Melrose Plantation, the “Big House” built by the son of Coincoin beginning in 1832.
In the eighteenth century, a Frenchman named Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer moved from his home country to northwest Louisiana. There he had ten children with Coincoin, the daughter of Africans who was a slave on a neighboring plantation. She was leased, then sold to Metoyer, who eventually freed her. She bought and freed her children with him and those she’d had berfore with a man of African and Native American blood. She also bought and kept a number of other slaves. She and her children became owners of some 18,000 acres and 500 slaves on Isle Brevelle. The community remained isolated from the outside world through the twentieth century.
Three major works have so far told the story of Coincoin, her descendants, and tangentially connected families. Collectively they offer a great many insights into the ways one can write family history.
Gary B. Mills published The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) in 1977. It is a scholarly work about the people and the place with charts, statistics, and the historical background involving French, then Spanish, then Anglo rule. From surviving documents he re-creates how Coincoin and her family managed to amass their wealth through the cultivation of crops including tobacco and indigo, along with trapping bears for their hides and grease, all of which they sold in the Natchitoches area and down river in New Orleans. Mills also supplies written and oral testimony from descendants, including Coincoin’s three times great-granddaughter who lived on the Isle.
The most fascinating part of the book concerns the culture, which emphasized respect for elders and mutual assistance and regular attendance at the Catholic church built by Coincoin’s oldest son. They also shared a taste for expensive and elegant clothing, which they displayed in the oil paintings and later photographs hanging in their large and well-appointed homes and mansions, and a love of dancing (something that makes them very much a part of Louisiana culture – black, white or in between). Many also loved to gamble – and to drink. After the second generation, the men and many of the women were literate, at a time when most people could not even sign their names. The families hired a series of teachers, and at one time a group of nuns operated a school for girls on the Isle. Mills’s wife, Elizabeth Shown Mills, whose name is familiar to genealogists all over the world, has revised and updated the book, which was reissued in 2013.
A descendant of Isle Brevelle residents, Lalita Tademy, published Cane River (New York: Warner Books) in 2001. An Oprah book club selection, the novel focuses on four generations of the women of her family, all born slaves, who bore children to white men, in some cases by force, in others with their complicity. This family was tangentially related to the Metoyers. Cane River puts the reader in the place, and in the heads of the lead characters. Of course there is the hot, steamy country where slaves and some masters toiled over cotton and corn, where everyone was dependent on the vagaries of the weather. The characters have distinctive voices and narrative trajectories. In her introduction Tademy mentions how the women spoke to her. “Philomene demanded that I struggle to understand the different generations of her family and the complexities of their lives.” This is a clear case where the author communicates her passion for her subject.
In completing the images of these women, Tademy also produces mouth-watering descriptions of the food – café noir, fried eggs, tasso, turtle stew, biscuits and molasses, peach pies, jams and jellies, tea cakes. Then during the war years, everything corn – corn pone, corn fritters, corn-parched coffee. She also includes gruesome descriptions of the mistreatment of humans, and of “yellow jack” or “black vomit,” the yellow fever that devastated the area in 1857, and of the waning enthusiasm of the troops who donned the gray expecting a quick victory and returned to find their entire world utterly devastated.
Elizabeth Shown Mills followed the nonfiction work in 2006 with Isle of Canes, (Provo, Utah: MyFamily.com), a novel based on the Metoyer family. She includes the French connection, and the Spanish connection, and the Native American connection. She writes the history of Louisiana, the revolutions in the United States and France, the War of 1812, the arguments for and against secession, and of course the Civil War and Reconstruction. There are so many characters it’s difficult to engage with them. There is little to distinguish among their voices – except the occasional use of foreign words and sentence structure based on French or Spanish. Nevertheless the book serves as an example of how to take a mass of facts and dates and documents and stories to weave a fascinating narrative.
As a comparison, I urge you to read the first 50 pages of Isle of Canes and the first 50 of Cane River, not counting the prologue or author’s note to see why Tademy’s book was more successful.