Thursday, August 25, 2011
Women at Sea: Quadroons of Old New Orleans
This quote from the journal of Frenchman Francois Perrin du Lac sums up his personal opinion of the New Orleans tradition known as placage: placement. Perrin du Lac travelled to Louisiana in the early 19th century (his journal was published in 1805) when the system was well established so it is a certainty that he had seen it in action. His opinion, though skewed if the truth be told, does sum up certain arrangements made by the famous pirates of Barataria Pierre Laffite and his brother, Jean.
As Liliane Crete notes in her excellent history Daily Life in Louisiana 1815-1830, New Orleans and the surrounding area had a problem common to frontier settlements from the day it was founded by the French: gender imbalance. Too many white men meant heightened competition for the available white female population which, in turn, could lead to social chaos. Since most people aren’t ready for anarchy, and usually the wealthy end up with their choice of what ever is scarce, men who were not the cream of the crop (those wealthy, landowning Creoles) cast about for other alternatives. This led to arrangements between white men and black or mulatto women. Since the marriage of a white person to anyone with even “a drop of African blood” was forbidden, the couples basically set up house and lived as if they were married.
By the time of the Louisiana Purchase, the players had changed and these arrangements had become a highly formalized institution. The young women in question – most were introduced no later than their 15th birthdays – were no longer black or mulatto but quadroon (having one black grandparent) or octoroon (having one black great-grandparent). Some were so far removed from their African ancestry that they had light hair and eyes, to say nothing of their ivory complexions. They were the accomplished of their social strata and considered themselves above marrying a man of even octoroon blood. Instead, they strove to catch the eye of the wealthiest Creole gentleman they could and then, more often than not, a contract was drawn up.
In most cases, the man in question – whether he was a young bachelor or an established gentleman with a Creole wife and family – agreed to provide for the young lady who was “placed” with him. He would buy her a respectable home, often along Rue Rampart but later the Faubourg Marigny became popular as well, set up her household and recognize her children. Depending on the gentleman’s means the household might include a carriage and horses, jewels, furniture and usually one or two slaves. The children of these liaisons, though always listed in the church register as “colored”, were given the gentleman’s last name. Many of them were also mentioned in his will, some to a very generous degree. Should trouble come to this paradise the contract, usually negotiated between the gentleman and the young lady’s mother who was once “placed” herself, stipulated that he would provide for his placage family in the form of a monetary endowment.
Though it has become somewhat fashionable among even credible researchers to call the young women involved in these arrangements slaves they were, to a person, free blacks. New Orleans was a place where, as William C. Davis has noted, color lines blurred more than anywhere else in the young United States. The city and the surrounding bayous had a high population of “free people of color” from the Spanish period on. It would be ridiculous to discount the fact that some slave owners used their chattel for sexual gratification but it is just as ridiculous to imagine that they would sign contractual agreements with someone who, according to their world view, was no less a piece of property than a horse. The quadroons and octoroons were free women, and many of them owned slaves themselves. In fact some made a lucrative living later in life renting out their slaves for day jobs around the city.
The ladies were invariably remarked upon by travelers from abroad as lovely, modest and accomplished. One woman from Britain compared them to the Brahmin ladies of India. Many times they appear in literature with interesting and exotic names like Toucoutou, Zabette, Semiramee or Ti Poulette. They appeared all over town, at the Opera, where special boxes were set aside for quadroons, and at dances. It was at these dances, generally known as Black and White or later Blue Ribbon balls, that Creole gentlemen mingled with the ladies available for placage. According to Davis, it was at one of Monsieur Coquet’s soirees that Pierre Laffite met his long time quadroon companion, Marie Louise Villard or Vallars.
Louise, or Louison as she was known affectionately, was about ten years younger than Pierre and rumored to be quite lovely despite a few pock marks on her cheeks. Though no contract between Pierre and Louise’s mother Marguarite is extant, Louise was living with one of NOLA’s favorite pirates by 1806. They would spend close to twenty years together and produce a brood of at least seven children. Louise, it seems, was intrepid enough to accompany Pierre on business trips to Pensacola where she lived with him for two or three years. Pierre’s two documented New Orleans homes on Rue Dumaine and Rue St. Philip were both purchased in Louise’s name.
In the same household lived Louise’s younger sister Catherine or Catiche as she was known. She had a much less stable relationship with Pierre’s younger brother that, at the very least, produced Jean Laffite’s only documented child. Jean-Pierre Laffite was born in November of 1815 according to baptismal records at St. Louis Cathedral. He died at sixteen in the virulent yellow fever epidemic of 1832.
Both women were quite literally abandoned by the Laffite brothers when Pierre and Jean set out from Galveston for Isla Mujeres in 1820. Louise and Catherine eventually married quadroon men and lived the rest of their lives in New Orleans.
The system of placage continued into the 1820s and ’30s but slowly faded away as waves of Easterners moved to New Orleans. By the 1840s the very idea of such standardized adultery would have been abhorrent to the Victorian sensibility and it was in this era that some quadroon and octoroon families, robbed of the benefits of their former station in society, began “passing” as white. Though this sometimes worked, it could also have disastrous results as was the case with one of Pierre and Louise’s unfortunate descendants. But that is another story for another time.
Header: Octoroons in late 18th century New Orleans, print via slaveimages.org