Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cane River Creole National Historical Park: Magnolia Plantation

A few posts ago I mentioned visiting Cane River Creole National Historical Park, one of the newer units in the National Park system. Cane River Creole is located in northwest Lousiana south of Natchitoches. The park itself consists of two plantations, Oakland and Magnolia. The Oakland unit includes all the surviving buildings, including the main house, associated with the plantation; Magnolia includes numerous ancillary structures -- slave quarters, plantation store, blacksmith's barn, overseer's house (shown above), slave hospital -- but does not include the main house and the grounds immediately surrounding the main house. The main house is still owned by the family that operated the plantation beginning in the early 19th century. It's located to the left of this line of live oaks shown below that marks the boundary of the park and is so thoroughly surrounded by oaks and other vegetation that it was impossible to determine something as simple as architectural style, let alone photograph. The little house in the distance was the cook's quarters -- it's located about midway between the overseer's house and the main house.
The photo below is a view of the overseer's house as seen from the general area of the slave quarters.
One of the more interesting aspects of the history of the Cane River area is the role that free men and women of color played in the local economy. I'd read Barbara Hambly's historical novels set in early 19th century Louisiana, but had never really thought about the legal basis for the existence of hommes de couleur libre until visiting Cane River. The park has an excellent fact sheet on the "black codes," the French laws that dictated the responsibilities of owners and the rights of slaves -- and slaves did have rights under the French.

Probably key to the hommes de couleur libre was the fact that it was illegal for a French citizen to have sexual intercourse with a slave. If a white man wanted a colored woman as a mistress (or even a one night stand) she had to be free. He could keep a mistress; he could not keep a slave for purposes of concubinage. As a result, if a free man was attracted to a woman who was a slave he had to buy her freedom. Once the woman was free, any children she bore after receiving her freedom would also be free.

Not surprisingly, many of the women who attained their freedom proved to be quite entrepreneurial, as did their descendants. A number of historic plantations in the Mississippi delta region can trace their ownership back to hommes de couleur libre, including several in the Cane River area. Melrose Plantation, located close to the park but not part of it, began as 68 acres given to an African woman in the 18th century. By the time she died in 1817 the 68 acres had grown to thousands, her children were rich, and the ones who inherited from her owned quite a few slaves themselves.

Also not surprisingly, given Southern history in general and the tendency of local historical societies everywhere to engage in revisionism and hagiography, the spin the local bluehairs put on the history of Melrose Plantation is that the woman's owner freed her out of the generosity of his heart and not because it was the law. As usual, the popular mythology also includes the line "he would have married her if society had allowed him to."

And, speaking of slavery, the buildings below are the surviving slave quarters at Magnolia. They're brick, and were built by an owner who moved to Louisiana from Virginia in the early 1800s. They're one of the best examples I've ever seen of someone imposing an architectural style totally unsuited to a climate. No doubt the man took great pride in them, and they would have been totally appropriate in the Shenandoah Valley -- but in Louisiana? The windows are small, circulation is poor, and for half the year the folks stuck living in them must have felt like they were being baked alive.
Nonetheless, the historical record indicates the brick quarters were considered the high status quarters. The slaves who lived in them were the skilled craftsmen (blacksmith, for example) or worked in the main house. Magnolia was a large plantation, and at one time had over 70 buildings for slave quarters. About one tenth that number survive today. According to the park guide, quite a few of the quarters buildings were torn down and the brick used to reconstruct the main house following a fire in the 1890s.

The quarters built as duplex units were converted to single family following the Civil War and the introduction of share cropping and tenant farming.


  1. slavery is, among other things a blight on our what we did and are still doing to the indians.

  2. My mother's sister lived in this part of LA when I was a kid. I spend a summer there with her. I loved it. Gorgeous country. Thanks for the history lesson. I had no idea the French were so "enlightened." But then, the French are rather enlightened still. No?

  3. This was a really interesting post. We can deny all we want about our national past, but we've got some mighty weighty skeletons cluttering up the closets.


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