Portrait of Vincent Nolte

Portrait of Vincent Nolte

Vincent Nolte: Global Player and Bankrupt Entrepreneur


After coming to New Orleans as a result of the Hope-Baring Operation during the Napoleonic Wars, Vincent Nolte went on to become one of the largest cotton dealers in the city after the war ended. In the great financial crisis of 1825, his business failed for the first time, and in the next great financial crisis of 1837-1839, he went bankrupt a second time. Likewise, his effort to begin anew in Europe also failed. In his final years he turned to writing, leaving behind several economic texts, as well as an autobiography.


“My business tendencies were for large speculations…. To descend from this to the elementary rules of our mercantile fathers, to accumulate and keep together small gains… were almost impossible for me. Not that the progress was too slow, but that small gains closed the doors upon all great combinations…. Great affairs exercised a magic power over me, and therein lay their charms for me.”[1]

In his penchant for large speculative ventures lay the tragedy of Vincent Nolte's life. Born in 1779 in the Italian city of Livorno to German parents, he died at the age of seventy-seven in Paris. In his younger years, he participated in what was probably the most spectacular undercover operation during the Napoleonic Wars. This endeavor brought him to New Orleans, where, after the war ended, he became one of the largest cotton dealers in the city. In the great financial crisis of 1825, his business failed for the first time, and in the next great financial crisis of 1837-1839, he went bankrupt a second time. Likewise, his effort to begin anew in Europe also failed. In his final years he turned to writing, leaving behind several economic texts, as well as an autobiography. Though Nolte’s life began and ended outside the German lands and the United States, he spent time in Hamburg during his youth, receiving a mercantile education from his family, and engaged in numerous entrepreneurial ventures in the United States during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. His great success and equally great failure reflected an ambitious and flawed entrepreneurial character. Nevertheless, this cosmopolitan, German-American, transatlantic entrepreneur made a name for himself that survives thanks to his remarkable memoirs.

Family Background

Vincent Nolte (born November 21, 1779, in Livorno, Grand Duchy of Tuscany; died August 19, 1856, in Paris, France) was the eldest son of Hamburg merchant Johann Heinrich Nolte (1739-1824) and Anna Katharina Nolte (née Matsen) (1758-1833), the daughter of Hamburg senator Hermann Matsen.[2] Vincent Nolte had ten siblings.[3] Two brothers, only one of whom survived past the age of two, and two sisters were born in Livorno. Two more brothers and four sisters were later born in Hamburg.[4]

Johann Heinrich Nolte grew up under the guardianship of his uncle, Otto Franck, who was married to an English woman. Franck sent his nine-year-old nephew, Johann, to the same English boarding school in Exeter that future merchant banker Francis Baring attended. A close friendship developed between the two schoolboys during this time. After finishing his schooling at age sixteen, Johann Heinrich Nolte began an apprenticeship under Otto Franck, who owned a prestigious mercantile house in Livorno, an important Mediterranean trade port. There, Johann began as a junior partner in 1764 and became Franck's successor in 1779. In 1781, he became the general consul for the state of Hamburg, and retained this position until he returned to Hamburg in 1787.[5] The Hamburg senate soon thereafter accepted his appointment as consul from the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

Johann Heinrich Nolte renewed his relationship with Francis Baring in 1772 when the pair undertook a trip through England for both business and pleasure. In the following years, their reunion led to close business relations between the London merchant banking firm of John & Francis Baring and the Livonese mercantile house of Otto Francke & Co., which became one of the most important business partners of the Baring family in the 1780s. It provided the Barings with colored fabrics for their textile factory in Exeter, as well as with other products like oil, raisins, and silk.[6] After Johann Heinrich returned to Hamburg, his brother, Johann Octavio, took over the house of Otto Franck & Co. in Livorno and in turn assumed the position of general consul for Hamburg. Vincent Nolte described his uncle, Johann Octavio, as a “very weak man” with little commercial ability but “inordinate vanity.” Under his leadership, the Barings significantly reduced their business dealings with Otto Franck & Co. The relationship ended when Napoleon's troops occupied Livorno in 1796.[7] A few years later, the mercantile firm went bankrupt.[8] Vincent Nolte maintained a close relationship with Francis Baring and his sons throughout his life and the relationship had a significant impact on his professional career and personal dealings.

Vincent Nolte's Youth

After his family returned to Hamburg, Vincent Nolte attended the private school of a headmaster from the island of Jersey. There Nolte became friends with Siegmund Rücker, who later rose to become one of the leading sugar brokers in London. Rücker and Nolte later met again in Livorno, where they both served part of their apprenticeships. Vincent Nolte would encounter Siegmund Rücker again in various critical phases of his life.[9]

Nolte first began his apprenticeship in his father's Hamburg mercantile house. Soon thereafter, his father sent him for further training to the family’s Livonese house under his uncle’s management. Irregularities and misappropriations of funds in the business, as well as the occupation of Livorno by Napoleon's troops, prompted Vincent's uncle to retreat to the countryside in 1796. While residing in the country, the daughter of an Italian banker caught Vincent Nolte’s eye. The matter resulted in unwanted attention for the family and prompted his father to recall him to Hamburg.

In 1799, Vincent Nolte witnessed one of the most severe trade and speculative investment crises of the century. After four years of frenzied speculation based largely on credit following the French occupation of Amsterdam, Hamburg’s major commercial rival, more than 130 Hamburg merchant and banking houses stopped making payments to creditors within the span of two months. Among the fallen companies were large firms that had made deals worth several million marks. The crisis affected not only numerous European trading centers but also the New World.[10] Nolte’s father was caught up in it as well. According to Nolte, after his father’s return to the German city from Livorno in 1787, he had made hardly any new business contacts but instead had concentrated on his business activities in Livorno, where trade gradually came to a standstill on account of the French occupation in 1796. The bankruptcy of the family’s Livonese house forced Vincent's father to cease payments to his creditors. Like most Hamburg merchants in the crisis of 1799, his father entered into a settlement agreement with his creditors. He was able to make a new start thanks to a 120,000-mark banco credit that various friends secured for him, including an interest-free loan of 20,000 mark banco from Francis Baring.[11]

Because, in Vincent Nolte’s estimation, his father “utterly lacked each and every quality requisite to the inventions of new channels and sources of [financial] relief” during the Napoleonic conflict,[12] Nolte decided to look for a position with a different firm. He started as a young salaried merchant for A. M. Labouchère & Troteau in Nantes, a move that would prove decisive for his future career. Nolte’s decision to join A. M. Labouchère & Troteau linked him to one of the most powerful trade and finance networks in the world at the time. Firm partner A.M. Labouchère was the younger brother of Pierre César Labouchère, one of the principal partners in the Amsterdam firm, Hope & Co., the leading bank in the world at that time.[13] Pierre César Labouchère was also married to a daughter of Sir Francis Baring.[14] After he began with A. M. Labouchère & Troteau, Vincent Nolte took over the firm’s English and German correspondence. He did not remain long in Nantes, however, because preparations were underway in Amsterdam for a covert financial transaction that would take Nolte to New Orleans. It was probably the most spectacular secret undertaking of the Napoleonic War period and became known as the “Hope-Baring Operation.”

The Hope-Baring Operation

The Hope-Baring Operation was organized by an international consortium of French, Dutch, German, American, and British merchants and bankers. French banker, investor, and army contractor Gabriel Julien Ouvrard initiated and planned the transaction, which involved transferring a massive quantity of silver coinage from Mexico to Spain during the height of the Napoleonic conflict. Vincent Nolte would play a key role in the transaction as one of the banking consortium’s agents in the United States.[15]

In October 1803, French leader Napoleon Bonaparte had coerced nominal ally Spain into paying six million francs a month to support Napoleon’s military preparations for war with Great Britain. Spain's silver reserves were housed in Mexico, which at the time was a Spanish colonial possession. The outbreak of fighting between France and England five months earlier had cut off Spain from its territories in the Western Hemisphere since the British Royal Navy effectively controlled the Atlantic shipping lanes. Increasing tensions between England and Spain led to English warships seizing three Spanish frigates loaded with five million silver piastres (Spanish dollars) in October 1804.[16] As a result, Spain defaulted on its payments to France.

In light of France's empty coffers and the growing financial burden arising from Napoleon's preparations to invade Great Britain, the French minister of finance, François Barbé Marbois, turned to banker Gabriel Julien Ouvrard for advice on how to get Spain to fulfill its financial obligations. After negotiations with the Spanish government, Ouvrard, at the behest of the Spanish court, turned to Hope & Co. in Amsterdam. The Dutch bank and trading company was engaged to organize the transfer of Spanish precious metals from Mexico to France via the neutral United States. Without British consent, however, there was no guarantee of safe passage for the ships carry the valuable cargo. Consequently, Pierre César Labouchère sought the advice of the Baring family in London, because it was of the utmost importance that the British Navy should not interfere with the shipments – particularly those aboard ships running under neutral flags.[17]

The major impediment to the scheme was British governmental resistance to permitting the currency to be transferred to France, since this would strengthen Great Britain’s enemy. However, as Great Britain was experiencing an acute silver shortage of its own due to military spending, the consortium hoped that the Barings could convince the British government that it would also reap profits by allowing the scheme to proceed. Only after long delays did Prime Minister William Pitt approve of the plan. As Vincent Nolte noted in his memoirs, and as historical studies by Marten Buist and Adrian Pearce confirm, it was less a need for silver than the prospect of opening new markets for British goods in Spanish colonies, in light of the declining markets on the European mainland, that ultimately persuaded Pitt to approve the plan.

After lengthy negotiations and delays, the Hope-Baring Operation finally got underway. Trustworthy partners had to be situated in the United States and Mexico to watch over operations in those countries. David Parish, the son of merchant John Parish, who was living in Hamburg, was selected to lead the operation from Philadelphia.[18] Two more agents were stationed in Vera Cruz and New Orleans. Armand de Lestapis, an employee at Hope & Co. in Amsterdam, was selected as the Vera Cruz agent since he had worked in Spain for some time. For security reasons, he presented himself as a Spaniard in Mexico and received a passport from Madrid for this purpose in the name of a dead man, José de Villaneuva. Vincent Nolte was selected to organize and oversee the operation from New Orleans. On May 13, 1805, he signed an employment contract in Amsterdam. Two months later, he boarded the Flora for New York and arrived in early September, followed by Lestapis a short time later.[19] The two men waited there for David Parish, who arrived in November 1805. Then Nolte and Lestapis set out for their final destinations. Nolte finally arrived in New Orleans around Easter 1806.

Parish, Nolte, and Lestapis/Villanueva sought out reliable local firms to participate in the operation. After initial difficulties finding partners, David Parish finally made an agreement with the firms of Messrs. Robert and John Oliver in Baltimore and Archibald Gracie & Sons in New York. Both were longtime, established partners of the Barings and Hope & Co.[20] Villanueva handled the gold and silver shipments from Vera Cruz. He arranged for two large and respected Spanish firms, Pedro Miguel de Echeveria and Francisco Luis de Septien, to handle the European imports that were being sold in exchange for the precious metals. In New Orleans, Nolte worked closely with Amory & Callender to supervise both the transfer of goods to the south and the metals to the north. In the first weeks after his arrival, three American-flagged vessels arrived in New Orleans with 500,000 Spanish dollars on board. The size of the shipments soon garnered the attention of local merchants, according to Nolte.

Conflicts between Napoleon and Ouvrard about the delayed arrival of the Spanish funds led to the termination of payments from Spain to France in 1806.[21] Labouchère and the Barings, however, continued the currency transfer operation until Mexico began separating from Spain politically in 1808 following Napoleon’s decision to appoint his brother, Joseph, as the new Spanish king. In the summer of 1807, David Parish endeavored to restructure the undertaking, ending Lestapis's and Nolte's role in it, but Nolte already had another assignment waiting for him from Hope & Co. and the Barings.

In banker Gabriel Julien Ourvrard's portfolio, there were about 100 bills of exchange worth 700,000 piastres that Spanish finance minister Soler had drawn on the Consolidation Fund in Havana with specific instructions that they should only be paid out in silver. In Havana, however, no more silver was available because all communication and business activity between Cuba and Mexico had ceased. Nolte was sent to Havana to ensure that the silver would be made available to redeem Ourvrard’s bills of exchange. Through skillful negotiations with representatives of the Cuban government, Nolte succeeded – thanks to connections with Lestapis in Vera Cruz and Parish in Philadelphia – in acquiring the demanded silver piastres.[22] After completing the mission, Nolte returned to the United States but was shipwrecked off the Florida coast. Fortunately, he was rescued and eventually arrived in New York City.[23]

Meanwhile, the U.S. government had declared an embargo against Great Britain that threatened transport of goods and money to and from Vera Cruz and New York. After negotiating with Albert Gallatin, the American secretary of the treasury, David Parish was granted an exemption to the embargo. During this time, Pierre César Labouchère in Amsterdam and the Barings in London were waiting impatiently for money transfers from Parish. They did not receive the specie, though, because Parish had invested considerable sums purchasing property in northern New York and had accepted a bill of exchange from a bank that was in danger of going bankrupt, and thus could not be sold for cash. Consequently, the capital was tied up in land and negotiable instruments, and Parish had hardly any liquid assets available to pay the European bankers.

After Nolte arrived in New York, Parish gave him the task of submitting a final invoice for the Hope-Baring mission. This process took him more than half a year to complete and led him back to Europe, where he presented the total bill to Hope & Co. and the Barings. In Nolte's calculation, the transactions amounted to 33 million Spanish dollars. All parties to this operation made considerable profits. After the final bill of 1811, the profit alone from the transport of precious metals was more than £852,000 (approximately £50.7 million British Pounds or $76.7 million USD in 2011 value), of which Parish received one quarter.[24] It is not known how much profit Baring and Hope & Co. made from the operation because most of it derived from the shipment of goods and other activities that the two firms undertook without Parish’s direct involvement.[25] After Nolte reported to the Barings, he left London to report to Labouchère, who was staying in Paris at the time, in order to conclude the Havana expedition. On account of the Continental Blockade that Napoleon had declared in 1806, Nolte was only able to reach the European continent via a circuitous route.

During his stay on the continent, he visited his parents in Hamburg. His father's firm was experiencing financial difficulties because of the devastating effects of the Continental Blockade on the economy of Hamburg. As there was no prospect of trade improving in Hamburg in the immediate future, Nolte persuaded his father to give up his business and retreat to Ratzeburg, a small community north-east of Hamburg. To pay off his father's debts, Nolte made 17,500 marks available to him and gave his parents a lifetime annuity of 6,000 marks.

Since his mission in the U.S. had ended, he stood at a crossroads, ready to plan his future. He was offered an opportunity to marry into the Labouchère family and continue working at their firm in Nantes, but he declined it, along with other financial inducements. During this period, according to Nolte's memoirs, he developed close and friendly relations with Alexander Baring, the son of his father’s good friend, Sir Francis Baring, who had entrusted his businesses to his second oldest son in 1803 and had retreated from active business life.[26]

New Orleans – The Rising Cotton Queen, 1812-1829

More than any other location, the city of New Orleans had a significant impact on Vincent Nolte’s personality and business prospects. The Mississippi River port was a unique American city. The community experienced phenomenal growth in the decades after the U.S. completed the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. When Nolte arrived in New Orleans in 1806, it had approximately 8,200 inhabitants. More than a third of the population consisted of slaves and free people of color. According to Nolte, the white mercantile community consisted of four or five French merchant houses, three Scottish and one German establishment, and a couple of American commission businesses.[27] Within the next few decades New Orleans became the “boom town of the nation”[28] due to the influx of strangers from all parts of the U.S., as well as from Europe and the Caribbean. By the time of Nolte returned to the city in 1812, the population of New Orleans had risen to more than 17,000 (and possibly as high as 24,500) inhabitants. The town continued to grow in leaps and bounds. In 1820, its population included more than 27,000 inhabitants and in 1830 more than 46,000 inhabitants.[29] The city’s economic growth was fuelled by the introduction of the first steam-powered riverboats on the Mississippi. Nolte was not only among the first to travel on a Mississippi riverboat in 1812 but also among the first to cross the Atlantic by steamship in 1838.[30]

The development of the cotton growing industry in Louisiana was equally phenomenal and contributed to New Orleans’ emergence as a major cotton exporting port. By the end of the War of 1812, Louisiana already produced more than 35,500 bales per year. In 1820, yearly production had risen to 54,500 bales and the figure more than doubled by 1825.[31] By that time the “cotton triangle” had been established between New Orleans, New York, and Liverpool.[32] Thus New Orleans assumed a pivotal position in interregional and international trade during the postwar period. The enormous fortunes gained in the city and its emergence as a major port affected the economic and social development of Louisiana as a whole and also influenced the attitudes and perceptions of the city’s inhabitants.[33]

When Nolte returned to New Orleans from Hamburg, the outbreak of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain at first prevented him from developing a cotton export business. In retrospect, he considered the following three years as lost years. Instead, he traded secretly with the British, who were stationed in nearby Pensacola, making large profits on the transactions.[34] Only in 1815, following the Treaty of Ghent, could Nolte start his cotton export business. With the financial support of the Barings, Nolte took advantage of the rapidly increasingly demand for cotton. Through his influential financial connections, he succeeded in building up a blossoming company within a few years and experienced a dramatic increase in his social and economic status. His relationship with the Barings was hardly one-sided, though. The family wished to expand their business links with the cotton-producing southern states, as well as with Mexico, and were constantly seeking reliable local contacts. Their account books show that Nolte was their most important business partner in the following years in New Orleans. Nolte, for his part, not only oversaw the shipment of cargo but also dealt with financial and insurance matters for the Barings.[35] Other important partners were De Rham in New York, Hope & Co. in Amsterdam, as well as Hottinguer in Paris and Le Havre.

Nolte dealt primarily in cotton and tobacco, and occasionally in flour, coffee, pelts, and other products. He imported linen from Europe, among other things.[36] He developed particularly intensive business relations with merchants in France. By his own account, the French cotton market was better and more profitable than the English market because competition in England was considerably stiffer.

Working iin the Barings' shadow, Nolte participated in speculative investments and transactions as well during these years. When European leaders and agents of leading banking firms Labouchère, Baring, Lafitte, and Hottingeur met in Paris in 1816-1817 to save France from bankruptcy, Nolte also happened to be in the French capital. The French government’s issuing of bonds through this banking consortium yielded considerable profits for the Barings. Nolte appears not to have participated in the bond issue, though.

The above-mentioned banking consortium under the leadership of the Barings did not include the Rothschild banking interests in their negotiations with the French government. Annoyed at their exclusion, the Rothschilds did everything they could to harm the consortium during the 1824 bond issue, which involved exchanging older five-percent bonds for lower interest three-percent bonds and redeeming five-percent bonds for cash for any investor disinclined to make the swap.[37]

Trusting in Alexander Baring's negotiation skills and blinded by his previous success, Nolte invested a considerable sum in the 1824 issue. Baring and Lafitte expected large profits from the bond placement, but their hopes were dashed when the Rothschilds outflanked them and forced them to redeem the five-percent bonds at a loss. Nolte along with the Barings and Lafitte had to accept these losses. Although Baring advised Nolte to sell the five-percent bonds he had acquired as quickly as possible, Nolte held on to them since he expected their value to stabilize. This decision only compounded his losses, unfortunately. Looking back, he regretted that he had not followed Baring's advice to accept a small loss to prevent a larger one.[38]

With the support of the Barings, Nolte entered into a financial deal with the city council of New Orleans in the early 1820s. New Orleans was built on swampy soil and was reputed to be a “city of mud” during wet periods because of its often impassable streets.[39] In early 1820, the council decided on a street construction program that was projected to cost $300,000. As the city did not have enough revenues available, it decided to take out a loan. After negotiating with the city, Nolte, together with the Barings, loaned the city the desired sum of $300,000 for paving its streets. In his own account, Nolte claimed this loan brought him a net profit of $65,000.[40]

In New Orleans, Nolte engaged in land speculation to a limited extent. He bought and sold smaller and larger plots of land as he acquired more wealth. The purchases, in part, helped his expanding business. In 1818, for example, he bought a plot in Faubourg St. Mary, the city’s emerging commercial district, on which he built a storage depot with the financial support of the Barings.[41] In it, he installed four tobacco screws and a cotton press that was operated by Frederick Beckmann of Hamburg, who was brought over from the German city for this purpose in 1819. A year later Nolte bought a plot in the French Quarter on which he had the famous American architect Benjamin Latrobe build a house that he soon sold at a profit.[42] In the following years, he bought further plots.[43]

Nolte was also involved in the local slave trade. During the War of 1812, he sold some slaves for Harman Blennerhassett.[44] In later years he bought and sold individual slaves.[45] When he declared bankruptcy in 1826, he owned thirteen slaves, five house slaves, and nine slaves who worked in the cotton press facility.[46] Yet, as far as the sources document, Nolte was never a large-scale slave trader.

His early success as a cotton exporter blinded him to the risks of the cotton trade. Great Britain's dependence on raw cotton from the U.S. and American dependence on the British cotton market as an outlet for its crop held considerable risk for both sides. The distance between the two countries and fluctuations in the cotton harvest led to severe price swings. The steep increase in British demand for cotton meant that growers invested heavily in cotton production and brokers and traders speculated on future price increases. Many overextended themselves in the quest for quick profits. When a rumor spread in 1824 that cotton prices would increase on account of a poor harvest, a speculative fever set in. Even the most conservative traders in London and Liverpool supposedly participated in the speculative bubble. According to the London Times, the cotton prices in the spring of 1825 rose by a factor of 150.[47]

Nolte, who was on a business trip in Europe in 1823-1824, happened to be staying in Liverpool when the speculative cotton boom commenced. He caught the fever and bought large quantities of raw cotton. In the early stages, he also made considerable profits from the transactions. Spoiled by success, he did not see the crisis coming. When spinners in England called for a boycott to protest the high cotton prices in the spring of 1825, the speculative bubble burst. Many speculators held onto their cotton expecting prices to increase further and then dumped their product onto the market when the crisis began, causing the price to collapse. A wave of bankruptcies surged out of Liverpool, taking down far more than 3,500 traders in Great Britain alone.[48]

At the peak of the cotton bubble, when the first signs of trouble were already emerging in England, Nolte, unaware of the situation, bought several large properties in New Orleans. In June and July, he acquired several plots of land in the commercial district between Gravier, Camp, Poydras, and Common Streets for a total of $72,000 in order to expand his storage warehouse and cotton press operations.[49]

In anticipation of continued price increases, Nolte invested heavily in the expected harvest and, on a single day, ordered $500,000 worth of cotton intended largely for the Liverpool trading firm of Crowder, Clough & Co.[50] Nolte overdrew the credit limit allowed by the Barings. When, at the end of June, Crowder, Clough & Co. stopped making payments due to the precarious financial situation in England, the Barings decided not to honor Nolte's bills of exchange. In early August, according to the Barings, Nolte was still completely unaware of the events in England, and they feared the worst for him.[51] A little later, Alexander Baring noted in a letter to his son, Francis, who was staying in Mexico at the time, “Nolte is completely wrecked.”

Nolte only became aware of the extent of the crisis in September after the expected financial transfers from Clough & Crowder failed to arrive, the first New York trading firms failed, and news eventually reached him about Clough & Crowder’s bankruptcy and the collapse of Liverpool cotton prices. “It was a heartrending destruction of all that had made my life happy and gratified my ambition.”[52] He immediately began to liquidate his business and informed his affected business partners, as well as the bank, of his insolvency. They asked him, however, not to announce his bankruptcy officially as they feared his failure would unleash a financial panic in the city. He did not officially register his bankruptcy until January 1826.

Louisiana had passed a bankruptcy law at the end of November 1816, which, in contrast to English law, permitted voluntary declaration of bankruptcy on the part of the debtor.[53] Nolte's creditors and his business partner Eduard Holländer appointed him syndic to oversee the bankruptcy proceedings.[54] According to the bankruptcy files, Nolte's assets including property, insurance policies, and slaves were valued at $130,000. These were offset by debts of over $1,200,000.[55] He owed the most to Cropper, Benson & Co. in Liverpool and Hottinguer & Co. in Paris.[56] The liquidation of his assets in New Orleans was a “simple affair” in Nolte's words.[57] Meanwhile, however, the Court of Chancery in London was trying to take legal action against him, which forced him to depart for England to deal with the situation. In his absence, his properties and company were auctioned off at remarkably low prices, against his express orders, as he discovered after his return to New Orleans at the end of 1827.[58]

In the context of Nolte's bankruptcy, Alexander Baring made an interesting assessment of the crisis. He held the Bank of England responsible for accelerating the panic. He accused bank officials of mismanagement because they restricted the circulation of money unnecessarily during the crisis.[59] The Barings, too, had to write off losses, although not so much because of Nolte's bankruptcy as because of French loans. Regarding Nolte, Alexander Baring remarked: “we are likely to be paid & lose nothing by him. We cover ourselves without leaving him any cause for complaint because his case was so decidedly lost, that a sauve qui peut [every man for himself], became inevitable. This, however, is the only piece of luck.”[60]

Back in Europe: France

In 1829, Nolte once again departed the United States for Europe. After consulting with the Barings in London, who agreed to provide financial support in order to permit him to start anew, he settled in France, where he accepted the offer of an Irish-French bank and trading company, Daly & Co., to open a branch office in Marseille. Daly & Co. was closely tied to the mercantile house Maillet, Cage & Co. in Le Havre. Maillet, Cage & Co. primarily traded French colonial sugar and planned to open a new house in Marseille because they could secure a more stable price for the commodity there. Nolte felt the offer to operate Daly & Co.’s Marseille office was a good opportunity since Daly was popular in Paris and the treasurer for the Union Club, one of the most influential Parisian clubs where many of the leading bankers like Hottinguer and Rothschild and members of the aristocracy met. Francis Baring introduced him to Daly. Daly, Cage and Nolte decided to found the branch in Marseille under the name of Nolte, Kenney & Co. Daly & Cage agreed to put up 150,000 francs for the venture, another friend 100,000 francs, Maillet, Cage & Co. contributed 125,000 franks, and Nolte likewise added 125,000 francs. Baring and Ernst Sillem loaned Nolte 20,000 francs for this purpose.[61]

Nolte trusted in the apparent good name of Daly & Co., yet the firm’s capital reserves, which consisted primarily of deposits from Irish Catholics in Paris, were insufficient. When the July Revolution of 1830 broke out in France, these depositors pulled their money out of the bank and Daly & Co. had to declare bankruptcy. Since Daly had not yet paid his share of the founding capital for the Marseille branch, Nolte's plan failed because he did not have enough capital to keep the firm afloat on his own. In Paris, Daly's creditors appointed Nolte as syndic and entrusted him with handling the bankruptcy.

When the French government occupied Algeria in 1830, it desperately needed weapons. Thanks to his long-term friendship with the Marquis de LaFayette and his good relations with the French minister of war, Nolte experienced a brief period of success as an arms supplier to the French Army. He primarily traded used weapons, some of which he acquired from old stocks maintained by the Prussian ministry of war. After LaFayette died in 1834 and the ministry changed hands, Nolte's relations with the ministry grew worse and he no longer received orders so regularly.

Through trading in used weapons, Nolte came into contact with shady characters. In 1832 he became involved with a Carlist conspiracy against the citizen king, Louis Philippe. In the following period, he increasingly lost earnings due to swindles, the government’s failure to pay him, and various breaches of contract. By his account, legal action achieved nothing because the ministry threatened to exclude him from future weapons purchases. Consequently, he was on the brink of ruin without a penny in his pocket by 1834. The arms trade had alienated him from his former business associates: “If old business relations had given a right to friendship, yet my army contract business had separated me from my old acquaintances, and I had, literally, no one to whom I could turn.”[62] The Barings had rejected the idea of investing in the arms dealings from the beginning. Although Sillem & Co. and Godeffroy in Hamburg, as well as Hottinguer in Le Havre, had invested in Nolte’s business activities in the beginning, Sillem & Co. went bankrupt in 1832.[63]

In the following years, Nolte tried to stay above water by means of various projects. One of these led him to England, where an old creditor secured his remand to debtors' prison.[64] In 1827, he had been put into a London debtors' prison for the first time by a creditor, but Ernst Sillem got him out after two days. The second time, no one came to his aid so he spent several months there. After he was released, he decided to return to America. “I had yet no clear views for future employment; but my habit of considering the United States as the land of hope, and a great desire to revisit it, reigned in me.”[65] In late October 1838 he boarded a ship for New York.

Return to New Orleans: A Short Interlude

During the first half of the 1830s, the United State experienced profound growth, much of it stimulated by the rapid recovery of the cotton industry. A speculative bubble developed in 1836 due to the sharply increasing price for raw cotton and high demand for British capital, as well as the liberal extension of credit by U.S. banks. The bubble burst in early 1837 and sent the U.S. into a financial and economic crisis lasting several years. The causes of the financial crisis were manifold. Many firms in the British-American cotton trade had taken on too many liabilities or were in debt.[66] An oversupply of cotton in the Liverpool market led to a steep price drop. The Bank of England’s decision to cut back on lending, which forced major American banks to follow suit, exacerbated the crisis. Panic broke out in the spring and took down numerous newly-founded banks and trading companies in the U.S. New Orleans was hit particularly hard. All banks stopped making payments to depositors since their assets were primarily based in cotton.[67] The crisis only gradually began to subside when the Second Bank of the United States – under the leadership of Nicholas Biddle and with the financial support of the Barings – implemented an inflationary monetary policy.

When Nolte arrived back in the United States in 1838, the economic situation had temporarily stabilized and the demand for cotton was recovering. After he landed in New York, Nolte turned to an old acquaintance from his previous residency in the U.S., S.V.S. Wilder. His meeting with Wilder proved decisive for Nolte’s future. Wilder was a former representative of the Hottinguer bank and trading company, which Nolte knew well. Nolte also met with Nicholas Biddle, who promised to help him build up his business in New Orleans through the branch of Biddle’s Second Bank of the United States in that city.[68] According to Nolte, Biddle had already supported him frequently, and he saw no reason not to trust him.[69]

In the following months, Nolte began to build up a new business in New Orleans although he had absolutely no capital at his disposal. Among others, Wilder, some banks in New Orleans, and cotton producers provided him with advances and loans. Expecting demand in England to rise rapidly, Nolte proceeded at a hectic pace. “The more I bought so,” he later remarked, “the more was offered and when I said I must refuse from want of money, I was told to take the cotton and pay for it when I got my returns.”[70] In addition, two banks offered him advances for bills of ladings as well as insurance policies. This enabled him to give advances without having his own capital. Within two months, more than 37,000 bales of cotton passed through his hands, which, according to his own calculations at an expected price of $40 per bale should have brought in a total of $1,444,000.[71]

In his memoirs, Nolte reflected on his financial speculations in 1824 that eventually bankrupted him: “in all matters of business a merchant should never neglect to study and examine diligently all circumstances connected nearly or distantly with the subject. Human foresight reaches seldom far enough to embrace all the circumstances of a case… and I failed in this case, because I had neglected to be vigilant.”[72] Nolte repeated the same mistake in 1839. Evidently, he did not want to recognize the scale of the risks that had begun to manifest in the American market beginning with the financial panic of 1837. He was clearly aware that such risks existed. In March 1839, immediately before demand for cotton in England collapsed, he had a circular printed in which he addressed the crisis in the cotton industry and, at the same time, presented a detailed calculation in which he predicted that cotton production for the following months and year would not be able to keep up with demand, thus leading to a sharp increase in prices.[73] His prediction was not entirely unfounded. Since the crisis of 1837, cotton prices had remained low and the cotton harvest of 1838 had been very poor, so a price increase was not out of the question.[74] However, he failed to take general economic supply and demand fluctuations in the cotton market into consideration, and also ignored the structural problems in the British and American financial markets that had been eased but not resolved after the 1837 crisis ebbed. The Second Bank of the United States had taken out large loans in Europe in 1836-1837 in order to secure its liquidity. These loans were guaranteed almost exclusively by speculation in cotton. Bank president Nicolas Biddle was only able to save the bank from insolvency after cotton prices collapsed in 1837 with a risky transaction.[75] Moreover, by founding a bank in England and a trading company in Liverpool, Biddle tried to bring the cotton market under his own control, partly by extending significant credit to Nolte.

In 1839, poor harvests in England forced the nation to import large quantities of grain, which led to a collapse in the price of cotton and once again triggered panic in the American market, particularly since the domestic cotton harvest was quite good that year. Nolte’s speculative deals in cotton collapsed due to the price decline and he found himself insolvent. The Barings in London, the Hottinguers in Paris, and traders in New Orleans refused to support Nolte with further loans and once again he was forced to declare bankruptcy. According to his own account, he then called all of his creditors together and presented his books and calculations so that they could not accuse him of fraudulent behavior. Nicholas Biddle's biographer claimed that Nolte's insolvency had far-reaching consequences: “Soon completely solvent merchants were unable to raise money and were forced to suspend payments. Their creditors were similarly brought down, and by the beginning of June another panic was on.”[76] The New Orleans banks once again stopped making payments.[77]

Although Nolte's bankruptcy files no longer exist, a court case between the Citizens' Bank of Louisiana and the firm of Dennistoun & Co. about the question of who was entitled to revenues from the sale of Nolte's cotton provides insights about his finances. According to trial documents, the Citizens’ Bank had extended increasing quantities of credit to Nolte over time, even though its directors knew that he had hardly any assets to cover the loans. They had accepted his cotton as the only form of security. In all, the bank had loaned him more than $390,000.[78]

Nolte’s collapse generated lots of press. American newspapers described him as the “keenest cotton speculator.”[79] British newspapers were not so kind in their judgment of Nolte. The Scottish newspaper,Caledonian Mercury, called him a “notorious speculator,” and the Liverpool Mercury wrote a year later of a “class of mad speculators, at the head of which was Vincent Nolte, who, led away by the single idea of a short crop, wilfully [sic.] blinded themselves to the threatening aspect of the money market of the world, the oversupply of the previous year, and the glut of manufactured goods in all the markets of the world.”[80]

Nolte was once again thrown into prison, this time in New Orleans, by a small creditor. John Grymes, one of the most famous American lawyers of his time, secured Nolte’s release from prison after a few days.[81] Following his release, Nolte returned to Europe. In Paris, Henry Hottinguer informed him that he did not wish to honor the notes drawn on the Second Bank of United States, and shortly thereafter, when Nolte visited the Barings in London, he heard that the bank had stopped making payments. He gave up his original plan of returning to New Orleans to take over the handling of his bankruptcy proceedings when he heard that some creditors there wished to put him in prison again.

After consulting with the Barings and equipped with letters of recommendation from them, he went to Italy. There, he found temporary employment in the trading company of brothers James and John Grant in Trieste. Grant Brothers was an old trading company in Italy with branches in Genoa, Livorno, and Trieste. It had been one of the Barings' most important business partners in Italy since the beginning of the century. In the crisis of 1837, it also faced the prospect of going under, but was saved by a ₤30,000 loan from the Barings.[82] On behalf of the Grants, Nolte traveled to Odessa to collect debts owed to them by the trading company of brothers James and John Cortazzi. After his return to Trieste, Nolte once again found a position as an employee in the German trading company C. Ritter & Co., where he edited German, French, and English correspondence. On account of “difference of character and mercantile views,” he left the firm after two years. The company advanced him one year’s salary to persuade Nolte not to publicize the firm’s internal differences.[83] He applied once again for positions at Lloyds in Trieste and at the local stock exchange as a secretary, but he did not get them. His trading career ended with his dismissal from Ritter & Co.

Nolte: The Man, The Arts, The Family

Nolte was a man of many talents and interests who was an active writer and artist from an early age. As a youth in Italy, he had painted and expressed a desire to pursue a career in the arts. His father, however, would have none of that. Yet, a few of Nolte's drawings have survived.[84] In his youth in Hamburg, he acted on the stage and later, in the early 1830s, maintained close contacts in theatrical and artistic circles in Paris. There he became friends with Paul Delaroche[85] and later in Italy with Friedrich von Nerly, among others.[86] These artists provided Nolte with an alternative support network and a social haven during his most difficult hours in France and Italy. When Nolte had nothing to look forward to, and nothing to show for himself, at the end of his career as an army supplier, Delaroche suggested that they should found a numismatic society. The purpose of the company would be to sell etchings for the production of medals and coins produced by a new machine that Delaroche's friend, Nicholas Collas, had developed.[87] In France and the German lands, the company was quite successful, but Nolte's plan to conquer the English market failed.

When Nolte sought a new beginning in Italy after his second bankruptcy, he stayed in Venice for a time. There, he waited in vain for an employment opportunity that an acquaintance had suggested he might receive. Utterly destitute, he contemplated suicide and only his close friendship with Nerly and his family kept him from following through with the act.

In addition to painting, Nolte also took an early interest in writing. During his years of training in Hamburg, he secretly wrote short, humorous sketches about Hamburg’s society that he published anonymously in the Zeitung für die elegante Welt [Gazette for the World of Fashion] edited by the Leipzig court counselor Karl Spazier. Nolte's talent for writing generated a limited income for him in the final years of his life. He also prepared translations for the Italian monks of San Lorenzo. In Trieste, he wrote several articles about trade and the city’s free port, as well as some articles for the Augsburg newspaper.[88] Austrian censorship prevented him from publishing further articles so he decided to leave Trieste since, as he noted at the time, “bread won by literature in Triest [sic.] was very uncertain.” His few readers in Trieste, he said, were not particularly interested in statistics or the national economy, either.[89] Consequently, he accepted gratefully the offer of the Hamburg publisher, Messrs. Perthes, Besser & Mauke, to edit a new, updated edition of Wilhelm Benecke's System of Assurance and Bottomry.

Shortly after arriving in Hamburg, he was surprised when the February 1848 revolution broke out. He was offered a job as the editor of the liberal newspaper Der Freihafen [The Free Port]. Eleven issues were published under his leadership. By his account, his critical remarks about Radetsky's victory in Custozza and about Wrangel's horrors in the war, as well as the fact that he was suspected of harboring liberal-democratic ideas, prompted the patrons of the newspaper to stop its publication.[90] He spent the next three years in Hamburg revising and editing Benecke's book on the insurance system and writing his own autobiography.

Nolte was quite bellicose and did not avoid either wars of words or physical confrontations. In New Orleans, a city he saw as a “rendevous of all sorts of rogues and rabble,”[91] Nolte got into a number of disputes with various elements of New Orleans’ society. He became involved in a pamphlet war while overseeing a dispute between the Planters Bank and the Bank of New Orleans during the War of 1812. He was selected as one of five representatives for an investigative committee that was tasked with uncovering financial irregularities. His activities on the committee antagonized Thomas Shields, the purser, or head administrator, for U.S. Navy operations in New Orleans. Shields characterized Nolte as an “impostor” in an 1815 pamphlet, prompting Nolte to publish an opposing point of view.[92] The public conflict ended when Nolte was attacked and left unconscious. Later, too, as a member of the numismatic society, he repeatedly wielded his pen in epistolary conflicts with others.[93] Nolte was involved in duels twice during the War of 1812 and was badly injured and left permanently disabled after being persuaded to participate in a horse race.

When General Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans in 1814 to defend the city against the British, Nolte decided to join the local militia out of concern that he might be arrested because he was suspected – not without reason – of having cooperated with the enemy through his surreptitious trading with British troops stationed in Pensacola.[94] Although Jackson emerged from the Battle of New Orleans as a national hero, he permanently upset many New Orleans residents because he refused to recognize a ceasefire with the British and continued to exercise martial law. In the fifty days before the official news of peace arrived from Washington, he had Judge Hall, as well as Nolte's partner, Edward Hollander, arrested for riotous and disrespectful behavior toward their superiors.[95] In addition, Jackson confiscated products from Nolte’s warehouse. Earlier during preparations for the British attack on the city, Jackson had confiscated 245 of Nolte's cotton bales to build defensive works. Jackson later refused to grant Nolte compensation for the cotton’s value. In 1829, when Jackson visited New Orleans on the campaign trail for the presidential election, broad swathes of the New Orleans population including Nolte still made their rejection of him felt. The occasion prompted Nolte to write a satiric portrayal of the general and his supporters that made Nolte enemies after it was published.[96] Some of Jackson's supporters attacked Nolte in his house; he was only able to escape them in the short term by pulling a pistol and in the long term by fleeing to Europe.

Not much is known about Nolte's private life in New Orleans. Shortly after he first arrived there he joined the Freemasons; after five years, he acquired U.S. citizenship.[97] He had the Hamburg Commercial Council appoint him consul for New Orleans in 1816. He later gave up the office when he returned to Europe in 1829.[98]

In these years, he was close friends with Benjamin Latrobe, who is regarded as the “father of American architecture.” Latrobe built a house for Nolte at the corner of Royal and Toulouse Streets in the French Quarter that can still be seen today. Latrobe lived not far from Nolte and visited him regularly.[99] LaFayette also numbered among his close friends. Nolte had met him in 1824 in Paris. On his farewell tour through the U.S. a year later, LaFayette visited Nolte in New Orleans, and Nolte then accompanied him on his journey for a short time.

In the summer of 1820, Nolte married Lisidia Feré , the daughter of a French officer who had immigrated to Charleston in 1789. Lisidia bore him five children, two sons and three daughters, only two of whom survived to adulthood. Nolte's autobiography reveals little about her and her family. After Nolte's return to Europe, Lisidia settled in Paris, where she spent the rest of her life together with her children. Aside from the period in which Nolte worked as an arms supplier in Paris, he often went years without seeing her or their children.[100]

Considering that Nolte's income after his bankruptcy in France was very tight, the question arises as to how he could provide for his family. Letters written by his brother, Hermann, in Mexico suggest that Hermann sent money at more or less regular intervals to his siblings in northern Germany, but especially to Vincent, Lisidia, and their unmarried daughter.[101] In his will, Hermann Nolte bequeathed $20,000 to Vincent's wife and daughter, as well as to two siblings in Kiel. Not much remained of his $60,000 stated wealth, however, because the first executor of the will had invested the sum in bonds for building a road to Tehuantepee, which, as the second executor, Berckemeyer in Hamburg wrote, would probably never be built. Since Hermann still had an unpaid loan of $24,000 from the Barings dating from his bankruptcy in 1826, Berckemeyer asked the Barings to relinquish their claims so that Hermann's siblings, as well as Vincent's wife and daughter, would not have to depend on public assistance.[102]


Vincent Nolte's precipitous rise and fall during the financial and speculative crises of his age was by no means unique. His mobility, likewise, should not be regarded as unusual. Traveling was part of tradesmen's daily lives. It helped them to suss out new markets and develop and maintain support networks with widely scattered business associates.[103] As an individual, Nolte was like many speculators of his era who let themselves get overextended financially by betting on anticipated profits from the American cotton market as it expanded rapidly and who failed to notice, or chose to overlook, the danger of the speculative bubble bursting.

Nolte's business failures in the crises of 1825 and 1839 highlight the limits of his rationality all too well. The “magic power” of speculation seduced him, as he noted in his quote at the beginning of the article, and led him to disregard elementary rules of trade established by previous generations. Should Nolte thus be classified as one of the “knock me down, right a head going yankees,” as Vincent's brother, Hermann, characterized Americans; one of the “real Americans” of the nineteenth century, the “go aheads” distinguished by their willingness to take great risks, according to historian Scott Sandage?[104] By contrast, John Garretson Clark believes that Nolte's judgment reflected “the application of European standards of behavior to business life in New Orleans. American merchants were more venturesome.”[105] This statement needs some qualification. On the one hand, Nolte definitely should be counted among the American speculators and adventurers; on the other hand, his dealings with his business associates were shaped by “honest trader” codes of behavior. Reliability, loyalty, and frivolous – almost naïve – trust in the straightforwardness and uprightness of his business associates determined his actions. These characteristics allowed Nolte to return to New Orleans after his first failure and made it possible for him to be selected as the syndic in his bankruptcy proceedings. The lasting support of the Barings beyond the death of the elder generation was probably due in large part to his “honesty.”

Among the reasons for Nolte’s failure must be included his credulity, which prevented him from gaining adequate information about the trustworthiness of new and old business associates. In addition, he encountered different business attitudes and practices in the countries in which he operated, that caused information asymmetries, especially as he lacked a secure and influential network of family and relations.

His relationship with the Barings was of central importance to Vincent Nolte, both when things were going well and after his fall. They provided him with a firm financial footing that his family and other relations could not offer. Although he grew more distant from the Barings after he engaged in the arms trade, he nonetheless sought to maintain contact with them. They continued to support him, even if they did not back his schemes financially.

Nolte’s life between the Old World and the New does not allow for a simple classification of his sense of national identity. Born in Italy to Hamburg parents, raised in Livorno and Hamburg, he went on to spend many years in the U.S., France, and Italy. He spoke four languages fluently. His life in New Orleans obviously had a major influence in him. The “ville sauvage” [savage village], as historian Shannon Dawdy recently characterized the city, was a place distinguished by a bright mix of languages, skin colors, and nationalities, in which the borders between the various ethnicities were blurred.[106]

From a purely legal perspective – according to his passport – Nolte was an American citizen, but America influenced him beyond that. Although he had no chance of returning to the United States after his second bankruptcy on account of his precarious financial situation, he continued to long for such a return. As late as 1848, he turned to Thomas Baring in the hope that Baring would help him get a job in the U.S. with which he could get by for the rest of his life.[107] By his own account, it was his liberal American ideas that led to the discontinuation of the revolutionary newspaper he edited in Hamburg. In the context of the Italians peoples’ struggle for independence, it also becomes clear that Nolte had a soft spot in his heart for the country of his birth.[108] However, the principle of many a trader that “commercial interest [is] the first principle and patriotism merely secondary” was also true for Nolte.[109] In all, his remarks and his actions show that he had a multifaceted identity, and should be perceived as a cosmopolitan individual equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic.


[1] Vincent Nolte, The Memoirs of Vincent Nolte. Reminiscences in the Period of Anthony Adverse or Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres, transl. by Burton Rascoe (New York: G.H. Watt, 1934), 348f.

[2] Vincent Nolte’s brother, Heinrich Gustav Nolte, appears to have established himself as a merchant in Livorno by the end of the 1700s. Johann Octavio Nolte had recommended him in 1798 as a possible successor as Hamburg consulate general, but he did not assume this office until 1806 after Johann Martin Misler, who had held the position since 1798, was removed from the office “on account of a violation against the public credit in Livorno” (STA HH, 111-1CL VI No. 8b vol.8 Fasc. 2 in vol 3, fol.10). Matsen held the office of the Hamburg consulate general in Livorno until 1810, when he asked to be relieved and simultaneously asked to be allowed to assume the consul position in Naples because he was starting a new trading company there under the names of Heigelin & Matsen, formerly Cutler and Heigelin (Supplement to the minutes of the Commerzdeputation for the year 9.6.1815-6.4.1816 (Commerzbibliothek Hamburg)); on the Heigelin merchant house in Naples cf. Roberto Zaugg, Stranieri di antico regime, Mercanti, guidici e consoli nella Napoli del Settecento (Rome: Viella, 2011), 207f. It is possible that Heinrich Gustav Nolte established himself in Livorno at the latest when Matsen moved to Naples.

[3] Vincent Nolte said nothing about his siblings in his autobiography except for a brief remark about one brother's visit near Livorno in the 1830s. On the siblings, see Staatsarchiv Hamburg 622-1/73.

[4] Vincent Nolte’s brother, Hermann, was born in 1789 in Hamburg. He opened a mercantile house in Mexico with the financial support of the Baring family shortly before the great financial and speculative crisis of 1825; he also acquired two silver mines. His brother, Heinrich Gustav, was born in Livorno in 1781 and later worked there until he went bankrupt in the 1830s. He returned in his later years to the German lands, dying in Kiel in 1860.

[5] Staatsarchiv Hamburg (STA HH), 111-1, CL.VI, Nr. 8b vol.8 Fasc 2 invol 2, fols. 1-4.

[6] Baring Archive London, Ledgers 1776-1791.

[7] From the late 1780s, the Barings turned increasingly to the Livonese mercantile house of Harry & Abel Fonnerau (Ibid.)

[8] Baring Archive London, Livorno 28. Feb. 1806 Frank Mac Carty and Francis Baring (HCOS 85) Supplement: printed decree of the Tribunale in Curatore Amministratore Guidiciale.

[9] John Anthony Rücker (or Rucker), a member of the Hamburg merchant and political family Rücker, had opened a trading house in London around the middle of the eighteenth century. According to Walter Shairp, the Russian consul in St. Petersburg, it was the greatest Western European Russia house in England. After the entry of Daniel Henry Rücker as partner in the London house, it expanded its trade to the West Indies and acquired plantations in the Caribbean. Richard Roberts, the biographer of the Schroder Bank, ranked the Ruckers next to the Rothschilds among the leading merchant houses in London. Siegmund Rücker and some other cousins fled from Hamburg around 1806 when Napoleon's troops threatened to enter the Hanseatic town (Richard Roberts, The Schroders, Merchants and Bankers (London: Palgrame Macmillan, 1992), 40); for the Rückers see Margrit Schulte Beerbühl, “Die frühen Hamburgermerchant empires in London und deren internationale Handelsnetze (1660-1815),” in Hamburger Wirtschafts-Chronik Neue Folge, 5 (2005): 7-34; idem, The Forgotten Majority: German Merchants in London, Naturalization and Global Trade (1660-1818) (New York: Berghahn, 2015).

[10] Margrit Schulte Beerbühl, “Die Hamburger Krise von 1799 und ihre weltweite Dimension,“ in Hamburger Wirtschafts-Chronik NF, 10 (2012): 85-110.

[11] Nolte, Memoirs, 39.

[12] Ibid., 40.

[13] On Hope & Co. cf. Marten G. Buist, At Spes Non Fracta. Hope & Co 1770-1815: Merchant Bankers and Diplomats at Work, (Den Hague: Nijhoff, 1974).

[14] Even before Vincent Nolte’s entry into the Nantes firm, the Nolte firm in Hamburg and Pierre César Labouchère had established personal contact on the recommendation of Sir Francis Baring. After the Hamburg firm Dorner had failed, Labouchère felt compelled to travel to Hamburg. This was because Dorner had taken over the guarantee of interest payments for the Russian loans after the Netherlands was occupied by French Revolutionary troops and he wanted to make sure that the exchanges of the royal banker would not be protested. At the same time, he was supposed to begin searching for a successor for Dorner, which he found in the firm Matthiessen & Sillem (for a detailed treatment of this, see Buist, 53, 173f.)

[15] The following descriptions are largely based on Nolte’s Memoirs and the studies of Buist, At Spes non Fracta, op.cit and the recent study by Adrian Pearce, British Trade with Spanish America, 1763-1808 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 190-220 and idem, “The Hope-Barings Contract: Finance and Trade Between Europe and the Americas, 1805-1808,” in English Historical Review 124 (2009): 1324-1352.

[16] Buist p. 287f.

[17] The Louisiana Purchase, organized by the Barings, had already led to cooperation between Ouvrard, the French minister of finance, François Barbé-Marbois, Hope & Co., and Baring.

[18] Parish had opened a trading firm in Antwerp in 1803. When war broke out, trade in Amsterdam was very slow, so the new task offered a welcome prospect. See also Claudia Schnurmann, “A Scotsman in Hamburg: John Parish and his commercial contribution to the American War of Independence, 1776-1783,” in Markus Denzel et al. (eds), Small is Beautiful?, interlopers and smaller trading nations in the pre-industrial period. Proceedings of the XVth World Economic History Congress in Utrecht, 2009, 157-176; and idem, “His Father’s Favored Son: David Parish (1778-1826)Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720-Present, German Historical Institute Washington (accessed February 19, 2015).

[19] Buist, 296

[20] R. W. Hidy,The House of Baring in American Trade and Finance: English Merchant Bankers at Work 1763-1861 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949), 30.

[21] Hidy, 37.

[22] For details on this, see Nolte, Memoirs, 116-124.

[23] See Nolte’sMemoirs for a detailed description of his shipwreck and fortuitous rescue (125-135). A letter with a detailed description of this adventure is the only surviving letter of Nolte's among the few family records in the Hamburg Archive.

[24] All currency conversions based on Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” MeasuringWorth, 2015, using the retail price index, and Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2015, using the Consumer Price index.

[25] Nolte, Memoirs, 173; Hidy, 37.

[26] Hidy, 43f.

[27] Nolte, Memoirs, 86; the German house was probably that of H. Amelung.

[28] Albert Fossier, New Orleans, The Glamour Period 1800-1840: a history of the conflicts of nationalities, languages, religion, morals, cultures, laws, politics, and economics during the formative period of New Orleans (New Orleans: Pelican Publishing Company, 1957), 10.

[29] Joseph Logsdon and Cary Cossé Bell, “The Americanization of Black New Orleans” in Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, Creole New Orleans. Race and Americanization (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992): Table I.

[30] The first Atlantic steamship was only introduced in 1838 and Nolte was fascinated by the reduction in transatlantic travel time (see his remarks in his autobiography, 424f).

[31] George D. Green, Finance and Economic Development in the Old South. Louisiana Banking 1804-1861 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972), 13.

[32] D.A. Farnie,The English Cotton Industry and the World Market 1815-1896 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 59.

[33] Thomas Ruys Smith, Southern Queen, New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), 49; Green, 5.

[34] Nolte, Memoirs, 199.

[35] Baring Archive London, American Colonial Ledgers 1814-1825.

[36] Baring Archive London, Ref. 100359, Journal 1816-1819, 609.

[37] Ziegler, 81-84, 94-96.

[38] Nolte, Memoirs 311.

[39] Fossier, 10.

[40] Hidy, 70; Nolte Memoirs, 298f.; according to Nolte’s memoirs he was the only merchant with the means to extend credit for such an amount. The city council records of New Orleans, however, tell a different story. A New Orleans merchant named Laufear already held a contract that was repealed after the mayor expressed favor for Nolte’s proposal (see records of City Council New Orleans (La.), Conseil de Ville. Official proceedings (translations), Session of April 27, 1822,61, 401 (Public Library New Orleans AB301 March 4, 1820 to May 29, 1824). Approximately $5.9 million dollars and $1.3 million dollars, respectively, in 2011$.

[41] Baring Archive London, American Colonial Ledger (1816-1819), 411.

[42] Today the building at 535-541 Royal Street houses the Historic New Orleans collection. He bought the ground from Merieult in 1818 (Notarial Archive New Orleans, Predesclaux vol. 5 p.382, May 1818; Lafitte vol. 14 (1819), vol. 19 1821, 83r-85) and sold it to Lebranche for 55,000 Piastre.

[43] Among others a country house outside the town; see below concerning the warehouse in the Suburb of St. Mary.

[44] Notarial Archive New Orleans, Notariat Marc Laffitte, vol. 2, 244, 245, 247r, 1812 V; see also Nolte’s letters to Blennerhassett in Gibsonport (Mississippi) New Orleans of 21 December 1812; Harman Blennerhassett (1764-1831) was born in Scotland. He had many assets that he lost by investing in the Aaron Burr conspiracy to take over the Mississippi Valley. He went to prison with Aaron Burr. During the conspiracy, Nolte fought on the other side. In late 1806, Nolte was appointed captain of the German volunteers in the von Steuben Light Infantry company with two other Germans of New Orleans, John H. Ludelang and Henry A. Amelung, as first and second lieutenant (Louisiana Gazette, 13. Feb. 1807); Nolte, Memoirs, 92. In 1812, when Nolte sold Blennerhassett's slaves, Blennerhassett owned a plantation. The relations between the two ended in 1817 due to a serious conflict about the return of a slave (Blennerhassett to Nolte, 8 July and 21 July 1817, Library of Congress).

[45] For example, he sold the mother of his future wife a slave in 1820. The year before he sold two slaves, one to a business partner and the other to Frederic Beckmann (on him see below Notarial Archive New Orleans Marc Lafitte vol.14 (1819) p. 23 vol. 17 (1820), 362r).

[46] New Orleans City Archive, Nolte’s bankruptcy, IJDC 6910 (folder 2) Folder 86-7-2.

[47] The Times, 27 April 1825, 4.

[48] Ian P. Duffy, Bankruptcy and Insolvency in London During the Industrial Revolution (New York: Garland, 1985), 399. 3,564 traders went bankrupt, 2,590 commissions were opened.

[49] Approximately $1.7 million dollars in 2011$.

[50] Nolte, Memoirs, 328. Approximately $11.7 million dollars in 2011$.

[51] Baring Archive London, The Case, Liverpool 12. Sept. 1825.

[52] Nolte, Memoirs, 329.

[53] Acts of the First Session of the Third Legislature of the State of Louisiana 18th Nov. 1816, New Orleans 1817.

[54] As syndic, Nolte was responsible for collecting any outstanding assets owed to his firm and negotiating with creditors regarding the distribution of these assets to cover his debts. The position allowed him to influence the bankruptcy proceedings and earn fees for his work. The appointment reflected his creditors’ trust in him and their belief that the bankruptcy was due to unfortunate circumstances rather than fraudulent activity on his part. First Judicial District Court (IJDC) 6910 (folder 1) Nolte and his creditors and Docket 2029, Jan. 1832 (Public Library New Orleans).

[55] Approximately $3 million dollars and $28 million dollars, respectively, in 2011$.

[56] Nolte, Memoirs, 329f; Nolte & Co. vs. their creditors 3 La.264,267 (Jan 1832) (University of New Orleans Special Collections, New Orleans Supreme Court Docket 229 box 92:).

[57] Nolte, Memoirs, 330.

[58] Nolte Memoirs, 342. The entire property of his firm was sold in September 1826 for $50,000 and resold for $800,000 in 1838; part of his estate was sold in June 1826 just one month after he left New Orleans; see also Notarial Archive New Orleans, Hugh K. Gordon vol. 4, acts 413-416 sale of land 23 June 1826.

[59] Francis Baring to Alexander Baring in Mexico 18 Oct. 1825: “There is considerable distress & difficulty about money. The Bank have mismanaged & are applying a screw to the circulation…. The bubble has also burst of all Joint Stock companies & Loans” (Baring Archive London, HC 1.204.3. (f)1); in December the Bank of England was on the brink of insolvency (Ziegler, 98).

[60] Ibid.

[61] Kenney was a protegé of Daly's and still underage. Jerome (Hieronymus) Sillem (1768 – 1833) came from Hamburg. At first, he participated in the business of his uncle Matthiessen under the name of Matthiessen & Sillem and also joined a company called Sillem, Benecke & Co. In 1815, he became a shareholder of Hope & Co. in Amsterdam (on Sillem see Buist, 244-249, 251-258, 266-270; Philip Ziegler, The Sixth Great Power: A History of One of the Greatest of All Banking Families, The House of Barings, 1762-1929 (London: Knopf, 1988), 147f.).

[62] Nolte, Memoirs, 388-390.

[63] Baring Archive London, Nolte to Baring Brothers 30. Jan. 1831 (HC7.4); Ziegler, 147f.

[64] Nolte, Memoirs, 400-414.

[65] Ibid, 423.

[66] Peter E. Austin, Baring Brothers and the Birth of Modern Finance (London: Pickering & Chatto Ltd., 2007), 156.

[67] Lawrence H. Larson, “New Orleans and the River Trade: Reinterpreting the Role of the Business Community,” in The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Series in Louisiana History, vol. XIV: New Orleans and Urban Louisiana Part A, Settlement to 1860, ed. Samuel C. Shepherd Jr (Lafayette LA: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2005), 438-451, here 440; Stephen A. Caldwell, A Banking History of Louisiana (Rise of Commercial Banking) (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 53-63.

[68] Nicholas Biddle became president of the Second Bank of the United States in 1825. Biddle served as an important contact for the Barings as they sought to expand their American business (Hidy, 102). The cooperation between the Barings and Biddle did not always go smoothly, but the Barings had him to thank for their elevation as the leading Anglo-American bank. They ended their cooperation with Biddle in the crisis of 1837 after the Barings called in a loan on his bank for which he had insufficient funds (Hidy, 240). Biddle declined to renew his financial relationship with the Barings because he wanted to open a branch office of his own in London, which he did in November 1837. At the same time, he opened a trading company in Liverpool under the name Humphrey & Biddle. The main customer in France was Hottinguer in Le Havre. This group tried in the following period to gain a central position in the cotton market. The crisis of 1837 did not have a major impact on the Barings because they had reduced their liabilities at the right time and increased their liquidity. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, they continued their conservative investment policy and were not entirely surprised by the second crisis in 1839.

[69] Nolte, Memoirs, 428.

[70] Ibid., 431.

[71] Ibid., 432. Approximately $36 million dollars in 2011$.

[72] Ibid., 311.

[73] Vincent Nolte, Circular, New Orleans, 23. March 1839 (Special Collection Howard Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University L 976.3 (338.19) N 798c).

[74] Peter Temin, The Jacksonian Economy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), 149.

[75] See Arthur Redford, Manchester Merchants and Foreign Trade 1794-1858, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1934), 83.

[76] Thomas P. Govan, Nicholas Biddle. Nationalist and Public Banker 1786-1844 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 361.

[77] Caldwell, Banking History, 63.

[78] Supreme Court of Louisiana Docket 944 Citizens’ Bank of Louisiana v. Dennistoun et al., Jan 1849 (University of New Orleans, the Supreme Court of Louisiana Collection of Legal Archives, New Orleans 1848-1850 Box 59). Approximately $9.7 million dollars in 2011$.

[79] Nolte, Memoirs, 434.

[80] “Private Correspondence,” Caledonian Mercury, 6 June 1839; “Cotton Trade,” Liverpool Mercury, 17 July 1840.

[81] John Grymes (1786-1854) was one of the most famous lawyers of his time. He was born in Virginia and came to New Orleans in 1808. At different times, he held the offices of United States district attorney and attorney general of Louisiana, served several terms in the legislature, and was a member of the state constitutional convention (Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, vol. 2, ed. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, LL. D., New York 1915). Grymes already acted as attorney for Nolte & Co. in 1823 concerning a sale of land on the New Orleans batture, the alluvial land between the Mississippi River and the levee (IJDC, Docket 875 Nolte &Co v. Livermore Dec 1823 (Public Library New Orleans).

[82] Baring Archive London, HC 12.1.PT1, letters Barings to Grant in Trieste 1837-39, 1840-42.

[83] Nolte, Memoirs, 460.

[84] In his memoirs, Nolte mentioned that he had drawn some caricatures during his apprenticeship in Livorno and in this context mentioned that “my predilection for painting made me wish to become a painter. I wrote to that effect to my father, but… he curbed my wishes” (Memoirs, 24). He also made a series of costume drawings for a newly-founded theater in Hamburg that have survived. Later, he drew a caricature of James Madison that he gave to David Parish (see Memoirs, 181 note).

[85] Hypolite (Paul) Delaroche (1797-1856) was a French historical painter. Among his famous painting is the Execution of Lady Gray.

[86] Friedrich von Nerly (1808 -1878) lived in Venice from 1835. Nolte was in Venice in the early 1840s and became his friend.

[87] Nolte, Memoirs, 460.

[88] He published with Faverge “Glance at the position of Commerce at the close of the year 1843 with especial reference to Trieste and the future of Austrian commerce,” “View of the Commercial World in 1846” and several articles in the journal of Lloyds in Trieste in the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung.

[89] Nolte, Memoirs, 473.

[90] Ibid., 480.

[91] Ibid., 88. Both contemporaries and historians describe New Orleans as a unique city, as a “queer place” with a “confused mixture, a shapeless composition of people of all countries and of all professions. Creoles of the country, French, Spanish, English, Americans, Germans, Italians, etc a veritable tower of Babel.” See Berquin-Duvallon, “Vue de la Colonie Espagnole de Missippi… (Paris 1803)” quoted in James A. Robertson, trans and ed., Louisiana under the Rule of Spain, France and the United States 1785-1807, 2 vols. (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1911), I, 197f.; see Latrobe Journal, 183, fn. 23. Many associated New Orleans with violence, rowdiness, illegal pleasures and immorality. See Joseph G. Tregle Jr., Louisiana in the Age of Jackson. A Clash of Cultures and Personalities (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999), 21.

[92] Thomas Shields, “Impostor Detected, or an Exposure of the Calumnies and Falsehoods of Vincent Nolte, on the Character of Thomas Shields. A Purser in the Navy of the United States,” New Orleans 1815; see also “Vincent Nolte: Versus Thomas Shields,” Louisiana Gazette 13 April 1815, 3.

[93] See “Medallic Engraving, Money Market and City Intelligence,” The London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, 25 February 1838.

[94] Nolte, Memoirs, 205: “My situation had become a critical one. I was entitled to complete exemption from military duty, owing to the fact of having been disabled by my fall the preceeding year…. but, as the suspicion of entertaining a secret preference for the English and English interests rested on me, I could not have done so without incurring malicious remarks, and, very probable, persecution.”

[95] Nolte, Memoirs, 230f.

[96] Nolte described the Jacksonians as “low cartmen, dirty woodsawyers and contemptible bricklayers.” See Joseph G. Tregle Jr., “Democracy Triumphant,” in Carolyne E. DeLatte, ed., Antebellum Louisiana, 1830-1860 (The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Series in Louisiana History vol. IV) (Lafayette, LA: University of Louisiana Press, 2004), 105-121, here 101f.

[97] Nolte was admitted as a Master Mason on August 10, 1806, at Lodge La Charité no. 93, New Orleans. Membership book v, 1 p.443; Tableau des membres qui compose la R.L. de Saint Jean de Jerusalem… La Charité No 93 1809, 6; 1813, 6; Masonic Library & Museum of Louisiana. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania also lists Nolte as a member of the Rose Croix of the Scottish Rite (I would like to thank Sally Sinor of the Masonic Library of Louisiana for the information on Nolte’s membership.)

[98] Aside from the certificate of his appointment and his request for release, there are no consular reports by him (Commerzbibliothek Hamburg, Sig S/599 H.H.H.H. Protokoll Commerzdeputation 24. April 1816).

[99] Latrobe describes his lodging as being only 650 feet from Nolte's house and that he could go there largely without wetting his feet. In his journals, he dedicated to Nolte two “pièces justificatives, au suject de bout the rimés Français, dediées a mon ami Nolte.” Nolte took him, among other things, to the famous battlefield of New Orleans where Andrew Jackson won against the British in 1815. See The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe 1799-1820. From Philadelphia to New Orleans, Edward C. Carter II, John C. Van Horne, Lee W. Formwalt, eds., vol. 3 New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 195f., 197, 230f., 266, 280.

[100] STA Hamburg, 622-1/73; Nolte, Memoirs, 290, 474f.

[101] Hermann Nolte to Vincent Nolte 1 December 1850 and 1 Aug. 1851(STA HH 622-1/73).

[102] Baring Archive London, Hamburg 15 Aug. 1858 from Berckemeyer to Baring Brothers. The Hamburg trading company of Berckemeyer had already arranged the transfer of money to members of the Nolte family in the preceding years (see letters from Hermann to Vincent 1850/51). The Nolte family was related to the Berckemeyers through marriage. Already in 1819 Vincent Nolte gave John H. Berckemeyer power of attorney to purchase the ship Calpe of New Orleans, and in 1820 he gave him the task of retrieving the unpaid funds from Preller & Co. in Hamburg (Notarial Archive New Orleans, Pollock, vol.4, p. 53, vol. 5 pp. 329-330). The Berckemeyers cooperated closely with the German trading company Leffmann & Gutheil & Mr. W.E. Schütte of the earlier company of Sengstack & Schütte in Mexico. In addition, Martin Leffmann was an old friend of Hermann Nolte. Leffmann retired from his business in Mexico in 1857. His successor was W.C. Strebel. Approximately $564,000, $1.7 million dollars, and $677,000, respectively, in 2011$.

[103] John Urry, “Social Networks, Travel and Talk,” in British Journal of Sociology 54 (2003): 155-175.

[104] Hermann Nolte Mexico to Vincent Nolte 1 December 1850 (STA HH 622-1/73); Scott A. Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 72.

[105] John Garretson Clark, New Orleans, 1718-1812: An Economic History (Baton Rouge, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1970), 352.

[106] Shannon Lee Dawdy, “La ville sauvage: ‘enlightened’ colonialism and Creole improvisation in New Orleans (1699-1769),” Ph.D. diss. (University of Michigan, 2003).

[107] Baring Archive London, Paris, 2 Feb. 1848, Vincent Nolte to Thomas Baring.

[108] Nolte, Memoirs, 480.

[109] Ibid., 461.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Vincent Nolte: Global Player and Bankrupt Entrepreneur
  • Coverage 1779-1856
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018