The first people to traverse the woods and waters of the north shore were Native Americans. They hunted animals and birds in the woods and marshes, fished in the lake and tributary rivers, dug clams from the lake bed, and harvested native fruits, plants, and nuts.
Using dugout canoes, these early people moved from the marshes into the interior forests. By the time the French arrived in Louisiana in 1699, the Acolapissa Indians had erected a series of seven villages in the north shore region. There is no evidence suggesting that one of their villages was located at the present site of Covington; however, it is known that by 1763, when the Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War was signed, the Acolapissa had established trails that penetrated the area’s vast virgin pine forests.
After the American Revolution, Spain obtained the north shore region and made numerous land grants along the Mississippi River, and a few along the Tchefuncte and the Bogue Falaya rivers. In 1800 New Orleanian Jacques Drieux (sometimes spelled Dreux), received a grant of 1,600 arpents on the east bank of the Bogue Falaya. He proposed a town name St. Jacques and sold four lots there, before deciding to sell his holding to New Orleans merchant John Wharton Collins on March 16, 1813.
Collins, a native of Philadelphia, came to New Orleans at the urging of his brother, William Wharton Collings, a ship captain who carried the U.S. Mail between New Orleans and Madisonville. William suggested that young John establish a mercantile firm in New Orleans on Magazine Street near the Mississippi. Flatboat men coming down the river sold their cargos before starting north again. They had money to spend, and John Wharton Collins prospered.
Two of the Collins brothers’ sisters married Badons and lived along the Tchefuncte. These family connections inspired John Wharton Collins to be interested in the north shore. Once he acquired the land from Drieux, Collins proposed a town to be called Wharton in honor of his grandfather.
He had the land surveyed by Joseph Pilllie, a French refugee from San Domingue, who defined the Division of St. John, which takes in today’s downtown area. The map of the projected town was deposited with the parish judge on July 4, 1813.
The plan for St. John featured a number of square blocks, each centered by a plot of 120-by-120 feet that was set aside for public use. Eventually the interior areas of the square blocks became known as “ox lots” because farmers and draymen who brought produce or products to Covington, such as bricks, lumber, tar, pitch and charcoal, sheltered their ox teams and wagons or carts there. These central spaces were accessed by alleys to adjacent streets.
It was this unusual pattern of ox lots designed for the Town of Wharton that merited designation of Covington’s District of St. John on the National Register of Historic Places in America.
In 1816 the State of Louisiana granted a charter to the town, but, much to Collins’ distress, changed the name from Wharton to Covington in honor of General Leonard Covington, who died in battle in the War of 1812.
The new charter spelled out a system of governance by a five-member Board of Trustees with broad powers. The first trustees were John Wharton Collins, Thomas Tate, William Bagby, Dudley Packwood, and Jesse Jones.
One of their early actions was to establish a labor levy, or tax, requiring all able-bodied males to either work on the town’s roads for six days each year or purchase an exemption by paying a fee to the Board of Trustees. Another early rule required property owners to maintain the ditches along their street frontage and to build “banquettes” or sidewalks so that pedestrians could move out traffic. Those owning property on street corners were required to build and maintain “bridges” over the ditches to the streets.
Collins, his young wife Marie Elizabeth and their son lived in Covington, and he began to sell lots with modest success. However, military service at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 in cold and damp conditions weakened his health. On December 27, 1817, Collins died of an undisclosed illness, possibly at his wife’s house in New Orleans. His body was sealed in a lead casket and, after his widow sold two plots of ground in Covington “to be used exclusively as a burying ground,” he was interred there.
In 1819 a new St. Tammany Parish Courthouse was erected across from Covington, on the west bank of the Bogue Falaya in the prospective town of Claiborne, since the original parish seat at Enon had been made part of the newly-created Washington Parish. The substantial courthouse building at Claiborne survives, but trade and commerce caused Covington to grow more rapidly than Claiborne. Ten years later, Louisiana Governor Pierre Derbigny supported transfer of the courthouse across the river to Covington, making it the new parish seat.
The original business district centered on Columbia, Rutland, and New Hampshire streets. Merchants accepted cash, but more often traded by barter, accepting cotton or other produce in exchange for manufactured products, including tools, cloth and sewing materials, furniture, kitchenware, coffee, tea, and medicines. Warehouses were erected near the Bogue Falaya to hold products brought from areas to the north, which were bound for New Orleans.
The first record of a school appeared in 1820 and education remained an important issue in the minds of citizen. Religious services began at least as early as 1823 and the pre-Civil War years saw the Methodists, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians build houses of worship. The only surviving original house of worship is Christ Episcopal Church, erected in 1846, which continues to offer services. Erected by slaves, the wooden building had pews with gates, as was common in the eastern American colonies, and a slave loft, where the carriage drivers sat during divine services.
The economic life of the town depended on the steamers, schooners and luggers that plied Lake Pontchartrain connecting Covington with New Orleans. The first newspaper, The Palladium, appeared in 1832. This paper and the New Orleans press published the schedules and prices of shipping across the lake. In addition to cotton shipments, cattle raised on the north shore helped provide meat for New Orleans, and pitch, tar, lumber, logs, and bricks from local clay helped supply New Orleans markets.
The town prospered during most of the antebellum period, but, in 1858, when the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern Railroad inaugurated rail service between New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, and offered low freight rates, the Covington port suffered severe losses. One factor helping to ameliorate the loss of shipping was the development of vacationing in the community. A number of hotels opened offering room and board to south shore visitors, who came to Covington to escape the heat of the city. But, the fledgling tourist business died with the onset of the Civil War.
In early 1861, Louisiana seceded from the United States and joined the Confederation of the Southern States. Local men volunteered for military service, and the Confederacy requisitioned horses, mules, wagons, and anything else that might be needed for the military. Legal trans-lake shipping came to an end with the fall of New Orleans to federal troops on May 1, 1862. Union troops entered Covington on July 26, 1862. Local merchants John Edis Smith, who served as coroner, was the only local official present.
The federals soon withdrew, marching back to their vessel the Grey Cloud, and returned to New Orleans via Tchefuncte. Along the way the northern troops took whatever they wanted, as did outlaws called “Jay Hawkers,” a group of deserters, brigands and nere-do-wells, who preyed upon the civilian population. Privation and destitution characterized the town. Many people fled.
Lincoln freed the slaves in Confederate territory on January 1, 1863, but by the time many of the slaves from the north shore had escaped to New Orleans and other places under Union control. One estimate put Covington’s populace in April 1865 at barely 300.
The postwar Reconstruction period established Republican political control. Some officials continued to function, but it was not until the spring of 1877 that Republican control of the state ended.
Limited commerce through the port resumed, and school reopened. The discovery of Sulphur Springs revived the local tourist trade and a modest economic revival emerged. Churches received repairs and new clergy. The prominent businessman, lawyer, and political figure, Jesse R. Jones, asserted that things in Covington had improved by the early 1880s.
Near the end of the decade, Covington welcomed a branch line of the Poitevent and Favre Lumber Company’s East Louisiana Railroad connecting Covington, Abita Springs, and Mandeville. With this new travel option, Covington’s future brightened. Years of growth and expansion lay ahead.
— By C. Howard Nichols, Professor Emeritus of History at Southeastern University, and Louisiana Local Historian
City of Covington
(Founded July 4, 1813, as Town of Wharton)
F. B. Martindale
E. R. Randolph
Francis A. Guyol
F. B. Martindale
George E. Williams
S. D. Anderson
C. Z. Williams
E. V. Richard
E. V. Richard
Frank G. Marrero M.D.
Robert J. Badon
Wallace M. Poole
Charles H. Sheffield
F. P. Marsolan
Thomas J. Champagne
Hebert F. Frederick
Emile L. Menetre
Giles P. Pennington
Ernest J. Cooper
Keith J. Villere
Candace B. Watkins
Michael B. Cooper