The Forgotten People
Cane River's Creoles of Color
Publication Year: 2013
Out of colonial Natchitoches, in northwestern Louisiana, emerged a sophisticated and affluent community founded by a family of freed slaves. Their plantations eventually encompassed 18,000 fertile acres, which they tilled alongside hundreds of their own bondsmen. Furnishings of quality and taste graced their homes, and private tutors educated their children. Cultured, deeply religious, and highly capable, Cane River's Creoles of color enjoyed economic privileges but led politically constricted lives. Like their white neighbors, they publicly supported the Confederacy and suffered the same depredations of war and political and social uncertainties of Reconstruction. Unlike white Creoles, however, they did not recover amid cycles of Redeemer and Jim Crow politics.
First published in 1977, The Forgotten People offers a socioeconomic history of this widely publicized but also highly romanticized community -- a minority group that fit no stereotypes, refused all outside labels, and still struggles to explain its identity in a world mystified by Creolism.
Now revised and significantly expanded, this time-honored work revisits Cane River's "forgotten people" and incorporates new findings and insight gleaned across thirty-five years of further research. This new edition provides a nuanced portrayal of the lives of Creole slaves and the roles allowed to freed people of color, tackling issues of race, gender, and slave holding by former slaves. The Forgotten People corrects misassumptions about the origin of key properties in the Cane River National Heritage Area and demonstrates how historians reconstruct the lives of the enslaved, the impoverished, and the disenfranchised.
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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Foreword to the Revised Edition
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It was with great pleasure that I accepted the honor of writing a foreword for the revised edition of Gary Mills’s The Forgotten People. After its publication, Mills’s book stood as the only historical scholarship about the town of Natchitoches for decades. When I set out to write my dissertation, which was a socioeconomic study of colonial Natchitoches, Mills’s work...
Note on the Revised Edition
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Creole is a culture, not a color. In 1969, I discovered that culture under the wing of Hazel Cecilia Rachal Mills, a Cane River Creole of French, Native American, and British roots. She took me to Cloutierville and introduced me to her people: Rachals, Brossets, Derbannes, LaCours, Brevelles, and more. As a young student of history, I...
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Cane River’s Creoles of color, despite their fabled “uniqueness,” were part of a larger social order long considered peculiar to “Latin” Louisiana.1 Known as gens de couleur libres, the men and women of this society were considered neither black nor white. They successfully rejected identification with any established racial order and achieved recognition...
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While I would never assert that the completion of this study
was a light or easy task, I do humbly admit that the work was
lightened immeasurably by the generous assistance given by
many of my friends and colleagues. My debt to each of these
must be acknowledged.
It was Mr. Arthur Chopin Watson of Natchitoches who sparked my interest...
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The “forgotten people” who so intrigued Private Holloway were a legendary community of Creoles who have made the Isle Brevelle area of Louisiana’s Cane River country their home for almost two centuries. The origins of this sprawling community are reflected not only in the names the people bear but also in the varied hues that often, but not always, tint their skin. Cane...
1. A Fusion of Roots
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In 1714 the intrepid French Canadian Louis Juchereau de St. Denis founded the first military post and colonial settlement in the region now known as northwest Louisiana. It was a strategic location he chose. Situated on the Red River1 at the site of the Natchitoches Indian village, the post of St. Jean Baptiste des Natchitoches coexisted in harmony...
2. A Matriarchal Legacy
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In 1778 free nonwhites were relatively rare at the Natchitoches post. The census of 1776, the last one taken before Coincoin’s manumission, tallied a total population of 1,021 residents; 430 were nonwhites; but only 8 of these were free. Three of those free people of color died or moved away shortly afterward; by 1785 the post still claimed only eight free...
Photo Essay: Cane River, circa 1740–1880
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In 1979, this historic fort was reconstructed in Natchitoches, at its original site, drawing upon colonial descriptions and plats. The center building—large by comparison to those around it but cramped by modern standards—was assigned to the commandant as a residence. At the time of Coincoin’s birth, the family that occupied the dwelling was headed by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the man who held Coincoin’s parents in...
3. Early Development of the Isle Brevelle Community
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It was the eldest son, Augustin, who led the Metoyers de couleur to Isle Brevelle. One by one, his brothers followed and, tract by tract, adjacent lands came under their control by grant, by occupancy, and by purchase. As the years passed, the offspring of Coincoin and Pierre Metoyer were increasingly recognized as a famille extraordinaire by denizens...
4. Background of the Major Allied Families
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Community expansion was essential for the Metoyers of Isle Brevelle. While Anglo-Protestant America condoned marriages between cousins, the Roman Catholic church proscribed it to the fourth degree. Yet colonial Louisiana provided no means of legal marriage outside the church, and Catholic culture in the new American regime still...
5. In Pursuit of Wealth
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The economic activities of Cane River’s Creoles spanned a broad spectrum. Farmers, professional men, merchants, tradesmen, and craftsmen, together they formed an almost self-contained society. Plantations that were mainly devoted to the cultivation of cotton also provided foodstuffs for the community. Other supplies were usually...
6. The Faith of Their Fathers
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Catholicism was—and has remained—the cultural root of the society Coincoin’s family created along Cane River. Catholic respect for the sanctity of the family spawned the Code Noir provision that allowed Coincoin to grow to maturity in a two-parent household. The concern of a Catholic priest for the souls of the enslaved was the catalyst...
7. Cane River Culture
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The economic and religious underpinnings of the community manifested themselves in many aspects of daily life. Large and stately homes graced the larger plantations. Musical training for the youth nurtured an appreciation of the arts. Education—even university study abroad—equipped each new generation for its role as citizens of distinction. All...
8. Racism and Citizenship
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Coincoin’s offspring had overcome many handicaps posed by slavery, poverty, illiteracy, and illegitimacy, but they were still gens de couleur libres. The most formidable barrier they faced remains to be examined: exercise of the rights of citizenship. What role did they play in a society that measured citizenship by the color of skin? What...
9. Economic and Social Decline
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Cane River’s Creoles of color prospered steadily until the Panic of 1837, at which point the trend reversed. Their aggregate wealth would continue to increase until the Civil War, reflecting a growing population and economic inflation; but individual holdings in land and slaves, the most significant capital investments they possessed, declined. The extended family...
Photo Essay: Isle Brevelle, 1940
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In June 1940, a young photographer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture drove the
Red River highway from the plantations of south Louisiana to the fields of Oklahoma.
En route, she tarried at Isle Brevelle, capturing relics of a curious world. Rarely did
she name her subjects. As her captions on this set of photos show, the labels “mulatto”
and “servant” sufficed for her purposes.
That day, Marion Post (later Wolcott) documented...
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The twentieth century wrought its own cycles of change along Cane River. As family lands were sliced and slivered among each new generation, few families could subsist on the acreage left to them. Their youth began to disperse, seeking better opportunities in industrial areas. Some settled in North Louisiana’s larger towns, Alexandria...
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Page Count: 480
Illustrations: 25 halftones, 3 maps, 3 charts
Publication Year: 2013
Edition: revised edition