Community History Places St Landry History

The St. Landry Progress – The Donato Brothers, Emerson Bentley and the 1868 Opelousas Massacre

Photograph: Front Page of St. Landry Progress newspaper of September 21, 1867.

CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Publisher and Contributing Writer

I’m in the process of completing another book for the Opelousas Tales Series that will focus on the newspaper history in Opelousas. Opelousas has seen the creation of more newspapers than most other small towns across America. Since there has been so many, Opelousas is known as the Graveyard of Newspapers.

After reviewing the materials I’ve collected over the last 40 plus years of researching this subject, I feel an important paper to the history of our town is one that was almost forgotten. This article will focus on the St. Landry Progress, its founders Gustave and Francois Auguste Donato, its editor Emerson Bentley and the role the paper played in the Opelousas Massacre in September of 1868.

The Two St. Landry Progress Newspapers
Studying the history of newspapers in Opelousas you’ll come across two named the St. Landry Progress, one created in the 1800s and one created in the 1900s. Both were short lived for different reasons. The St. Landry Progress of 1916, owned by Richard Price and Lawrence A. Andrepont, published by Louis Hebert, was first issued in December 1916. The last edition was in February 1917. Following that publication it consolidated with the Eunice Star newspaper from our neighboring St. Landry Parish town and became the Star-Progress. The earlier St. Landry Progress, established in 1867, is the focus of this article.

Donato Brothers – The St. Landry Progress Newspaper of 1867-1868
During the period of Reconstruction in Louisiana following the Civil War, there were many people associated with the new national Republican Party coming into the state. Many of these were teachers with the Freedmen’s Bureau Schools that were opened in the state, including in Opelousas and other St. Landry Parish towns.

About this same time, at the end of July in 1867 two St. Landry Parish brothers, Gustave and Francois Auguste Donato, Jr., established a newspaper in Opelousas named the St. Landry Progress (Le Progress de St. Landry). Published in both English and French, the paper was managed by Donato and Co. and several stockholders, including a Frenchman named Michel Vidal, who became the editor in August of that year.

Francois Auguste Donato, Jr., one of the brothers who established the St. Landry Progress newspaper in Opelousas in 1867. (Photograph from the Alex Da’Paul Lee Collection.)

Since Opelousas already had an established paper publishing democratic views – the Opelousas Courier, established in 1852 -, the main goal of the Progress was to publish news and stories in support of the local and national Republican Party. In 1868 another new democratic paper called the Opelousas Journal was established. Each of these papers were in publication at the same time in Opelousas for several months. They each had their own views on politics, and they disagreed with each other over elections of that time.

The Bentley Brothers of Ohio
Among the new people in Opelousas in 1867 was Linden Bentley from Ohio who had received an appointment to teach at the Freedmen’s Bureau School. After teaching each day, he worked at the St. Landry Progress newspaper office.

While Linden was in Opelousas, his brother Emerson Bentley was working as a teacher with the Freedmen’s Bureau in Cote Blanche Island in St. Mary Parish. In the fall of 1867, the cotton crop in that area was almost destroyed by the cotton worm. As a result, Emerson could not get his pay. Linden told Mr. Vidal about the problems his brother was having in St. Mary Parish. Since Emerson had previously written articles for the Progress, Vidal invited him to come to Opelousas and work as a compositor for the newspaper.

On November 17, 1867, Emerson Bentley arrived in Opelousas and went to work. Soon after his arrival, Emerson wrote in his diary, “In a few days the editor (Michel Vidal) having been elected to Constitutional Convention, placed the scissors in my hands and introduced me to his friend – a Frenchman – C. E. Duran (Durand) – and it was understood that I was to be English editor and Duran was to be French editor of Progress.” Two others were employed at the paper during that time, Emerson’s brother Linden and a young Black man named Hypolite Martin, who could read and write French. Solomon D’Avy was also associated with the paper.

The Opelousas Courier was a very popular democratic paper, and considered the republican backed St. Landry Progress not just competition, but an enemy. When Emerson Bentley arrived, the Courier immediately introduced him to their readers as “a late importation from Yankeedom.” They also used other unkind words to describe him. This started a war of words between the two papers that eventually centered on Bentley and his writings in the Progress.

1868 was an election year for both state and national offices, the first presidential election since the Civil War ended. The first election that year was in April for Louisiana’s governor. This caused some disagreements between members in the local republican party. Most of the conflicts centered around the Progress’ endorsement of one of the candidates running for Governor that year. Bentley and Durand  had a difference of opinion as to what republican ticket the paper should support. Bentley supported Henry C. Warmoth, while Durand supported James G. Taliaferro.  Bentley eventually won that debate when the Progress announced its support for the Warmoth Republican ticket. They won the election and Warmoth became Louisiana’s governor.

However the biggest conflict of that year was between the democrat and republican parties and the fight for votes in the November presidential election. Emerson Bentley and the St. Landry Progress were strongly supporting General US Grant for president while the two democratic run papers were supporting the democratic candidate Horatio Seymour.

Politics became the major subject of discussion at all local events in St. Landry Parish.  Both democrats and republicans held special meetings, had local events such as bar-b-ques and parades, all in an effort to secure the vote of the newly freed slaves, the Free People of Color and Free Blacks.

As the election date got closer, these events got more and more conflicted, with some members of one party fighting with members of the other. Some citizens started carrying firearms to the events. There was a confrontation following an event in Washington. Emerson Bentley covered all these events for the St. Landry Progress. Likewise the Opelousas Courier and the Opelousas Journal gave their interpretation of these events. This led to the back and forth between the papers that continued for several weeks. Each accused the other of slander.

Harsh Words Led to Violence
There is an old saying the goes “Sticks and Stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well in Opelousas and St. Landry Parish at that time this was not the case. All those harsh words led to violence.

After some bitter back and forth between Emerson Bentley and some St. Landry Parish democrats, on September 28, 1868 three democratic men went to confront Bentley who was teaching at the Freedmen’s School in Opelousas. After more unkind words back and forth, the men attacked Bentley beating him with a cane. The children attending the school thought Bentley was dead, so they ran out and told the adults.

This led to what is today called the Opelousas Massacre, and sometime known as the Opelousas Riot or the Opelousas Incident. What it was called depended on who was reporting the events of that last week of September 1868. No matter what it is called, it was a violent event that ended with several people killed. How many died remains a dispute to this day. Some reports say only a few lost their lives, while some say hundreds were killed, mostly from the Black community. In any case, it was brutal, and changed everything in the parish. (The book Opelousas Tales has a more complete story of what occurred in Opelousas and the Parish prior to September 28, 1868, and what happened on that day and after that day. Or you can read it as posted on the Opelousas Tales Facebook group by clicking on this link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/opelousastales/posts/2316855428618197)

What became of Emerson Bentley?
After hiding for days in various locations, Emerson Bentley got out of the St. Landry Parish area with his life and made his way to New Orleans. He continued to be involved with different Republican newspapers around the state for years, and even returned to Opelousas about a year after the incident to establish a new newspaper. But he could not even find a hotel or a room to rent in the town.  Opelousas people wanted none of him or of the Republican paper he wanted to establish and basically ran him out of town again. He lived out his life in New Orleans, was married and had a son, Emerson Bentley, Jr. He died in New Orleans on September 19, 1889, and was buried in Carrollton Cemetery No. 1.

Over the years many people blamed Bentley for those violent events of September 1868. But was that really the case? We will have more on the story of Emerson Bentley in a future article.

What Happened to the St. Landry Parish Republican Party?
Another death as a result of this incident was the end of the Republican party in St. Landry Parish, that lasted for many decades. The November election passed without incident. The results showed that out of the 4,787 votes cast for president, not one was cast for Grant. This was strange considering that in the election seven months earlier, 2,500 St. Landry Parish residents voted for Warmoth, the Republican running for governor. As a member of the Police Jury of that time put it, “The republican party had ceased to exist in St. Landry since the riot.”

What happened to the St. Landry Progress newspaper of the 1860s?
Well, it seems some of those angry democrats went to the newspaper office on that violent day, destroyed everything there, threw printing type into the streets, took the press and threw it into Bayou Tesson.

Gustave and Auguste Donato sued the town of Opelousas for $15,000 to cover damages for the destruction of the Progress printing office and its contents. In April of 1870 a court in New Orleans ruled in their favor, but awarded them just $1,700. On March 7, 1874 the Donato property where the St. Landry Progress office once stood, on the corner of what is today Littell and Main streets, was sold at public auction.

The St. Landry Progress newspaper in Opelousas died on September 28, 1868. Its story was buried like so many others in that Opelousas Graveyard of Newspapers.

NOTE: A memorial event to observe the anniversary of the Opelousas Massacre of 1868 will be held Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, beginning at 6 pm on the grounds of the St. Landry Parish Courthouse.