The Story of Melrose
Up Through Slavery
Up Through Slavery
Marie Therese Coincoin was in bondage for 44 years. Yet she
freed her children and became a slave owner herself.
Ken Ringle Washington Post Staff Writer
May 12, 2002; Page F1
NATCHITOCHES, La. -- To study a people's history without understanding
the family structure from which it evolved is to confront a robot and
pretend one feels a pulse. -- Elizabeth Shown Mills
No one knows
where Marie Therese Coincoin lies buried, but it's easy to think of the
250-year-old live oak in front of Melrose Plantation as her family tree.
Its kinked and elbowed limbs stretch 100 feet or more in every direction.
They're hung with Spanish moss and coated with an opportunistic bit of
hitchhiking botany that in dry weather looks like nothing so much as dead
and rusty lace. All the plant needs, however, is one opportunity -- a
single rainstorm -- to green into leafy lushness and prosperous
coexistence with the tree. It's called the resurrection fern.
The story of
Marie Therese Coincoin and her descendants is as improbable as the
resurrection fern, yet it's all but unknown despite its ample
documentation. It flies in the face of almost everything we think we know
about slavery: Melrose Plantation was built not only by former slaves but
for them. It is also a cautionary tale for those tempted to simplify
history or underrate the astonishing capacities of the human spirit, past
"I tell people
her story is my family history," says Kitchery La Cour, 22, who guides
visitors through the plantation house. "And they say, 'How is that
possible? How could she have achieved so much if she was a slave?' They
act like life doesn't have a lot of layers where they come from. Like it
does in Louisiana."
daughter of African slaves on the Louisiana frontier, Marie Therese
Coincoin was 25 in 1767 when she caught the eye of a well-born Frenchman
newly arrived in what was then a French colony ceded to Spain. She was two
years older and had already had four children, but Claude Thomas Pierre
Metoyer was so taken with her beauty that he arranged with her owner
to live with her for 19 years in defiance of church and political censure.
He fathered 10 children by her and ultimately set her free with 68 acres
She had been a
house slave all of her life in one of the most brutal regions for North
American bondage. But now free, she went to work in the fields at 44,
trapping bear and growing indigo and tobacco. Colonial records detail the
bateau cargo of 300 bearskins and two barrels of bear grease she shipped
to New Orleans in 1792, along with 9,900 rolls of tobacco.
managed to buy all of her children out of slavery, starting with four
black children, two daughters and two sons, born before she met Metoyer.
She acquired more land and 16 slaves of her own, beside whom she labored
in the fields. By the time she died around 1817 at age 75, she and her
children had amassed nearly 12,000 acres of plantation land -- most of
which they would retain until after the Civil War -- and at least 99
slaves. They had also built their own Catholic church, which still stands.
White people sat in the back.
descendants would become the wealthiest family of free Negroes in the
United States -- the embodiment of the French-speaking gens libre de
couleur, or free people of color, whose Creole culture distinguishes
Louisiana to this day.
leave as a monument to their industry the lushly beautiful Melrose
Plantation, in the Cane River region south of here, where cattle today
graze pecan-shaded pastures dusted gold with wild mustard, and where the
resurrection fern flourishes before the gracefully galleried mansion her
son finished in 1833. It took him 30 years to build.
Yet far more
significant than the wealth Marie Therese Coincoin left behind was her
example of finding limitless possibility in the face of apparently
"It's a very
American story," says Elizabeth Shown Mills, the uncredited co-author of
her late husband Gary Mills's "The Forgotten People" (LSU Press), the
still-definitive and meticulously documented 1977 study of Coincoin and
her descendants. "But it doesn't mesh with anybody's idea of how slavery
worked, which is probably why it's so little known. I wonder what the
reparations people would do with it?"
essential outrage of slavery -- ownership of one human by another -- has
never changed since slavery's birth in prehistory, how that ownership
shaped the lives of those enslaved varied enormously in North America. As
University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin notes in his masterful 1998
slavery study "Many Thousands Gone" (Harvard University Press), the
differences were not merely from plantation to plantation but from region
to region, and generation to generation.
Louisiana, however, was unique. In the first place, it arrived nearly a
century later than on the East Coast. In the second place, it initially
fared badly. Between 1719 and 1731, the French who colonized Louisiana
imported 6,000 Africans. Slaves soon composed 60 percent of the
population. But the disease, starvation and cruelty they encountered
hacking plantations from virgin forest led hundreds to flee into the
nearby wilderness. So many renegade "maroon" settlements took root in the
lower Mississippi Valley, raiding French settlements periodically, that
after the 1729 Natchez rebellion, in which escaped slaves and Native
Americans left more than 200 settlers dead, the shaken French ceased
importing slaves for 30 years.
With most of
their fledgling colony in shambles, they made rudimentary moves to pacify
their remaining bondsmen. Louisiana's Code Noir specified that slave
families were to be kept together when possible and all slaves instructed
in the Catholic church. Children younger than 14 were not to be separated
from their parents. In addition, any master who fathered children by his
own slave was to lose both slave and child; they would be sold to benefit
the local hospital and never allowed freedom.
rules were often ignored, they shaped the life of Marie Therese Coincoin.
She was born in 1742 into the household of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis,
the French founder-governor of Natchitoches (pronounced NAK-i-tush), and
promptly was baptized in the Catholic church.
By then, New
Orleans, 250 miles southeast, had eclipsed this tiny watchdog settlement
on the Red River, just 15 miles from the easternmost outpost of Spanish
Texas. But St. Denis managed his isolated territory with skill, prospering
through trade with the Indians and Spanish.
known of Coincoin's early years, not even who fathered her black children.
Family lore says she was a skilled herbalist and healer, so well trained
by her African mother that she nursed her owner through yellow fever,
winning the woman's lifelong loyalty. Her strength and self-possession
were also such, the family's oral history says, that as a 16-year-old she
cut open the body of her pregnant mother after death to deliver her baby
By the time
Metoyer arrived, in 1767, St. Denis was dead and Coincoin had been
inherited by his youngest daughter, Marie de Nieges de Soto. From her
Metoyer leased Coincoin in return for nothing more than the slave's
room and board.
"Was it love?"
wonders Mills. "Clearly it was on his side. You can see it in his
subsequent actions, none of which he had to take. On her side? We'll never
really know, of course. . . . Obviously the people were very conflicted,
both blacks and whites, but what you see from the archival records is the
extraordinarily moving way they handled those conflicts. It's a very human
story . . . .
"I think she
went into this thing as a business relationship, maybe with a promise of
eventual freedom. But it must have developed into love because she could
have walked away from him. . . . She had other protectors in the white
When a Spanish
priest, outraged at the "open concubinage" of Metoyer and Coincoin,
tried to force officials to end the relationship, de Soto flew to the
defense of her slave. In a letter to the commandant, she accused the
priest of meddling, hypocrisy and -- not least -- delivering tedious
sermons in atrociously mispronounced French. The matter died down, but not
before Metoyer, in 1778, purchased Coincoin and her latest infant
and quietly executed a deed setting them free.
manumission was highly unusual. Of Natchitoches' nonwhite population of
430, only eight were free.
and Coincoin lived together eight more years. But, increasingly aware that
he had no legitimate son to inherit his growing fortune, the Frenchman
decided to marry a friend's widow. Before the wedding, however, he
executed documents safeguarding the freedom of Coincoin and the future of
their children. One was the grant of 68 acres along the Red River south of
Coincoin settled in a small cabin on the property and set out to grow
tobacco. After 44 years as a slave and 14 children, nothing could have
been easy, but tobacco was a more demanding crop than most. Despairing of
making its colony pay its way, France had given Louisiana to Spain in 1762
and the Spanish had set up rigorous controls to preserve the quality of
the Louisiana tobacco used in Havana cigars. From planting to drying, each
step required extensive labor.
however, was not alone. Metoyer had guaranteed her a tiny annuity
of $120 a year -- equivalent to half the pay of a military drummer. Her
first act as an independent woman was to pledge this for three years to
buy freedom for her oldest black child, a crippled 27-year-old daughter,
who would help her in the fields.
But even with
that debt she saved $50 in four years and walked 120 miles to negotiate
freedom for a second daughter and grandchild, on the condition that the
two care for their invalid owner as long as she lived.
Coincoin's plantation was successful enough that she could petition the
Spanish colonial government for an additional grant of land. Such grants
cost only the price of a survey but entailed laborious improvements and
were given only to those of proven responsibility. Coincoin received 500
acres. She used it for grazing cattle.
next 10 years, she and Metoyer worked out a series of agreements
whereby he freed their remaining children. In return she gave up her
annuity. But those documents, like so many others in Louisiana, underline
how malleable the institution of slavery could become in the hands of
those determined to exploit its loopholes. Even before they were freed,
documents show, Coincoin and her descendants acted like anything but
victims of the chain and lash.
In 1796, for
example, Coincoin's second son, Louis, was granted 912 acres of Cane River
bottomland. He was still a slave at the time. The Code Noir stated that
"slaves can have no right to any kind of property," but that apparently
was ignored. It would be five more years before his father set him free.
Coincoin's fourth Metoyer son, Pierre, received a similar grant in
1798, four years before he, too, was freed.
acquisitions pale beside the acts of Marie Therese Metoyer,
Coincoin's youngest daughter. In 1810 and again in 1811 she purchased two
male slaves. At the time, documents show, she was still a slave herself.
She wouldn't gain her formal freedom until her father's death in 1815.
Few aspects in
history confound our present understanding of slavery as much as African
American slave owners, though they existed for almost the entire history
of slavery in North America.
The 1830 U.S.
census documented 3,600 "Negro slaveholders," but like so many racial
ironies and contradictions, the figure is deceptive. The vast majority of
those "owners" were holding as slaves spouses or relatives they were
forbidden by their state's law from formally setting free.
of free Negroes of her era, Mills wrote in 1984, Marie Therese Coincoin
"saw no conflict between her own love of freedom and the slave system in
which she lived. Slavery not only existed in the white world she knew, but
in the [Native American] world with which frontier whites rubbed
shoulders, as well as in the African land" of her parents, of which she
had only heard.
very much the way of her world. But there were occasional cracks in the
institution through which, with opportunity, industry and luck, clever
blacks could maneuver from one side of bondage to the other. Once free in
a frontier area like Natchitoches, slave ownership was virtually the only
proven path to economic security and advancement.
blacks who worked scores of slaves on their own plantations often bought,
sold and employed them -- like their white counterparts -- for other than
eldest son, Augustin Metoyer, bought his first slave from a
neighbor to help clear his plantation. But his second purchase was his
wife's 8-year-old sister. His third was the young daughter of his
still-enslaved brother Louis, and his fourth was a 15-year-old who would
marry his brother Pierre. The last three he immediately set free.
bought an 18-year-old with an infant as a wife for his first slave; a male
slave who was his wife's brother (allowed to work his way to freedom), and
two more slaves, one of whom he freed four years later. And so on.
Coincoin's seven sons had accumulated 58 slaves, according to Mills's
census research in "The Forgotten People." Of the 259 households in their
census area, only 166 owned any slaves at all. The only families to own
more slaves than Coincoin's sons were the families of Metoyer's
owners, however, were in something of a bind. If they treated their slaves
too leniently, they risked being lumped by their white neighbors with a
lower racial class. If they treated them too severely, they risked feeding
the widespread white suspicion that blacks were incapable of exercising
the judgment and responsibilities of freedom.
her descendants apparently treated their slaves much as others in the area
were treated, but generally a little better. Mills found that Coincoin was
meticulous in having each slave born on her property baptized and raised
Catholic. He documented numerous stories from her descendants that she
never used bodily punishment, but would discipline unruly slaves by
locking them up in a "jail" on her property. Now standing at Melrose, the
mushroom-roofed little building with barred lower windows is thought to be
the only example of native-built African architecture in the United
descendants varied in their treatment as much as did their white
counterparts. Augustin was known for rarely selling his slaves and
occasionally setting one free. One of his younger brothers, Mills relates,
would ask to "try out" slaves from his neighbors with the purported
intention of buying them, then return them exhausted and overworked and
say he'd changed his mind. One family member was known for being mean to
her slaves, a descendant reported to Mills, but "the good Lord got even .
. . her mansion was burned during the Civil War, her second husband ran
through her money and she was forced to live the rest of her days,
bedridden, in one of her slave cabins."
A 1974 study
of slave life, based on the 1860 census, found slave housing and
conditions in the area rude but adequate and far less crowded than in much
of the South. Mills notes that some slaves were furnished firearms to hunt
As a guide at
Melrose, Kitchery La Cour says, she sees "some people who get all
emotional" about the fact that Coincoin had slaves after being one
"They act like
if you had slaves you couldn't ever treat them decent, that you had to
spend all your time beating them. They don't seem to understand that she
had to work the system as best she could for her children."
was still slavery: Occasional bondsmen ran away, and just down the river
lay the plantation of Robert McAlpin, alleged to be the prototype for the
villainous Simon Legree in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
initially lived frugally and worked tirelessly to build their fortunes,
Coincoin's descendants, like other gens libre de couleur, eventually
attained a remarkable level of wealth and sophistication. Insistently
French and Catholic in the face of a growing influx of Protestant
Americans, they sent their sons to France to be educated and sought
cultural solace and marriage partners among their counterparts in New
Orleans's Creole elite.
Like much of
the planter class in the South, they reached their peak of prosperity
between 1830 and 1840. Wealthy Metoyers of color loaned money to and
entered business with their white neighbors and, documents show,
occasionally were asked to administer white estates.
depressions and the onset of the Civil War eventually threw the economy of
the region into chaos. White planters also suffered, but the gens libre de
couleur found their French Creole society increasingly restricted by the
narrower racial confines of the United States they had joined.
culture and the family pride endured.
still have descendants here? I guess she does!" said Janet Colson,
assistant director of the Creole Heritage Center at Northwestern State
University in Natchitoches. "Down there near Melrose there's nothing but
Metoyers. They pronounce it met-TWYRE now. Some of them are Metoyer-Metoyers:
Both parents are descendants. And a few are Metoyer-Metoyer-Metoyers:
Both parents were Metoyers and then they marry a Metoyer. The
family trees are as tangled as a briar patch and they've shaped a very
distinctive culture. But it all started with Coincoin and what she did
with what she had. There ought to be a monument to her."
For more than
a century, Creoles of color like the Metoyers held themselves apart from
both whites and blacks, sustained by their French heritage and language
and their unique family history. By the time Betty Jo Metoyer, now
56, grew up in the 1960s, however, change was in the air.
grandmother would tell me all these stories, but I didn't care about
family history or learning French," she said. "Like most young people I
was looking to the future."
She grew up,
married her boyfriend and moved to Chicago. There she found herself
comptroller of a major company. But she was a Metoyer-Metoyer-Metoyer
and discovered that her family story was more a part of her than she
Mills's book came out in 1977, my sister sent it to me and I was
absolutely fascinated. I couldn't believe how much of the story I'd never
known, particularly about Coincoin. So I asked my mother-in-law -- a
Metoyer, too, you know -- why she'd never told me about Marie Therese.
And she turned on me fiercely and said, 'Our family doesn't have one drop
of Negro blood.' So I said, okay, better leave that one alone. Because
that's the way her generation dealt with it, pretending we were all part
Indian or something."
But when she
moved back to this area in 1981 to take care of her aging parents, she
decided that whatever else her life involved from then on, she wanted to
be a part-time guide at Melrose. It was a part of her. And Coincoin was,
too. A few years ago when the foundation that owned Melrose asked her if
she would work up a historical monologue to deliver in the person of her
indomitable ancestor, she jumped at the chance.
bewitched by Coincoin's story, the great frustration is that no visual
image of her exists. What must she have looked like, this woman of such
legendary beauty, intelligence and strength of character?
know, of course, but hanging in Melrose is the portrait from the 1830s of
one of Coincoin's granddaughters, believed to be Marie Therese Carmelite
Anty Metoyer. Something in the eyes seems to repeat itself 170-odd
years and multi-generations later in the eyes of Kitchery La Cour and
Betty Jo Metoyer. It's most evident when Metoyer stands
proudly in the sunset before Melrose and delivers her Coincoin monologue.
"I feel I've
achieved my life's ambition in helping my children gain their freedom,"
she says with a moving smile. "And I'd like to think that 200 years from
now my descendants will still be here to welcome you into this house."