Greek Merchants’ Recognizable Presence in New Orleans

Edgar Degas' Painting.

From the 1830s onward, Greek merchants were to be found in every port city of the United States. Whether a salt water or fresh water port Greek and other Orthodox merchants were a recognizable presence among the American businessmen of the day. Aside from the Greeks, this mixed cadre of Eastern Orthodox merchants included, but was not limited to Albanians, Arab-Syrians, Bulgarians, Illyrians, Romanians, Russians, and Serbians. Between 1830 and 1860, these merchants and assorted other Orthodox residents, in these seaport settings, worshiped together informally with many such collectives trying to establish a permanent church.

New Orleans was one such community that actively sought, personal ethnic identity and class-standing aside, to establish a church. According to Dr. Richard Campanella, geographer the 1850 U.S. Census reported that 150 Greeks resided in this city including a vibrant working class. Significantly, the Greek merchant class of the 1830s-1870s met and interacted with the Greeks in New Orleans, such as the Dragon-Dimitry clan, who had arrived in New Orleans before this new wave of Orthodox merchants. In point of fact, according to oral traditions within the community, the first wave of Colonial Era Greeks also wanted a church. As I heard one of the Dimitry descendants report her ancestors wanted a church even when there were only twelve such Orthodox faithful, then living in the city.

Nevertheless, two factors converged with the arrival of the new merchant class, first the sheer number of the Greek business men and their families added significantly to the basic demographics of the Orthodox community and secondly, the unquestioned influence this recently arrived Greek merchants had with the Greek business and ecclesiastical classes of Europe and the Mediterranean.

Demetrios Botassi

Without question, New Orleans’ situation as a port city for cotton and other goods drew the Greek and other Eastern Orthodox merchants. The Greek merchants were affiliated with the Ralli Company. Stephenos Ralli (1755–1827), from the island of Chios, had settled in Marseille, but quickly recognized that the very nexus of Western European trading (and so world trade) had shifted with the end of the Napoleonic wars. The elder Ralli, quickly sent his eldest son John (1785-1859) to London to explore business opportunities. Soon, Stephenos’ four other sons Augustus (1792-1878), Pandia (1793–1865), Toumazis (1799–1858), and Eustratios (1800–84) along with their brother John founded the Ralli Brothers firm, which is now recognized as the most successful expatriate Greek merchant business of the Victorian era (1837-1901).

The Ralli Brothers partnered with other Greeks around the world dealing in cotton, grain, corn, silk and every other raw or processed commodity imaginable. The leading agents for the Ralli firm in North America were Demetrios Botassi in New York City and Nicholas Benachi in New Orleans. Other Greek merchant representatives and contracted agents soon followed these two pioneers.

Tracking the exact movement of Nicholas Marino Benachi’s first arrival to American shores is difficult. At least one report attests that Benachi first opened a New York City office in 1842 and then another in New Orleans in 1846 (NO Newspaper January 7, 1872). Benachi’s international standing as a merchant is suggested first by his return to American shores on October 23, 1852, when he arrived in New York City abroad the steamship Europa with his wife Catherina Grund (d. 1853) and their first three children. Within record time the Benachi family set foot on the shoreline of New Orleans on November 22, 1852 arriving on the Empire City. Benachi’s overall status is confirmed by the fact that it was in 1852 when he was appointed Greek Consul for New Orleans.

Agelasto House in New Orleans

As reported by a host of public and ecclesiastical documents, newspaper reports from the American and Greek press as well as family recollections it was Benachi who ultimately proved the deciding factor in securing a priest for the parish he and a close cadre of other Orthodox faithful managed to finally establish in New Orleans. For his sustained efforts in establishing the first Greek Orthodox church in North America Benachi was awarded the “Cross of the Saviour” by the Greek King.

The 1850 Federal Census, which listed individuals for the first time by place of birth attests to 23 foreign-born Greeks in the New Orleans region. Then in the 1860 census 17 Greeks. Yet the Holy Trinity Archives Committee was able to account another 16 in New Orleans who were not enumerated in the 1860 census. Committee members discovered them in a close reading of city directories and from further information provided by a descendant of the Agelasto clan.

In the 1860 Census individuals were listed, for the first time by place of birth. In New Orleans the following self-identified Greeks were: D. Agapithos, Ph. Arnauet, Spero Bambaca, Demetrius Caroticki, Robert Coffy, Stamati Covas, Nicolas Dennise, Frank Dias, Peter Georges, Nicholas Gunari, Philip Mallegt, Julien Maureau, Antonio Pasino, Frank Rogers, Manuel Roussel, Manuel Seyers, and finally N. Theodore. Magdalene Maag, of the Holy Trinity Archives Committee effortlessly added additional Greek merchants living in New Orleans not cited in this census given that these individuals whose place of birth was not cited as “Greece: Agelasto, Anastasiades, Benachi, Botassi, Fachiri, Franghiadi, Frangopoulos, Gomalis, Kilili, (born in Turkey but an ethnic Greek) Mavrogordato, Negroponte, Nicolopulo, Pandeli, Paterachi, Ralli, and Rodacanchi.

Michel Alexander Agelasto

Then unexpectedly, in 1872, a New Orleans newspaper article raises the question of whether or not the day of the Greek merchants in the Crescent City had passed. “In the times before the war, the Greek merchants were numerous in this city; and, from their large capital, their harmony of action, and their close connection with the strong Greek firms in the leading commercial cities of the world, they commanded an influence in mercantile and financial circles that directed more than usual attention to their movements, and made them respected by the boldest operators (January 7,1872).” The writer of this account is careful to report that it is his ‘impression’ that it was the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865) that led the majority of these Greek merchants to other financial markets across the planet.

Yet the evidence, after 1872, for the ubiquitous presence of Greeks within the city of New Orleans, are diverse and totally unexpected. In late 1872, Edgar Degas (1834-1917), was at that moment in time just an aspiring painter who traveled to New Orleans to visit his mother’s brother Michael Musson and his family. Edgar Degas was to return to Europe in January 1873, but when his return trip was delayed, he was asked by his relatives to paint their portraits.

In the course of these family painting Degas completed, “A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873).” In this painting “Degas depicts his uncle Michel Musson’s cotton brokerage business. In the painting, Musson is seen examining raw cotton for its quality while Degas’ brother Rene reads The Daily Picayune. Another brother, Achille, rests against a window wall at left while others, including Musson’s partners, go about their business.”

Degas’ painting is historically significant for other reasons. First, Degas was the only major French painter of the Impressionist generation to travel to American and paint what he saw there. “A Cotton Office in New Orleans” was the first painting by Degas to be purchased by a museum, and the first by an Impressionist. According to Marilyn Brown, in her book, Degas and the Business of Art: A Cotton Office in New Orleans, Degas’ sale of the piece marked a turning point in his career as he moved from being a struggling, unrecognized artist to a recognized and financially stable artist. Finally this painting is a record of the Greek cotton merchant’s enduring and ubiquitous presence in New Orleans. Two other notable figures are seen in this fabled painting. The second figure on the left leaning on the table is Michel Alexander Agelasto. Next, the individual in shirt-sleeves working at the counter on the far right (standing in the foreground) is John Livaudais (agelastos.com).

Debate exists between scholars concerning the exact numbers of Greek merchants after the Civil War. Various sources report upon various Greek merchants leaving New Orleans such as Agelasto who left sometime in the early 1870s. Other documents such as the Holy Trinity Sacramental Journal records cite the presence of the Nikolopulo family with a baptism in 1883 and the Ralli family with a baptism in 1889.

Nicholas Benachi remained in New Orleans until his death in 1886. He continuously supported the church as evidenced by his correspondence with Patriarch Joachim in 1880, as seen in the Holy Trinity Archives Committee files and news articles in the local press (Weekly Picayune March 26, 1881).

The 1880-1920 period is now credited as the massive Greek migration to North America. By 1900, again following the work of Dr. Richard Campanella, geographer by the time these new Greek arrived some 300 self-identified Greeks were living in New Orleans. Recovering the actions and overall role of Greek cotton merchants in New Orleans is as fundamental a part of American history as it is for Greek-American history.