Photo by Andrea Matherne
Edward had a hard life. Born into slavery on a plantation on the lower Mississippi, he became a sugar maker after losing a thumb in his initial assignment as a stonemason. When the Union Army took control of the area in 1862, he joined an African American unit, leaving his wife behind in order to take part in the ferocious, punishing siege of Port Hudson, the tenaciously defended Confederate redoubt that was, with Vicksburg, part of the Confederacy’s last hope of retaining any useful segment of the great waterway after the losses of New Orleans and Memphis.
The exploding shells severely damaged his hearing. He lost his teeth from tearing open the tough paper cartridges that held the powder and bullets for the period’s muzzle-loaded rifles. As battered as its attackers, Port Hudson surrendered after the fall of Vicksburg, and Edward rejoined his wife, scarred but free, and lived until 1908.
We know the story of Edward, and of other slaves who lived in the area, because of research being undertaken at Laura Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. Owner Sand Marmillion and staff historian Katy Morlas Shannon have spent the past several years digging through records—at Laura, around the state, and around the country—in order to broaden and enrich Laura’s modern archives of the people who lived and worked as slaves on the property during its long history as a working sugar plantation. Today, tours of Laura Plantation (in your choice of English or French) and its exhibits offer a closer look at these often overlooked experiences.
Laura doesn’t try to tell “The Story of Slavery in the United States” or even of Louisiana; instead, it tells the story of the individuals, enslaved or free, who lived there and whose lives intertwine with each other and with the site’s history. It’s easy to imagine all slave lives as substantially similar, and in some ways they must have been, but to speak of “the slave experience” ignores real differences between individuals. For example, the French-speaking, Catholic slave population that existed on Laura had to contend with the arrival of “American” slaves, meaning English-speaking Protestant. The groups did ultimately mingle and intermarry but not immediately and not without conflict.
Photo by Andrea Matherne
Writing about slave lives presents a number of challenges. Records tend to be generated by the very activities from which slaves were barred: you can’t buy or sell property if you yourself are legally property, nor can people kept illiterate and prevented from moving freely write letters home. Furthermore, slaves were generally not recorded as individuals in pre-emancipation censuses; in 1850 and 1860, they were listed by age and sex on a “slave schedule” under their owner’s names. Historians often look to the invaluable New Deal collections of slave narratives, gathered by the Federal Writers Project from 1936 to 1938, but even these don’t capture the breadth of the slave experience: French-speaking freedmen like many of those in South Louisiana were seldom if ever contacted by the English-speaking writers collecting the stories, and anyone still alive in the 1930s was a teenager at the oldest during slavery, so adult perspectives weren’t recorded.
This is when historians must get creative. It is hard for anyone, even the aggressively disenfranchised, to live in a bureaucratic state like the one the United States was becoming in the mid-nineteenth century without leaving traces. Slaves could not buy or sell, but they could, regrettably, be bought or sold, and the archives of notaries in New Orleans record names, sexes, ages, and occasionally some family relationships of slaves in the process of being transferred. Many of them were culturally Creole, so in addition to speaking French, they were Catholic, which means that baptismal records exist in the diocesan archives in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Inventories were taken on the deaths of owners, in which the slaves were listed along with other goods; they were classed under the French term meubles, meaning literally “movables,” as in movable assets. By matching up ages and other characteristics, one can trace a life, at least vaguely, through such milestones—“identifying patterns,” as Shannon called it.
And then, most helpfully, there are the Union Army pension records. The Dependent and Disability Pension Act of 1890 was passed in order to provide for elderly and infirm Union veterans and widows. Freedmen veterans presented special challenges in determining eligibility, which Edward’s case exemplifies: he enlisted under the surname of the plantation’s owners, Duparc; a Yankee officer unfamiliar with French wrote down “Dupas;” and Edward abandoned his former master’s name after the war and lived as Gros from then on. To get his pension, Edward had to testify before a committee with the aid of a translator. His missing thumb and vivid recollections of the Siege of Port Hudson convinced them, and the transcript of his recollections is in the National Archives, where Shannon found it.
Records like this don’t just preserve Edward’s recollections of his wartime experiences; witnesses were also interviewed, and their memories, in conjunction with other records, have allowed Shannon to piece together some fragments of the social world of the enslaved. For example, because of the long and narrow shape of most of the plantations (ensuring river access to all), slave cabins on neighboring plantations tended to be near each other, allowing those enslaved on Laura to socialize, intermarry, and worship with their counterparts on the neighboring properties, Amant Plantation and the Roman property now called Magnolia Plantation. We know this because the people interviewed refer to each other and to their church; years after the war, the members of an informal Baptist congregation that drew worshippers from all three properties pooled their money to construct a small building to serve as a physical church and to purchase a plot of land they had used as a graveyard under slavery. This little bill of sale makes a powerful statement about faith and legacy, and it is good to report that the congregation, First Baptist Church of Vacherie, is going strong today.
Photo by Andrea Matherne
In addition to the pension records, there’s one other major source of enslaved people’s voices available to the researchers at Laura. Creoles in Louisiana still thought of themselves as French after the Louisiana Purchase (or as they would have called it, perhaps through gritted teeth, the Louisiana Sale), and often sought education in France and married French men and women. After the Civil War, a number of these people claimed French nationality in order to submit damage claims against the United States government for anything damaged or requisitioned during federal military operations. Elisabeth Locoul, who had owned and managed the plantation during the war, submitted a detailed claim; the resulting paperwork, including interviews with freed slaves to corroborate details, takes up over nine hundred pages. Shannon and Laura are planning books on both this documentary juggernaut and the Union Army archival material.
One benefit of this work, beyond the worthy but abstract boon of giving voice to the lives of these people forced to live wholly in the service of others, is that the records Shannon has found have made it possible for descendants of the black population of Laura to research their ancestry. Many descendants of slaves assume, reasonably but not always correctly, that records of their ancestors’ lives don’t exist. The Laura research team has proven that this isn’t always so, and Shannon enjoys helping people research genealogy they thought was untraceable. The subject is still difficult, however; a disproportionate number of these inquiries come from outside the South, and Laura’s staff is careful not to approach people who may not want to confront this complicated and painful history. Those willing to confront it, however, will find more than they might have expected, and the chance to meet their once-forgotten forebears.
If you think you may have a family connection to Laura Plantation and would like to know more, please contact email@example.com.