exhausted my all and plunged myself deeply into debt to support the cause of America in the hours of her distress and when those who call themselves friends were daily deserting her.  But these things I do not boast of… What I do boast of is that I have a heart still ready to bear new sufferings and to make new sacrifices…” (8)

 

 

NOTES

Photo is a statue of Oliver Pollock by Frank Hayden.

 1)  Mullaney, William F., “Oliver Pollock, Catholic Patriot and Financier of the American Revolution,” U.S. Catholic Historical Society, Rec V-28, 1937 p. 181

2)  James Alton James, Oliver Pollock, The life and Times of an Unknown Patriot,  New York, 1937, p. 1

3)  Caughy, John Walton, Bernado deGalvez in Louisiana 1776-1785, Gretna, Louisiana 1972, p. 160.

4)  Mullaney p. 195

5)  Mullaney p. 210

6)  Stinchcombe, William C. French Alliance in the American Revolution, Syracuse University Press, 1969, p. 26

7)  Kinnard, Lawrence, Spain in the Mississippi Valley, Vol. II, p.  

362, Letter Jefferson to Galvez, Nov. 8, 1779

8) James, p. 354

 

 

POLLOCK AND THE DOLLAR SIGN

 

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In his biography of Pollock, Dr. James Alton James traced the origination of the dollar sign to Oliver Pollock’s letters and accounting documents.  He shows how Pollock’s mark for the Spanish piaster (which equaled one dollar in value) evolved to the dollar sign.  At the time, the American notation for the dollar was “dlls”, “dls”, or “ds” The notation of a piaster was a double shank “P” with an “s” at the upper right corner.  Over the years, Pollock began to superimpose the “s” on the double shank “P” and eventually was using only the “s” with a double line through it.  Pollock’s letters to Robert Morris of Philadelphia, regarded as “the financier of the American Revolution” and his partner, trace this evolution.