In the early spring of 1859, 18-year-old Welsh cabin boy John Rowlands began to make his transformation in New Orleans into the African explorer Henry Morton Stanley. As he later claimed in his controversial and mistake-riddled autobiography, after disembarking from the Windermere onto the docks of New Orleans and standing on the levee overlooking the great Mississippi River for the first time, he felt “emancipated” from the class oppression of his native Wales. Rowlands ate his first New Orleans meal the night of his arrival which consisted of “Okra soup, grits, sweet potatoes, brinjalls, corn pones, mush pudding and fixings.” And after spending the night sleeping on cotton bales, John Rowlands made his way up Canal Street where he came across the wholesale store and warehouse Speake & McCreary’s at No. 3 Tchoupitoulas. Noticing a gentleman sitting outside the store reading a newspaper, Rowlands supposedly approached him and asked “Do you want a boy sir?”
The gentleman was Henry Hope Stanley, a wealthy local cotton merchant who, according to Henry Morton Stanley’s story, gave his recommendation to James Speake, the store’s proprietor, that he hire John Rowlands as an employee. Speake did, the father-son relationship between Rowlands and Henry Hope Stanley progressed and Rowlands became like an adopted son to Stanley. Stanley having once been a religious minister, re-baptized Rowlands, saying, “in the future you are to bear my name, Henry Stanley.” Some historians, such as Tim Jeal, have speculated that there is no truth to Henry Morton’s adoption story, while others assert that the two did have a relationship, though the depth of that relationship has also been subject to speculation.
Although the origins of the Henry Morton Stanley story are under such scrutiny, there is no doubt that New Orleans played a crucial role in the legend and re-invention of the famous journalist and African explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, whose phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” made him one of the most famous celebrities of the 19th century.