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Brave New World

Louisiana’s Cane River Colony was a daring dream made real by an ex-slave named Marie Thérèse Coincoin. The facts about her astonishing achievement have been wildly compromised over the centuries, but what I’ve set down here is true enough.

Isle Brevelle and the Cane River,

Isle Brevelle and the Cane River,

Marie was born in 1742 to African slave parents in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and bore four children, fathers unknown. She was eventually leased to a Frenchman, Claude Pierre Metoyer, a union producing ten more issue. In 1778, Metoyer bought and freed Marie and gave her a cabin and 68 acres of rich land where the industrious Marie grew indigo and tobacco and sold medicines and bearskins. She eventually earned enough to buy land on Isle Brevelle, a sliver of land thirty miles long and a few miles wide between the Cane and Old Rivers. Marie understood that success as a planter required money, land and slaves and she aggressively went after all three, buying slaves of her own along with freedom for most of her children. Others followed her brave lead, and by the time Marie died in 1816, the island boasted a sizable settlement of gens de coleur libre, Louisiana’s free people of color. (A future post will deal with this unique ethnic group which considered itself neither black nor white.)

Marie Therese Carmelite Anty Metoyer was Marie Coincoin's granddaughter.

Marie Therese Carmelite Anty Metoyer was Marie Coincoin’s granddaughter.

Marie had lived simply and taught her children the importance of hard work and fair play. In 1832, her son Louis Metoyer built Melrose, a grand plantation house representing a degree of social, political and economic success unknown to non-whites elsewhere in America. Metoyer unfortunately lost the house in the economic crash of the 1840s, but the luckier planters held on to their fine homes, filled them with French furniture from New Orleans and gave their children excellent educations. They faithfully attended church and enjoyed a lively social life with teas and fancy balls for the ladies and hunting, fishing, horse racing, and cards for the gentlemen. They invited white planters into their homes and were entertained by whites in return. Indeed, it was not unknown for island brides to have white attendants! By design, this unusual society remained cosseted as the colonists quietly intermarried, and if suitable matches were unavailable, they drew new blood from New Orleans’s sizable population of free people of color.

Melrose (1832-3) is a classic Louisiana Creole raised cottage-style house

Melrose (1832-3) is a classic Louisiana Creole raised cottage-style house

When civil war came in 1861, the men of Isle Brevelle sided with the Confederacy because a Union victory would mean financial ruin. Abolition would also implode Louisiana’s race-based caste system, making the lowliest illiterate slave the social equal of these wealthy, educated men and women. (It’s no exaggeration to say that they stood to lose far more than their white counterparts.) Since men of color were prohibited by law from being drafted or volunteering, 76 islanders formed Monet’s Guards to provide a home guard. The isolated colony escaped the war until 1864 brought Union armies into Natchitoches Parish, forcing the Confederates to burn the island’s cotton stores to keep it from Yankee hands. The Cane River colony was overrun by enemy troops taking or destroying everything of value that hadn’t been buried in the swamps and cemeteries. By war’s end, Isle Brevelle was in complete economic collapse. Once proud families suffered the degradation of living in their abandoned slave cabins and selling what bricks and lumber could be salvaged by ripping apart the big houses. Humble cabins were crowded with huge four-poster beds and elegant French furniture, until they too were sold off when times grew more desperate.

The so-called Africa House at Melrose has architectural elements from the mother country.

The so-called Africa House at Melrose has architectural elements from the mother country.

Isle Brevelle’s decline accelerated in the 20th century as people drifted away to seek their fortunes elsewhere, until little remained except ruined plantations and melancholy memories of lost glory. The audacious little colony was swept into history’s dustbin until the Cane River Creole National Historic Park was created in 1994 to tell the world of Marie Thérèse Coincoin’s miracle. Her grave is long lost, but you can sense her legacy as you walk the graceful galleries of Melrose. Her family’s handsomely restored home is a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman who faced and overcame near insuperable odds.

Cane River Creole National Historic Park preserves some of the colony's lost glory.

Cane River Creole National Historic Park preserves some of the colony’s lost glory.

Note: Isle Brevelle is one of several exotic stops in my time travel book, Still Time, set in Louisiana circa 1861.

4 Comments

  1. Linda
    Sep 16, 2014

    Wow! Another great essay on a part of history I knew nothing about–until now. Thanks, Michael.

  2. Karen Derderian
    Sep 17, 2014

    Every time you write, I am so inspired to get on a plane and visit these wonderful places that you bring to life with tantalizing tidbits from our American history. I’ll look forward to meeting Madeleine St. Jacques as she travels back in time. Thank you for momentarily taking me back in time as well, if only for a brief moment.

  3. Liz
    Sep 17, 2014

    Once again you have come up with an incredible story of the Old South and this one introduces us to an amazing woman. Would you please give a pronunciation guide to Coincoin? I don’t want to end up mispronouncing it!

  4. Ciji Ware
    Sep 19, 2014

    I knew something about the Free People of Color living in New Orleans when researching Midnight on Julia Street, but had never heard of Isle Brevelle and the amazing Marie! I can’t wait to read STILL TIME…Do you have a pub date yet? Love this blog post…

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