Mills has produced a historical narrative that has melded facts, lives and personalities in way that provides a great story. The theme of the Cane River Creoles of Colour, epitomised by the Metoyer family runs throughout the book and allows the reader to identify with the monumental struggle of that community.
The success of Mills is that he has managed, in equal measure, to depress us with the abhorrent nature of slavery but warmed our humanity to see how the downtrodden can elevate themselves even when ensnared in such dire lives.
The original matriarch: Marie Therese Coincoin/Metoyer
The book focuses on the life and descendants of one black woman, Marie Therese Coincoin (born 1742) who was enslaved in Spanish Louisiana, USA and who bore ten children for a slave owning Frenchman, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer. This remarkable woman’s legacy continues to permeate, to this day, in the Cane River Creole community, in Natchitoches, Louisiana. In Mills excellent account one feels the core traits of Coincoin’s personality; determination, foresight and enterprise; qualities which enabled her and her descendants to lift themselves out of the yoke of slavery.
There are wonderful expressive and moving insights into the relationships between slaves and their owners but none so moving as the one between Marie Therese and Claude Metoyer. Marie Therese Coincoin had already borne 5 children before the African-French relationship with Claude Metoyer added a further 10. She was technically not her slave, but arrangements were permitted for slave owners, in Marie Therese’s case a Marie St Denis, to hire their human property to other masters. Despite the “Code Noir”, a statute of laws governing the conduct of slave ownership, which made the Metoyer-Coincoin relationship illegal, a series of events resulted in Metoyer purchasing Coincoin from Marie St Denis and then granting her the freedom, along with most of their joint offspring around 1778.
It is uplifting, and a reaffirmation of the potential generosity in some humans to learn that Metoyer not only granted these freedoms but also provided Marie Therese land and property to which was added further assets in his will of inheritance. At aged 46 years she had her freedom and a separation agreement from Metoyer that permitted her to act as a free citizen.
What did freedom actually mean?
The narrative then dispels the widely held notion that freed blacks went onto prosper. No, for such people, including Marie Therese, a well-defined dependency and life as a slave was suddenly replaced by the stark reality of the loneliness of the self-reliance of independence. She and her free born children, at that time she had no slaves or other labour, took to the task by cultivating tobacco, despite the severe regulations governing its production. According to records tobacco and interestingly bear skins and bear grease were what she sent by barge down the Mississippi to the New Orleans market. Gradually she acquired further land grants from the Spanish authorities extending her land ownership along the Cane River area.
Gaining freedom for her slave family
Her emotional ties to her non-freed black children, born before her liaison to Claude Metoyer, and their children is heart-warming. Her approach to the slave owners to secure her children’s manumission (the act of a slave owner to free a slave) displayed a humanity and powers of negotiation and emotional intellect of some considerable degree. This resolve to free her family and bring them into her enterprises is the essence of the legacy that is still evident in Natchitoches Cane River Creoles today. By 1815, some 37 years after her own manumission, Marie Therese had secured the freedom from slavery of all her family line, except a daughter Francoise. She now turned her formidable energies to garner the three things, one was a surprise, which would lead to true freedom and independence: land, slaves and money.
Freed slaves owing slaves and becoming wealthy!
It is ironic that a freed slave would take on slave labour, but that was essential pre-requisite if she was to succeed in elevating her family out of the wretchedness of poverty that enslaved freed people. By all accounts Marie Therese the first of her slaves was a Congolese woman called Marguerite, in and around 1796. Descendants of her slaves remarked that she meted no corporal punishment, instead using a “jail” for imprisonment for retribution. Records show that she paid baptismal and burial fees for her slaves and their children and permitted slaves to practice the worship of their desire.
Marie Therese died sometime between 1816 and 1817, aged about 74 years. Her filed documents transferred 12 slaves to her heirs. Her land, over 1000 arpents (an arpent being about two thirds acre), a sizable estate, was divided into 10 strips and left to her children. Her legacy and life is framed into two modern perspectives. One is of a plantation mistress, a description which enables the perpetrators of slavery to water down the burden of slavery. The other, which rings truer, is that she is the pinnacle of the contribution made by “America’s Forgotten People”, the blacks that toiled to transform a wasteland into the nation we see now. This matriarch imbued in her progeny the qualities of diligence, persistence and the placing of family needs above all else and which in succeeding generations has built the distinctive Cane River community.
Augustin Metoyer, the eldest son of the Marie-Therese, Claude Metoyer association became the patriarch of the family. Not only did he continue to purchase freedoms of his own kinsmen but also of kinsmen of other non-related freed slaves. The Metoyers would continue these manumissions and purchase of slaves for many years. The moral dilemma of slave acquisitions by freed slaves, either imported from Africa or from Protestant America, was reconciled on the basis that, “The slaves came from outside the master’s tribal group”.
Mills paints a picture of the astute wheeling dealing Metoyers, pillars of the community, and accumulating wealth from not only the produce of the plantations but other activities such as milling, ferrying and tailoring.
The high community status achieved by the Cane River Creoles of Colour, focused on Isle Brevelle, is neatly encapsulated in the process of execution of documents. In the early years after freedom they would go to the notary’s office or the home of the white citizen to do the paperwork but within a decade these were drafted in the home of the multiracials. There seems to have been a level of racial tolerance and acceptance in Louisiana, which is at variance to depictions in the modern media, which allowed such social progression.
Religion in the community’s life
Faith, of the Catholic persuasion, was a dominant cultural component of the Cane River Creoles of Colour, and which then and today protects the community from the influence of Protestant Anglo-Americans. Interestingly, even in the houses of God some priests decreed separate registers for marriages and baptismal basins for whites and non-whites.
Augustin Metoyer was a pious man and regarded religion as the cornerstone of his community. He travelled to France and noted the central role of the church in the villages and on his return built a chapel in Isle Brevelle in 1803, although there is no official documentation to confirm this. However, a chapel was blessed in 1829 and the role of the Metoyers in enabling the erection is clearly documented. It was named St Augustin after its major benefactor and became the focus of the Cane River Creoles of Colour. Pews were reserved in a secondary row, a very unusual practice, for white members of the community who wished to attend services!
Cleverly, it seems, Augustin lived through tumultuous successive changes as Louisiana, originally French, was given to Spain, then reclaimed by the French and finally sold to the US in 1803, and became Americanised. He realised that, “social position and a reputation for piety”, were more important than racial roots if his community were to survive the onslaught of prejudice and enjoy any social privileges. It was Augustin who took responsibility for the welfare of his clan while his youngest brother, Francois, excited their imagination. The former made all major and even minor decisions in people’s lives. His decision was final. Francois was known for his strength, humour, plain living and humble.
How the Metoyers developed a distinct culture
Mills describes in some detail of how the matriarch Marie-Therese and her two sons Augustine and Francois would instil a sense of familial solidarity and Catholic religious values in their family members. The important precepts of a distinct culture appears to have been inculcated. This included respect for elders, importance of family ties and support and importantly self-respect. The latter is evidenced by clothes, accessories, horses, portraits in oil, ladies perfumes and other deluxe items usually reserved for the white population.
There is a poignancy when one learns that this grouping could only overcome social restrictions by family solidarity as not being white excluded them from fully integration into the white community and not being black likewise into the black community. Their extended family was all they had for social intercourse and support.
The men of Cane River Creoles of Colour did mingle with the whites in some formal activities e.g. the hunt, fishing party, but their women did socialise across the colour divide. The families were insular in the greater community but self-sustained and self-protective with an array of activities gluing the community. These activities ranged from dancing (much frowned upon by the church), holidays to friends and relatives, celebrations of weddings, Easter, Christmas, cockfighting, dogfighting and apparently cards (which included gambling).
Mills provides an insight into the ancestry of the modern gastronomic delicacies of this community as food was an important ingredient in the culture being established by the Cane River Creoles of Colour. Women were described as “Culinary artists” and prepared dishes according to seasonality with garden produce in the summer and slaughtered and preserved meats in the winter.
Mills, probably without realising it, details at length the key pathway to success for this That of education. Education allowed them to preserve and defend their freedom and civil rights as Louisiana became absorbed into the United States. Mills brings this into sharp relief by citing examples of execution documents, “signed by a Metoyer in flowing script along a white associate’s mark of a cross”. How was this achieved in a society where teaching non-whites, free or enslaved, to read and write was a crime? Initially, at least, there is evidence that Negro planters sent their children to France.
Locally, breaking this law was tolerated so the multiracial children of Isle Brevelle were educated in their own private schools, generally by French immigrant teachers. Latterly also by free men of colour such as Bernard Dauphin, who penned poems which appear in an anthology, Les Cenelles. Although the early education was in French by about 1839 the Cane River community was beginning to be also conversant in English. The church also provided education for free people in its mission schools, alongside the private institutions created by the Metoyers and their descendants. Education was the key that overcame the stigmas of slavery, illegitimacy, illiteracy and poverty.
Freedom, but still the stigma of being a “Gens de couleur libres”
Mills rightly examines in depth the one barrier that was most challenging to crush. This was the fact that despite being a freed you were still a, “Gens de couleur libres”, and this affected the rights of citizenship. Free but coloured was still not a combination that permitted equality of citizenship with the white population.
Although, in Louisiana a clear distinction existed between Negroes and Freeman of Colour this was not the case in most other parts of the US. The situation was complicated by the gradual influx of Anglo-Americans and changes in the law after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. In 1832 in the adjacent state of South Carolina, a Judge John O’Neill contended that, “Non-whites (aka Negroes and coloured, free or enslaved) belong to a degraded caste of society and in no respect on an equality with a white man. Free Negroes ought by law to be compelled to demean themselves as inferiors, from whom submission and respect to the whites, in all their intercourse in society ought to be demanded”. It is a testament of the astuteness of the Cane River Creoles of Colour that they were able to recognise that the only way to survive a changing social order was to be fully aware of their right as citizens, limited as they were, and be prepared to exercise these rights even if it meant filing suits against white people.
The rise and fall of the “Metoyer” wealth
As across the white communities throughout the US the Metoyers’ wealth steadily increased until the financial panic of 1837. Wealth in terms of landholding and slave ownership took a steady decline. The Metoyers’ landholding of 18000 acres in the 1830s had declined to 12615 acres by 1850. Slave ownership was 276 in 1830, 436 by 1850 and declined to 379 by 1860. However, economic hardship effected very few families, the majority were still exceptionally well to do. Cotton prices plummeted and crops were badly damaged by weather conditions in the late 1830s and early 1840s. This ruined whites and non-white freed men, as with Auguste, a son of the patriarch Augustine, who had over stretched during the good years and could not manage to pay debtors even though he sold most of his landholdings.
Slow rebuilding occurred but it was more difficult to purchase land due to the influx after the Louisiana Purchase of Anglo-Americans. Many whites did so by moving to adjacent States such as neighbouring Eastern Texas. Migrating for the coloureds was made very tough as each revision of the Code Noir to align with American concepts meant an erosion of freedom and opportunity for the coloureds of Cane River. The American government encouraged Negroes to emigrate to Latin America (Mexico……) where the blacks were already enfranchised. This was seen by the Cane River Creoles of Colour as a wheeze to get rid of them and records show almost zero uptake within this community.
The American Civil War did no favours for the Cane River Creoles of Colour.
The American civil war is labelled by Mills as a seismic event for the Cane River population. The political and economic turmoil would necessitate decisions on allegiances and prospects. Discreetly, the Cane River families sided with the Confederacy, except for a few individuals and slaves. These included no member of the Metoyer clan. The Metoyers’ made available to the Confederacy the produce of their lands, their slaves and any other assistance they could muster. The only resistance to orders from the Confederacy was one that challenged their citizenship.
The Metoyers’ refused to work in labour camps alongside Negro slaves. The Cane River Creoles of Colour were not drafted into the regular army or allowed to volunteer. Nevertheless they did organise themselves into militia. One was a cavalry squadron called Augustin Guards, to assist the confederacy coloureds against the US but this offer was declined because of their colour! These militia units were kept under training but did not see action against the enemy for three and half years; only taking part in a military funeral.
The Red River campaign in 1864, where Union forces wreaked virtual total destruction on the Cane River community, was the final death blow. The Cane River Creoles of Colour, these previously influential families, were no longer considered a third class and were grouped with the enfranchised Negroes, who resented them and with whom they had absolutely no connection in class or culture. For the Cane River Creoles of Colour improved rights and status in the new order turned out to be a dream.
Rehabilitation and renaissance of the Cane River Creole heritage
In the present day the plantation built by Louis Metoyer was inherited in 1898 by a planter John Hampton Henry. He and his wife, Carmelite Leudevine Garret, had a vision to restore it to its former glory. She decided to cultivate the French Heritage of the Cane River. It has over the last century or so become a literary and cultural centre for writers and artists and museums that depict Louisiana life and the Cane River community of the past.
Coincoin’s descendants have become doctors, lawyers, educators and administrators. They are now political and community leaders in the mainstream of American business and civic life. They have also created the “Creole Heritage Centre” in Natchitoches to preserve their history. Many have purchased tracts of the 18000 acres of their ancestors and returned it to their family.