New Orleans Public Library
|Administrations of the Mayors of New Orleans|
John Watkins (d. 1812)
Dr. John Watkins came to New Orleans May 26, 1804 from Philadelphia. Mayor Pitot resigned and Dr. John Watkins was appointed by the Governor and Colonel Bellechasse was made Recorder. In selecting Watkins for the vacancy of Mayor, Claiborne was governed by the fact that he had served as Recorder under Pitot and was next in line for promotion. He also served as a member of the House of Representatives of the Territory of Orleans, established by Act of Congress and proclaimed by Gov. Claiborne on or about October 9, 1804, the first session of which was held on November 12, 1804. After relinquishing his office as Mayor in March 1807, he was appointed Speaker of the House, but lost this office due to his independent conduct and Mr. Mather, a member of the upper house was appointed in his place.|
The two years of the Watkins’ administration were interesting and important. It witnessed among other things the visit of Aaron Burr and the establishment of the first Protestant Church in New Orleans. Two matters of importance brought before the Council were the improvement of the market and the extension of the streets of the Vieux Carre into new regions. The existing market had been erected by the Spanish Government in 1791. Mayor Watkins took great interest in the city police, the force known as the “Garde de Ville,” created in 1806, which replaced the “gens d’armes” against whom there existed a strong prejudice as they consisted to a great extent of soldiers who had served under the Spanish rule.
During Mayor Watkins’ term of office there existed a strong sentiment in New Orleans in favor of Mexico’s independence, and a society, of which Mayor Watkins was a leading spirit, existed to promote this idea.
Aaron Burr, ex Vice-President of the United States, came to New Orleans in 1805 and charmed the citizens by his handsome appearance and courteous manners. He met Watkins and through his influence received the endorsement of this society. Watkins’ zeal for the liberation of Mexico led him into committing some imprudences which caused him to lose the mayorship. Wm. C. C. Claiborne, Jackson and Clay had each at different periods been under the spell of Burr’s eloquence and personal fascination, but when they began to suspect his loyalty to the Union, they fell away from his blandishments and ceased to extend him their friendship. The story of Burr is somewhat a mystery-no one could prove his intentions were treacherous, but the stigma will rest upon him forever.
Through Watkins’ initiative the Council also undertook to deal with the problem of fire prevention. Public education was much neglected. The private schools of New Orleans during the nineteenth century had practically the whole field of education to themselves. The College of New Orleans had its inception in “An Act to institute a University in the Territory of New Orleans,” approved April 19, 1805. This act authorized the Board of Regents to raise by lottery $50,000 annually for the support of the University and the City College. In that day, no stigma was attached to this device of raising funds, which was frequently employed with success. For lack of interest this plan was abandoned in 1808; and it was not until 1810 when the Legislature appropriated $20,000 for the establishment of this College, which was finally opened in 1811. The City contributed a site and buildings, which were located at the corner of Hospital and St. Claude Streets, where St. Augustin’s Church now stands.
A few minor events connected with the administration or Mayor Watkins may also be noted. In 1805, steps were taken to improve the streets by requiring the laying of sidewalks, or “banquettes” in front of property throughout the city. It was required that these “banquettes” should be of brick, wood or masonry of some sort, at least five feet wide, with curbs of cypress. In that year, also, Matthew Flannery undertook the publication of the first city directory.
The population of New Orleans was then about fifteen thousand inhabitants. The streets were unpaved. The residence of Governor Claiborne was at the corner of Toulouse and Old Levee streets, in a building since destroyed by fire. The Arsenal and Navy Yard were at the intersection of Maine (Dumaine) and Old Levee (Decatur) streets. Five mouldering forts, with four ravelins and ditches, were the remains of the Spanish fortifications.
Rev. Philander Chase, who was called by the Protestants of the city to take charge of the congregation of Christ Church Cathedral, opened a school on his arrival in the city, November 13th, 1805, and laid the foundation of Christian education in church and home. Dr. Watkins was one of the early vestrymen of Christ Church. At one time the names of the first vestry and warden of this church were not known, the records having been destroyed by fire. Happily, however, Mr. Chase had preserved a copy of all the papers concerning this important event. These memorials published in his Reminiscences, in full, containing information of much value in the history of the Church in the Diocese of Louisiana, were sent to the Howard Library. Philander Chase afterwards became the Bishop of Ohio.
John Watkins adorned his retirement with flowery words in which he stated: “If I have been so happy as to have served the public usefully, it has been mostly due to the assistance which you have given me, and to the wisdom of the measures you have adopted. I beg you to receive the offer of my gratitude and the assurance that if there is anything which can add to the satisfaction furnished by a pure conscience, in my retirement, it will be found in the hope that you will honor me with your esteem.”
On Sunday, August 30, 1812, Dr. John Watkins died after a short illness of a few days - his remains were interred the same afternoon, at 6 o’clock.
The members of different Masonic lodges, the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, and a concourse of citizens, attended to pay the last tribute of respect to the departed. He left an amiable wife and an only son to mourn their irreparable loss.
|Members of the Watkins Administration|
July 27, 1805-March 8, 1807
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