Kreol explores the generational developments over hundreds of years in the deep South of the United States. The Cane River Creoles of Louisiana established themselves and expanded throughout the state, and only in recent decades has their story come to be known and preserved.
A National Historic Landmark that comprises six structures and dates back three hundred years, the Melrose Plantation is at the heart of the story of Creole life in Louisiana. Mrs. Theresa Delphin- Morgan, a descendent of the families who settled here, speaks about the Melrose Plantation, taking us back through time to follow the story of the Cane River Creoles of Louisiana.
Born in Chains
Mrs. Delphin-Morgan recalls the origin of the Melrose Plantation. “Augustine, the son of Marie Thérèse and Claude Thomas, he and his family started this plantation. It all started about nine or ten generations ago with the Métoyer family.”
In the mid-18th century, Marie Thérèse Coincoin was born into slavery to slave parents in Louisiana. When she was about 25 years old, her mistress leased her out to a French businessman, Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer. “He wedded her, eventually,” reports Mrs. Delphin-Morgan. Together, they would have eight children, but Colonial Code Noir laws were very strict against allowing interracial marriage. Those participating in such a union, including clergy, faced fierce penalties from the Spanish government. “After Spain took over, the Catholic Church got very tight about marriage out of the Church or unions outside of the Church, and so they broke up the union,” Mrs. Delphin-Morgan says.
From Slavery to Savvy Businesswoman
Métoyer granted Coincoin her freedom in 1778, and continued his relationship with her, until he met and married a French woman ten years later, in 1788. “Métoyer gave Marie Thérèse a piece of land for her and her children,” says Mrs. Delphin-Morgan. Those 68 acres were where Coincoin raised the couple’s younger, freeborn children. She trapped, raised tobacco, crafted medicines and established a cattle ranch on her land, all enterprises to earn money. As a free woman, Coincoin leveraged the Spanish law of Las Siete Partidas to receive a land grant and purchase back six of her children and grandchildren.
Mrs. Delphin-Morgan continues, “Marie Thérèse and her children together managed within, I think it was three generations, to put together about 3,000 acres of land just by hard work.
The Natchitoches Creole Community
“This community is spread over many miles in this area,” says Mrs. Delphin-Morgan. “Marie Thérèse gradually freed all of her children, and the last one to be freed was her great-great-granddaughter, Susan; that was the only daughter she had. All of Marie Thérèse’s other children were boys. One of them, Louis, helped build a plantation across the river. So this was Louis’ plantation, and Susan’s descendants had the land to the north of here, so they really are the roots to this whole community which covers most of Cane River, and now covers much of Louisiana.”
Dr. Terrel Delphin, the “Father of the Creole Renaissance-Resurrection,” spearheaded efforts to preserve and promote the culture of the Cane River Creoles. The status and recognition of Creole culture in Louisiana today is directly attributable to his dedication and perseverance.
In 1997, two Creole plantations were transferred to the the National Park Service. “They bought two plantations,” Mrs. Delphin-Morgan recalls, “Oakland Plantation, up the river, was started by the Prudomme family. The Prudhommes farmed it until 1999; it’s designated a Bicentennial Farm. They decided to preserve it and give it to the National Park Service as part of the national park; Cane River Creole National Historic Park. The plantation on the other end of the river was one that was started by the Le Cour family, which was a Creole family; and that was Magnolia Plantation.”
The grounds were opened to the public, and visitors were touring the grounds, getting to know some Creole history. This included walking through areas where Creole families lived. Mrs. Delphin- Morgan remembers, “So, Terrel came in one day and said, “‘Look, we’re right in the middle of the park; what’s gonna happen to my people? We don’t want to become the objects of the tour because we live here.’ He began to become very active and he organized Creole communities all over the state.
At Melrose Plantation, Mrs. Delphin-Morgan spoke about its history. “This big house was built in the 1830’s for Louis Métoyer’s family. There’s an earlier house, we think, here in the back; and then there’s an African house, which for some people was the only example of African Architecture. There’s a pretty nice French barn, a storehouse and a ‘Macazee.’ These two houses are probably the same age or earlier, but Louis had another plantation house across the river, and I have no idea what happened to it; there’s nothing left of it but this plantation.
“Over the years, ownership of this plantation gradually got moved to an Irish immigrant family named Henry.” In 1884, merchant Joseph Henry purchased the plantation, and is responsible for having named it Melrose. “Joseph’s wife, Cammy Henry, was the last owner. A field worker and cook on the plantation, Clementine Hunter, took up art in her 50s and became the most famous folk artist in Louisiana. Miss Cammy was very much a patron of the arts–William Faulkner came here for a while–so she was a patron the arts, but to some extent, her connection to the plantation kind of overpowered the Creole story.”
The concern was that focus on the history of Creoles in Natchitoches would be lost. “Oh, yes, we try to tell the Creole story,” says Mrs. Delphin-Morgan, “and I gave the preservation its credit for listening now, so we have people on the board and well, I think the people were surprised they have a better story!”
The Cane River Calls the Creoles
“It’s just been a beautiful experience to be here on this plantation,” says Mrs. Delphin-Morgan. When Mrs. Delphin- Morgan is asked why she chose to remain in the Natchitoches Parish region of Louisiana, rather than moving away, she replies, “Well, I just really did not want to leave home. This has been our home. Our family lived just right up the highway, and I had the opportunity to go to school at the Northwestern State University, and I worked in the Natchitoches Parish and it was just home, this beautiful area.”