100 years in the making: How the Hancock Whitney story began

John Hairston
April 25, 2018
Hancock Bank and Whitney Bank merged in 2011, but the relationship between the two banks really started 100 years ago.
 

In the late 1800s, America and the South were rebuilding at a feverish pace from the Civil War. Cotton and other commodities had ignited a Gulf South economic boom. Ideally located where the Mississippi River, railroads, and the Gulf of Mexico meet, the port city of New Orleans flourished as an international trade center.
 
That prosperity spilled into neighboring Hancock County, Mississippi, and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast—a region reveling in its own economic rush from timber, agriculture, seafood, tourism, and community growth as successful New Orleanians and North Mississippians built beachfront homes.
 
Several influential Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, citizens with New Orleans family and business interests saw how Hancock County was growing. They also recognized the need for a bank to help local people manage the thriving economy.
 
Peter Hellwege
New Orleans business leader Peter Hellwege had established his cotton, stocks, and bonds brokerage house in 1872. He lived in Waveland in Hancock County and commuted daily by train to New Orleans to run his business. In fall 1899, Hellwege, his son Peter E. Hellwege, and 17 other founders opened the Hancock County Bank. The two Hellweges were named to the bank’s board of directors; and the senior Hellwege became the bank’s first president.
 
By 1904 Hellwege had retired, passing responsibilities at the Peter Hellwege Company to his son. Never one to sit idle, though, the elder Hellwege led the founding of a new New Orleans bank, the Bank of Orleans, that same year and became its first president.
 
He served concurrently as president of the Hancock County Bank and the Bank of Orleans until his death in December 1907.
 
Eugene H. Roberts
After Hellwege died, the Hancock County Bank and Bank of Orleans boards unanimously named Eugene H. Roberts to fill Hellwege’s post as president of both banks in January 1908. Roberts, a Hancock County Bank founder, had been vice president of both banks under Hellwege’s presidencies.
 
The son of a prominent Mississippi planter and a former partner with a Baltimore, Maryland, brokerage firm, Roberts knew commodities and banking. Hellwege had recruited him to New Orleans in 1904 to serve as the cashier (a combination of today’s chief financial officer and chief operations officer) for the new Bank of Orleans and, ultimately, the Hancock County Bank.
 
Keeping depositors safe
With America embroiled in World War I and a national recession in full swing as the commodities market waned, the Bank of Orleans found itself at risk financially. The Hancock County Bank and Bank of Orleans boards contemplated using capital from the Hancock County Bank to stabilize the Bank of Orleans. Doing so, however, could have undermined the Hancock County Bank’s stability.
 
Ultimately, President Roberts led the decision to sell the Bank of Orleans to Hancock’s peer institution, Whitney Bank, to honor a founding commitment sacred to all three banks:  protecting depositors’ money.
 
On May 25, 1918, Whitney acquired the Bank of Orleans. Roberts resigned as president of Hancock County Bank because of his New Orleans business commitments and became a Whitney vice president. He remained a highly respected New Orleans banker until his death in 1923.
 
A Depression-era pact
With Roberts’ resignation, Horatio S. Weston, owner of H. Weston Lumber Company (the world’s largest timber mill at the time) in Hancock County, took the helm in 1918 as Hancock County Bank president. In 1919 Weston brought over Leo W. Seal, Sr., from the lumber company as bank cashier.
 
After Weston had a stroke in September 1929, Seal took over as Hancock’s acting president. Just one month later, the carefree Twenties roared to a grinding halt with The Crash of ‘29. The ensuing Great Depression hit America hard.
 
Weston died in September 1931, and Seal became Hancock’s president. During his service as Hancock’s cashier and a director and through Eugene Roberts, Seal forged a strong alliance with and became a social contemporary of Whitney Bank president John E. Bouden (1916-1930). He sustained those connections with Whitney presidents John D. O’Keefe (1930-1938) and Keehn W. Berry (1938-1969) throughout his 31-year tenure as Hancock’s president.
 
In the early 1930s, the country’s economy was still in deep turmoil. Seal and his Whitney counterparts Bouden and O’Keefe vowed on behalf of their banks to always help each other in times of need and never allow either bank to suffer the fate of hundreds of other banks closing their doors in the Depression and leaving depositors penniless.
 
Building on a promise
The early 20th century ties among bankers at Hancock County Bank (renamed Hancock Bank by 1939) and the Bank of Orleans (which became part of Whitney Bank) cemented a shared commitment to clients, communities, and core values that led to our 21st century Hancock Whitney organization.
 
Today, nearly 4,000 Hancock Whitney associates—the true heart of our bank—carry on that century-old promise to stay strong and to help people achieve their financial goals and dreams.
 



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