POYDRAS STREET, for many years a chief north-south axis running one block east of and parallel to Lamar Street in downtown Dallas, is appropriately named for one of the most noted mercantile, poetic, and political figures in the province, then state, of Louisiana. Just how the name of this Frenchman was even thought of is a mystery, for he was born and died a full generation before the French colony at Dallas. Poydras was one of the “original” streets laid out and named by the founder of Dallas, John Neely Bryan, and it was the last on the eastern edge of town for a number of years before the Civil War.
Julien Poydras was a native of the French province of Brittany, having been born at Reze about a mile and a half south of the city of Nantes in 1746. He went to sea at fourteen years of age, serving in the French navy. Captured by the British in 1760, he shortly succeeded in escaping to the French-owned island of Santo Domingo. By 1768 he had reached New Orleans, which had already become a Spanish territory by reason of high politics between the Bourbon kings of France and Spain as a result of the outcome of the Seven Years War. At New Orleans the twenty-year-old Frenchman began his remarkable career, first as a highly successful merchant with an inordinate fondness for writing poetry. He started business as a peddler. Thus equipped with his stock of merchandise on his back he traveled far and wide throughout the lower Mississippi River valley, including much territory beyond the present state of Louisiana.
Poydras was soon able to set up a trading post on a plantation which he bought in Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana. He built a store there and later added a cotton gin. “His trading interests extended even to Texas,” it was later to be recorded. But it is doubtful that Poydras ever visited any appreciable part of Texas, with the possible exception, perhaps, of Nacogdoches. He died some seventeen years before John Neely Bryan started the town of Dallas with his own trading post in 1841.
In 1779 during the American war of independence in which Spain sided with the colonists, Bernardo de Galvez, governor of Louisiana, attacked and captured the British fort of Baton Rouge. This victory led Poydras to celebrate the event in verse, writing and publishing “La Prise du Morne du Baton Rouge,” which is said to have been the earliest attempt at epic poetry in Louisiana literature. Poydras wrote other poetic works, but critics have been harsh in their judgments, dismissing them largely as “dull and grandiloquent” pieces of flattery.
Poydras’s success in business and politics was, however, another matter. He had long thought of returning to his native France, but the French Revolution changed his mind for him completely. He continued to prosper on a magnificent scale as a merchant in Louisiana. “Poydras’ reputation for shrewd and honest dealing grew,” it was recounted, “and he became widely known for his philanthropy, his piety and morality.” Poydras usually made two or three triumphal grand entries a year into New Orleans, traveling in a specially fitted-out boat, propelled by six oarsmen. A lifelong bachelor, Poydras kept open house at his plantation, entertaining sumptuously. It is said he was host to Louis Phillippe, later king of France, and the Duke of Orleans, when both were exiles from revolutionary France in 1798. At the time of his death Poydras owned six large plantations, considerable real estate in the city of New Orleans, and more than five hundred slaves. In his will he provided for the freeing of the slaves and the granting of a pension to all sixty years of age or older, but these details were not carried out after his death in 1824.
Poydras’s political career dated from the Louisiana Purchase when he became a close friend of Gov. W. C. C. Claiborne, named territorial governor of Louisiana by President Jefferson. Poydras served as civil commandant at Pointe Coupée in 1804 and as president of the first Legislative Council of Louisiana under the American flag. He also served as president of the constitutional convention of 1812, which set up the state of Louisiana, and he served two terms as president of the state senate.
Poydras was one of the first philanthropists in the development of Louisiana. He left large sums to the hospital and the Poydras Female Orphan Asylum at New Orleans, $30,000 to Pointe Coupée Parish for the founding of an academy or college, and $30,000 each to the parishes of Pointe Coupée and West Baton Rouge, income from which was to provide dowries for girls from impoverished families. In Pointe Coupée the bequest was diverted to a school fund, but in West Baton Rouge a number of worthy young women shared in the provisions for dowries for many years.
Poydras, of course, is much more effectively memorialized in New Orleans than in Dallas. A major thoroughfare in downtown New Orleans bears his name today, with no indication that it will be whittled down in length or grandeur by street revision plans in the downtown area. A bronze bust of Poydras has long since been given to the city museum maintained in the Cabildo in New Orleans next door to St. Louis Cathedral. Copies of his will and other memorabilia are to be found in Louisiana libraries and archives today.