West Feliciana Sentinel & Feliciana Sentinel
The West Feliciana Sentinel, a four-page Democratic weekly that was published as the Feliciana Sentinel beginning in 1877, was established in 1876 as the official journal of West Feliciana Parish and the towns of St. Francisville and Bayou Sara. Located on the Mississippi River between Natchez and New Orleans, these towns were an important cotton shipping center for one of the wealthiest plantation districts in the nineteenth-century South. Settled in the late eighteenth century as part of the colony of British West Florida and then governed by Spain (1783-1810), West Feliciana Parish attracted predominantly American settlers in the early nineteenth century and lacked the strong French cultural influence found in neighboring parishes. The second Protestant church in Louisiana, Grace Episcopal, was founded in St. Francisville in 1827 and became one of the more prominent Episcopal churches in the state.
Except for the years 1884 to 1887, when the Feliciana Sentinel was edited by the attorney Hunter C. Leake (1859-1946), the paper’s founders, George Wilson Reese (b. 1817) and John Dawson Austen (1840-1892), took turns serving as its editor. Reese, a native of Pennsylvania, also edited the East Feliciana Democrat in Clinton, Louisiana. Austen, a Catholic, moved with his family from Philadelphia to St. Francisville as a child. Educated by the Jesuits in St. Louis, he worked as a telegrapher before going into partnership with Reese.
Discussions of Reconstruction-era politics are the focus of the Feliciana Sentinel’s early issues. Of particular local interest were the activities of three prominent carpetbaggers and Republican officeholders, James E. Anderson and brothers Don and Emile Weber. In 1876, they manipulated local election returns to give Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes a majority over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The fraud was discovered and reported in the Feliciana Sentinel, causing such outrage that upon returning to St. Francisville in 1877, Don Weber was shot dead in the middle of the street by a band of assassins.
Declining political tensions following the end of Reconstruction led the Feliciana Sentinel to devote an increasingly large amount of space to topics other than politics. Recognizing the local significance of agriculture and popularity of gardening, the paper carried regular columns on these subjects. Fiction, poetry, and “literary notes” were another major focus. Sensationalist reporting on current events was mixed with substantive commentary on subjects such as temperance reform, sanitation, the improvement of Mississippi River navigation, and the impact of railroads on river traffic and the local economy.
The paper was rich in advertisements, especially for imported luxury goods. Advertisements placed by St. Francisville and Bayou Sara’s small but significant community of Jewish merchants are of interest, as is news of public auctions and sales, traveling circuses and other entertainments, local organizations and clubs, and the West Feliciana police jury, the governing body of the parish. The Feliciana Sentinel carried a small number of obituaries and marriage notices, as well as news from neighboring towns and parishes. In 1884, it became the official organ of the parish school board.
Publication of the Feliciana Sentinel ceased in December 1892 following the sudden death of its editor, John Dawson Austen.