Frederick Notrebe (1780–1849)
Frederick Notrebe was a prominent merchant, planter, and land speculator at Arkansas Post (Arkansas County). One of the wealthiest men in territorial and antebellum Arkansas, he operated a trading house, dealing mostly in furs and peltries. As one of the first cotton factors at Arkansas Post, he was instrumental in establishing cotton as a staple crop in territorial Arkansas. He is credited with founding the town of Napoleon (Desha County) at the mouth of the Arkansas River in the 1820s. He was also an early supporter of the State Bank branch at Arkansas Post, providing the lot on which it was built.
Frederick Notrebe was born in 1780 (exact date not known) in France. Nothing is known about his parents or childhood. Historians are divided on the subject of his military service. He either was in the French army during the Consulate (a period of French history from 1799 until the beginning of the Napoleonic Empire in 1804), or he served under Marshal Bon-Adrien Jeannot de Moncey, and may have fought in Spain in the Peninsular War.
Around 1810, he immigrated to America, probably landing initially in New Orleans, Louisiana. He found his way to Arkansas Post, meeting and forging friendships and business partnerships with other French émigrés there such as Charles Bogy, Antoine Barraque, and Louis Dardenne. He also befriended other landed gentlemen including Benjamin Desha and Terence Farrelly.
Notrebe married seventeen-year-old Mary Felicite Billette (Bellette) in 1811. They had six children.
Upon his arrival at Arkansas Post, Notrebe began work in private trading houses selling goods to Native Americans in exchange for pelts and bear oil. He also moved rapidly to begin building his commercial enterprises. He purchased land in and around Arkansas Post, building a residence, warehouse, cotton gin, and store. He was licensed as a retailer in both Arkansas Post and Little Rock (Pulaski County). He had a plantation about three miles south of Arkansas Post. He began buying slaves in 1817, eventually owning 119 slaves.
Notrebe was a shrewd businessman. With partner Antoine Barraque, Notrebe outfitted fur trapping and trading voyages, employing as many as 100 in the trade. He may have taken advantage of the fact that the Department of War encouraged John Treat, who oversaw the U.S. government factory (Indian trading post) at Arkansas Post, to license private traders. This move, and the fact that pelts of better quality were being taken along the Northwest Coast (because of the colder climate), reduced the profits of the government factory. It closed in 1810.
Notrebe had the foresight to diversify and began cultivating, processing, and selling cotton. Funds were advanced to other planters with the guarantee that he would buy their cotton at a set price. Notrebe made innovative design changes to his cotton gin to prevent fires from the friction of the gin’s components. He also experimented with several varieties of cotton seeds from overseas. Notrebe eventually had a virtual monopoly on the cotton market in eastern Arkansas because of the superior quality of the cotton he and others produced.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who went to Little Rock when the territorial capital was moved there in 1821, Notrebe stayed on at Arkansas Post. He began to expand his land holdings to the west along both sides of the Arkansas River. At the time of his death in 1849, Notrebe owned more than 5,500 acres in Arkansas, Chicot, Desha, Jefferson, and Lincoln counties.
Notrebe was instrumental in the founding of the town of Napoleon at the mouth of the Arkansas River in the 1820s or 1830s. He suggested the town be named for Napoleon Bonaparte. The town was strategically located at the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. Napoleon was sited to take advantage of the booming cotton business in eastern Arkansas and, for a time, was a busy shipping center.
Much of what is known about social life at Arkansas Post in the early years of the nineteenth century comes from accounts penned by famous visitors. Among them are John James Audubon, Washington Irving, and Thomas Nuttall. Irving visited Arkansas Post briefly in 1832. The character called the Grand Seigneur in his short story “The Creole Village” (1836) is thought to have been modeled on Frederick Notrebe. In the story, Irving contrasts “dilapidated” colonial Arkansas Post (Louisiana Creole villages in the story) with industrious American towns like Little Rock. While the post was populated by languid Old World men, Little Rock was chock full of eager attorneys, public buildings, and rival newspapers. Its residents were in active pursuit of “the almighty dollar,” a phrase that first appears in this story.
Notrebe and his wife entertained lavishly at their homes, with beautiful appointments such as cut glass, silverware, and good wine. William Pope described him as having “a commanding presence” as well as “refinement and grace.”
Notrebe died on April 4, 1849, in New Orleans. Newspaper accounts differ on the cause of death; it may have been either cholera or pneumonia. One historian reports that Notrebe was buried at Arkansas Post, but his grave was subsequently washed into the Arkansas River. A Confederate steamboat was named for him, as was Notrebe’s Bend in the southern reaches of the Arkansas River.
For additional information:
Arnold, Morris. Unequal Laws Unto A Savage Race. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1985.
Bearss, Edwin. “Montgomery’s Tavern & Johnston and Armstrong’s Store.” Arkansas Post National Memorial. http://www.npshistory.com/publications/arpo/hsr/endnotes.htm (accessed March 2, 2022).
Bolton, S. Charles. Arkansas, 1800–1860, Remote and Restless. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
———. Territorial Ambition, Land and Society in Arkansas 1800–1840. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
Johnson, Boyd. “Frederick Notrebe.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 21 (Autumn 1962): 269–283.
McDermott, John Francis. The Western Journals of Washington Irving. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1944.
Kathleen H. Cande
Arkansas Archeological Survey
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