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Plaçage

Plaçage was a recognized extralegal system in which white French and Spanish and later Creole men entered into the equivalent of common-law marriages with women of African, Indian and white (European) Creole descent. The term comes from the French placer meaning "to place with." The women were not legally recognized as wives, but were known as placées; their relationships were recognized among the free people of color as mariages de la main gauche or left-handed marriages. Many were often quarteronnes or quadroons, the offspring of a European and a mulatto, but plaçage did occur between whites and mulattoes and blacks. The system flourished throughout the French and Spanish colonial periods, but apparently reached its zenith during the latter, between 1769 and 1803. It was not limited to Louisiana, but also flourished in the cities of Natchez and Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; St. Augustine and Pensacola, Florida; as well as Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). Plaçage, however, drew most of its fame—and notoriety—from its open application in New Orleans. Despite the prevalence of interracial encounters in the colony, not all Creole women of color were or became placées.

History and development of the plaçage system

The plaçage system grew out of a shortage of accessible white women. France needed wives for the men it had sent overseas, if its colonial population was to grow. Persuading women to follow the men was not easy. First, the motherland recruited willing farm- and city-dwelling women, known as cassette or casket girls, because they brought all their possessions to the colonies in a small trunk or casket. Then France also sent females convicted along with their debtor husbands, and in 1719, deported 209 women felons "who were of a character to be sent to the French settlement in Louisiana," so desperate were the colonial administrators for women to help create settled families in the colony. (See filles du roi for other ways the French encouraged women to go to the colonies.) However, historian Joan Martin maintains that there is little recorded proof that the 'casket girls', considered the progenitors of white French Creoles, were even brought to Louisiana (the Ursuline order of nuns that supposedly chaperoned the arrivals until they married deny that they ever did so). Furthermore, Martin suggests not only that interracial relationships occurred almost the moment Europeans set foot in the New World, but that even some Creole families who today consider themselves white actually began with black or mixed-race forebears. Native women were either traded, sold, or stolen or captured in raids or battles. The only constant was that there were African female slaves, who tended to live longer than either white or Indian women, and who had been imported against their will to labor in the field and settlement. Marriage between the races was forbidden according to the Code Noir, but French and Spanish explorers had become habituated to choosing native women in Asia, Africa, and the Americas as their consorts. European men during this period were not expected to marry until their early thirties, and premarital sex with an intended white bride, especially if she was of high rank, was inconceivable.

African women soon became the concubines of white male colonists, who were sometimes the younger sons of noblemen, military men, plantation owners, merchants and administrators. (There was a particular precedent they came to follow from Saint Domingue, where the French carefully chose their consorts, eventually producing such devastatingly exotic and beautiful women that they were called Les Sirènes or the sirens.) So it became acceptable behavior for a white man to take a slave as young as twelve as a lover. And possession over time had a way of changing the original premise of a relationship. When the women produced children, they were sometimes emancipated along with their children, and were allowed to assume the surnames of their fathers and lovers. When Creole men reached an age when they were expected to marry, some were content to keep their relationships with their placées. Thus, a wealthy white Creole man could possess not just one, but two (or more) families. One with a white woman to whom he was legally married, and the other with a light-skinned Creole woman of color, a placée, who was faithful to him until death. Their mixed-race children became the nucleus of the class of free people of color or gens de couleur in Louisiana, to be replenished with waves of refugees and immigrants from Haiti and other Francophone colonies. The descendants of the gens de couleur also constituted a part of what later became known as the black middle class in the United States; however, most Creoles of color deem themselves as neither white nor black and constitute a nation within a nation.

By 1788, 1,500 Creole women of color and black women were being maintained by white men, and a certain manner of living had emerged to be followed by each generation. It was not unusual for a wealthy, married Creole to live primarily outside New Orleans on a plantation with his white family, with a second address to use in the city for entertaining and socializing among the white elite, while the placée and their children would live primarily in the house he had built or bought for her in New Orleans, and participate in the society of Creoles of color. The white world might not recognize the placée as a wife legally and socially, but she was recognized as such among the Creoles of color. They even owned slaves and plantations, although some of them, particularly during the Spanish colonial era, were relatives that the placées wished to manumit at a later date.

While in New Orleans, the man would cohabit with the placée as an official 'boarder' at the Creole cottage or house near Rampart Street--once the demarcation line or wall between the city and the frontier--or in either the Faubourg Marigny and the Tremé neighborhoods that slowly became the traditional enclave of the New Orleans Creoles of color. Sometimes, if he was not married and wished to keep up social appearances, he kept yet another, separate residence, preferably next door or in the same or next block, housing not being as stringently segregated in New Orleans as they were in other American cities. He also took part in and arranged for the upbringing and education of their children, which meant that both boys and girls were educated in France, as there were no schools available to educate mixed-race children, and it was illegal to teach blacks to read and write. Naturally, the ideal plaçage arrangement(s) ran into the thousands of dollars per year.

Upon the death of her protector and lover, the placée and her family could, on legal challenge, expect up to a third of the man's property. Some white lovers attempted—and succeeded—in making their mixed-race children primary heirs over other white descendants or relatives. But expectation and fulfillment are two different concepts. If a white lover abandoned her or died without provision, which usually did occur, the former placée found other ways to keep herself against these possibilities. She acquired property, ran legitimate rooming-houses, or tried her hand as a hairdresser, as a marchande (female street or country merchant/vendor usually selling Creole cheeses, herbs, pastries, condiments, jams or other dry goods) or as a seamstress. She could become placée to yet another white Creole. Or she could bring up her own daughters to become placées. It was also possible for her to legally marry or to cohabit with a Creole man of color and produce more children.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, placées were not and did not become prostitutes, although the New Orleans sex industry as well as opponents of plaçage (embittered white wives, children, relatives; even former male participants, celebrity travelers, and religious and social activists) attempted to capitalize on or to promote this view of the placées. Creole men of color seemed to be of two minds. While they deplored the practice as denigrating the virtue of Creole women of color, some of them were also the products of liaisons with white Creole males. While many have condemned Creole women of color for seeking liaisons with white men, in reality, the women had no other choice. For many decades, they outnumbered free black men. As a subclass, they were not considered to have honor or morals respected by white social or legal custom because of their African origins. So they sought another way within the bounds of decency and even humanity. As Martin relates, "They did not choose to live in concubinage; what they chose was to survive."

The white Creole historians Charles Gayarré and Alcée Fortier also wrote revisionist histories more accommodating to prevailing theories of Southern white supremacy. They held that little race mixing had ever occurred during the colonial period, that it was the placées who had seduced or led white Creole men astray (Gayarré, when younger, had apparently taken a woman of color as his placée and who had borne him children to his later shame; he ended up marrying a white woman late in life and wrote of his experience in the novel Fernando de Lemos); and that Creoles were wholly pure-blooded whites who were threatened by the spectre of race-mixing like other Southern whites. As a result, placées were viewed through a stereotypical and often racist and romantic prism that presented little of the reality regarding mixed-race women and about New Orleans itself.

Noted placées

Coincoin or Marie Thérèse Metoyer, who through such a liaison, gave birth to twins; one of whom, Nicolas Augustin Métoyer, became patriarch of the large Cane River community of Creoles of color located in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Born in 1742 as a slave in the household of the controversial explorer Louis Juchereau, Sieur de St-Denis, the founder of Natchitoches, Coincoin was the placée of a French colonial administrator, Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer for over 25 years. Coincoin already was the mother of five children and was two years older when she met Claude Métoyer; however, she bore him ten more children. By 1778, Métoyer had freed Coincoin, but she continued to run his household until he decided to marry a suitable Frenchwoman--another Marie Thérèse--in 1788. Earlier, Métoyer had gifted Coincoin with 68 acres of land on which she grew indigo and tobacco--deemed valuable commodities in the struggling colony. Despite having lived most of her life as a house servant, Coincoin learned how to trap bear and other animals, and accumulated a small fortune in the fur trade. With this money, she progressively bought her children's freedom from Métoyer and slaves to help her in the business. Later, on Métoyer's instigation, she petitioned and won a land grant from the Spanish crown, and created a prosperous dairy farm. Her 666-acre estates on the Cane and Red Rivers came to include the properties Melrose Plantation, Yucca House, and African House, the only African dwelling extant in North America, built in 1796. She died around 1817.

There were also examples of white Creole fathers who raised and then carefully and quietly placed their daughters of color with the sons of known friends or family members. This occurred with Eulalie de Mandéville, the elder half-sister of color to the eccentric nobleman, gambler and land speculator Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandéville. Taken from her slave mother as a baby, and partly raised by a white grandmother, twenty-two year old Eulalie was "placed" by her father, Count Pierre Enguerrand Philippe, Écuyer de Mandéville, Sieur de Marigny with Eugène de Macarty, a member of the famous French-Irish clan in 1796, in an alliance that resulted in five children and lasted almost fifty years. Macarty, like some white Creoles who were already fulfilled in their relationships with their placées, did not care to legally marry a white woman and produce suitable heirs. (In comparison to the Macartys' steadfast devotion to each other, Eugène's brother, Augustin de Macarty, although married, was said to have had numerous, complex affairs with Creole women of color; so much, that at his death, there were five or six Augustin de Macarty heirs from several different mothers making claims against his will.)

On his deathbed in 1845, Eugène de Macarty married Eulalie and then willed her all of his money and property then worth $12,000; both actions were later contested by his white relatives, including the notorious Marie Delphine de Macarty LaLaurie, his niece. But the terms of the will favoring Eulalie was upheld by the courts, and after she died, their surviving children were able to beat back a second attempt to claim an estate that had ballooned to over $150,000. At one point, Eulalie even lived next door to Rosette Rochon (below). Eulalie de Mandéville de Macarty was a successful marchande, and she also ran a dairy. She died in 1848.

Rosette Rochon was born a mulâtresse slave around 1767 in colonial Mobile, the daughter of Pierre Rochon, a shipbuilder from a Québécois family (family name was Rocheron in Québec), through his négresse slave consort Marianne, who bore him five other children. Rochon may have been distantly related to the Québec Le Moyne family which produced the colonial administrators and explorers Iberville and Bienville. Once Rosette reached a suitable age, she became the consort of a Monsieur Hardy, with whom she relocated to the colony of Saint Domingue. During her sojourn there, Hardy must have died or relinquished her, for in 1797 during the Haitian Revolution, she escaped to New Orleans, where she later became the placée of Joseph Forstal and Charles Populus, both wealthy white New Orleans Creoles.

Rochon came to speculate in real estate in the French Quarter; she eventually owned rental property, opened grocery stores, made loans, bought and sold mortgages, and owned and rented out slaves. She also traveled extensively back and forth to Haiti, where her son by Hardy had become a government official in the new republic. Her social circle in New Orleans once included Marie Laveau, Jean Lafitte, and the free black contractors and real estate developers Jean-Louis Doliolle and his brother Joseph Doliolle.

In particular, Rochon became one of the earliest investors in the Faubourg Marigny, acquiring her first lot from Bernard de Marigny in 1806. Bernard de Marigny, the Creole speculator, refused to sell the lots he was subdividing from his family plantation to anyone who spoke English. While this turned out to be a losing financial decision, Marigny felt more comfortable with the French-speaking, Catholic free people of color (having relatives, lovers and even children on this side of the color line); consequently, much of Faubourg Marigny was built by free black artisans for free people of color or for French-speaking white Creoles. Rochon remained largely illiterate dying in 1863 at the age of 96, leaving behind an estate valued at $100,000 (today, an estate worth a million dollars).

Marie Laveau (also spelled Leveau, Laveaux) who was known as the voodoo queen of New Orleans, died in 1881; however, she was born sometime between 1795 and 1801 as the daughter of a white Haitian plantation owner, Charles Leveaux, and his mixed black and Indian placée Marguerite Darcantel (or D'Arcantel). Because there were so many whites as well as free people of color in Haiti with the same names, Leveaux could also have been a free man of color who owned slaves and property as well. All three may have escaped Haiti along with thousands of other Creole whites and Creoles of color during the slave uprisings that culminated in the French colony's becoming the only independent black republic in the New World.

At 17, Marie married a Creole man of color popularly known as Jacques Paris (however, in some documents, he is known as Santiago Paris). Paris either died, disappeared or deliberately abandoned her (some accounts also relate that he was a merchant seaman or sailor in the navy) after she produced a daughter. Laveau was styling herself as the Widow Paris and was a hairdresser for white matrons (she was also reckoned to be an herbalist and yellow fever nurse) when she met Louis-Christophe Dumesnil de Glapion and sometime during the early 1820s, they became lovers.

Marie was just beginning her spectacular career as a voodoo practitioner (she would not be declared a 'queen' until about 1830), and Dumesnil de Glapion was a fiftyish white Creole veteran of the Battle of New Orleans with relatives on both sides of the color line. Recently, it's been alleged that Dumesnil de Glapion was so in love with Marie, he refused to live separately from his placée according to racial custom. In an unusual decision, Dumesnil de Glapion passed as a man of color in order to live with her under respectable circumstances--thus explaining the confusion many historians have had whether he was truly white or black. Although it is popularly thought that Marie presented Dumesnil de Glapion with fifteen children, only five are listed in vital statistics and of these, two daughters--one the famous Marie Euchariste or Marie Leveau II--lived to adulthood. Marie Euchariste closely resembled her mother and startled many who thought that Marie Leveau had been resurrected by the black arts, or could be at two places at once, beliefs that the daughter did little to correct.

The quadroon balls

Opportunities for engaging in interracial relationships seemed to accelerate when the Spanish held Louisiana. There were taverns, opera houses, dance halls, theatres, and meeting places that accommodated and accepted all races and classes with tricolor (mixed-race) events, despite warnings and threats from authorities.

The wealthiest and most illustrious of the matrifocal Creole families of color, however, had become so powerful that they formed themselves into the Société de Cordon Bleu around 1780 or 1790 to present their daughters--the best women of color--to the white Creole male elite to form long-term relationships. Those who did not possess as much wealth or membership in the organization presented themselves at the red, white and blue balls or quadroon balls, which were also frequented by white Creoles. Both resembled debutante balls. Men of color were only admitted to these events as servants or waiters or as musicians who played rotation minuets and waltzes.

Occasionally, however, observers at a few of the quadroon balls saw them degenerate into unrulyness and even "orgies." Few were able to see the difference between the Société balls--with its marked decorum--and the sometimes free-spirited quadroon balls and lumped them together. By this time, the United States had acquired the Louisiana Territory, white, well-to-do American men also began frequenting the balls. (Unlike the white Creole men, however, white American men were less interested in continuing the precedent of providing for the women or the children they produced.) The bals were held in locations like the Théâtre de St-Philippe, the Globe, the Salle de Condé, and the Salle de Lafayette. Admission was high at the Société balls--sometimes fixed at two dollars or more--so that only certain men of means and manners could enter.

Many of the women and girls who participated in either the Cordon Bleu or the quadroon balls were not all quadroons, or women with one-quarter black ancestry. There seems to have been a great fascination with that amalgam of ancestry. Some participants were actually mulattoes; some had mixed Native American as well as African blood, and some who were even octoroons. The assembled women were not all light- or white-skinned; there was a variety of skin tones from dark tan to yellow and beige; and they were by no means all resembling white women or having Caucasian features, otherwise they could have easily passed into the white population. Gradations of ancestry did not always produce the expected gradation of skin color. The women were invariably described by contemporary travellers and tourists as diverse as Frederick Law Olmsted, C.C. Robin, and Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach as attractive and beautiful, modest and feminine, poised and soft-spoken, and extremely well-dressed and adorned. Yet not one observer could name a single woman who had participated at these balls, possibly because they were afraid of being exposed for taking an active part in these events.

During a ball, a prospective suitor would be allowed to dance with, pay court to and then express an interest in a particular woman to her chaperone, guardian or mother. (If the woman was not interested, the man would be dissuaded from pursuing her further--with a kind of 19th century bouncer with a weapon as a last resort to enforce appropriate behavior.) The man would then be interrogated or investigated as to his fitness and financial stability. If the woman and her mother approved of the match, a formal, sometimes verbal contract would then be agreed upon. A financial settlement could be $50 per month, or a lump sum of $2,000, as well as a house. This did not include any other property--like jewels, slaves, land or additional cash--that the gentleman would bestow on his placée during the relationship. After matters were resolved, the woman within days would become the placée of the white Creole man. Until the house was completed, the woman was heavily chaperoned wherever she went, even if she received a visit from her intended. The placée could even experience a kind of bridal shower or reception before she left her mother's home.

The quadroon balls, however, did not become a common occurrence until after 1805, the date when the first handbills were printed and circulated for such an event by Bernado Coquet and his partner, José Boniquet in a bid, at that time, to save their investment in the New Orleans entertainment industry. Despite their fame, a white man was not limited to, nor did he have to rely on the Cordon Bleu or the quadroon balls in order to select a placée. These may have been the most famous, but they were not the only venues. There is no truth to repeated local lore that the Orleans Ballroom, also the site of the former Convent of the Sisters of the Holy Family located in the French Quarter was a location for the quadroon balls. However, the founder of the Catholic order, a Creole woman of color named Henriette DeLille or DeLisle was being prepared to enter the plaçage system like her grandmother, mother and sister before her, and all of them had different surnames; DeLille resisted these plans, preferring to remain chaste and fulfill her vocation as a nun. (DeLille is now being considered for sainthood.)

The Civil War and Reconstruction, along with several crop failures on the big Louisiana plantations between the 1830s and 1850s, sounded the death knell of the plaçage system. After 1865, the system truly began to collapse into a shell of itself; and what remained passed into myth and memory. Unfortunately, nothing has yet been unearthed of a black or Creole woman of color's firsthand experience as a placée in the form of diaries or letters. Such records or keepsakes in the hands of a former lover could have been destroyed by white relatives at his death to protect the family. Furthermore, while many placées were indeed well-educated compared to other women of color, slaves, or even white women, their education was limited according to gender restrictions at that time. They did not develop certain attributes that would allow for writing a memoir or diary.

References

Recent books

  • The Free People of Color of New Orleans, An Introduction, by Mary Gehman and Lloyd Dennis, Margaret Media, Inc., 1994.
  • Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
  • Creole New Orleans, Race and Americanization, by Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
  • Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans,, by Kimberly S. Hanger.
  • Afristocracy: Free Women of Color and the Politics of Race, Class, and Culture, by Angela Johnson-Fisher, Verlag, 2008.

Contemporary accounts

  • Travels by His Highness Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach through North America in the years 1825 and 1826, by Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach; William Jeronimus and C.J. Jeronimus, University Press of America, 2001. (The Duke relates his visits to quadroon balls as a tourist in New Orleans.)
  • Voyage to Louisiana,, (An abridged translation from the original French by Stuart O. Landry) by C.C. Robin, Pelican Publishing Co., 1966. (Robin visited Louisiana just after its purchase by the Americans and resided there for two years.)

Fiction

External links

  • Mon Cher, Creole genealogical newsletter, dated June 20, 2003, on the genealogy of Marie Laveau, also related to the Trudeaus, page 5.
  • Information about the life of Marie Thérèse Coincoin Metoyer.
  • History of 918 Barracks Street in the French Quarter, where Eugène Macarty purchased and then built another home for his placée, Eulalie Mandeville (fwc; for free woman of color) and their children.
  • Website of Louisiana Creoles of color.
  • Website of the Musée Rosette Rochon, located on 1515 Pauger Street, Marigny, New Orleans. This house, which survived Hurricane Katrina, is the only extant residence built by Mme. Rochon.

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