The Role of Slaves and Free People of Color in the History of St. Charles Parish

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The Gleaner by Robert Fisher - Image
The Gleaner by Robert Fisher, a black American artist and educator at Destrehan High School.

According to Louisiana historian Glen Conrad, former Director of the University of Louisiana’s Center for Louisiana Studies in Lafayette and translator of the Abstracts of the Civil Records of St. Charles Parish {1770-1803} and {1804-1812}, no landowner of the German Coast up to statehood in 1812 could be classified as a large slaveholder. In 1811 when Louis-Augustin Meuillon died as probably the largest slaveholder on the German Coast, he had fewer than 100 slaves listed in his property inventory. Conrad goes on to say that with the development of a slave system on the German Coast, a society of free people of color also developed. During Conrad’s research in the 1970s & 1980s, he uncovered a significant number of documents relating to the still UNTOLD STORY of the free people of color.

The St. Charles Museum & Historical Association Board of Directors commissioned historian and author Mary Gehman to research slaves and the free people of color in St. Charles Parish to complement Conrad’s earlier work. A resident of Donaldsonville in Ascension Parish, she is the author of the ground breaking book The Free People of Color of New Orleans (1994). Although Gehman’s research here provides a comprehensive and detailed composite of facts, her essay is by no means the complete story. But it is a beginning. Just as the significance of the history of the German Coast has been slighted in Louisiana and American history textbooks, so too has the extraordinary narrative of the contribution of slaves and free people of color of the German Coast been omitted.

The Board of the St. Charles Museum & Historical Association hopes this interesting document will highlight the important role these forgotten people contributed to our early history.

By Mary Gehman. Copyright 2017.

 

Introduction

The history of St. Charles Parish and the German Coast as told in books and articles is of the hardy German farmers arriving in the early 1720s to stabilize the young colony of Louisiana and provide food for New Orleans, then the French intermarrying with the Germans in the 1740s, and in the mid-1700s the introduction of French Acadians who also became part of the mix. Usually missing, however, is a fourth and indispensible ethnic group, the African slaves and free people of color. Records show they were on the German Coast from the late 1720s on; the enslaved contributed not only their labor but their specialized skills, their language, cuisine, and culture. They assisted their owners in growing, processing and delivering produce, dairy products and meat downriver to feed the fledgling city of New Orleans. The wealthy sugar plantations that developed along the River Road north of New Orleans in the 19th century indisputably would not have been possible without them.

In every aspect of life in St. Charles Parish slaves were indispensible: along with their masters they cleared the land, planted rice, corn and vegetables; ran indigo processing facilities and later sugar mills; built levees to protect dwellings and crops; served as sawyers, masons, carpenters, and smiths; raised horses, oxen, mules, cows, sheep, swine and poultry; hunted for wild game and fished; served as cooks, hulling rice with mortars and pestles; performed all kinds of duties to make life easier and more enjoyable for their owners; female slaves raised their own children while caring for their masters’ (Seck 2). Free people of color were often overseers, had small businesses and supervised construction and agriculture projects. In the case of Charles Paquet, free man of color, he was a contractor who built plantation houses. Free people of color first show up in a few official records of St. Charles Parish in the 1770s, but by the 1804 census there are 113 of them classified as such (Conrad, St. Charles Parish, 389).

Despite the important role of people of color, enslaved and free, very little was written about them, they were usually listed by first name only on early documents, and their contributions taken for granted. Even today there is the myth that all people of African descent in St. Charles Parish were either slaves themselves or the children of slaves, and that their surnames, many of which have survived till today, were those of their former masters. This leaves out the people of color who arrived free from Haiti due to the revolution there in the late 1790s, and others who were free in New Orleans before making their way upriver to the German Coast. It also fails to consider a good number of local children born to liaisons between European masters and their slaves who – along with their mothers – were sometimes freed early on or granted freedom upon the master’s death.

The Louisiana of 1719 when the first German peasants arrived is unimaginably different from what we know it to be today. The port city of New Orleans had just been established as an outpost, and the only other centers of population in the vast Louisiana Territory were pioneer and military villages of Pointe Coupee to the north and Natchitoches to the west. There were only about 400 white people in the whole Louisiana Territory (LeConte 2). Homesteading meant adjusting to the heat and high humidity of a semi-tropical climate and to the diseases, insects and reptiles that infested the area. Tens of thousands of native peoples in various tribal family groups roamed the marshes and uplands, living for periods on the high ground along the rivers. Nomadic by nature, they were not territorial, until forced to be by Europeans who laid claim to land grants issued by the King of France in the early 18th century. On the German Coast this meant the constant threat of attacks and raids of small farms that in some cases had usurped land already cleared and planted by the Natives.

The German arrivals of the early 1720s were quasi-slaves themselves, engagés — indentured servants — of John Law’s concession Company of the Indies. Engagé was a tenuous legal state between being free and slave. Europe was recovering from the brutal Thirty Years War and these illiterate peasant farmers had little hope of eking out a living as subjects of a king or duke in their homeland. For every German who made it to Louisiana and the German Coast, there were many who died along the 600 mile trek across France to the port of Lorient and on the three month voyage from France to Biloxi. If disease and exhaustion did not claim their lives, drowning, malnutrition and rotten food did. The modest plots of land granted them on their arrival in Louisiana by Bienville (John Law had gone bust and his Company reverted to colonial rule) were not free, because the settlers who were penniless were forced to sell their products to the Company in exchange for food, tools, seeds and other necessities at set prices. In short, in the early years they owed their lives to the company. Approximately a decade later, in 1731, they were given ownership to the land and became self sufficient.

September 12, 1722, just as the Germans were settling in, there was a hurricane that caused Lac des Allemands to flood, forcing two of the small enclaves of German farms to be abandoned. A number of adults and children drowned. By November 1724 the census of Les Allemands, taking in the area around current day Lucy to Hahnville on the west bank of the Mississippi, enumerated only 56 families, of whom two were French and the others German, a total of 169 people (Merrill 25-26). None owned slaves (Oubre 42).


Early Demand for Slaves

How could the impoverished, illiterate German settlers own African slaves? Early on, the governor and other functionaries realized that if Le Cote des Allemands were to become the breadbasket of the colony, and save the capital New Orleans from starvation as intended, the young German couples and single men would need more hands to complete the back breaking labor of clearing the land, tilling the soil and protecting crops from floods, hurricanes, occasional Indian raids, insects and seasonal drought, all this in a hot and humid climate very different from that of their homeland. Many complaints were made to the governor about the “neglect of the German farmers in the assignment of slaves” (Merrill 28), but the urgent message about the need for slave labor to the French king in1724, found in the National Archives in Paris, and much quoted by historians of Louisiana and of the German Coast, seems to have been the final straw:

“If these families who remain of the great number who have passed here are not helped by Negroes, they will perish bit by bit doing what a man and his wife have to do on a terrain .… There are many worn out of the women who injure themselves … and sometimes they both [man and wife] perish, and such cases are not rare.” It goes on to say, “They would consider themselves very lucky if they were given assistance of one or two Negroes according to the size of their terrains, their strengths, and … their management abilities.” In a final point, the census taker says, ”They would nourish their Negroes very well with the great quantity of vegetables and pumpkins which they harvest in addition to rice and corn,” suggesting, too, that with more work hands available, the Germans could cultivate indigo, process lumber and other merchandise “for exporting to France or for Cap Francois [Haiti].” (source: Robichaux, Merrill, Yoes)

Although the German settlers were described by Gov. Kerlerec as “accustomed in their own country to working to exhaustion and to a hard life “( Merrill 32), they soon had to depend on assistance of other workers. While there was a modest influx of more German and foreign indentured servants to help the original settlers in the 1720s and 1730s, it is fairly clear that economics figured into the equation, because the labor of African slaves — already acclimated to the rigors of agricultural labor in the colonial world — was unpaid, and slaves were captives, unable to leave, no matter how tough the conditions. The first “Negroes” in the late 1720s were listed by the Company of the Indies as piece d’Indie as they were entered in their shipping papers to camouflage their identities as Africans, since technically African slaves were not permitted (Dart 464). It appears that the governor of the colony procured them in New Orleans and assigned them to settlers on the German Coast. Who received slaves, in what order and whether the Germans paid for them is also not known, as no documentation of the value of these slaves, their names, origins, and date of sale has been found. In succeeding decades, however, the German farmers could afford to procure their own slaves.

The first slaves were made available to the German settlers between 1726-1731, with the arrival in Louisiana of the first 12 out of 22 slave ships that arrived in the Territory from Africa during that time period (Seck 25). By 1731, a total of 120 slaves were owned by 43 out of 68 concessionaires on the German Coast; well over half had slaves (Blume 47). No extant records enumerated these earliest slaves, and little is known about them. That same year the 1731 census was also the earliest mention of slaves among the settlers with a specific owner: Ambroise Heidel [Haydel], wife, 2 children, 1 engagé and 3 Negro slaves. Rene LeConte notes that Commandant Karl Frederick Darensbourg and his brother-in-law who joined him from Germany in 1731, Georg- August Von der Hecke, each owned 5 or 6 slaves as part of their status that year (p. 12). LeConte claims these two men were the only slaveholders at the time, thus contradicting Blume and other German Coast historians. Both Darensbourg and Von der Hecke were Lutherans when they arrived in Louisiana. The code noir that regulated ownership and treatment of slaves in the colony dictated that slaves could only be owned by Catholics. Darensbourg converted to Catholicism in 1729 to keep his slaves (Ochs 97), and Von der Hecke also converted soon after his arrival in 1731 (LeConte 11).

An example of a master-slave relationship in this early period is Jean Baptiste Honoré Destrehan who arrived from France in Louisiana in 1730, and was soon appointed Treasurer of the colony. In that decade – 1731 to 1738 – he fathered a daughter with his African slave Genoveva [Genevieve] Bienville, Catalina aka Catiche, who became the progenitor of a large Honoré family of color , some of whose descendants still live within miles of the famous Destrehan Plantation in St. Charles Parish. Jean Baptiste went on to marry Catherine de Gauvny and had seven legitimate children with her.


The Catholic Church and Slavery

It is not surprising that slaves on the German Coast were baptized as Catholics, given their Catholic masters, and that they remained committed to Catholicism down through the generations, with some of their descendants turning to the Methodist and Baptist mission churches introduced in pre-and-post Civil War Louisiana. St. Charles Church in Destrehan (later renamed St. Charles Borromeo), for whom the parish is named, and Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in Hahnville continue to have African-American constituencies.

In the early years, church attendance on the German Coast in general was sporadic due to distances, the need to cross the river, conditions of roads in inclement weather, and sickness. There were no Catholic churches designated for slaves and free people of color in St. Charles parish or along the river prior to the Civil War. Mass was often said in the chapels of various plantations on the east bank, and St. Charles Church on that bank had a few black worshippers. Historically there was more African-American involvement in Our Lady of the Holy Rosary on the west bank in Hahnville. A large number of Creole speaking black Catholics from the river parishes moved to the Carrollton area of New Orleans in the late 1800s, in part due to the welcome they received by the Catholic church there. In 1892 the Sisters of the Holy Family built St. Louis School of Carrollton for them, which joined in 1909 with the first territorial parish for people of color in New Orleans, St. Dominic. Both Archbishop James Hubert Blenk and the Josephites worked to buy the former Mater Dolorosa Church in Carrollton and establish it as St. Dominic (Alberts 333).

Catholic bishops and priests were urged by the Vatican to provide for the spiritual needs of slaves and to speak out against abusing them. Many Louisiana Catholic churches kept separate sacramental registers for births and marriages of free people of color and slaves (Webre, Religious, 75), though such registers do not exist in St. Charles Parish where early records were lost to fire. It should also be noted here that religious orders and churches of the time were slave owners: the Ursulines in New Orleans, as well as the Jesuits mentioned above, and at the Red Church established 1740 on the German Coast and St. Michael’s Convent in St. James Parish. The 2016 case of Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution in Washington, D.C., substantiates this in its attempt to compensate the descendants in Louisiana of a group of slaves sold in the 19th century to finance Georgetown University.

The question of where slaves were buried in the 18th century is a complicated one.

While free people of color were often buried in Catholic Church cemeteries, slaves found their final resting place in small cemeteries at the back part of the plantation; most of those are long gone. In the 19th century larger slave cemeteries developed, usually attached to Baptist or Methodist churches founded by white missionaries after the Civil War. Some would have contained the relocated remains of former slaves and family members from nearby plantations. A few of those cemeteries have survived despite the church buildings being torn down. They are located on private property – usually owned by petro-chemical plants that allow only limited access to direct descendants. Congregations of these churches have in some cases relocated and started new cemeteries elsewhere in the general area.


Slave Records in the Mid-to-Late 1700s

The Commandant of the German Coast, Karl Fredrick Darensbourg, was appointed to supervise the early settlers and enforce the law, meager as it was in the isolated areas some 25 miles upriver from New Orleans. He kept the official documents, signed and issued by him, from 1734 until the Spanish took over in 1769. These Darensbourg Records are the sole source today for property sales, wills and successions of the German Coast in its nascent years. Not surprisingly, they indicate the presence of African slaves in various legal transactions beginning in 1741, though earlier records may be missing. But slaves do not dominate, since out of 61 transactions, only 18 involve enslaved persons. The extant records rarely give the slaves’ names, never mention their tribes and origins and do not give locations of the farms. There was little need to record slaves except as property in case of sales or wills.

It is evident that early on, these slaves became part of the property of the German families, because colonial documents of Darensbourg give 1741 as the first record of the sale of a slave in St. Charles Parish, though researchers have noted that records of earlier ones may have been lost. Josephe André and wife Magdelene Schmit sold a “Negro” to Francoise Cheval January 10, 1741. On September 12 of that same year, Joseph Kintereck formed a partnership with Daniel Bopse to which Kintereck contributed “ 3 Negroes, 2 Negresses and 2 Negrittes against Bopse’s 1 slave and his children.” (transcription of this and following early records, unless otherwise noted, is by Gianalloni 3-20)

Slaves were useful as exchanges and collateral: two years later, December 12, 1743, Sieur Blampain exchanged a “Negro slave named Monmourou, for a Negress named Jeanneton belonging to Jean Barre dit Lionnois.” They also were good investments. Seeing a bargain, Nicolas Rousseau with his wife Catrine Nota bought September 28, 1745 from Pierre Garcon and wife Marianne Sencier “a house, one Negro, one Negress and their daughter along with 9 cattle and 3 pigs for 2,600 livres.” Rousseau turned around and sold the whole lot six months later, February 23, 1746, to Anne Jeanniau, widow of Jean Bossier, for 4,000 livres, resulting in a considerable capital gain.

That slaves were valuable workers is shown in 1747 when Etienne Degle shot at Andre Saur’s boat and wounded a “Negro” – Degle was sentenced to provide a replacement slave to Saur in case the injured one did not survive (Blume 72). Saur and Degle [Daigle] were early German farmers. Another example of consequences for injuring a slave is Lachaise who August 11, 1762 was imprisoned “for having kicked a Negress belonging to Dupart.” Hardy De Boisblanc reported that “the whole city cried out against this punishment” leaving it unclear if the punishment was kicking the slave or Lachaise being sentenced to prison, though July 8, 1765 “a Negress named Marie” is transferred by deBoisblanc to two young girls surnamed Dupre and Thomas with instructions that their parents may not dispose of the slave. Could that Marie be the same “Negresse” kicked by Lachaise and possibly the daughter of Lachaise or de Boisblanc?

Wills and successions began to include slaves almost immediately. February 2, 1748 Remy Poisot dit Bourginiot sold “a Negro named Patt” to Pierre Garcon dit Leveille. No price stated. Around a decade later, 1759, the estate of George Drozeler was appraised with the house, slaves (number and gender not given), cattle, furnishings and effects. The document is in very bad condition. The same owner with different spelling appears June 12, 1760 when the will of George Troutsler [Drozeler] is probated and includes “2 Negresses worth 4,000 livres. One was sold to Mr. Sentilli who sold her to Mr. Lacotrais.”

The next year, Oct. 15, 1761, the estate of Jean Baptiste Deslandes was appraised including slaves (number and gender not stated), cattle and grain. Values were not given. But April 5, 1762 the sale of Christophe Ouvre’s estate was more detailed. It included “a Negro for 12,250 livres sold to Mathies Heydle, and a Negress and 4 children for 20,000 livres sold to George Rixner.” In the fall of that same year (date not clear) Ouvre’s wife must have died because her estate was appraised, including “a Negress, horned cattle”, etc. – no values stated.

The first emancipation of a slave was November 1784 when Marie Paquet freed her daughter Felicite, age 19, maintainand stipulated in her will that her other daughter Nanette be freed upon Paquet’s death ( Conrad, St. Charles Parish, 124).

Under Spanish rule, slaves could aspire to freedom through coartacion, by having themselves appraised and then paying their master that amount, whether he wanted to free them or not. A number of court documents exist in Louisiana of such cases. One in Saint Charles Parish is December 13, 1780 when the slave of Joseph Verloin Degruys bought her freedom for 500 piastres (Conrad, St. Charles Parish 78). In that same period Catalina Destrehan, mentioned earlier as the daughter of a master and his slave, married the Mina slave Pompe ca. 1765 and had a son Honorato aka Jean Baptiste Honoré Destrehan before she acquired her freedom. Catalina’s will in 1797 states she is free but when and how she was freed is not known. Honorato’s son with wife Felicite Gravier (married 1789), Francois Honoré Destrehan, later moved to New Roads, Louisiana and dropped the surname Destrehan: his descendants became surnamed Honoré, including the currently well known U.S. General Russell Honoré (source: Ingrid Stanley). It should be noted that there is a second woman of color at that same time named Catalina Destrehan from whom some of the Honores might descend. She should not be confused with Catalina who married Pompe.


Slavery After the Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana Purchase Map
Map of the Louisiana Purchase, Kentwood, La. Bicentennial.

When Louisiana became American in 1803 the German Coast, including St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes, had approximately 2,800 slaves. Every decade produced significant increases in the slave population, until by 1850, the Golden Age of Louisiana, there were well over 8,500 slaves on the coast. This dramatic increase was due in large part to sugar production, which ruled the state until the Civil War (Merrill 47). Under Spanish rule the records taking up where Darensbourg’s ended in 1770, indicate a gradual increase in transactions involving slaves. There were none in 1770, and the first slave sale was November 1771. By 1773 there were 10 slaves in six transactions. Most sales of small, well established farms show no slaves as part of the inventory. Perhaps by the 1770s there were enough sons to operate most of the farms without resorting to slaves who were expensive to purchase.

Some people who were free left for other parts of the Louisiana Territory. For example, Marie-Jeanne Davion, free mulatto born in St. Charles Parish, had a liaison in the 1760s with the Frenchman Francois Lemelle who was married to Charlotte Labbé and had four legitimate children in the Parish. With Davion he fathered another six children. In the early 1770s Francois Lemelle moved both his white family and the family of color west to the Opelousas frontier (Brasseaux, Creoles of Color, 19). Through Lemelle’s largesse Davion acquired more than 800 acres of land along Bayou Courtableau in the Prairie Lemelle area near the town of Washington. With her five sons, Davion cleared her vast land holdings and became prosperous. It isn’t clear when she took on the surname Lemelle which her children already bore. She is the matriarch of a large Lemelle family of free blacks whose descendants today can be found throughout the state. Opelousas, similar to the German Coast in population, had 779 slaves in 1796, and by 1803 the slave population had risen to more than a thousand. There were 29 free families of color in 1796 or 83 individuals. Of the 779 slaves, 42 were owned by people of color (Brasseaux, Acadian Life 33-42).

What had been a very sparsely populated Louisiana Territory saw its population double in the three decades of 1785-1810. In the river parishes cutting and milling of lumber and constructing raised structures in the swampy environs required hard labor. Vacheries (ranches) formed around cattle brought up from Spanish territories along the Gulf. Cattle raised in Louisiana were sent west into Texas. Slaves and free people of color would have been involved as cowboys in this process. Names of Bayou LeBoeuf and Lac LeBoeuf remain to this day, le Boeuf being French for cattle.

The 1804 General Census of St. Charles Parish (Conrad, The German Coast, 389-407) shows a total population of 2,408 which includes 713 whites, 1582 slaves and 113 free people of color. Among those free people of color were familiar names with the legal wording of the time: Valentin Girardin and 7 members: wife, 2 daughters, 1 son-in- law and 4 grandsons; Manon, her daughter, son Barnabe and his 3 sons; Pierre Pain, his wife, son, niece, brother and 2 female slaves; Rosalie Rillieux (quadroon), 2 sons, 2 daughters, 1 son-in-law, 1 grandson and 1 granddaughter, a female mulatto and her 2 sons, a free female Negro, 16 male slaves and 1 female slave; Charles Paquet, his wife (a slave) and 2 female slaves; Izidore, his wife, 1 son and 4 daughters; Charles Lange, his wife, 1 son and 1 daughter; Francois Deslonde, his wife , his father, 8 male slaves and 1 black engagé; Francois Pauché (white), a free female Negro, 1 male slave; Gabriel Lorio, his wife, 3 male slaves, 1 female slave; Baptiste and his wife; 1 free mulatto (no gender) living with Chevalier Darensbourg, his wife, 2 daughters, 6 sons, 20 male slaves and 8 female slaves; Claude Borne, his wife and his mother; Henry and a free Negro engagé; Therese, her daughter, 2 granddaughters and an engagé (no race); Augustin, his wife, his associate, 2 tenants (a free male and free female), their 2 sons and a free Negro; in the household of Louis Habine Angelique were a free mulatto tenant with her 3 sons and 2 daughters – Habine had his wife, a white tenant and over 75 slaves; also a few free Negroes and mulattoes living in various white households.

A few years after that 1804 St. Charles Parish census, in 1808 the U.S. government began enforcing the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, a ban on importing any new slaves into the country. As a result, the domestic slave trade in the Louisiana Territory and throughout the South was very lucrative, and the term “negre amercain” became common in official Louisiana records. Slave owning and trading was big business. When Louisiana became American the German Coast had 2,800 slaves. That number increased by roughly 2,000 per decade to well over 8,500 by 1850 (Merrill 47).


Treatment of and Attitudes Toward Slaves

We can only speculate as to how the early German farmers communicated with their slaves 1730-1769, given that the Germans spoke almost no French or English, and the Africans would have had no exposure to German. It also is not clear how the farmers – only months away from being subjects of a king or duke in Europe themselves or engagés of the Louisiana concession, and newly experiencing limited freedom – interacted with the dark skinned men (and perhaps a few women) given them to “own” and labor beside them in the harsh climate and grueling work of the fields on their modest land grants. 1802 is the single surviving reference by a German settler as to how he felt about owning slaves; by then the harsh conditions of the 1720s and 1730s were mere memories among the elderly.

An 1802 letter from Johann Joachim Lagemann in St. Charles Parish to his brother Heinrich Peter in Germany states his dislike for the institution of slavery, despite his owning a few slaves himself. A shoemaker, born 1757, Lagemann emigrated to America in the 1780s, worked various jobs as he made his way down the Ohio River, and bought a plantation for $500 on the German Coast in 1792. He married a local widow with three children, Catherina Vickner, in 1800.

Two years later is his second letter to his brother: “As I write this, we are subject to Spain, free from all taxes and tributes, and are bothered by nothing. All are a member in the militia. There is degradation of the human soul here: Slavery….We have only five slaves who till the fields, and four little ones. Some have hundreds….Slavery is barbaric enough, but not as tyrannical as the unfortunate serfdom in the civilized Holstein [apparently, his native land in Europe] by far. For the nights and the Sundays are for them [slaves], and necessary clothing and board have to be given them. Yet happy is the land that knows no slavery, for it is a pest for morals. Here insolence, stealing and all shame and vice are rampant among the people. They are slaves and make their masters into slaves too, or relentless, unmerciful barbarians and avengers.” Lagemann writes of having a saw mill at the plantation and having “riches and honor, liv[ing] joyfully and satisfied.” Despite his harsh criticism of slavery on the German Coast, he does not credit his own slaves – the number of which may have grown steadily – for his success. These two letters appear in Les Voyageur Vol. 2 # 3, September 1981, 42-46.

Lagemann also does not comment on how he treated his slaves, and there are only sketchy references on this subject in general. As with slavery throughout its tenure in the colony, it was a violent institution. Some masters were compassionate and fair, while others were cruel. Some obeyed the laws governing their obligations to their slaves, but some took things into their own hands. Abuse on isolated farms or plantations was easily hidden from outsiders or ignored by the larger population. Helmut Blume (118) states that under the Spanish 1769 to 1802 the code noir , black code, mandated slave families be “ given a baril [barrel] of corn every month, a modest house and their own piece of land to cultivate a garden”. They raised chickens and pigs, selling excess eggs and meat to the master. He says they bought or made their own clothes and had a half hour for breakfast and two hours for lunch in the work day that occupied them from daybreak till nightfall. They had off Sundays but in harvest time might have to work, in which case they were paid 4 reales per day. They could sell nothing without the owner’s permission, and could not have visitors or travel without the master’s approval. Another commentator, Bouligny, likens them to the workers in Europe at the time (Blume 118). Since these observations do not come from the slaves themselves, it is difficult to judge their validity.


Instability and Runaway Slaves

Some slaves assigned to the early German farmers, we can assume, stayed on for several generations, while others would have become maroons and run away to join the illicit slave communities hidden deep in the ciprieres, the cypress swamps, or they took off for New Orleans or other places where, if lucky, they could pass for free. The maroon communities in the swamps in remote areas far from New Orleans in colonial times and up to the Civil War are well documented; they must have been as tempting to the early German Coast slaves as they were to their counterparts in the city and surrounding plantations. Keeping a slave or two on a small farm from running away would have been considerably harder than on a plantation where overseers exercised harsh control.

Ibrahima Seck in his book Boukie Fait Gombo describes the grand marronage as an “ecosystem where maroons (runaway slaves) found refuge from the beginnings to the end of slavery” (106) in outlying areas known mostly only to native peoples. He quotes Gwendolyn Midlo Hall in Africans in Colonial Louisiana as naming St. Malo, a former slave of Karl Darensbourg, as the leader of a large band of maroons in the “vast and uncharted territory in what is now St. Bernard Parish” (108). Maroons survived by fish and game they hunted and from furtive forages of farms. Slaves sometimes took great risks to visit their local ciprieres for the latest news, to meet up with relatives who were marooned there, and to bring supplies as needed. Punishment if caught could be branding, cutting off of the ears and other torture. In the German Coast early years, if a slave were the sole help on a small farm, the master might have been lenient about accepting him back, desperate as they both were to survive. In 1795 Mr. Mather reported that no more than four slaves were listed as maroon on two of six concessions on the German Coast; however, not all complaints about runaway slaves were registered (Blume 119).

There is also the question of what happened to the slaves given to the early farmers of the German Coast when the Germans fled the area for New Orleans as they did in spring 1748 when the Choctaw raided a farm on the German Coast only a few miles north of N.O., killed the husband, scalped the wife and took the daughter and a black slave prisoner. Or in November of that same year when a more serious Choctaw attack occurred at a different farm and four settlers were killed. Reports of these Indian raids struck terror throughout the German Coast, causing most farmers and their families to seek refuge in the city. Many never returned despite hardships and food shortages in the city (Merrill 44). Whether the Germans’ slaves went with them, and what became of them in New Orleans is unknown. It would have been taboo for whites and Africans to inhabit the same dwelling. Those settlers who did go back, started farms in a different area and were lured back only by the governor’s establishing a guard corps and a military post. There is no record as to how many of their original slaves moved back with them.

Two decades later, October 1768, Karl Frederick Darensbourg led 400 German militia, drawn from the farmers and planters of the German Coast, on a march to New Orleans where they joined over 1000 protesters rejecting the takeover of Louisiana by Spain. No one has recorded what their slaves were doing during this chaotic time that extended for months. We are left to assume that they continued working their masters’ property and protecting the elderly, women and children left behind. Inevitably, some must have taken advantage of the situation and run away. All this indicates great instability for both masters and slaves much of the time during those early decades.


Development of German Plantations

Some small farms evolved into plantations within the first three decades of the German Coast. Farmers who were successful and could depend on slave labor strove to gain larger tracts of land. For example, as early as 1752 Ambroise Heidel lived on the original land tract that later became Haydel Plantation (Whitney). His younger son, Jean Jacques became owner of the land and in 1803 claimed a plantation. (See Victor Haydel later).

Within 30 years of settling the German Coast, some original settlers had amassed fortunes due in large part to owning slaves, as seen in the 1764 inventory of prominent German farmer George Rixner’s estate. It gives the names of his slaves: Valentain dit Chevalié, Jeanlouis dit Baptiste, Augustain dit Levellié, Jean Piere dit Nago, Babé, André, Marie Catherine, Marie Louise, Marie Josephe, Felippe Laffleur and his wife Catherine. Rixner’s total estate was valued at 16,650 livres of which more than half was slaves. (Gianelloni transcripts for this and next three records, 26-35).

Another example is December 5, 1764 when the estate of Regine Konig , widow of Bartelmy Sipher, was appraised. It included “poultry, slaves, rice and corn“ with no values given. The sequence of the listing indicates that the poultry may have been more valuable than the slaves. But a month later, January 28, 1765 the sale of the estate of Reguine [Konig] Siphri included as its “largest item” 2,260 livres for three slaves.

Some masters were philanthropic. Jean Girardin, one of the wealthier German Coast farmers, on September 14, 1765 wills “one half of his crop to be distributed to the poorest children in the parish”. The other half of the crop he wills to his three slaves Antoine, Marguerite (and her three children) and Christophe, whom he frees on condition that they “each pay 30 livres per year to the executor for the poor of the parish”, which suggests that the slaves themselves were well enough provided for that they would not have been considered “poor.”

Jean Giardin, probably near death, then frees his slaves September 7, 1774. This is the first manumission recorded in St. Charles Parish after the Spanish took over in 1770. No slave names are given. His slave Marguerite is mentioned in 1777 when Bellile, executor of Giardin’s estate, frees her. Jean-Louis, “mulatto” child, freed by Giardin, petitions to have Jean Paquette, “free mulatto”, named his tutor (guardian) that same year. Paquette accepts the tutorship and mortgages all of his property as bond for inheritance of Jean-Louis and a month later buys a slave named Baptiste, age 30, for Jean-Louis (Conrad, St. Charles Parish 29-52). Though not stated in the record, it intimates that Marguerite might have been the companion of the bachelor Giardin for many years, and that her three children were his as well.

The term “Creole Negro” first appears Oct. 5, 1767 in the inventory of Albert Sexnaire’s estate. Enumerated are “2 Creole Negroes named Jacob and Jean purchased from the Jesuits, a Negro and his wife, Simon and Francoise, a Negress Marianne, A Negro Francois, a Negro Hocco and 2 Negresses Silvie and Venus.” Total value of the slaves is 9,000 livres. The meaning here of “Creole” would be to distinguish between slaves arriving directly from Africa and thus new to the conditions and culture of Louisiana, and ”Creoles” or first or second generation slaves who knew their way around and were acclimated to the climate, language, and culture. It was not used to describe skin color or shade, though some Creole slaves were the progeny of masters and their female slaves, as reflected in their lighter skin tones and European features.

Destrehan PlantationOne of the most elusive free men of color of the time was Charles Paquet, builder of Destrehan Plantation house 1787, who is thought to possibly also have built Ormond Plantation house about a mile upriver in 1790. These are the only plantation homes in St. Charles Parish open to the public today. He must have been a man of means, yet we know little about him except for the episode in 1808 when he was fined for harboring and abetting slaves (see The 1811 Slave Revolt section below).

He may be the son of Jean Paquet, “free mulatto” from New Orleans and grandson of Jean Paquet, Frenchman, who owned property in New Orleans and had children with the slave Angelique Perret whom he later freed. Civil records of St. Charles Parish show that in his will dated August 3, 1788, a few days before his death, free man Jean Paquet requests that after his debts are paid, his wife Marie Paquet, “free Negro”, buy his son Charles Paquet from Leonard Mazange, grant him his freedom and that he then marry Marie’s daughter Madelaine, Charles’ step-sister. (Conrad, St. Charles Parish, 169 # 852).

This would mean that the Charles Paquet who built Destrehan Plantation house in a few years ending in 1787 was enslaved at the time but was in the process of procuring his freedom, an unlikely scenario but not impossible if Charles’ owner Mazange approved and if Charles’ skills were such that he could handle a large construction project. Mazange may have rented him out for that purpose, keeping a percentage of the earnings for himself as was often done. Charles Paquet shows up again in civil records in the parish in November 1789, which would have been months after being freed, as selling part of his father’s property. In 1792 as Charlot Paquet and without the fmc designation for free man of color, he begins to borrow and loan out money to other free people of color. In 1800 he sells all the cypress trees on his farm 19 miles above New Orleans to a logging company. In the 1804 census of St. Charles Parish he is listed with his wife who is designated a slave, and two female slaves (Conrad, St. Charles Parish 326 # 1642). The only other entry in the civil records of the parish about Charles Paquet is his charge of harboring and abetting runaway slaves in 1808 (see the 1811 Slave Revolt section below). Hopefully, one day a scholar of Louisiana history will write a comprehensive biography of this fascinating person.


Interracial Children Appear

It is not surprising that within a few years after 1730 and the introduction of slaves on the German Coast, children of German settlers and slave women or free women of color would appear, as happened in all slave holding communities of the Louisiana Territory and beyond. How these mixed race children were viewed legally and treated by their white fathers is evident in the various family histories from descendants of the colored side of the Haydel, Sorapuru, Panis/Picou , Destrehan/Honoré and Darensbourg families.

Josephine Foucher and her sister Julie Bonne Foucher, daughters of Julie Brion (1754-1802), wealthy free woman of color in New Orleans, both had long term relationships with well to do St. Charles Parish German farmers who had townhouses in the city. Julie Bonne had a liaison with Charles Darensbourg III, giving him a daughter Victoire Darensbourg 1817 who died the following year, while Josephine had children with Joseph Terrence LeBlanc at roughly the same time, including their daughter Adorea LeBlanc who married Judge Adolphe Sorapuru (French) ca. 1835 – they had to travel abroad and marry where their race would not be questioned. Adorea’s father, by that time also appointed a judge, built the newly-weds a house in Lucy, St. John Parish, where a large family of Sorapuru children grew up and farmed the surrounding land. The family home still stands today. All the Sorapurus in the river parishes descend from Adorea and Adolphe’s sons Adolphe Jr. and Gratien Augustin. In New Orleans near the river in the Lower Garden District there is a Sorapuru Street named for the family.

A brother of Adorea Leblanc, Joseph Pierre Paul LeBlanc (1827-1905) lived as white and ”married” Dinah Frances Greeves (fwc) from N.O. She was the daughter of John Greer Greeves, a Quaker from Northern Ireland and his liaison with Marie Toutan Forstall, free woman of color in N.O. They lived on his Fairfield Plantation in Mississippi. Among their nine Greeves children sons William Greer Greeves and James Workman Greeves were sea captains out of Liverpool, England – both died at sea 1850 and 1852. (from author’s database, also Denease Sorapuru interview).

Karl Fredrick Darensbourg - Image
(Photo courtesy Tulane University, Special Collections, Kuntz Collection)

There are several early Darensbourg men who apparently fathered children of color. Rheinhart Kondert in his biography of Karl Friedrich D’Arensbourg (official, early spelling), the father of the German Coast, mentions confusion among historians as to names and ages of the commander’s children with his German wife Marguerite Metzer, concluding that several D’Arensbourgs of 1720 records in Louisiana cannot be placed in relation to the commander (Kondert 40-42). The marriage 1889 of Marie Philomene Sorapuru and Eloi Darensbourg , free people of color, joined distant cousins from both German Coast families of color and created seven Darensbourg children whose descendants today are scattered across the country. There was also the German Adolphe Darensbourg who had a son Alexis Darensbourg with Heloise Augustin, free woman of color. Alexis in 1834 married Henriette Normand, free woman of color, creating another Darensbourg family with many descendants on the German Coast.

The Destrehan family of color, now using Honoré as surname, as referenced above in the section “Slave Records in Mid-to-Late 1700s”, is another interracial family to emerge in this period. Interestingly, at the Ormond Plantation a mile upriver from the Destrehan Plantation, there was also a distinct tie to free people of color. Marie Anastasia Rousseau, born 1783, daughter of Margarita Wiltz of Saxon settlers on the German Coast and Pierre Rousseau, was mother of the judge Adolphe Sorapuru, Sr. thus giving Adolphe’s family of color with Adorea LeBlanc , free woman of color, German as well as French ancestry. Two of Margarita Wiltz’s sons, Jean Baptiste and Josef, had liaisons with free women of color from N.O. resulting in children of color who have carried the Wiltz name into current day Louisiana. Adorea LeBlanc Sorapuru, whose great-great-grandmother was Marguerite Trepagnier, ties the Sorapurus to Ormond Plantation because Trepagnier’s nephew Pierre was the first owner of Ormond. (Denease Sorapuru interview and author’s database).

Another family of color descends from Ambrose Heidel/Haydel, aka Ambroise Aydell, progenitor of the Haydel family in Louisiana. He settled in Hoffen (roughly Killona today) where the 1724 census lists him, age 22, a baker, his wife Anne Marguerite, his 18 year old brother, brother-in-law of 13 years , a pig and 1.5 arpents of land. Their sons Jean Jacques and Jean Nicolas expanded on family land that included Evergreen and Whitney plantations in Wallace, St. John Parish, though they lost both in 1866 after the Civil War. Whitney is today a well known museum of slavery on the German Coast.

Four generations from Ambrose (also spelled Ambroise) Haydel in 1835, Victor Theophile Haydel was born ca. 1835 to Antoine Haydel and the house servant Anne , believed to be of African-Indian heritage, age 14. Anne was a girl Marcelin Haydel had bought at a slave market in New Orleans as a gift to his wife Azelie. Victor was raised on the plantation by his white aunt Azelie Haydel who also raised her white nephew born the same year, son of her sister Josephine Haydel who died in childbirth. The cousins grew up much like brothers, and though enslaved, Victor apparently was not treated as such. In 1871 he married Celeste Becnel born to planter Florestan Jean Becnel and Francoise, a black slave on the neighboring plantation. Victor and Celeste’s fathers were second cousins. The couple had 5 children prior to marriage: Theophile 1859; Victor Jr. 1864; Emma ca.1865; Clement (Clay) 1869; and Andreas 1871. After marrying officially in 1873, the couple had five more children: Victorin 1874; Louis ca. 1876; Marcel 1877; Victoria 1878; and Elphege 1879. Victor and Celeste had land on Perret Plantation in St. John Parish near Whitney. Some of these children married free blacks in St. Charles and St. James parishes as well (Haydel 40).

In the early 1900s Victor’s five sons owned a plantation in Wallace. They sold part to the Louisiana Cypress Lumber Co., and farmed the rest of the land through 1926 . The Haydel family of color held high positions in the community and had their personal pew in St. John Church, which was mostly white. Their offspring became very successful throughout the U.S., numbering today in the hundreds, including Sybil Haydel Morial, wife of the late Dutch Morial, first black mayor of New Orleans (Haydel 42).

A remarkable woman of color whose property and children span St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans and the German Coast is Marie Louise Panis (1769-1852). She had a long term relationship with Urbain Picou, white, (1735-1811) St. Charles Parish planter with a town house in New Orleans, and at least five of her nine children were fathered by him : Rosalia aka Lisa 1797; Adelaide 1798; Honorato 1799 – all surnamed Panis; Adele Picou 1804; Philipe Odille Picou 1806; Emilia Picou 1809; Henrietta Julme Panis 1811; Theodule Picou 1813; and Honoria Picou 1815.

Marie Louise Panis was a woman of means; on her death in 1852, age “about 84”, her estate was valued at over a million dollars in today’s money. She and Urbain are buried in a joint tomb in the St. John the Baptist Cemetery in Edgard, in St. John Parish, a rare case of interracial burial at the time. No record of her birth or parentage has been found, but her will states she was born in Louisiana. She lived with Urbain Picou in St. Bernard Parish in the 1830s, and was known as “irreproachable in her relationships and deeds”. They moved ca. 1803 to the German Coast where Marie Louise acquired property and “more than 60 slaves,” was a retail merchant in New Orleans and owned the Panis plantation in St. John Parish, much of the land that today is the city of LaPlace. Urbain Picou, who preceded her in death in 1844, procured the joint tomb for them (Webre & Castrillo ). It is safe to say that Picou and Panis people of color in the river parishes today descend from that union of Marie Louise and Urbain. Since the surname Panis would be pronounced “Pan-ee”, it is possible that the surname Pain one sees in the river parishes is the phonetic spelling of Panis with the final S silent in French, and the N and I transposed, though this cannot be documented.


Emergence of Free People of Color

The children of the Haydel, Darensbourg, Sorapuru, Honoré, and Panis/Picou families mentioned above were born free because their parents were already free. From the earliest years in New Orleans and outlying posts, the French term les gens de couleur libre – the free people of color – was used to describe someone who had been freed from slavery or in some cases had never known bondage. Businessmen of this class from St. Domingue (Haiti) and the West Indies traveled through the Louisiana Territory and sometimes stayed. House servants from North Africa arrived with French families and lived as free. Mariners of African origin on ships from Europe and the Gulf of Mexico sometimes made Louisiana their home port and put down roots there. As children were born from liaisons between European men and slave women in the colony, and freed by their fathers – who sometimes appeared as the child’s godfather on the baptism record — they formed a small but rapidly expanding community of free people of color.

In 19th century Louisiana, free people of color were customarily identified by their skin shade and features that indicated the mixing of African with European. A person born of an African mother and European father, for example, was called a mulatto (pejorative term derived from “mule”). If that child bore offspring from a European, the offspring were called quadroons, indicating one-quarter “black blood”. The following generation — if children of a quadroon and a European — were called octoroons for one-eighth “black blood”. Mixtures of African and Indian were called grif (male) or griffe (female). The color labels were not exact, as there were, of course, many people in between these identities, and some slaves were also classified as grifs or mulattos. Until 1983, anyone born in Louisiana with one-32nd of African descent was legally identified as black or negre in what was called the One-Drop rule.

Once freed, people of color could not vote, hold public office or marry a white person, but they could conduct business, file court suits, travel, own property and in general enjoy the status of freedom. This could vary depending on the times, and free people of color throughout Louisiana until the Civil War carried the document proving their freedom with them, knowing how fragile their free status in fact was. They were, however, subject to the same laws as whites. In May 1805, for example, Basile, a “free mulatto” , had his place of business in St. Charles Parish seized by the sheriff because Basile was selling tafia (homemade rum from sugar cane) to slaves as was witnessed by two white men (Conrad, St. Charles Parish, 16).

1792, April 30 Jacques Masicot, on orders from New Orleans, submitted to the governor a “Census of the Free Negroes and Mulattoes in the First German Coast, Parish of St. Charles”. Note the name Charles Paquet, as well as other surnames in common with French settlers. No German surnames appear, unless some of those given had been Gallicized: Mulattoes (mixed race, generally refers to lighter skin color) Baptiste Meuillion, Josephe Cabaret, Pierre Pain, Jacques Bellaire, Janlouis Girardin, and Gabriel Lorriot. Negroes (first generation African or no mixture with whites) Jacque Bellile, Charles Paquet, Francois Fatine, Colas Dusseaux, Jassemain Bellile, Valantin Giardin, Jacques Frascaux, Bernabe, Charles Lange, Mathurin, Janlouis, Baptiste, Antoine Giardin, Paul Soldat, Grand Baptiste. The last two were noted as 60 years old, causing Winston De Ville, who wrote about the list, to conclude that the census may have been designed to name men of military service age, as “New Orleans had its own exclusively free-colored militia” ( DeVille 119-120). The 1804 Census of St. Charles Parish, as detailed in “Slave Records in Mid-to-Late 1700s” section above, shows 113 free people of color, compared to 713 whites and 1582 slaves. Although a distinct minority here as in other parts of Louisiana, the free people of color nevertheless posed a veiled threat to whites because of their education, hard work and the possibility of joining ranks with slaves in a revolt.

March 28, 1774 is the earliest civil record in St. Charles Parish of a” free mulatto” purchasing land: Jean bought a piece of land from Etienne Daigle, German (Conrad, St. Charles Parish, 25), and August 30, 1834 is the earliest marriage license granted in St. Charles Parish to free people of color, Celestine Butler and Gilbert Darensbourg (author viewed in Parish records 1816-1869). Though in the minority, such marriages are recorded at one or two per year through 1862. There is a seven-year gap from 1835 to early 1842 when marriage records are missing.

The first mention of a “quadroon” in St. Charles Parish records is in January 1805 when Louis Lolivret, native of France, received the last rites at the home of Rosalie Dussieux, “a free quadroon.” Lolivret did not reside with Rosalie; why he died at her home is not known. (Conrad, St. Charles Parish, 11). Possibly she had nursed him in a terminal illness, as free women of color were known for their medical skills. The couple also may have had a romantic relationship.

Free people of color in St. Charles Parish lived similar to their white counterparts in terms of labor and income. They were often educated and could tutor children on plantations, as there were no schools at the time, or serve as accountants, overseers and store managers on various plantations. Some had their own farms from which they vended fish, produce, dairy and meat to their neighbors, others operated small shops or made in-home visits to sew clothes for the family, provide medical treatment or do specialized jobs in construction, carpentry, landscaping and milling of sugar cane, grains and other crops. Due to their close ties to New Orleans and their ability to travel freely on the river, some made a good living going to the city with mail and gifts and salable items, and bringing back things like fabrics and notions, books and newspapers, and other goods not available in the country. They were Catholic and attended the local church, sitting in their designated pews.

As illustrated by the mixed-race families of Sorapuru, Darensbourg, Panis-Picou, Haydel and others, racial lines were fluid in pre-Civil War Louisiana. Although the One-Drop rule was adopted for those known as black or “Negro”, people with an ancestor or two from Africa but who through long family lines of mixed race could “pass for white” — passé blanc, could move across race lines if they so chose. Usually this meant removing oneself from the neighborhood where one’s history was known and moving to another area, causing a nearly permanent estrangement from one’s family of color. It was a heartbreaking decision and not lightly taken.

An example is Raphael Beauvais St. Jemme, a Frenchman from the upper class St. Jemme family in New Orleans, son of Jean Baptiste St. Jemme and Louise LaCroix. Raphael dropped the St. Jemme surname after marrying Marie Jeanne Faucher in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans 1760 . Her parents were Guillaume Faucher and Marie Ducre. The surname Faucher was very likely also Foucher or Fouché, a well known family of color in New Orleans, whose members could and did sometimes assume European identity. Raphael Beauvais might have been forced to drop the St. Jemme surname because of this association – his reasons are unknown.

In any case, he moved with his wife to St. Charles Parish sometime after 1760 where they had four children: Raphael, Joseph, Guillaume and Marie-Jeanne . When Beauvais died in 1783, his widow Marie-Jeanne Faucher married Pierre Galliard[sic] (Donewar 18 ), very likely the Pierre Gaillard from the wealthy family of free people of color in New Orleans (author’s note).

Another example that includes a different Gaillard over a century later is Marie Cecile Perilloux from two early German Coast families that began in St. Charles Parish: the Perillouxs (her father Felix) and the Froisys (her mother Marie Mirthe). In 1905 she married Armand A. Gaillard of New Orleans from two families of free people of color in the city: Gaillard (his father Armand L.) and Rodrigue (his mother Appolonie). The young couple married at the St. Louis Cathedral and lived in New Orleans to raise their four children: Armand, Felix, Marguerite and Yvonne. While the white Perilloux family tree is very extensive in what by that time was St. John the Baptist Parish, ( Montz 71) little is said about Marie Cecile and her Gaillard family, perhaps because they did not live in St. John, but also possibly because Marie Cecile’s marriage to a free man of color, whether passing as white or not, was not approved by her family (author’s note, also genealogy of Keila Dawson).

While we don’t know much about Marie Cecile’s parents who were probably farmers, we do know that the Gaillards of New Orleans of that era were wealthy people of color and well educated. They had not experienced being enslaved. Several of them studied in France and lived there. That some of them looked European and could present themselves as white was a definite advantage. If Marie Cecile’s family disapproved of her marriage, she nevertheless had very probably secured a better status for herself and her children with Armand Gaillard than she could have enjoyed had she married a German farmer upriver.


Free People of Color Buying and Owning Slaves

Free people of color on the German Coast, as was common also in New Orleans and other parts of the colony at the time, eventually participated in buying slaves, though often only one or two slaves and with the intention of freeing them. For example, the record of July 8, 1804 where Augustin Masicot,” in agreement with his brother , sold to Genevieve, a free Negro, a slave named Thelemaque, age 70, native of the Congo, for $100. She then granted freedom to him.” Very possibly the elderly man was the father, uncle or brother of Genevieve, though the legal transaction does not mention any family ties (Conrad, German Coast, 6).

A similar record of the same year confirms this buying and freeing of family members. January 19, 1804 Francois Deslonde and his wife Marie-Jeanne, “free Negroes”, formerly slaves of Ambroise Haydel, granted freedom to the slave named George, age 60, Marie-Jeanne’s father, for whom they had paid Gabriel Loriot $120 three days earlier ( Conrad, German Coast 1).

These purchases of family members sometimes meant great sacrifices to those free blacks who did so. For example, in October 1804 Victoire Thereze, free woman of color, mortgaged her farm and all her belongings for a surety bond to pay off a $805 debt to Pierre Champagne in exchange for his freeing his slave Agatha who was Victoire Thereze’s sister (Conrad, German Coast 8).

There exist records of free people of color of means buying and owning dozens of slaves in the early 19th century. That is evident in the history above of Marie Louise Panis, free woman of color who is said to have owned 60 slaves in the 1840s. The Haydel brothers of color above also owned “Baptist Negroes”, as they were identified by Belmont Haydel, on their plantations. He says “18 workers and their families lived in 9 quarter houses” without pay but had all their needs supplied through the commissary ( Haydel 42 ). Any planter at the time who aspired to expanding his land holdings and enriching his family knew that it would take the labor of enslaved people to accomplish that goal. How free people of color felt about owning slaves and how they treated them is open to conjecture, as there are no known accounts by or about such slave owners. Very likely, just as their white counterparts, they disassociated themselves from the institution and ranged in behavior as slave owners from generous and kind to brutal.


Division of the German Coast into Two Parishes

In 1770 the German Coast was divided into two ecclesiastical parishes named for the Catholic church established in each: St. Charles and St. John the Baptist respectively, upriver from New Orleans . County of the German Coast was a term used in legal documents until the early 1900s, although in 1807 St. Charles and St John the Baptist officially became civil parishes, keeping their ecclesiastical boundaries. (Biever in On To New Orleans! 26). St. Charles was the Lower German Coast and St. John the Baptist the Upper German Coast; these two would assume distinct political and geographical significance. While historically most German settler families and families of people of color, enslaved and free, were begun before this 1807 political division, their children now began to identify with one or the other. In 1775 there was a total of 70 concessions in St. Charles Parish, counting both banks of the Mississippi, with a total of 840 slaves (Blume 85), a large increase from the 120 slaves owned by both German coasts in 1730.

For slaves the ecclesiastical and civil division meant that family members and friends who had always been their neighbors were now subject to different commandants and rules. It became more difficult to visit back and forth and to communicate across parish lines. Free people of color, who were generally able to travel without restriction, along with their white counterparts, had to get accustomed to thinking of the common area of their childhood now being subject to two distinct governmental bodies. As a steady flow of newcomers settled in both parishes, the German Coast developed the name the Gold Coast due to the rise of sugar production.

Additionally, the Acadians, French exiles from Acadia in Nova Scotia, Canada, had arrived in Louisiana in the early to mid-1760s. Ships carrying an approximate 5,000 Acadians landed on the west bank of the Mississippi River above the German Coast, and although some traveled farther southwest to settle, many stayed on available land above St. John the Baptist Parish in what soon became known as St. Jacques (St. James) Parish. Some soon intermarried with the Germans and French, following the lead of their neighbors. Quite a few also had children with slaves and free women of color. Little is known about how the early Acadians interacted with slaves. John Mack Faragher states that the Acadians were not pure Caucasians, having mixed in Canada with the M’Kmaq Indians as early as the 1710s (Faragher 451).


Americanization Of the German Coast

At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the German Coast was intact as a geographical identity, but a mere four years later, in 1807, it was officially divided, as described above. German was spoken by some, but the French language had become dominant in social, religious and official matters. English spoken by American businessmen dealing with people in St. Charles Parish brought the need for adapting to that foreign language as well.

The newly Americanized territory of Louisiana would not become a state of the U.S. until 1812. Since New Orleans where German Coast farmers conducted their business was the capital, the Creole planters (anyone born in the colony) in St. Charles Parish were somewhat affected by the shift in political and cultural patterns of the new governor, state legislature and state constitution, but they continued to play a prominent role, maintaining their French language and culture despite some land along the river changing hands to outsiders.

For slaves this meant that most of them were now owned by planters with large acreage rather than small farmers. Rice, cotton and increasingly more sugarcane plantations were expanding and the demand for enslaved laborers was fierce. 1800 marked the death of the indigo industry on the German Coast. Sixty sugar cane plantations had developed, requiring a lot more slaves. There were also lumber processing, rice and cotton cultivation and cattle raising on large plantations. Small farmers stuck to cultivating grain, corn and some cotton (Merrill 45). Among slave sales and inventories the term ”negre americain” (American negro) began to appear as excess slaves on the East Coast were brought to market in New Orleans. They were literally walked from Virginia in coffles, small groups chained to each other. Fewer slaves in Louisiana were identified as African, while the younger generation was “Creoles.”

In Louisiana slaves were legally classed as immovable property, the same as real estate, because land was only worth something if there were hands to work it (Sublette 226). Slaves were phenomenal generators of wealth for their owners: they were free labor, salable merchandise, and the best collateral. In general, reproductive abilities of enslaved people alone could increase a planter’s worth by five percent per year. Slaves could also be rented out for labor, sex, crafts and domestic service. Being sold to and owned by a Louisiana sugar planter, however, was a slave’s worst nightmare due to the very hard and brutal work of sugar production which consumed a disproportionate number of black laborers. A telling fact is that sugar slaves in southern Louisiana had negative birth rates for as long as slavery lasted. (Sublette 221-225)

There was always concern by the planters that slaves would rise up and kill them, burning their properties and wreaking havoc on the whole area. Meeting of slaves from different plantations was thus forbidden, as was any travel except when sanctioned by a pass from a master. In 1804, for example, John Hutchison was granted a license to operate a cabaret, billiard hall and to serve alcoholic beverages in St. Charles Parish. He had to promise not to sell liquor to Indians or to slaves without the permission of their masters (Conrad, German Coast, 2).

Between 1809 and 1810 there were 3,012 free blacks and 3,266 slaves allowed into Louisiana as part of 9,059 refugees from Saint-Domingue (Haiti) due to fleeing the revolution on that island. Many of these slaves were purchased by German Coast planters, and though the majority of the free blacks remained in New Orleans, a few sought work upriver. The 1810 census of St. John Parish, for example, shows 67 families, and that of 1820 shows 70. Only one free man of color, Joseph Eugene, is listed either time. There were also Haydels, Tregres, etc. very likely of mixed race but not designated as such (Oubre 91- 92). Slave families were not enumerated in any censuses of the time.

There were pockets of whites and blacks living in the same settlements in remote areas of the parish. In 1810 at Vacherie Folse on a remote shore of Lac des Allemands on the German Coast, part of which was in St. Charles Parish and part in St. John, the census showed 31 people living there in the complex of Antoine Folse: 19 whites and 12 slaves. Oubre speculates that the 12 slaves may not all have belonged to Folse, as he was a traiteur (healer) and kept some patients in his home. (p. 96). This is substantiated by the August 1, 1822 will of Antoine Folse that states: “I free my slaves after my youngest reach majority.” Oubre, oddly, puts this sentence in bold print. Folse’s debtors included Madame George Haydel 50 livres for medical treatment of a “negre” nomme Jasmin for a year for a “hydrojune”; 30 livres from Pierre Ayme Becnel for treating her “negre” nommé Hilaire for 8 months; and from Pierre Lebourgeois, fils, 20 livres for treating his “negre” nommé Michel for 6 months. These treatments included medicines, food, etc. Folse may have used the mystical healing stone La Pierre (aka Capstone), too. (Oubre 109-110) By the 1830 census, Vacherie Folse showed four households with a total of 91 people: 50 whites and 41 blacks, who are not identified as to how many were slaves or free people of color (Oubre 103).

The earliest marriage license for free people of color I have found in the St. Charles Parish archive is August 30, 1834 of Gilbert Darensbourg (fmc) and Celestine Butler (fwc). The next one is the following year of Alexis Darensbourg and Henriette Normand (fpc). All four were natives of St. Charles Parish. Alexis is the natural son of Adolphe Darensbourg and Heloise Augustin (fwc). Because some records are missing and some marriages between white men and free women of color were recorded outside the parish or the state, it is very likely that other such marriages occurred before 1834.

Some planters freed all their slaves in their wills, thus creating a large group of free people on the same date. In 1838, for example, the will of Stephen Henderson, who married Eleanora Zelia D’Estrehan, was probated. It called for all of his slaves to be freed and to choose between “a $500 passage to Liberia or an acre of land, a cabin, mule, cow and other supplies to start out as a free man.” (Yoes 128) This was in keeping with the Back-to-Africa movement supported by large slaveholders such as John McDonogh at the time. The American Colonization Society, a national group, firmly convinced that freed slaves would never be accepted as full human beings anywhere in the U.S., set up Liberia, a country on the west coast of Africa ca. 1821 as a place for freed slaves to make a new and dignified life for themselves. How many of Henderson’s freed slaves took his offer either way is not known; ironically his Destrehan Plantation 30 years later served as the Rost Colony, a post-Civil War refuge of the Freedman’s Bureau for slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation but having no wherewithal to support themselves and their families.


Revolt Execution
Paintings of the 1811 Slave Revolt by artist Lorraine Gendron.

The 1811 Slave Revolt

January 8, 1811, the same year as the first steamboat arrived in N.O. revolutionizing commerce on the river, there was a major slave revolt that started in St. John Parish on the east bank, today LaPlace, and moved through St. Charles Parish where it was quelled less than three days later. Bearing cane knives and wooden clubs, the rebels traveled on foot from farm to farm, swelling their ranks as they chanted “On to New Orleans! On to New Orleans!” Large plantations did not develop in that area until two decades later, so these marchers had to round up small groups of male slaves from the various farms and also take on marooned slaves in order to gather the momentum needed to reach New Orleans, clean out the city’s arsenal as planned, and take over, thus creating another Haitian type revolution. At the time New Orleans was a predominantly black town: 37 percent white, 67 percent non-white; the rebels counted on that large black majority to support and join them. Their considerable contact with the capital city, plus the maroon communities between New Orleans and upriver were key to facilitating the planning and execution of such an uprising.

The details of the ill fated 1811 slave revolt are told elsewhere on this site. Charles Deslonde, ironically a slave driver by trade on the Ory farm, was the undisputed leader. Plantations along the route were set on fire. One planter, Francois Trepagnier, was killed. The number of slaves killed or escaped is not recorded, but 66 dead is the statistic most often quoted. Other slaves went permanently missing or were eventually caught and tried. The trial of the 21 instigators — those unable to escape into the swamps — was held partially at Destrehan Plantation where several were hanged (Conrad, German Coast 101-102). The others were tried, convicted and hanged in New Orleans. The gruesome custom of displaying the heads of executed slaves on poles along the river was carried out in order to warn anyone inspired by their acts of rebellion. Today Destrehan Plantation, open to the public, has an exhibit and tour of the 1811 Slave Revolt. Though involving more rebels than Nat Turner’s famous revolt August 1831 three decades later, the Louisiana revolt is often overlooked in history books.

It should be noted that slave discontent was certainly not limited to this aborted revolt, as historically sabotage and resistance were always part of the world of the enslaved. The recording of runaway slave groups existed in the prior decade on the German Coast. An example is the October 9, 1805 trial of four runaway slaves, three male and one female, who were part of a 13 member runaway group en route for 16 days to Baton Rouge. They stole money and tools from the Labranche [Zweig] farm in St. Charles Parish where they were intercepted by the slave patrol. The captives stated they knew of other runaway groups hiding in the swamps along Lake Pontchartrain. (Conrad, The German Coast, 2). In June 1808 “free Negro” Charles Paquet was accused of harboring two runaway slaves in his cabin in St. Charles Parish. Inquisition of these slaves revealed months of hiding out in the cypress swamps behind the Destrehan farm with a “band of runaways”, living off animals they rustled from neighboring farms. They described having rifles and living hand to mouth. Paquet, who is likely the man of the same name who a decade earlier had built Destrehan Plantation house which stands today, admitted to housing and feeding the two runaways and a third occasionally, in exchange for their labor in building a fence. He was fined $124, a considerable sum at the time (Conrad, German Coast, 65-66).

Doris Lee Alexander
The late Doris Lee Alexnander.

Stories of slave rebellion in various forms have been passed down to the present in families descending from that institution. Doris Lee Alexander of Luling, age 85, told the author about her great-great-grandmother who, according to family lore, was a cook on a plantation in St. Charles Parish. Her master, a cruel man who kept a parrot in the kitchen to spy on the cook, found her storing some biscuits under a chair to feed later to her children. He beat her severely when the parrot squawked about the hidden biscuits. The cook took her revenge by feeding the bird parsley and it died of “mysterious causes” (interview with Doris Alexander 2016).

In the book On to New Orleans! (chapter 6) Albert Thrasher documents a series of rebellious acts in New Orleans, St. Charles and St. John parishes both prior to and following the 1811 Revolt, including fires, runaway slaves, attacks against masters, and mini-revolts. Despite authorities making stricter penalties for such infractions and establishing patrols and militia to guard communities, the sabotage and insurrection continued into the 1850s. These cases show how common it was for slaves to move from farm to farm as runaways who were part of a large and fluid population living by their wits. It was this maroon culture that formed a backdrop for Charles Delondes galvanizing the discontented slaves and that gave the 1811 Slave Revolt more credibility to Louisiana and beyond than American history has accorded it.


Sugar Barons and Antebellum St. Charles Parish

As public projects were developed, such as building levees, constructing railroad tracks, and felling and hauling trees out of the forests to be used in these massive endeavors, some slaves were hired out to work during the slow season on their farms and plantations. The meager payment they received had to be shared with the master, but it provided income and incentive for those slaves who could physically handle the challenging labor. Edouard Paradis from Quebec, Canada, established a cross-tie manufacturing plant in a community later to bear his name in St. Charles Parish in 1856 and employed many slaves along with white workers. They not only made the cross-ties but built the railroad tracks that would open the area to major commerce. (Duhe 196)

In 1850 during the golden era of antebellum Louisiana, the census of St. Charles Parish shows 191 households were enumerated, 18 headed by free people of color, the majority “mulatto” (3,959 slaves are not enumerated). Two households are headed by a white male and include one or several “mulattoes”. One appears to be a white man living with a free woman of color and their children, while the other looks like it was a white family with an elderly black couple living with them, possibly as their freed slaves serving the household. There are 807 whites and 121 free people of color, a total of 988 free population greatly outnumbered by 3,959 slaves (Gros, June 1983, 37-40).

During the June 1859 massive crevasse (levee break) at Bonnet Carré Plantation in St. Charles Parish, dozens of planters lost everything including thousands of hogsheads of processed sugar and many drowned cattle. Accounts of this flooding do not mention slaves or where they went for refuge; levee tops were used for that purpose in other floods. Losses represented the slaves’ hard work as well; however, that is not mentioned in the historic narrative. The 1859 crevasse pointed out the need for flood protection in that area, but it wasn’t until after the devastating 1927 flood that the Flood Control Act of Congress authorized relief valves called spillways along the Mississippi River leading to construction of the Bonnet Carré Spillway in 1932 which protects the parish and New Orleans some 20 miles downriver.
Thriving sugar plantations required large numbers of healthy young male slaves. By 1860 Saint Charles Parish had 4,182 slaves compared to 938 whites and 177 free Negroes. Not surprisingly, 29 slave holders held 55 or more slaves each, or 75 percent of the total; the rest were held by 109 slave holders, some of them free blacks (Yoes 93). To put it into perspective, the combined value of slaves was hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the combined value of real estate: $2,053,300 in slaves vs. $1,703,266 in land, a difference of $350,000. By comparison, all the cattle were valued at $25,200 total.

In 1852 two newspapers were established on the German Coast: Le Mesechabe for St, John Parish and L’Avant Coureur for St.Charles Parish. Both were printed on a press in Lucy. These papers plus the dailies in New Orleans at the time provide further sources for information on people and places of the time (Seck 6). Reporters were exclusively white men, and it was rare to see the mention of people of color, slave or free, in print, except for commercial purposes. Their social and religious lives were not recorded by the newspapers, nor were their births or deaths.


The Civil War

On the eve of the Civil War the U.S. Census Bureau took the St. Charles Parish Census of 1860 showing 258 households, 53 of them free people of color, or approximately one in five. This accounted for 938 whites and 177 free people of color, marked M for mulatto or B for black. Slave households, which accounted for 4,182 slaves, were customarily never enumerated. Although no addresses or locations of houses were given, people of color lived close to each other for the most part, except for a few lone men or women who had a house between planters or lived in with white families as perhaps servants since being freed. Census data, assumed to be accurate and complete, was extrapolated by Leontine O. Gros and Anne P. Hymel in Les Voyageurs editions of 1985-1987.

The white community of 1860 was by no means homogenous, according to the census, having a number of foreigners such as planters from Kentucky and Virginia, teachers from England and Sweden, railroaders from Ireland, Italy and Switzerland, ship carpenters from Alabama and South Carolina, several priests from France, overseers from Maryland, Prussia and Italy, grocers from France and Mexico, a baker from Belgium and a tailor from Bavaria, to name a few. Some households were mixed race: assistant postmaster Hypolite Leviste, 58, from France lived with “mulattoes” Andrinette James, 38, and Emile James 24 , who “keeps a woodyard”. Cornelius Shannon, 35, a groom from Ireland is listed in the household with the mulatto Pauline Masicot, 60, probably a housekeeper.

Most of the heads of household among people of color had trades and professions from the lowly washerwomen, local Zoe Paquet and Mathilde Bourgeois from Maryland and her daughter Clara Bourgeois, 17, a nurse, to black doctors, the local Pierre Allain and the African Octave Fortier, planter Charles Daspy, farmer Charles Darensbourg, and overseers Octave Darensbourg and Pierre Dapremont. Trades included butchers Joseph Narcisse and Jean Paquet; shoemaker Eugene Sean from St. Domingo, coopers Adolphe Joffroid and Charles Darensbourg, blacksmith Clerville Holland; gardener Adolphe Lefebrve; master carpenters Lovinski Latiolet and Pierre Cannon with his son Adolphe an apprentice saddler; master masons Terrence Darensbourg, Maurice Ritz and brothers Gabriel and Charles Honoré, Alceste, and Charles Bougeois, and Isidore and Eugene Sean, and apprentice mason Joseph Dedune; seamstresses the Honoré sisters Marie, Ophelia and Delphine, and the Sean sisters Marie, Celestine and Marie Jeanne, also Marie Norman and Natalie Honoré; baker Caroline Friloux; cigar maker J.R. Forstall; and groom Bernard Masicot. Farm laborers, all listed as B for black, included Lucien Norman, Basile Troxler and Augustin Zeringue.

Because people died young, there were a lot of widows and widowers, making at times blended families, such as Gilbert Darensbourg, 50, whose household included his four teenage children and Marie Sean, 30, with her siblings age 13 to 28. Black planter Charles Daspy, 65, lived with his four children and Marie Picou, 33, and her four young mulatto children. Elderly grandparents also appear as part of some households.

Keep this dynamic population in mind as Louisiana moves into the Civil War. When New Orleans fell to Union Occupation in late April 1862, martial law extended to Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes but not to the river parishes to the north. Food was scarce and expensive in New Orleans, which motivated farmers in St. Charles Parish to ship their goods by pirogue downriver in much the same way their ancestors had done in the 1730s (Millet 11). Federal gunboats passing on the river threatened everyone with skirmishes yet to come, and when such boats docked at plantations along the way, no one would sell them milk, eggs or other much needed foodstuffs. Boatloads of poor white families, terrified of the Occupation, paddled and push-poled their way by boat upriver to St. Charles Parish where they sought refuge from federal troops in and around New Orleans; some were taken in by local people, others were left to suffer from hunger and deprivation. Added to this mix were hundreds of slaves running away toward New Orleans where they expected Union troops to grant them freedom. They hid out along the way wherever they could find shelter.


Native Guard Regiments

Some of those runaways made it to New Orleans and helped form the First Native Guard Regiment composed exclusively of free men of color and contraband soldiers, most of them slaves, organized by the Union in late April 1862 by General Benjamin F. Butler. It was the first officially authorized regiment of African-American soldiers in the U.S. Army. Whites in New Orleans were so hostile to the newly formed black regiment that General Butler had the First Native Guard work far outside the city to clear Confederate troops from the region between New Orleans and Morgan City (then named Brashear City) and to restore transportation links on the west bank of the Mississippi. This brought them through St. Charles Parish where they forced Confederates to retreat from Des Allemands, restored 52 miles of railroad track and rebuilt two bridges (Bell 299-300).

One of the better known Union soldiers in the Native Guard was Pierre Aristide Desdunes, free man of color from New Orleans where he had helped publish Les Cenelles, a collection of poetry written in French by him and his colleagues, the first literary work of men of color in the country in 1845. In the small town of Boutte in St. Charles Parish while working there with the Native Guard, Desdunes met his wife-to-be Louise Mathilde Denebourg, a native of the town and also born free as he had been. Reflecting on his time on the German Coast, Desdunes later penned a long poem “Saint Charles Parish Narrative: Cornelie’s Madness”, a tale of the 19 year old Cornelie whose unrequited love for Francois drives her to consider suicide. The poem extols the natural beauty of the area as Desdunes experienced it (Bell 299).

In May 1863 General Butler sent the First Native Guard to Port Hudson above Baton Rouge where they joined the Third Native Guard Regiment of men of color, many of whom came from the river parishes. Together they suffered terrible losses at the hands of the Confederates sniping at them from atop the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Fortunately, Desdunes’ injuries were not to claim his life, but he lost many comrades in the Port Hudson siege, including the intrepid Captain of the Native Guard, André Cailloux, the first black military hero in the war. Despite facing discrimination from white troops, the Native Guard at Port Hudson proved to the Union and Ulysses Grant that soldiers of African descent could indeed hold their own in combat. The Second Native Guard regiment, not present at Port Hudson, was led by Major Francis Ernest Dumas, free man of color, and was comprised of slaves he inherited and others in the area (Hollandsworth 26-27).

The allegiance to the Confederacy of some free men of color in St. Charles Parish was similar to that in other parts of the state. Those who owned slaves and had amassed wealth and status through them were as threatened by the impending abolition of slavery as were their white counterparts. Some of these signed on with the Confederacy as soldiers, in some cases as with whites taking with them their personal slaves as valets. Others infirm or too old, remained on their plantations in hopes of staving off the raiding and pillaging by Union troops, while still many others took up the Union’s cause. There are stories of families of color who lost property, farms, livestock, and crops. Some stayed despite the deprivation; others fled to New Orleans, Baton Rouge or to relatives in the country.

The only detailed account of a planter of African descent who lost personal property and sued the U.S. government after the Civil War that I came across is of Theophile Mahier, free man of color in West Baton Rouge Parish upriver from the German Coast whose family would have known and associated with the Haydels, Sorapurus, Honore’s, and others downriver. There is a white Maher/Mahier family in St. Charles Parish, but any relationship to Theophile has not been found. His story gives insight into the experiences of other planters of color along the river. Theophile owned a 300 acre plantation in Mulatto Bend near Pointe Coupee Parish and was age 40 in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. He acquired his wealth partly through his parents, as he was the son of Anselme Mahier, French Creole bachelor, and his Creole slave Agnes, whom he emancipated in 1819 in Baton Rouge and gifted considerable property. They enjoyed a 30-year relationship. She had five children with Mahier in the 1820s, all of whom inherited from both Mahier and Agnes (Adams 135-136).

Theophile Mahier’s large plantation was across the river from Port Hudson. In March 1863, two months before the first siege of the port, he took the oath of allegiance to the Union in Baton Rouge, but his plantation was still raided by Union troops while he was away — by Colonel Fuller, a few officers and “lots of soldiers”, most former slaves and free men of color who had signed on with the Native Guard and were encamped near Port Hudson. Mahier’s cattle, hogs and goats were shot and taken to Baton Rouge to feed sick soldiers. Two wagons, harnesses and mules to pull them were taken filled with corn, barrels of sugar and syrup. Mahier was at the time trying to convince Federal officers in Baton Rouge to spare his plantation; his horse and fine Mexican saddle and bridle were taken from him by those same officers, and he was forced to walk home. On his return he crossed the river to confront the black soldiers of the Native Guard, a few of whom were related to him by blood. One has to imagine the conversation between this proud, dark skinned slave owner and Southern gentleman and the black soldiers who had been ordered to raid his plantation (Adams 223-225).

Theophile moved after that to another plantation nearby which he helped farm until the end of the war. In 1871 he was finally able to file a claim against the U.S. Government for his losses totaling $2,347.50. Nine years later he was reimbursed for about a fourth of that, $628.00 (Adams 258). His case was repeated all along the river. Like others in his social and family circle, he made the best of a bad situation by going on to become a state legislator 1867-68 during Reconstruction and participated in drafting and signing the State Constitution of 1869.

To say that life in the river parishes during the Civil War was chaotic and fraught with terror is an understatement. St. Charles Parish citizens found themselves in the center of it. Anyone remaining in the area was subject to pillage and plunder by both sides, depending on whether the Union troops or the Confederates were in the area. The Davis Plantation in the parish was the recipient of a stock of mules for safekeeping from the Valsin Marmillon plantation 18 miles upriver after a Rebel raid occurred there in June 1863. The Marmillon Plantation was abandoned by Government agents about two weeks later, having “850 Negroes of all ages who had access to the fruits and gardens” (Webre “Valsin Marmillion” 130). Tens of thousands of unsupervised former slaves roamed the roads. Union officers used black troops from the Native Guard to raid farms and confiscate arms, jewelry, animals, carts and crops, which added to the resentment by whites of black thugs.

It was reported, says Webre, that “three carts loaded with slaves arrived from Boutte Station [in St. Charles Parish] with slaves shrieking threats, singing and inciting insurrection….” Some Union officers were corrupt, illegally charging “$5 for a permit to carry arms and hunt, from $5 to $10 for Passes; all of which are in direct violation of the order of the General commanding this Department.”

Many enslaved men saw their opportunity for freedom if they attached themselves to the Union Army. Camps of runaway blacks sprang up at various places in cane country as shanty towns near Union army posts. Some male slaves were hired on to carry knapsacks and equipment for Union soldiers. The federal troops fed the runaways in the shanty towns and sometimes consorted with the women among them in what was called “a frolic of miscegenation” (Keller, The Human Side, 175-186). Meanwhile, the cane fields lay abandoned.

Food for people of both races remaining on the plantations was scarce to none except what they could grow for themselves. Stores formerly owned by Confederate sympathizers were closed, and prices for food stuffs, set by the Union, were exorbitant, a barrel of flour costing several hundred dollars. Medical supplies were almost nonexistent, the simple remedy of quinine selling at $20 an ounce. Malaria, typhoid, diphtheria and measles and whooping cough claimed many lives, especially of the children and elderly (Keller, The Human Side, 179).


Reconstruction

In the wake of destruction and despair after the Civil War ended and the chaos of the occupation by federal troops in the period of Reconstruction which followed in 1867, there were freedmen and men of color who had always been free who found their place in the order of things. Those who had fought with the Union were given choice positions. George Essex, for example, served in the Union Army and was named sheriff of St. Charles Parish and president of its Police Jury 1872-1878.

It was a good time to open a family business if one had survived the war with cash in reserve. John Smith, former Virginia slave named Polidor, arrived in New Orleans during the Civil War where he signed on with the Union Army. He settled in St. Charles Parish afterward, married Marguerite Thomas and raised six children. He and his descendants operated Smith’s Grocery Store in Hahnville for over 80 years. (Above mentioned two men appear on this website under “Emancipation Proclamation” section).

Farm workers remaining on the land in the river parishes were forced to live by their wits, poor whites and freed slaves striking share cropping deals with planters who had returned, or squatting in abandoned homes and former slave cabins and claiming their plots to grow gardens and crops. Later, Italians and other immigrants lived and worked with freed slaves informally and in an integrated community where survival was the common goal. It is an arrangement rarely mentioned in history books. In St. Charles Parish some of the plantation homes and large farms never were reclaimed by their former owners. St. Rose Plantation house in St. Rose was demolished 1901 due to neglect along with several others in the early 20th century. When the N.O. Refining Company looked for land along the river for its new oil terminal in 1916, it bought up the Good Hope Plantation in Sellers (now NORCO), and in 1919 Carson Petroleum built a refinery on the Cedar Grove Plantation in St. Rose. A way of life gradually disappeared for black and white alike.

An 1865 list of property owners and taxes paid on the east bank in St. Charles Parish shows a Mr. St. Martin as paying taxes for several apparently poor neighbors whose real estate and personal value in the 1860 census was zero: Leonard Giribaldi, Octave Darensbourg, Celestin Isidore and Aimee Darensbourg (Webre, “St. Charles Assessments” 48-50). One wonders why St. Martin would have done this, if not perhaps to help his former slaves or freed neighbors. Race is not noted in the 1860 census nor in the 1865 tax payers’ list, thus it cannot be determined that the four individuals with their own land were black, but their poverty as a group suggests it.

In Louisiana the term “freedmen” was used for slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and legal documents no longer used the initials fpc for free people of color after the names of blacks, since everyone was now free. Initials B for black or C for colored appear in some post-Civil War records with no distinction as to the person’s pre-war status. In families of generations of free blacks where Creole families of color, named earlier in this essay, had led a lifestyle separate from slaves and freedmen, some members light skinned enough to pass as white chose to do so, while others identified with the now generic terms “black” or “colored”. In several areas along the River Road through St. Charles Parish streets are named for plantations that once stood there, and there is a street named Free Town where freed slaves moved up front near the river — where whites had lived during slavery — and away from the former slave cabins that were always far to the back. Land for the first colored school in the parish, for example, was donated by Joaquin Crespo from part of his Crespo Plantation in an area of St. Rose still known by locals as Free Town.

There were attempts made to educate freedmen and their families and prepare them for a self-sustaining life, though the efforts fell far short of the demand, considering the 331,726 freed slaves in Louisiana. Four “home colonies” were set up throughout the state for this purpose. Benjamin Butler, Union chief, seized Destrehan Plantation in St. Charles Parish early in 1865 from its owner now exiled in Europe, Judge Pierre Adolphe Rost, who had married a Destrehan. The Rost Home Colony was established there. It became the most successful of these attempts, operating almost two years, March 1865 to December 1866, under the control of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Rost’s home in New Orleans was also seized and converted into two schools for colored orphans. At Destrehan the Rost Colony housed at any time over 700 residents in former slave cabins and new cabins built by and for them. They had schools and grew and harvested large crops of cotton, corn and sugar cane to support themselves. White refugees, most of mixed race, lived there as well (Yoes 130, Milan 45-47).

The Freedmen’s Bureau kept excellent records of all accounts and residents in their home colonies. Many residents were listed by surname for the first time, meaning they had to claim a family name going forward, a decision that may have caused some disagreement and estrangement among families if members chose different surnames. The Rost Colony closed at the end of 1866 because Judge Rost had returned from exile, was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and reclaimed his land. A page on this website is devoted to the important function of this Colony—look under “Reconstruction”.

St. James Methodist Church
St. James Methodist Church in Hahnville, 1862. Land was donated by Governor Hahn to build a church. Church was also used as a school.

An outgrowth of The Rost Colony in St. Charles Parish was Flaggville, founded 1870 by parish judge Othello Jerome Flagg, a former Union soldier, who wanted to provide continuing education and employment opportunities to freed slaves. The Flaggville Colored School operated until the end of the century (Becnel et al 89). Flagg was joined in 1872 by Georg Michael Hahn, liberal Republican Governor of Louisiana during the contentious year of February 1864 to March 1865. Close friend of President Abraham Lincoln, Hahn lost his bid for the U.S. Senate after Lincoln’s assassination, despite being elected in January 1865. He also helped to write the state constitution of 1864 that ushered in major reforms enforced by federal troops during Reconstruction. Hahn, a native of Germany, was injured in a mob attack in New Orleans for his speeches urging that blacks be given the right to vote (Simpson 16-17).

In the quiet countryside near Flaggville, Hahn bought a small sugar plantation and resumed his political activism. Honest and humble, he lobbied until his death in 1886 for “a strong Union under civil government, and public education for all citizens, in order to create an effective work force and an educated electorate” (Simpson 18). Though he died a debtor, he had remained true to his principles. The village of Hahnville was laid out by him in 1877, having a Lincoln Street (later renamed). Eventually Flaggville was annexed to Hahnville which became the St. Charles Parish seat. An exhibit about Hahn in the courthouse in Hahnville today honors his contributions locally and nationally. His home still stands at 141 Elm Street (Becnel et al 82).


Segregation and Separate-but-Equal

Reconstruction ended fairly abruptly in 1877 with the withdrawal of federal troops and the reinstitution of local white rule. Blacks who had been able to vote and hold public office in the preceding decade had to step aside. Strict segregation by race became the norm and would be so for almost a century until the Civil Rights Movement. The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case in 1896 involving a light skinned black man in New Orleans, established “separate-but-equal” accommodations for both races, but the “equal” part of that equation was not fulfilled for blacks.

In rural areas of St. Charles Parish, as in other parishes, the degree of segregation depended on the situation. Many people continued to work on the same small farms or as share croppers and were friendly to each other. In some cases they knew of shared ancestors. A story passed down in the Felicien Breaux family in St. Charles Parish, about how Henry Harry Breaux got his name, illustrates this. Henry Harry was the last of the ten children of the white couple Felicien and Lillian (Acosta) Breaux. Mid-July 1922 his mother instructed her older sons to take their weeks-old new brother to the nearby church to be baptized – it was custom for the mother to remain home and rest. The priest asked what the child had been named, but the brothers had no idea, so they said “Henry and Harry,” the two black men who were the best sugarcane workers with them and their father in the fields. When they arrived home, one of the boys said they had brought Henry Harry back. Their mother asked who that was. When they pointed to the baby, gave her the newly inked baptism certificate and explained that they gave the names of the two workers, she could only smile and agree to keep it. The Breaux men worked on various farms in Killona in St. Charles Parish. Felicien and his sons soon started to cut the hair of their neighbors, eventually becoming a family of barbers along the river (Keller, Cutting Edge, 50).

Alberta Mae Powell Gullage when interviewed by the author in 2016, spoke of an insular lifestyle for many people of both races when she was a child. Born 1930 and the mother of twelve raised by her and husband Philip Gullage in St. Charles and St. John parishes, she mentioned discrimination in having to walk four miles to school in Lucy as a child while the white children rode a school bus. She felt that was somewhat offset by her father being able to support the family through his job as laborer on a plantation. They were all poor by today’s standards, but her father’s steady pay check, the church where her father was pastor, and the close knit family of eleven children and nearby relatives, all served as a buffer from the political situation going on around them.


Conclusion

Freedmen and blacks in general had by the turn of the century established their own schools, churches, and social aid and pleasure societies giving their members opportunities for leadership. They also united in ways unthinkable before freedom to accommodate the humiliating Jim Crow laws of separate public facilities for blacks and for whites, and the often brutal hand of the law that kept them in their place. It would be nearly another century before the national Civil Rights Movement brought about the end of the separate-but-equal laws, desegregated the schools and made voting available to all people regardless of color.

In St. Charles Parish as elsewhere in the state, progress came slowly. Today we continue to live with vestiges of the past: housing is often racially divided, though in newer subdivisions this is less the case; blacks and whites generally attend separate churches and social organizations. However, as people move into and out of the parish for jobs and family there is more diversity.

Perhaps the most important social institution that has survived the ebb and flow of history in the river parishes is the church. Both Catholics and Baptists of color have found solace and inspiration, as well as community, on Sunday mornings. In St. Charles Parish the Caanan Baptist Church in Killona continues today as a growing congregation, as does the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and the Fifth African Baptist Church both in St. Rose, joined by True Vine Baptist Church in Hahnville. These congregations formed in the early 20th century and weathered hurricanes, fires and other damage; they always rebuilt and while some churches around them went under, somehow these pastors and their flocks survived.

The past is always part of the present on the German Coast. In 1998 Charles Baloney bought the “big house” on Emelie Plantation near Garyville in St. John the Baptist Parish, on which his ancestors had worked as slaves. He grew up there with his mother and grandmother working as cooks in that house. “I feel my ancestors looking through the windows, and I am sure they are proud,” Baloney said (Gehman 93). He has since sold the property, but his example is symbolic of new attitudes and opportunities.
The question is how to honor those who slaved and suffered discrimination as we move forward. In St. Charles Parish at the courthouse in Hahnville an exhibit tells the story of its remarkable founder, liberal Republican governor Georg Michael Hahn, and Destrehan Plantation has an exhibit on the 1811 Slave Revolt and the plantation’s role in the trial of the rebel slaves. In the River Region the River Road African-American Museum in Ascension Parish has told the local history for 20 years now. In 2016 Whitney Plantation in St. James Parish opened as a slavery museum, and two other plantation houses along the river open to tours—Laura and Oak Alley — now feature exhibits on the slaves who lived and worked there. Remembering this past, painful as it is, can indicate the areas in which progress can and should be made in the future.


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Interviews with:
Doris Lee Douglas Alexander April 20, 2016
Denease Sorapuru May 18, 2016
Albert Mae Powell Gullage July 9, 2016
Keila Dawson April 12, 2017