Michel Dragon: First Greek of New Orleans

Michel Dragon (1739-1821). (Photo by Wikitree)

Michel Dragon was born in Athens sometime around 1739 to Antonio and Eleni (nee Clino). Dragon is the first documented Greek to permanently settle in New Orleans. Dragon arrived in New Orleans as a common sailor and by 1766 became, a most prominent merchant. After eight years of extensive archive research undertaken by the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church Archive Committee, at the moment, only four Greeks can be identified living in New Orleans before 1850. It is unclear who from this tiny group, met and interacted with later Hellenes. Without question the descendants of Dragon met and continue to meet all those who have followed.

Dragon married Marie Frangoise de Montpliaisir (born Chauvin) (1755-1822). She was born on March 1, 1755 the daughter of Francois Chauvin Beaulieu and Marianne. The Dragons had one child, Marianna Celeste (1777-1856). Terse as this information may be is it typical of what is now known of this very early period. Yet research across a number of fronts by a small group of researchers is even now rewriting the known history of the earliest of Hellenes in the New World.

Dragon arrived in New Orleans with little money and fewer prospects. He was enumerated in the 1770-1789 Spanish Louisiana Census and Militia Lists as a “hunter and voyager.” Through one means or another, Dragon gradually improved his life. One way to judge Dragon’s gradual hard won success is by an 1815 map held in the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC), a museum and research center dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf region of the South. Known as the “Plan de l’Habitation de Mr. Michel Dragon arpentee par ordre de B. Lafon Ing., le mois de decembre, 1815” this map was drawn by Barthelemy Lafon (1769-1820) as a survey of Dragon’s holdings in Bay Saint Louis and Wolf River Mississippi. This map documents as it reports upon the Spanish land grant issued to Dragon for his service with the Spanish against the British in the Florida campaign during the American Revolutionary War.

The HNOC description of this survey is simply: “Survey of the property of Michel Dragon (1739-1821) showing a 23,000 acre tract fronting the eastern shore of Bay St. Louis. Added decorative details include trees, a cow, a wild pig, a leaping stag, sailing ships in the bay, and a small village. Michael Dragon’s land stretched along the Wolf River for 14 miles inland from the bay. Some adjacent land owners are named (hnoc.org).” According to a plaque immediately below the farmed map as it is exhibited at the HNOC this rare historical map was originally the property of Dragon’s, “Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandson George Pandely Pattison.”

Portraits of Michel Dragon’s daughter Marianna Celeste.

Dragon was not simply a merchant. On January 1, 1771, he became a soldier in the Louisiana Regular Militia. Within one year, Dragon became a corporal first-class. On October 1, 1787, Dragon served as a 2nd sergeant in Mobile Alabama as part of the Louisiana Artillery under the Spanish General Galvez against the British. His unit was attached to the regiment of Antonio Gilbrto de St. Maxent, colonel in the regular Spanish Army, in command of the militia in the victorious campaign of Don Fernando de Galvez, Governor of Louisiana, for the Spanish King against the English in West Florida during the American War of Independence. He was promoted to first sergeant on July 1, 1789 during the campaign and later made a second lieutenant on February 12, 1792. Finally, Dragon was commissioned a lieutenant by Charles II, King of Spain, upon the recommendation of Baron de Carondelet on March 29, 1796. He was, then, assigned to the regiment of Don Almonaster de Roxas, commander of the standing provincial militia. According to one of his descendants Dragon for his military service ‘became the first solider not of French or English descent to be inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution (jplarroque.com).

I had read of Dragon’s participation in these military campaigns years ago. As Greek School students know, by 1768 the New Smyrna Colony in Florida was established with the arrival of a large number of Greeks to St. Augustine. These colonists ultimately settled south of St. Augustine on a site then, as well as now, named New Smyrna. For an array of reasons by July 1777, the colony had failed and the survivors of this ill-fated colony returned to St. Augustine. By 1783, the Spanish once again took possession of Florida. Just as Dragon served in the Spanish forces fighting the British in the 1780s did Greek survivors then living in St. Augustine serve with the British?

Dragon was still an officer in the militia when in 1803, the province of Louisiana was transferred from France to the United States, and he took part in the formal ceremonies attending the cession. Under the terms of the treaty, he became an American citizen without further action. A three-quarter portrait painting of Michel Dragon in his lieutenant’s uniform, c. 1810, and aptly known as Lieutenant Miquel Dragon is now held at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans and is attributed to F. Godefroid, (1807-1820) or to the School of Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza.

In October, 1799, Marianna Celeste married a new Greek arrival to New Orleans Demas Tirisakos (circa. 1775-March 1, 1852). This is the first recorded Greek to Greek marriage in North America. For reasons lost to history, Tirisakos changed his name to Andrea Dimitry, not long after his arrival in New Orleans. Dimitry soon became a merchant and in time was a veteran of the War of 1812, serving at the Battle of New Orleans. The Louisiana State Museum holds a painting of Marianna Celeste painted by José Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza dated 1796. A painting of Dimitry as an older man also exists. So, in point of fact, we can actually see this very first Greek couple in North America.

Michel Dragon died in New Orleans on March 10, 1821. Like many prominent New Orleans families of this era, the Dragon family have their own modest tomb in Saint Louis No. 1 Cemetery. As one of Dragon’s descendants has noted “at the far edge of the French Quarter on Basin Street is the Saint Louis #1 Cemetery, the oldest in the city. Known for its above ground tombs that rest on flood prone ground, the cemetery represents the spectrum of New Orleans society.” In time this tomb came to be known as the Dragon-Dimitry family site. The four principle figures Michel Dragon his wife Marie, Andrea Dimitry and his wife Maria are all to be found in this tomb. Successive generations of the Dimitry family and their spouses are also in this tomb. Four of these individuals are: Caroline Sophia Powers (1809-1872) Wife of M.D. Dimitry; Elizabeth de la Salle (1760-1841) Grandmother of Caroline Sophia Powers; Caroline Peronne Powers (1797-1882) Mother of Caroline Sophia Powers and Dimitry (1809-1873) brother of Alexander Dimitry, the noted politician and educator.

And those who are descended from the Dragon-Dimitry union have not forgotten their ancestors. Many of the descendants have made a point of visiting the family tomb. Yet over the decades this tomb came into disrepair. The Dragon-Dimitry extended family chose Facebook as the forum by which to collectively gather to refurbish their ancestral tomb. Posted as The Projectthe following appeal was made: “Our family has received a cost estimate for the restoration of the tomb from a professional restorer experienced in such work. All work will be performed using the appropriate masonry repair methods recommended by the National Park Service and the local New Orleans group, Save our Cemeteries. The cost of this project is expected not to exceed the amount of $4,000. This includes a reasonable contingency of $500 for unanticipated repair conditions and should cover web site service fees. One member of our family is an architect with several years’ experience in historic preservation work and he will administer the repair contract and inspect the results at the end of the job.” Based just on this appeal 39 individuals from this extended family collectively contributed $4100 toward this restoration. Anyone wishing to see the restored Dragon-Dimitry tomb, which still features the original capstone which names those within, can do so via the Internet. On April 5, 2014, a Trisagion service, organized by descendants was celebrated over the restored tomb by Father Dean Gigicos surrounded by Holy Trinity parishioners and various Dimitry descendants.

For those Greeks and their immediate descendants in North America who fear and predict openly the eventual passing of all self-identifying Greeks from the American scene need only think of this one extended family first established by a lone individual sometime around 1764. Greeks have never been a people easily defeated by the circumstances around them. I see no reason for future generations of Greeks to do any differently than those of the now widely spread Dragon-Dimitry clan.

1 Comment

  1. I am a descendant through Marie Francesca Dimitry deLagarde. This is a well written article about Michael Dragon. Thank you.

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