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Octoroon and Quadroons





The Quadroons



a recognized extralegal system in which white men entered into the common-law marriages with women of African, Indian and white (European) Creole descent.

Photo courtesy of Cane River by Lalita Tademy




    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, and 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;[1] 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.


    One of the oldest buildings in New Orleans bears the strange name Madame John's Legacy for a fictitious woman of color. Ironically, that is the only name to survive from a unique group of free women of color who became mistresses of French men

    .Madame John, according to a story written by George Washington Cable in the 1860s, was a quadroon, a light-skinned mistress of a French-Creole man, Monsieur Jean. Upon his death she inherited his estate, as he had never married a woman of his race. In the story Madame John (jean) is persuaded to sell the property, but the bank where she invests the money goes under and she is left destitute to raise her daughter

The Octoroons / Quadroons



The Quadroon Ball
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The Beauty of the Creole Women


Excerpts by Eleanor Early


The most beautiful woman I ever saw was the colored wife of a Negro diplomat from Haiti, a pale girl with skin like gardenias. I met her at a reception at the President's Palace in Port-au-Prince. Her eyes were the color of Haitian bluebells, which is the shade of delphinium which is a cross between clear blue and purple.


Her mouth was a pomegranate cut in halves, and the wings of her blue-black hair were the wings of a Congo thrush. her maiden names was Dumas, and she was descended from the great Dumas, père and fils. The first Dumas was the son of a French marquis and a colored woman from Santo Domingo. Some of Dumas'sdescendants are white and some are black


A Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenbach . . . was most favorably impressed by the Quadroons.

He visited New Orleans in 1825 and attended a Quadroon Ball where he danced with the girls, and met their mothers.

The duke, who was a brother-in-law of William IV (the uncle of Queen Victoria) said the Quadroons were "the most beautiful women in the world." if Victoria heard that, she probably washed her hands of the duke. . . .






A Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenbach . . . was most favorably impressed by the Quadroons. He visited New Orleans in 1825 and attended a Quadroon Ball where he danced with the girls, and met their mothers.

The duke, who was a brother-in-law of William IV (the uncle of Queen Victoria) said the Quadroons were "the most beautiful women in the world." if Victoria heard that, she probably washed her hands of the duke. . . .





The Octoroon

The French colonial government at the end of the eighteen century registered in Santo Domingo some sixty combinations of white with Negro blood and gave a name to each.

A Quateron, for example, was thirty-two to fifty-seven parts black and seventy-one to ninety-six parts white--the result of twenty possible combinations, among which was the mating of white and Marabout.

A Marabout was approximately eighty-eight parts black to forty-four parts white. In Louisiana, the term Quadroon was erroneously used to cover a multitude of combinations. 


The life of a Creole Quadroon was romantic and appalling and, in some ways, peculiarly pleasant. But of course everybody did not see it that way. There were women among the Quadroons congenitally fitted for the existence they led who made the most of it, and undoubtedly enjoyed it. . . .

A Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenbach . . . was most favorably impressed by the Quadroons. He visited New Orleans in 1825 and attended a Quadroon Ball where he danced with the girls, and met their mothers. The duke, who was a brother-in-law of William IV (the uncle of Queen Victoria) said the Quadroons were "the most beautiful women in the world." if Victoria heard that, she probably washed her hands of the duke. . . .

The Quadroons lived in small houses on or near Rampart Street and were supported by well-known Creole gentlemen. They lived in eminent respectability and brought up their children piously, and often sent them abroad to be educated.

Although their homes were traditionally unimpressive, they had slaves, excellent cooks, maids to dress their hair,a nd boys to "make messages." Making messages meant running errands, fetching fruits and wines from the French Market, matching silks and threads on Royal Street, and flying on swift black feet to the pâtisserie for petit fours when Missieu was coming for tea.


Some of the Quadroons who were cherished by the richest, most honorable and most important men in town were said to have quantities of jewels, and money in the bank.

But if a Quadroon walked down Rampart Street in a bright silk dress, or with plumes in her hat, or went to market with a diamond ring on her finger, any white woman could have her whipped like a slave. For a trifling charge, whippings were administered in the calabozo. Naturally when the white woman's husband heard about it there was hell to pay, and this may have been one reason why the law was seldom evoked.

Another reason was that the Quadroons were irreproachably circumspect. In the daytime they wore simple cotton gowns. At night they wore décolleète silks and satins, and sex hovered about them like a tropical mist. If their demeanor did not reassure the white women, there was very little that could be done about it.

First official recognition of the Quadroons was made by the Spanish Governor who passed an ordinance in 1788 that is a most extraordinary document. The directory of that year shows fifteen hundred "unmarried women of color, all free, living in little houses near the ramparts."

Governor Miro's ordinance made it an offense for these femmes de couleur to walk abroad in silk, jewels, or plumes. The only head covering they might wear was a madras kerchief known as a tignon, twisted about the head and knotted on top. West Indies women wear such turbans today.

French planters in Santo Domingo had long ago taken the handsomest slaves for their mistresses. the planters were usually aristocrats. The slaves came from what is now French Senegal, and they were a handsome people with silky black hair and straight fine features. Gold Coast Negroes were black and ferocious. Those from French Dahomey were the color of tobacco and a gentle lot.

By a process of selective breeding, the French (and to a lesser degree the Spanish) had produced in Santo Domigo an exotically lovely type of woman with straight lithe figures, small hands and feet and exquisitely chiseled features. they were known as "Les Sirènes." During the slave uprising in Santo Domingo, the planters fled to Louisiana bringing their mistresses and children with them.



It was the daughters of these women and their daughters' daughters who came to be called Quadroons. This was a misnomer, since a Quadroon is a person having one fourth Negro and three fourths white blood. Many of the Quadroons had only one sixty-fourth Negro blood.

The Sirènes practiced voodoo and taught it tot heir daughters, in order to hold, or sometimes to get rid of, their lovers. They were a wild and magnificent lot.

Marie Leaveau, the celebrated Voodoo Queen, was the daughter of a Sirène. Marie died in 1881 when she was ninety-eight, and is buried in St. Louis Cemetery Number One . . .  A man who knew Marie's daughter told me that the daughter claimed descent from the noblest family in France, and that she looked it.

"She carried herself like a queen. She had snow-white hair, as fine," he said, "as a baby's and a long regal nose. I always believed," he said, "that she had noble blood in her."

Marie was a girl of fifteen when the Duc d'Orleans visited New Orleans with his brothers. She was famous then as a beautiful young sorceress, and the de Marignys took the princes around to see her. her mother was dead and Marie was on her own, brewing love potions and peddling gris-gris. She made amulets to keep the princes safe from harm, and told the duke that he would be king of France. And of course he was, but nobody believed her.

There were laws in the colony prohibiting marriage between white men and colored women, and the only way white fathers of colored children could protect their children from becoming slaves was to set the mothers free. Sons were sometimes sent to France where there was no prejudice against their origin.

Sometimes they were placed on land in the back of the state where they usually prospered, became planters and often made fortunes. many of those who went to France became distinguished musicians, poets or dramatists. More than a hundred years ago there was published writings of seventeen poets of New Orleans.. One of these poets Michel Seligny, founded a school for rich colored children on St. Philip Street.

Life was pleasant enough when the children were small and living at home with their beautiful mothers. But as they grew older the colored boys had a bad time of it. When white men visited their sisters, it was accepted etiquette for the brothers to efface themselves. If they "knew their place," as white folks put it, they were never present when their betters trod the primrose path.


Many colored men married the former mistresses of white men. They often had their children educated in France, and many of them became wealthy and had slaves of their own. White men sometimes sent their discarded mistresses into the country, comfortably endowed with means to pursue the pleasant Creole custom of enjoying life.

The women took their children with them, married colored men and had more children. And so it happened that half-brothers and sisters sometimes varied in color from almost white to very dark.

There is a true story about a white man from the north who went to Pointe Coupée where he met a Quadroon, ex of Rampart Street. He fell in love with her and wanted to marry her.

But as marriages between white and colored persons were forbidden, the white man opened a vein in his arm with a penknife, pricked the girl's finger and squeezed a drop of blood into his vein. then he swore that he had Negro blood in him, and the marriage took place.

On the record they both signed as Negroes. this is the plot that Edna Ferber used in Show Boat, and is probably where she got the idea.

The Orleans Theatre was about the only place where white women could keep an eye on their husbands. Since it was impossible for Creole gentlemen to attend their Quadroon sweethearts at the play, colored men were permitted to escort their mothers and sisters.

Performances began at six in the evening and lasted until two or three o'clock the next morning. the second tier, reserved exclusively for colored people, billowed with the taffeta crinolines of the Quadroons and gleamed with their jewels. And after the white wives grew tired and fade-looking, the Quadroons went on sparkling. . . .

The quadroons with their lovely countenances resembled, according to Mr. Buckingham, the highest order of Hindu women. They had dark liquid eyes, lips of coral, and teeth of pearl. Their long raven locks were soft and glossy. They had sylphlike figures, beautifully formed limbs, and exquisite gaits. They practiced subtle and amusing coquettes, and they had the most adorable manners. . . .

Most of the young Creoles had mistresses. If they did not, it was a reflection upon their virility. Abstinence was no virtue, and a handsome mistress was as much a mark of social distinction as the possession of fine horses and carriages. This being so, the Quadroons inevitably got most of the nicest young men first, and sometimes kept them longest. . . .

The Quadroons were not in any sense prostitutes. They were courtesans, impossible to any other time or place than eighteenth century New Orleans. many of them were as tenderly and carefully brought up as any white girl, and until they secured a "protector" they were just as virtuous.

They attended the color annex of the Mount Carmel Convent School. If they did not learn much more than to sing a pretty song and sew a fine seam, nether did the white girls who were taught by the Ursulines. Creole women never read much. They were accomplished in music, which they all loved, and in embroidery, which most of them disliked. the nuns also taught them painting and drawing.

But it was the home work that counted. When it came to love the colored girls' mothers had forgotten more than the white girls' mothers ever knew. most of the Quadroons were beautiful. their dispositions were naturally sweet and submissive. They accepted life as they found it, and did not try to change it.

L'amour (or what passed for it) was what they were born for, and their mothers before them. it was what they lived for and their mothers schemed for. When they achieved it they were happy. And if, when they lost it, they were sad, and their sadness was heart-shattering, that too was what they were born for. . . .


It wasn't that the gentlemen were so extraordinarily virile. but because they were everlasting romantic.


Their virility, as a matter of fact, gave them considerable concern. To sustain it, they ate dozens of raw oysters, which were considered (and still are considered in new Orleans) a great aphrodisiac. They also took a stimulant made from Spanish flies, dried and powdered and make into a potion. They drank a great deal of champagne and much absinthe. But there was nothing, they said, like oysters, and this curious contention has some basis in fact --curious, I mean, because it sounded so silly until along came a scientist and said it was true.


The gentlemen's romantic proclivities were their everlasting concern, and there was no place for romance like a Quentin Ball. The balls originated at the end of the seventeenth century while Louisiana belonged to Spain. They lasted for nearly a hundred years, degenerating after the War between the States into shabby, ill-mannered affairs with no resemblance to their ancient elegance and decorum.


The first ball, a sort of coming-out party sponsored by Quadroon mothers to introduce their daughters to white men, was called Bal de Cordon Bleu, and it was by this name that the balls were always known among the Creoles. After the Americans came to town they were more generally called Quadroon Balls. . . .

Adjoining the orleans Theatre was a ballroom, Salle d'Orleans, which is now the mother house of the Colored Sisters of the Holy Family. This was the building that the enterprising mamas hired for their daughters' "debuts." . . . 


October was the beginning of the Creoles' social season and there were Quadroon balls, as there were white balls, nearly every night until Ash Wednesday. The hostesses were always free women of color who had been the mistresses of white men, and the girls they brought out were always the illegitimate daughters of white men.


The purpose of the balls was to display the youth and beauty of the girls in order to find rich protectors for them. Guests without exception were white men. No white woman would have dreamed of attending. No man of questionable color would have dared set foot inside the door. It was a frank and elegant sex mart where Creole bluebloods chose their mistresses with taste and decorum. . . . 

There was an admission charge of two dollars, which was more than the sum charged at any other public dance. From all accounts, the balls were gay and lavish and well worth the price.

"Colored" girls were all shades of brown, and some were white. there were lascivious beauties with dusky skins and sooty lashes, who rubbed pomade on their chestnut hair to keep it flat, and there were girls whose blue-black hair was straight as an Indian's. Many of them were almost as beautiful as 'Tite Poulette. 'Tite Poulette, according to George W. Cable, was the fairest young women in New Orleans. Her mother was Zalli who lived in Madame John's house. . . .


Quadroon mothers objected to unwise connections for their daughters as strenuously as white mothers oppose an unwise marriage. It has been said that the Quadroons bartered their girls into concubinage, and sold them like slaves. They did, I think, the best they could for them. there were, to be sure, financial arrangements, but there was nothing shocking or unusual about that.


Among the whites there were mariages de convenance, and dowries were always the accepted thing. White girls often had less choice in picking a husband than Quadroons did in choosing a lover. Often, of course, there were love affairs. mariages de la main gauche, the colored people called them, or left-handed marriages.

When a definite arrangement was reached, a girl was spoken of as placée. Her status was a sort of honorable bethrothal, and her immediate future was secure.


It was customary for the man to buy a small house on or near Rue de Rampart, and present it to buy a small house on or near Rue de Rampart, and present it to the girl. Until the house was completed, he never visited her alone. It was understood that he should support her during such time as they might be together, and make an additional settlement when they separated. 


If children were born of the affair, there was no question about their support. A Creole gentleman always provided for his sons and daughters. This was the accepted thing, and there were seldom scandals. Arrangements were oftenest made when the man was a youth, and the girl was about sixteen. Although the affairs usually terminated with marriage, there were many aristocratic Creoles who maintained two households to the day they died.


Girls never deserted a "protector" or betrayed him. Sometimes, when their lovers left them, the Quadroons committed suicide. Many remained "widows" and often removed to the country. The majority probably made other connections. Sometimes they married colored men. But it is doubtful if any colored man ever knew a beautiful, high-class Quadroon until a white man was through with her.


Quadroons who remained in New Orleans after they were deserted often became hairdressers or dressmakers. Among them were the best yellow fever nurses in the city. Some turned their little houses into lodgings for white bachelors, and the bachelors reported that there was always an altar in Madame's bedroom before which she knelt and begged the good God to send kind protectors for her beautiful daughters. Little sins of the body never interfered with the piety of the Creoles, white or colored.


Source: Eleanor Early. New Orleans Holiday. New York: Rhinehart and Company, 1947. / See also:




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