Selected Papers From The 1983 And 1984 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences
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The Spanish Attack On Fort St. Joseph
William Collins
Associate Professor
Purdue University

A Spanish expedition led by Captain Eugene Pour&eacut; captured Fort St. Joseph on February 12, 1781, and with the traditional ceremony claimed possession of the fort and the surrounding territory. What was the purpose of this attack? What was the historical significance of this event? Before considering these questions, we must examine the geographical and political situation in the Mississippi Valley.

After November 1762, the Mississippi Valley situation changed significantly. The French who had controlled the huge territory of Louisiana were decisively beaten by the British in the French and Indian war. France, in an effort to retain a foothold on the continent, turned over New Orleans and their lands west of the Mississippi to Spain in November 1762 before going to the Paris Peace Conference of February 1763 where they would lose the rest of their North American territory. Spain accepted this "left-handed gift" from their Bourbon cousins with some reluctance. After all, the defenses of Spain were already stretched out and additional land to defend meant higher economic and manpower demands on the strained Spanish treasury. A move to the western bank of the Mississippi would put them "eyeball to eyeball" with the British on the other side of the river. Spain had lost Cuba during the war which they had entered as allies of France with some reservations. While Great Britain had exchanged Cuba, vital to Spain's control of the Caribbean, for Florida, Spain still felt shortchanged. On the other hand, Spanish Louisiana would present a formidable barrier to British westward expansion.

The transfer of Louisiana from French to Spanish rule was slow and painful and accompanied by confusion, indifference, and even outright rebellion. Only Spain's ability to recruit and retain the services of capable and knowledgeable Frenchmen made the transition possible. The French had controlled the Indians through trade and presents, a policy the Spanish tried to follow with the assistance of French administrators. [1]

Spanish commanders, burdened by government regulations and lacking in manpower and financial resources, had to maintain friendly relations with the Indians while competing with vigorous British traders. These aggressive hordes of British and French-Canadians, many employees of the North West Fur Company, backed by cheap trade goods and relatively free of government regulations had the advantage. The Spanish understood the mission system, mining, agriculture, and ranching which they controlled by their "legal" and long-tested institutions. Now they were playing a game which the British understood — as did the British colonials.

Tensions increased as the British colonists revolted for their independence, and when George Rogers Clark's Virginians moved into the Mississippi Valley the war was brought to the doorsteps of the Spanish.

Spanish governors had been instructed to cooperate with the American belligerents, and relations between the Spanish commander at St. Louis, Fernando De Leyba, and Colonel Clark were cordial. [2] Despite repeated British warnings, the Spanish had been supplying the American colonists with arms and ammunition, food, and money from New Orleans. [3] One of these British threats was delivered by General Henry Hamilton when he retook Vincennes in December 1778. However, this threat was removed when Clark recaptured the town on February 25, 1779. Nevertheless, St. Louis was now vulnerable to British attack. The Spanish had not been neutral in supplying England's enemies. De Leyba's position became truly hazardous in June 1779 when Spain broke off diplomatic relations with England. The formal declaration of war was made in July 1779 but this news didn't reach St. Louis until February 1780. De Leyba hastened to prepare the defenses of his city. A combined British and Indian assault on St. Louis was repulsed in May 1780 with the assistance of George Rogers Clark. [4] It was in response to this British action that Spain made its greatest offensive move in the Upper Mississippi Valley throughout the Revolutionary war — the attack on Fort St. Joseph.

Lieutenant Governor Francisco Cruzart sponsored the Spanish attack on St. Joseph. Fernando De Leyba had died shortly after his successful defense of St. Louis and was replaced by Cruzart. It was the second term for this popular commander who promised aggressive action against the British as well as continued friendly relations with the Indians and Americans.

Cruzart placed the St. Joseph expedition under the command of Captain Eugene Pouré. Ensign Charles Tyson was second-in-command, and Louis Chevalier, who was familiar with St. Joseph, was chief interpreter. The entire party consisted of 65 militia soldiers and 60 Indians. The great chiefs Herturno and Naguiquen led the Indians. [5]

Cruzart sent the Pouré expedition on the way to St. Joseph on January 2, 1781. [6] Spirits were high as the main body of Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Indians left St. Louis. Several of the French-Canadian voyageurs broke out in jovial singing as they began paddling up the Mississippi. However, the going became more difficult as they progressed slowly against the current. As they moved into the Illinois River the weather became extreme. Wet snow blew into their faces and the ice floating on the river called for dexterous use of pole and paddle. With great relief they delayed in the vicinity of present Peoria. Here, on January 9th, they were joined by Jean Baptiste Malliet and 12 militiamen whom Cruzart had stationed in a small outpost along the illinois River. The party pushed on up the river to a small settlement called Los Pes close to a point where their route along the river turned sharply to the east. It was now January 20th, and they had traveled 80 leagues from St. Louis. Thus far they had kept to the water, but from this point, as the river was frozen over, it was necessary to continue on foot.

Pouré distributed to each man sufficient quantity of food for his own subsistence, ammunition, and all the trade goods he could reasonably carry. The boats and leftover food needed for the return were concealed near the river. The remainder of the merchandise was loaded on a few horses, presumably obtained from the settlement. Trade goods were necessary because the party expected and did meet several groups of Indians who normally owed their allegiance to the British. It was fortunate that Louis Chevalier was well versed in Indian languages. By reasonable negotiations and timely gifts he prevented these hostile bands from impeding their progress, for otherwise it would have been difficult to complete the mission.

The arduous overland trek covered over a 130 leagues of difficult terrain. Pouré followed the Illinois east to a point south of present-day Joliet. Near Goose Lake Prairie he turned southeast to follow the Kankakee River. He could not take a direct route across the frozen prairies to his objective in winter and expect to survive. For shelter and fuel as well as water he was compelled to follow the course of rivers and the woods which border them. At today's Kankakee, Illinois, the party followed the river northeast then east crossing into what is now Indiana, though they knew the entire region as "the Illinois."

The Spaniards entered Indiana along the snowy banks of the frozen Kankakee and pushed patiently to the northeast in the teeth of wintery blasts. As Cruzart reported, "They suffered in so extensive a march and so rigorous a season, the greatest inconvenience from cold and hunger." [7] Pouré followed the river as it turned southeast through frozen fields and dense undergrowth. Several small Indian bands met in this part of the journey were readily persuaded by presents to regard the situation from an impartial point of view. Near today's Dunns and Dunns Bridge the party turned northeast and continued over snow-covered prairies, those with heavier loads broke through the crust but only ankle deep. The horses slipped and fell several times along the icy river banks and several bags of goods were lost or broken. Near present South Bend they crossed at the usual portage route from the Kankakee to the St. Joseph River. After 20 days of forced marching in enemy territory the party at last arrived two leagues from their objective where they encamped at nightfall. The commander sent a young Potawatomie, named Lajes, to persuade the 200 Potawatomies who resided in St. Joseph to remain neutral during the attack. Pouré promised them half of the booty taken from the fort. Lajes reported the success of his negotiations to the commander who prudently took precautions in case the Potawatomies failed to keep their promise.

Early the next morning, the 12th of February, the detachment hurried across the ice opposite Fort St. Joseph, and in a spirited assault captured the post before the startled enemy could take up arms. They captured a merchant named Duquier and several of his employees, apparently the only persons there other than the Indians. With great effort the Spaniards prevented their Indian allies from killing the English prisoners. Having made precautions to secure the post, Pouré distributed the goods found at the post to the Indians of his party and those who lived in St. Joseph in order to fulfill his promise. The commander did not permit his soldiers to share in the booty. Cruzart reported that Pouré then scattered, destroyed, and wasted 300 sacks of corn, a quantity of tallow, and other food supplies that the enemy had there in storage, "without doubt for some expedition that they had planned against us." [8]

During that occupation which lasted 24 hours, the Spanish flag was kept flying, and Pouré and his officers prepared and signed the document formally taking possession of the post. This accomplished, they took their departure. The following day British Lieutenant Dagneau de Quindre arrived at St. Joseph, but was unable to induce the Indians to go in pursuit. The Indians insisted on going in the opposite direction — to Detroit where according to a British report they went to exculpate themselves "for having suffered the enemy to carry off their traders." [9]

The return trip of the expedition, while difficult, was without incident. The detachment reached St. Louis on the 6th of March without the loss of a single man.

The capture of Fort St. Joseph was but a minor incident in the Spanish actions during the American Revolution. St. Joseph was an insignificant post and the British regarded the attack as a mere nuisance. They reported, "The attack on St. Joseph was nothing more than an outrage committed by a band of marauders and of little consequence." [10] Then why the fuss? Many historians have written about this episode and there is a noticeable divergence of opinion as to the object with which the expedition was undertaken.

Edward G. Mason stressed the diplomatic importance of this event on the Peace of Paris, 1783. Clarence W. Alvord contended that the expedition was based on revenge and plunder. Frederick J. Teggart stated that the purpose was a "spoiling attack" to prevent a possible British attack on St. Louis. And, Lawrence Kinnaird, while finding some merit in each account, felt that the attack was part of Spanish Indian policy. [11]

Mason, basing his premise on an account found in the Gaceta de Madrid, March 12, 1782, stated that the expedition was inspired and directed from Madrid. He explained that, as the war progressed, Spain became more and more unfriendly to the United States "until it was apparent that nothing less than the entire valley of the Mississippi would satisfy the ambition of the Spaniards. Their conquests of Baton Rouge and Natchez were made to serve as a basis for title to the whole eastern side of the Lower Mississippi, as far as the Ohio. They needed something more, in order that they might include in their demands that which was afterwards known as the North-west Territory." [12] Mason was more emphatic than any other historian in his insistence that the expedition could be explained only as a result of diplomatic and political motives. He pointed out, correctly, that Spain was at war with Great Britain for her own interests and that the idea of American independence was extremely unwelcome. Recognition of American colonies in revolt was per se a dangerous precedent with respect to Spain's own reckless colonies. [13]

Mason noted that Benjamin Franklin, our minister to Versailles, was quick to see the meaning of the Spanish action. Franklin wrote to Robert Livingston in April 1782, "I see by the newspapers that the Spaniards having taken a little post called St. Joseph pretend to have made a conquest of the Illinois country. In what light does this proceeding appear to Congress? While they (the Spaniards) decline our proffered friendship, are they to be suffered to encroach on our bounds and shut us up within the Appalachian mountains? I begin to fear they have some such project." [14] John Jay, our representative in Madrid, supported Franklin's opinion by calling attention to the care with which the Spanish commander of the expedition had taken possession of the territory for Spain. [15] According to Mason the policy and aims of Spain during the Revolution, and the use which was made of the expedition to St. Joseph in support of the same, make it reasonably certain that the attack originated in Spain. He wrote, "How little did those light-hearted soldiers and their red allies know that they were but pawns in the great game whereof the players were at Paris and Madrid." [16]

The diplomatic interpretation was bitterly attacked by Clarence W. Alvord who directed his criticism chiefly against Mason and historians who accepted his version. [17] Alvord indicated that there was a connection between the attack on St. Joseph in 1781 and the ill-fated Hamelin expedition sent out by Augustin de la Balme in 1780. He stated that the purpose of the Spanish expedition was to retaliate against the British for the attack on St. Louis and for the defeat of Hamelin. He belittled Mason's version as being based on no more information on the subject than a brief description in the Madrid Gazette. [18]

His account of the affair is essentially as follows: A French officer named Augustin de la Balme came to Illinois to raise a force of Frenchmen to attack Detroit and invade Canada. [19] One detachment reached and captured a small post at Miami only to be attacked by Indians who killed De la Balme and 30 of his men. [20] In the meanwhile his other detachment composed of men from Cahokia under Hamelin plundered St. Joseph. They, too, were overtaken with four killed, two wounded, and seven taken as prisoners. [21] The survivors returned to Cahokia where they incited their countrymen to avenge the death of their fellow citizens. Appeals were made to the people of St. Louis who were also French. An expedition of 20 Cahokians and 30 men of St. Louis and 200 friendly Indians set out 28 days after the first Cahokian party met its defeat. They were accompanied by Louis Chevalier, who was on friendly terms with the Potawatomies. Chevalier induced these Indians to remain neutral, and St. Joseph was easily surprised and plundered. The British officers were unable to convince the Potawatomies to pursue the invaders as they had done before. [22]

This version was based largely on a letter written to Colonel Slaughter by Captain McCarty whom Alvord believed to have been living in Cahokia during the winter of 1780 and 1781. Alvord stated that the leader of the expedition was John Baptiste Malliet of Peoria rather than Eugene Pouré. He believed that the Spaniards had little or nothing to do with the affair and asserted that "there is no evidence that the taking of St. Joseph was in accordance with the instructions from the home government or even from the governor of Louisiana." [23]

Professor Frederick Teggart of the University of California challenged the accuracy of Alvord's conclusion. Continuing the acrid controversy Teggart asserted that Alvord's "explanation of the event must be noticed, not because of it having any merit or probability, but because the author speaks with the prestige of a professor in the University of Illinois." [24] He then proceeded to discredit the evidence used by Alvord in much the same way that Alvord had discredited Mason's article. He criticized Alvord's sources and his selective use of other sources particularly his failure to point out that Malliet was in the service of Spain. Using Spanish manuscripts Teggart claimed that Mason's interpretation was essentially correct. From the documents Teggart showed that the Madrid Gazette account used by Mason was a complete although shorter version of Cruzart's official report of the incident. He supported Mason's contention that the affair was a shrewd diplomatic move ordered from Madrid, and discussed the reaction of Franklin and Jay to the news of the attack. In addition Teggart felt that Cruzart also intended the expedition as a "spoiling attack" to prevent a possible British move to St. Louis.

Teggart concluded his thesis by pointing out that if anything was needed to complete the evidence, it was supplied by the fact that Cruzart had before him the example of George Rogers Clark who, in 1779, had undertaken a similar march for a similar purpose. On December 17, 1778, Hamilton retook Vincennes from the Virginians. He then set about making preparations for a spring attack on the Illinois settlements. To ward off this blow Clark resorted to the bold expedient of leading his men 200 miles across country in mid-winter. He took Vincennes again on February 25. It seems probable that this example had an important influence on Cruzart's determination.

Professor Lawrence Kinnaird, also of the University of California and again using documentation from Spanish sources, attempted to reconcile the conflicting accounts of the previous writers. While finding merit in each account, he felt something was missing. Kinnaird agreed with the Mason and Teggart version of the march to St. Joseph while agreeing that the Cahokians and some of the Indians desired revenge and plunder as advocated by Alvord. He made a careful check of the documentary material used by the others in order to determine whether any fact had been overlooked or misinterpreted. Although he concluded that their research had been well done, the search did result in the finding of one important clue.

Cruzart's report of the expedition written to Miró, August 6, 1781, and used by Teggart in his account, began with the following sentence, "On January 2nd of the present year, as I have written to the governor on the 10th of the same month and year Don Eugene Pouré, . . . left this city of San Luis with a detachment of sixty-five militia and about sixty Indians." [25] Apparently Cruzart had written a letter to the governor of Louisiana on January 10, 1781, a letter written while the raid was in progress. After a long and exhaustive search the letter was found in the Louisiana papers deposited in the Bancroft Library, University of California. In his letter Cruzart said the attack was requested by Milwaukee chiefs, Heturno and Naquiguen, and that not to have consented would have demonstrated Spanish weakness and may have caused them to change sides. He pointed out that it was the custom of Indians to side with the strongest force. Secondly, he continued, to go to St. Joseph, seize the fort, English commissioners, the merchandise, and the provisions would have the effect of terrorizing the surrounding nations. [26] Kinnaird stated that among the motives which induced Cruzart to yield to the urgings of the Indians was the hope that the destruction of supplies at St. Joseph would make an attack on St. Louis in the spring much more difficult. However, concludes Kinnaird, this was not sufficient cause to warrant the undertaking. He felt the whole affair was a manifestation of Spain's Indian policy. Further, Kinnaird points out that the very existence of the settlements in Spanish Illinois depended upon maintaining friendly relations with neighboring Indian tribes. Indian alliances for frontier defense had already been used by the Spaniards in Texas and lower Louisiana against both the Apaches and the English. It would appear that unless Cruzart had concealed information from his superiors the expedition did not originate with Cruzart, but was proposed by Indian chiefs. It was not planned by diplomats in Madrid, nor by irate Frenchmen from Cahokia bent on revenge. It was not sent out to establish Spanish claims to territory east of the Mississippi, nor did Cruzart dispatch it primarily to prevent an expected attack on St. Louis.

A careful examination of these historical interpretations shows that it is not "begging the question" to find merit in each article. However, with the exception of Kinnaird, the confidence each writer placed on his own explanation, the bitterness with which he defends his point of view, and his presumption of infallibility, almost bordering on arrogance, leads one to consider this point. History is a question of time. With determined research a historian can find documents to show why the Spanish soldiers were sent to St. Joseph, but that is not enough. What did the statesmen and diplomats of 1782 believe was the reason for the attack? What Franklin and Jay believed 200 years ago is more important that what we know now. There is no question that the American negotiators believed the expedition had been undertaken in accordance to directions from Madrid, and, of course, the Spanish diplomats took advantage of this situation. The King of Spain sent a message expressing satisfaction with the capture of St. Joseph and instructions that the officers in charge be rewarded. [27] Vergennes, the French Prime Minister, saw the possibility of giving the land west of the Appalachians to Spain instead of Gibraltar which they could not capture from the British. [28] During the peace negotiations of 1782 Spain opposed the efforts of the United States to secure the Mississippi as her western boundary and was supported by France. The American diplomats finally overcame this opposition by making a separate treaty with Great Britain. Spain, however, refused to acknowledge officially the western claims of the United States until the signing of Pinckney's treaty in 1795. [29] In this light we can consider the importance of the attack on St. Joseph. It did not change history, but it had historical importance. As John W. Caughey pointed out, the conquest of the Baton Rouge-Natchez region and the temporary occupation of St. Joseph were factors in the Anglo-Spanish struggle for control of the Mississippi and dominant influence over the Indians of the area. He wrote that "in 1781, after the St. Joseph expedition, it appeared that the duel had been settled in favor of Spain." [30] Spain controlled the western bank of the Mississippi and the eastern bank south of the Ohio. Above the Ohio the Spaniards and Americans were in an informal joint control. Only the clever diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams, and their making of a separate peace with Great Britain thwarted the Spanish ambitions to control the entire Mississippi Valley. [31]


1Details and expansion of these interpretations may be found in John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513-1821 (New York, 1970). General treatments of this period include Lawrence Kinnaird, Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765-1794, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1946-1949) and John Francis McDermott, ed., The Spanish in the Mississippi Valley, 1762-1804 (Urbana, 1974).

2See Clark-Leyba correspondence, Archivo General de Indias, papeles de Cuba, Seville, Spain. Most of these papers are contained in George Rogers Clark Papers, 1781-1783 (Springfield, IL., 1926).

3Spanish contributions to the American Revolution are found in James G. Randall, "The George Rogers Clark's Service of Supply," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, VIII, 256-263; James Alton James, "Oliver Pollock, Financier of the Revolution in the West, ibid., XVI, 70-71; Oliver Pollock, "Deposition, June 8, 1808," in James M. Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times, II, Appendix I. 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1816); as well as the Spanish work by Juan F. Yela, Espana ante la Independencia de los Esados Unidos, 2 vols. (Lerida, Graficas Academia Mariana, 1925).

4For information concerning the British Attack upon St. Louis in May 1780, consult John Francis McDermott, "The Myth of the 'Imbecile Governor': Captain Fernando de Leyba and the Defense of St. Louis in 1780," in his The Spanish in the Mississippi Valley, 1762-1804 (Urbana, 1974), 314-412; Abraham P. Nasitir, "The Anglo-Spanish Frontier during the American Revolution, 1778-1783," in Journal of the Illinois Historical Society (Springfield 1908-), XXI (1928), 311-321; and James A. James, "The Significance of the Attack on St. Louis, 1780," in Mississippi Valley Historical Society, Proceedings II (1908-1909) 199-217.

5"El Herturno" is the Spanish version of the French "Le Tourneau." Both Milwaukee chiefs were well known for their hostility to the British and aided the Spanish in their defense of St. Louis. See Cruzart to Gálvez, November 13, 1780, Louisiana Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California (hereinafter cited BL); DePeyster to Haldimand, May 2, 1779, Michigan Historical Society, Collections, IX, 380; and Reuben G. Thwaites, ed., "British Regime in Wisconsin," State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Collections (Madison, 1854-), XVIII, 384 n. 53.

6This account of Pourés expedition is based on the official Spanish report. See Cruzart to Miró, August 6, 1781, BL.



9Indian Council at Detroit, March 11, 1781, reported by DePeyster, Michigan Historical Society, Collections, X, 453-455.

18State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Collections, XI, 163.

11Edward G. Mason, "The March of the Spaniards Across Illinois, "The Magazine of American History, IV, 457-469; Clarence W. Alford, "The Conquest of St. Joseph, Michigan by the Spaniards in 1781, "The Missouri Historical Review, II, 195-211; Frederick J. Teggart, "The Capture of St. Joseph, Michigan by the Spaniards in 1781, The Missouri Historical Review, V, 214-228; and Lawrence Kinnaird, "The Spanish Expedition against Fort St. Joseph in 1781, A New Interpretation," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XIX, 173-191 .

12Mason, 464.

13Several French officials also saw the danger of involvement in revolution. Baron Turgot, Comptroller General of Finances, and his successor Jacques Necker vehemently opposed the war. Turgot insisted that war with Great Britain would drive the nation into bankruptcy, and that the revolutionary virus would lead to the weakening and collapse of the Ancient Regime. See John Richard Alden, The American Revolution 1775-1783 (New York, 1954), 182, quoting Oeuvres de Mr. Turgot . . . 9 vols. (Paris 1808-1811), VIII, 534-604; and David Schoenbrun, Triumph in Paris: The Exploits of Benjamin Franklin (New York, 1976), 102. The diplomacy of the American Revolution and the eventual peace treaty is covered in Samuel F. Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (New York, 1935).

14Benjamin Franklin to Robert R. Livingston, April 12, 1782, in Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (Washington, 1889), V, 300. See also Jared Sparks, ed., Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (Boston, 1829-1830), VIII, 76-78.

15John Jay to Livingston, April 28, 1782, Wharton, V, 364.

16Mason, 469.

17Among Historians who accepted Mason's version were William Poole, Justin Winsor, Claude Van Tyne, Reuben G. Thwaites, and Daniel McCoy.

18Alvord, 197.

19De la Balme chose Fort Quiatanon (a replica of which can be found in West Lafayette, Indiana) as his place of rendezvous "and here the little band assembled on the eighteenth of October, and the white flag of France unfurled." Alvord, 203, who gives as his source Report of Canadian Archives, 1887, 184. Also see Cruzart to Gálvez, November 12, 1780, BL.

20Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, Collections, XIX, 581; and Cruzart to Gálvez, November 21, 1780, BL.

21Account of Lieutenant Governor DePeyster in Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, Collections, XIX, 367.

22Alvord, 205-206.

23Alvord, 210.

24Teggart, 224-225.

25Cruzart to Miró, August 6, 1781, BL.

26Cruzart to Gálvez, January 10, 1781, BL.

27Jose de Gálvez to Bernardo de Gálvez, January 15, 1782, in Thwaites, British Regime, XVIII, 430-432.

28Teggart, 174; Alden, 253. The entire diplomatic maneuvering of Vergennes is discussed in Bemis, Diplomacy and the Spanish attitude in Yela, Espana ante la Independencia.

29Samuel F. Bemis, Pinckney's Treaty (Baltimore, 1926), 38-41. American historians once claimed that Clark's conquest of the Illinois country gave the United States a claim to the "Old Northwest." However this is not valid since there were no American posts north of the Ohio in 1782. Some insisted that forts on the south bank of the Ohio particularly those built and defended by Clark constituted a claim to strategic control. John Richard Alden stated both positions are assailable. Franklin, Jay, and John Adams apparently never used either argument. See Alden, The American Revolution., fn. 24, p. 259.

30John W. Caughey, Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana, 1776-1783 (Gretna, Louisiana, 1972) 169-170.


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Last Updated: 23-Mar-2011