After visiting Whitney Plantation, I went to Laura Plantation, a Creole plantation.
This is one of the most information packed tours I’ve ever been on. I am sure the guide is exhausted after giving this tour three times in a day. She is a creole herself – even though her family name is Spanish, her family growing up spoke French. Apparently, all guides at Laura Plantation are required to be fluent in both English and French since they often offer tours in French.
Laura Plantation is unusual because it was owned and operated by women for four generations. In most of the United States during the 19th century, women simply could not own property. However, Louisiana, even after joining the United States, followed the Napoleonic Code, which allows widows to own property and maintain their late husbands businesses. In this family, the husbands kept on dying, so their widows were the legal owners of the property (which, of course, included the slaves).
This plantation was abandoned in 1984. For a while, it was owned by the governor of Louisiana (I forget his name) who was holding onto the land because he expected a bridge across the Mississippi River to be built here, which would allow him to sell it to the state for a large sum of money [insert joke about Louisiana politics]. The bridge was not built here because they found an earthquake fault running right under the house.
Someone was about to buy the abandoned house in 1993 and demolish it, but then another set of buyers appeared and bought it to save it. These buyers were interested in the property for only one reason – Brer Rabbit. The tales of Brer Rabbit originated from the tales of Compair Lapin, which were recorded right on this plantation. The new owners planned to turn it into a Brer Rabbit/Compair Lapin museum.
What changed that was the new owners discovering the memoir Memories of the Old Plantation Home by Laura Locoul Gore, the final matriarch, Laura Locoul Gore. That is the best record of this family’s fascinating history. In fact, the history is so complicated I am not even going to try to write it down in this blog.
Though this tour did not focus as much on slavery as the Whitney tour, they also addressed it. In particular, they discussed why the most valuable slaves, aside from highly skilled slaves, were young women. Young women could ‘make’ more slaves, and one of the matriarchs of the plantation had a policy of, when she had to buy slaves, primarily buying young female slaves. She said that she could breed slaves cheaper than she could buy them. The implications of that are horrible.
Some people refer to Laura Plantation as the “women’s power” plantation because it was run by women for four generations, but … well, it was not at all empowering for the slave women. Yes, it is unusual and interesting that this was a plantation run by women, but considering the way that the female slaves were treated, I do not consider it to be a “women’s power” plantation.
That matriarch’s brother was personally involved in breeding slaves, since it seems he had four slave children. The guide says that they are going to do DNA testing soon to see if there are any living descendants of this family via the slave lines. All of the white(ish) members of the family are dead – the last white(ish) descendant died in 2007 (and I say ‘whiteish’ because they did have a little indigenous people’s ancestry – it’s a complicated family history).
The tour guide discussed the history of one of the slave families, which was made more complicated by the, err, interbreeding with the master family. The guide says that research on this family is ongoing (DNA testing, for example) and that hopefully, a few years from now, they will be able to tell us more about this slave family.
After the Civil War, the plantation was run … the way it was run before the civil war. The ‘slaves’ became ‘workers paid in scrip’ and then sharecroppers, but it was still a system where they were forced to work for practically no pay. The slave cabins on the property were inhabited by sharecroppers as recently at the 1970s.
So, what did it mean that this was a ‘Creole’ plantation. The creole people were the people – of any race – who lived in Louisiana during French rule. Once Louisiana became part of the United States, it referred to the people who identified with that French-speaking culture. This was a French speaking family, and proud of it. The ‘American’ plantations (where English was spoken) were painted white, whereas this plantation house was not painted white. When the Union army came during the Civil War and demanded that all plantation owners pledge allegiance to the Union, the matriarch who was in charge at the time refused because she said she was a citizen of France, and would pledge allegiance to no other country. So the Union gun boats shot up the house. When the final matriarch, as a young woman, said that she wanted to go to New Orleans and learn to speak English and become an ‘American’, it was a big deal.
It is amazing how much information they were able to collect and distill into this single tour. Everyone agrees that Laura Plantation is the best plantation tour in the New Orleans area. I might have to go and try to read Memories from the Old Plantation Home.