Historic Baton Rouge records saved thanks to a thief

Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Many people in Louisiana learned the story of Le Moyne d'Iberville's expedition down the Mississippi River and the bloody branch high on Scott's Bluff that would eventually give Baton Rouge its name.

This is the first story in a year-long look at lesser-known legends and histories that make us who we are. Much of that history resides within tattered tomes inside the East Baton Rouge Clerk of Courts office. Those early records were almost lost forever, had it not been for a thief.

Glen Fortune carefully flips the pages in one of those delicate volumes. "We keep the records for everything," said Fortune, who is the director of training for the clerk's office. From births to marriages to property transfers, in the hands of a skillful historian, or amateur genealogist, they tell the story of not just Baton Rouge, but her people.

"It's pure history - successions, emancipations - all having historical value," Fortune added.

It's his job to make sure we can find the records we are looking for. The earliest records date back to February of 1813, four years before Baton Rouge became a city. Back then, judges wrote everything by hand in large journals on very brittle paper. To read them today, with their flowing script and fancy language, is to step back into 1800s. A quick glance through the pages finds names of Baton Rouge's first families, names like Kleinpeter and Beauregard.

"This was a donation document from Bartholemi T. Beauregard to the East Baton Rouge Police Jury," Fortune stated.

Beauregard donated four lots on Europe Street between Maximillian Street and East Boulevard, in the heart of the district that bears his family name, in order to build a courthouse. That courthouse was never built. Instead, it was built on St. Louis Street and it would house Beauregard's donation, as well as all of the transactions of the parish until the Civil War.

The year was 1862. From his ship on the Mississippi River, Adm. David Farragut of the Union Navy rained cannonballs on the city. One of the fears among city leaders was that the courthouse and all the records in it would be destroyed by well-placed mortar.

Enter William Hubbs, an industrious clerk in the courthouse. With the city under siege, Hubbs devised a plan to steal the records in order to save them. Melissa Eastin is the head of Special Collections at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library. She said it was a heist Hubbs could not pull off alone.

"He went around to the neighbors and gathered up a wagon train and removed the records from the courthouse and rode them down Bayou Sara Road to a plantation," Eastin explained. "We're not sure which one."

Legend has it the records were hidden inside a hay stack. The excellent condition of all of the documents suggests they were stored somewhere out of the weather. Wherever they sat, the records remained hidden until Port Hudson fell to Union troops.

"After Port Hudson falls, somebody turns him [Hubbs] in. Rats him out, and the Federal troops repatriate the records," Eastin added.

It was a win for property owners and city officials of Civil War Baton Rouge and for history buffs of today.

"Without that information, we would be missing a huge gap of our past. It's all of these little historical pictures that make up our big picture that gives us perspective of who we are," Eastin said.

It would not have been possible were it not for the clerk-turned-thief, William Hubbs. Interestingly, old newspapers show that once the records were returned, Hubbs was offered his old job back. He turned it down because he would not sign an oath of allegiance to the Union. During reconstruction, however, Hubbs returned to his job in the Deed Conveyance office.

He died in May of 1899. At the time, he was the oldest native-born Baton Rougean in the city. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mid City alongside his wife and the rest of his family.

Copyright 2017 WAFB. All rights reserved.