Louisiana’s Great River Road (part two)
By Renée S. Gordon
Louisiana’s celebrated River Road parallels the east and west banks of the Mississippi River for the 70-miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge through “Plantation Country.” The road traverses three parishes,---- St. Charles, St. John and St. James--- and winds past bayous, levees, modern industries, historic communities and oak alleys that draw the eye to pillared mansions. Once the Great River Road was lined with approximately 350 antebellum mansions, overwhelmingly Greek revival, and the thoroughfare rivaled today’s Gold Coast estates. The large number of plantations was due to France’s granting long, narrow, land parcels to maximize river frontage during the Colonial Era. www.stjamesla.com
Nine of the plantations are currently accessible for tours, several have restaurants on the premises and a few offer on-site accommodations. Each plantation is unique both historically and architecturally and each is worthy of a visit. All of them reference the people, both free and enslaved, who contributed to the building and sustaining of a plantation culture that was unduplicated and unrivalled anywhere else in the world. www.stcharlesparish-la.gov
It was into a world rich with Native American culture that the first Europeans entered with De Soto. His party discovered the Mississippi River but it was not until 1682 that La Salle claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, for France. He named the land “Louisiane,” in honor of King Louis XIV. The acquisition of this land coincided with France’s decline as a world power and the king saw this as an opportunity to duplicate the manner in which the West Indies colonies were generating wealth. This entailed the importation of skilled enslaved Africans as they appeared to be able to withstand the subtropical climate and the working conditions. www.louisianatravel.com
Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville established Louisiana in 1699. Antoine Crozat, a slave trader, became the colony’s proprietor 12 years later. His patent stated that he was to settle the land with white Catholics and slaves. In 1717 the Company of the Indies, headed by John Law, took over, recruited Germans to settle what would be called the German Coast, and took up the charge to import 3,000 blacks within 10 years. The following year, New Orleans was founded and a year later it became the colony’s primary city. By 1721, there were 684 whites and 565 slaves, the first group arriving in 1719. Many more blacks were imported but only 1 in 4 survived the grueling conditions. In the mid 1700s the first Acadians moved into St. James Parish. By the onset of the Civil War there were 357,456 whites, 331,726 slaves and 18,647 free people of color.
The initial plantation crops were indigo, rice, cotton and tobacco but in 1751 Jesuit priests successfully grew sugarcane aided by skilled slaves. The boom years began for the River Road plantations at the beginning of the 19th-century with several contemporaneous events, the invention of the cotton gin (1794), the mechanization of spinning and weaving (1780s), the influx of Haitian planters and slaves with a needed skill set (1790s) and the creation of an economically feasible sugar granulation process by Etienne Boré in 1795. The average plantation profit was 10 percent and the average sugarcane plantation was valued at $200,000 in 1820s dollars. Slave labor made great wealth possible and Louisiana ranked #1 in the number of families with more than 100 slaves, 100. Fifty free people of color owned slaves.
Complete itineraries are available online that include basic historic background, maps, driving directions, hours of operation and available amenities. The plantations we are visiting in this article basically follow a route that begins 30 miles west of New Orleans on the east side of the river. Ideally, you should plan to spend a minimum of two days touring the sites along the River Road. www.plantationparade.com
Destrehan Plantation, the “oldest documented plantation house in the Lower Mississippi River Valley,” has an abundance of history dating from the colonial era through Reconstruction. Charles Parquet, a freeman, completed the original manor house and dependencies for Charles deLogny, a free mulatto, in 1790. The house was a two-story, raised Creole cottage His payment included a “brute negro.”
In 1810, after changing from indigo to sugar, the wealthy owner, Jean Noel d’Estrehand, husband of deLogny’s daughter Celeste, added two garconnieres. These buildings are unique to the region and were constructed to house teenaged males. Thirty years later the home was renovated to reflect the Greek Revival style with added interior curving stairs, plastered ceiling beams and concealed brick Doric columns over the existing ones. The 17-acre plantation was originally 6,000-acres.
Highlights of the interior and outbuildings include a bed and dresser handcarved by a freeman of color, the butler’s pantry and warming kitchen, slave cabins and an original document signed by Jefferson and Madison. Costumed living history guides bring the stories to life and demonstrate crafts on-site. The plantation was the setting for Interview with a Vampire.
Several extremely noteworthy events occurred at Destrehan. Stephen Henderson, a Scotsman, wed Eleonor Destrehan. She died shortly and he followed years later. In his will he freed his slaves but after a 12-year court battle relatives had the will overturned in 1838.
A small museum in one of the outbuildings is devoted to interpreting the story of the 1811 Slave Revolt through artifacts, documents and folk art depictions of scenes from the revolt, the largest in US history.
The origins of Charles Deslondes, the acknowledged leader of the uprising, have been obscured by time. His owner may have brought him from Haiti while escaping the revolution. We know that the revolt was planned on Deslondes Plantation and began with an attack on Andry Plantation where it was believed military weapons were stored. They began on January 8, 1811, by killing Andry’s son and setting out in the direction of New Orleans. A slave named Trepagnier informed on them and by the next morning the community was warned. Charles and his force numbered 200 but they were no match for the combined federal troops and militia. The revolt ended on January 12th, 60 men were killed outright and 70 were tried. The trials were held at Destrehan on the 13th and 14th. Eighteen men confessed and were shot at their “home” plantation and their heads placed atop poles as a warning. Deslondes was tortured and decapitated.
A federal order created the Federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands or Freedmen’s Bureau, established to assist freed slaves with adjusting to their changed status. Destrehan Plantation was confiscated and became the Rost Home Colony, one of four in the state, for a two-year period. www.destrehanplantation.org
The 16-acre 1790 Ormond Plantation’s main house is a two-story Louisiana Colonial constructed on land given to Pierre d’Trepagnier for Revolutionary War service. The house has been the scene of tragedies that began almost immediately. In 1798, Pierre was called away from the table to meet with a visitor. He disappeared. Basile LaPlace purchased the home in 1898 and less than a year later he was shot and hung from a tree at his home by the Ku Klux Klan.
The manor house, furnished in period antiques, is now a B&B and a gourmet restaurant under the auspices of Chef Kiral who uses only the freshest local ingredients. The house is a perfect setting for weddings, receptions and getaways. www.plantation.com/Restaurant.
San Francisco Plantation, the most authentically restored plantation on River Road is also notable for its architecture and antique collection. The galleried steamboat Gothic-style great house was constructed in December of 1856 on a sugar plantation that was initially owned By Elisée Rillieux , a free man of color, then by Edmond Marmillion in 1830. The entire estate including the house, sugar mill, and slaves were purchased.
The home’s façade was originally off-white but was repainted in vivid colors and 900-ft. of manicured lawn was between the river and the home. Highlights of an interior tour include five handpainted ceilings, an 1850’s office chair, one of only five made, the second floor murals by Dominique Canova and the 26-ft. long solid mahogany dining table. The 17-room house is 11,000-sq. ft. and has 72 windows on the attic level. San Francisco has undergone a $2.5-million restoration and it was well worth the cost. Tours of the house are available as well as the school and slave quarters. www.sanfranciscoplantation.org
The movie Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was filmed at Houmas House Plantation, once known as “The Sugar Palace” due to its status as the largest sugar producer in the nation. The entire plantation has been restored to its former glory and costumed docents guide you through 16-rooms that reflect the antebellum years. The house is replete with period furnishings and stunning artwork that reflects the region.
Alexander Latiel and Mares Conwan purchased the 300,000-acres of land from the Houma Indians for $150.00 in trade goods in 1770. Latiel erected a red brick, two-story, house but five years later sold his share. Two Americans purchased the plantation and constructed the 2-story, 4-room, Creole cottage that is the basis of the current home. The plantation was sold to John Burnside, a Scotsman, for $1 million and under his guidance the house became one of the most elaborate on the River Road. Burnside saved the plantation from Union devastation in the Civil War by claiming British citizenship. Houmas Plantation, one of the wealthiest plantations, held the greatest number of enslaved people in the state. The number is estimated to have been close to 1,000.
Highlights of the interior are a magnificent, 1812, pegged, free-standing, three-story spiral staircase, a clock owned by Marie Antoinette and Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson’s coatrack, a metamorphosis table designed by Aaron Burr and 65 lb. statue of Lincoln by Borglum that is so detailed you can see the veins in his hands and feel the toes in his shoe.
The plantation has a magnificent garden filled with indigenous trees and plants. There are two restaurants, the iconic Turtle Bar situated inside one of the twin garconnieres and a wonderful marketplace that houses a gift shop, bookstore and art gallery. www.houmashouse.com
These plantations are award-winningg and Destrehan, Ormond and San Francisco are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. San Francisco Plantation is also a site on the Louisiana African American History Trail. www.astorylikenoother.com
Visitors should also designate some time to take a narrated Cajun Pride Swamp Tour in 5,000-acre Manchac Swamp. This is an outstanding tour and I heartily recommend it. Tours are aboard a pontoon boat, so as not to disturb the wildlife, and the ride is smooth. As you glide through the bayou the guide points out creatures, land formations and historic locations. The featured creature is the alligator and the guide manages to call them right up to the boat for food and photographs. Onboard displays include a baby gator so that you can get up close and personal. Highlights of the tour are an early dwelling, a 1915 cemetery and the story of Julia Brown, the town oracle, who predicted her demise and that of the town. The swamp is believed to be haunted and will be the subject of a television program hosted by Jack Osbourne in July. www.cajunprideswamptours.com
Unique events make every season special in Plantation Country but one of the top contenders for event of the year is “Bonfires on the Levee.” This custom migrated from Europe and is one of the oldest Christmas traditions in the U.S. Bonfires, limited to 20-ft. tall with a 12-ft. wide base, are lit atop the levee to light the way for Papa Noel. www.festivalofthebonfires.org
For a good time visit www.neworleansplantationcountry.com
I wish you smooth travels!
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