NATCHITOCHES, La. -- To study a people's history without understanding the family structure from which it evolved is to confront a robot and pretend one feels a pulse. -- Elizabeth Shown Mills
No one knows where Marie Therese Coincoin lies buried, but it's easy to think of the 250-year-old live oak in front of Melrose Plantation as her family tree. Its kinked and elbowed limbs stretch 100 feet or more in every direction. They're hung with Spanish moss and coated with an opportunistic bit of hitchhiking botany that in dry weather looks like nothing so much as dead and rusty lace. All the plant needs, however, is one opportunity -- a single rainstorm -- to green into leafy lushness and prosperous coexistence with the tree. It's called the resurrection fern.
The story of Marie Therese Coincoin and her descendants is as improbable as the resurrection fern, yet it's all but unknown despite its ample documentation. It flies in the face of almost everything we think we know about slavery: Melrose Plantation was built not only by former slaves but for them. It is also a cautionary tale for those tempted to simplify history or underrate the astonishing capacities of the human spirit, past or present.
"I tell people her story is my family history," says Kitchery La Cour, 22, who guides visitors through the plantation house. "And they say, 'How is that possible? How could she have achieved so much if she was a slave?' They act like life doesn't have a lot of layers where they come from. Like it does in Louisiana."
The second daughter of African slaves on the Louisiana frontier, Marie Therese Coincoin was 25 in 1767 when she caught the eye of a well-born Frenchman newly arrived in what was then a French colony ceded to Spain. She was two years older and had already had four children, but Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer was so taken with her beauty that he arranged with her owner to live with her for 19 years in defiance of church and political censure. He fathered 10 children by her and ultimately set her free with 68 acres of land.
She had been a house slave all of her life in one of the most brutal regions for North American bondage. But now free, she went to work in the fields at 44, trapping bear and growing indigo and tobacco. Colonial records detail the bateau cargo of 300 bearskins and two barrels of bear grease she shipped to New Orleans in 1792, along with 9,900 rolls of tobacco.
Gradually she managed to buy all of her children out of slavery, starting with four black children, two daughters and two sons, born before she met Metoyer. She acquired more land and 16 slaves of her own, beside whom she labored in the fields. By the time she died around 1817 at age 75, she and her children had amassed nearly 12,000 acres of plantation land -- most of which they would retain until after the Civil War -- and at least 99 slaves. They had also built their own Catholic church, which still stands. White people sat in the back.
Her descendants would become the wealthiest family of free Negroes in the United States -- the embodiment of the French-speaking gens libre de couleur, or free people of color, whose Creole culture distinguishes Louisiana to this day.
They would leave as a monument to their industry the lushly beautiful Melrose Plantation, in the Cane River region south of here, where cattle today graze pecan-shaded pastures dusted gold with wild mustard, and where the resurrection fern flourishes before the gracefully galleried mansion her son finished in 1833.
It took him 30 years to build. Yet far more significant than the wealth Marie Therese Coincoin left behind was her example of finding limitless possibility in the face of apparently insuperable odds. "It's a very American story," says Elizabeth Shown Mills, the uncredited co-author of her late husband Gary Mills's "The Forgotten People" (LSU Press), the still-definitive and meticulously documented 1977 study of Coincoin and her descendants. "But it doesn't mesh with anybody's idea of how slavery worked, which is probably why it's so little known.
I wonder what the reparations people would do with it?" Though the essential outrage of slavery -- ownership of one human by another -- has never changed since slavery's birth in prehistory, how that ownership shaped the lives of those enslaved varied enormously in North America.
As University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin notes in his masterful 1998 slavery study "Many Thousands Gone" (Harvard University Press), the differences were not merely from plantation to plantation but from region to region, and generation to generation. Slavery in Louisiana, however, was unique. In the first place, it arrived nearly a century later than on the East Coast.
In the second place, it initially fared badly. Between 1719 and 1731, the French who colonized Louisiana imported 6,000 Africans. Slaves soon composed 60 percent of the population. But the disease, starvation and cruelty they encountered hacking plantations from virgin forest led hundreds to flee into the nearby wilderness.
So many renegade "maroon" settlements took root in the lower Mississippi Valley, raiding French settlements periodically, that after the 1729 Natchez rebellion, in which escaped slaves and Native Americans left more than 200 settlers dead, the shaken French ceased importing slaves for 30 years. With most of their fledgling colony in shambles, they made rudimentary moves to pacify their remaining bondsmen.
Louisiana's Code Noir specified that slave families were to be kept together when possible and all slaves instructed in the Catholic church. Children younger than 14 were not to be separated from their parents. In addition, any master who fathered children by his own slave was to lose both slave and child; they would be sold to benefit the local hospital and never allowed freedom.
While such rules were often ignored, they shaped the life of Marie Therese Coincoin. She was born in 1742 into the household of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the French founder-governor of Natchitoches (pronounced NAK-i-tush), and promptly was baptized in the Catholic church. By then, New Orleans, 250 miles southeast, had eclipsed this tiny watchdog settlement on the Red River, just 15 miles from the easternmost outpost of Spanish Texas. But St. Denis managed his isolated territory with skill, prospering through trade with the Indians and Spanish.
Little is known of Coincoin's early years, not even who fathered her black children. Family lore says she was a skilled herbalist and healer, so well trained by her African mother that she nursed her owner through yellow fever, winning the woman's lifelong loyalty. Her strength and self-possession were also such, the family's oral history says, that as a 16-year-old she cut open the body of her pregnant mother after death to deliver her baby brother.
By the time Metoyer arrived, in 1767, St. Denis was dead and Coincoin had been inherited by his youngest daughter, Marie de Nieges de Soto. From her Metoyer leased Coincoin in return for nothing more than the slave's room and board.
"Was it love?" wonders Mills. "Clearly it was on his side. You can see it in his subsequent actions, none of which he had to take. On her side? We'll never really know, of course. . . . Obviously the people were very conflicted, both blacks and whites, but what you see from the archival records is the extraordinarily moving way they handled those conflicts. It's a very human story . . . .
"I think she went into this thing as a business relationship, maybe with a promise of eventual freedom. But it must have developed into love because she could have walked away from him. . . . She had other protectors in the white community."
When a Spanish priest, outraged at the "open concubinage" of Metoyer and Coincoin, tried to force officials to end the relationship, de Soto flew to the defense of her slave. In a letter to the commandant, she accused the priest of meddling, hypocrisy and -- not least -- delivering tedious sermons in atrociously mispronounced French. The matter died down, but not before Metoyer, in 1778, purchased Coincoin and her latest infant and quietly executed a deed setting them free.
The manumission was highly unusual. Of Natchitoches' nonwhite population of 430, only eight were free.
Metoyer and Coincoin lived together eight more years. But, increasingly aware that he had no legitimate son to inherit his growing fortune, the Frenchman decided to marry a friend's widow. Before the wedding, however, he executed documents safeguarding the freedom of Coincoin and the future of their children. One was the grant of 68 acres along the Red River south of town.
In 1786 Coincoin settled in a small cabin on the property and set out to grow tobacco. After 44 years as a slave and 14 children, nothing could have been easy, but tobacco was a more demanding crop than most. Despairing of making its colony pay its way, France had given Louisiana to Spain in 1762 and the Spanish had set up rigorous controls to preserve the quality of the Louisiana tobacco used in Havana cigars. From planting to drying, each step required extensive labor.
Coincoin, however, was not alone. Metoyer had guaranteed her a tiny annuity of $120 a year -- equivalent to half the pay of a military drummer. Her first act as an independent woman was to pledge this for three years to buy freedom for her oldest black child, a crippled 27-year-old daughter, who would help her in the fields.
But even with that debt she saved $50 in four years and walked 120 miles to negotiate freedom for a second daughter and grandchild, on the condition that the two care for their invalid owner as long as she lived.
By 1793 Coincoin's plantation was successful enough that she could petition the Spanish colonial government for an additional grant of land. Such grants cost only the price of a survey but entailed laborious improvements and were given only to those of proven responsibility. Coincoin received 500 acres. She used it for grazing cattle.
During the next 10 years, she and Metoyer worked out a series of agreements whereby he freed their remaining children. In return she gave up her annuity. But those documents, like so many others in Louisiana, underline how malleable the institution of slavery could become in the hands of those determined to exploit its loopholes. Even before they were freed, documents show, Coincoin and her descendants acted like anything but victims of the chain and lash.
In 1796, for example, Coincoin's second son, Louis, was granted 912 acres of Cane River bottomland. He was still a slave at the time. The Code Noir stated that "slaves can have no right to any kind of property," but that apparently was ignored. It would be five more years before his father set him free. Coincoin's fourth Metoyer son, Pierre, received a similar grant in 1798, four years before he, too, was freed.
Yet those acquisitions pale beside the acts of Marie Therese Metoyer, Coincoin's youngest daughter. In 1810 and again in 1811 she purchased two male slaves. At the time, documents show, she was still a slave herself. She wouldn't gain her formal freedom until her father's death in 1815.
Few aspects in history confound our present understanding of slavery as much as African American slave owners, though they existed for almost the entire history of slavery in North America.
The 1830 U.S. census documented 3,600 "Negro slaveholders," but like so many racial ironies and contradictions, the figure is deceptive. The vast majority of those "owners" were holding as slaves spouses or relatives they were forbidden by their state's law from formally setting free.
Like thousands of free Negroes of her era, Mills wrote in 1984, Marie Therese Coincoin "saw no conflict between her own love of freedom and the slave system in which she lived. Slavery not only existed in the white world she knew, but in the [Native American] world with which frontier whites rubbed shoulders, as well as in the African land" of her parents, of which she had only heard.
Slavery was very much the way of her world. But there were occasional cracks in the institution through which, with opportunity, industry and luck, clever blacks could maneuver from one side of bondage to the other. Once free in a frontier area like Natchitoches, slave ownership was virtually the only proven path to economic security and advancement.
But free blacks who worked scores of slaves on their own plantations often bought, sold and employed them -- like their white counterparts -- for other than economic reasons.
Coincoin's eldest son, Augustin Metoyer, bought his first slave from a neighbor to help clear his plantation. But his second purchase was his wife's 8-year-old sister. His third was the young daughter of his still-enslaved brother Louis, and his fourth was a 15-year-old who would marry his brother Pierre. The last three he immediately set free.
Augustin later bought an 18-year-old with an infant as a wife for his first slave; a male slave who was his wife's brother (allowed to work his way to freedom), and two more slaves, one of whom he freed four years later. And so on.
By 1810 Coincoin's seven sons had accumulated 58 slaves, according to Mills's census research in "The Forgotten People." Of the 259 households in their census area, only 166 owned any slaves at all. The only families to own more slaves than Coincoin's sons were the families of Metoyer's white children.
Nonwhite slave owners, however, were in something of a bind. If they treated their slaves too leniently, they risked being lumped by their white neighbors with a lower racial class. If they treated them too severely, they risked feeding the widespread white suspicion that blacks were incapable of exercising the judgment and responsibilities of freedom.
Coincoin and her descendants apparently treated their slaves much as others in the area were treated, but generally a little better. Mills found that Coincoin was meticulous in having each slave born on her property baptized and raised Catholic. He documented numerous stories from her descendants that she never used bodily punishment, but would discipline unruly slaves by locking them up in a "jail" on her property. Now standing at Melrose, the mushroom-roofed little building with barred lower windows is thought to be the only example of native-built African architecture in the United States.
Coincoin's descendants varied in their treatment as much as did their white counterparts. Augustin was known for rarely selling his slaves and occasionally setting one free. One of his younger brothers, Mills relates, would ask to "try out" slaves from his neighbors with the purported intention of buying them, then return them exhausted and overworked and say he'd changed his mind. One family member was known for being mean to her slaves, a descendant reported to Mills, but "the good Lord got even . . . her mansion was burned during the Civil War, her second husband ran through her money and she was forced to live the rest of her days, bedridden, in one of her slave cabins."
A 1974 study of slave life, based on the 1860 census, found slave housing and conditions in the area rude but adequate and far less crowded than in much of the South. Mills notes that some slaves were furnished firearms to hunt with.
As a guide at Melrose, Kitchery La Cour says, she sees "some people who get all emotional" about the fact that Coincoin had slaves after being one herself.
"They act like if you had slaves you couldn't ever treat them decent, that you had to spend all your time beating them. They don't seem to understand that she had to work the system as best she could for her children."
But slavery was still slavery: Occasional bondsmen ran away, and just down the river lay the plantation of Robert McAlpin, alleged to be the prototype for the villainous Simon Legree in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Though they initially lived frugally and worked tirelessly to build their fortunes, Coincoin's descendants, like other gens libre de couleur, eventually attained a remarkable level of wealth and sophistication. Insistently French and Catholic in the face of a growing influx of Protestant Americans, they sent their sons to France to be educated and sought cultural solace and marriage partners among their counterparts in New Orleans's Creole elite.
Like much of the planter class in the South, they reached their peak of prosperity between 1830 and 1840. Wealthy Metoyers of color loaned money to and entered business with their white neighbors and, documents show, occasionally were asked to administer white estates.
But economic depressions and the onset of the Civil War eventually threw the economy of the region into chaos. White planters also suffered, but the gens libre de couleur found their French Creole society increasingly restricted by the narrower racial confines of the United States they had joined.
Yet the culture and the family pride endured.
"Does Coincoin still have descendants here? I guess she does!" said Janet Colson, assistant director of the Creole Heritage Center at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. "Down there near Melrose there's nothing but Metoyers. They pronounce it met-TWYRE now. Some of them are Metoyer-Metoyers: Both parents are descendants. And a few are Metoyer-Metoyer-Metoyers: Both parents were Metoyers and then they marry a Metoyer. The family trees are as tangled as a briar patch and they've shaped a very distinctive culture. But it all started with Coincoin and what she did with what she had. There ought to be a monument to her."
For more than a century, Creoles of color like the Metoyers held themselves apart from both whites and blacks, sustained by their French heritage and language and their unique family history. By the time Betty Jo Metoyer, now 56, grew up in the 1960s, however, change was in the air.
"My grandmother would tell me all these stories, but I didn't care about family history or learning French," she said. "Like most young people I was looking to the future."
She grew up, married her boyfriend and moved to Chicago. There she found herself comptroller of a major company. But she was a Metoyer-Metoyer-Metoyer and discovered that her family story was more a part of her than she realized.
"When Gary Mills's book came out in 1977, my sister sent it to me and I was absolutely fascinated. I couldn't believe how much of the story I'd never known, particularly about Coincoin. So I asked my mother-in-law -- a Metoyer, too, you know -- why she'd never told me about Marie Therese. And she turned on me fiercely and said, 'Our family doesn't have one drop of Negro blood.' So I said, okay, better leave that one alone. Because that's the way her generation dealt with it, pretending we were all part Indian or something."
But when she moved back to this area in 1981 to take care of her aging parents, she decided that whatever else her life involved from then on, she wanted to be a part-time guide at Melrose. It was a part of her. And Coincoin was, too. A few years ago when the foundation that owned Melrose asked her if she would work up a historical monologue to deliver in the person of her indomitable ancestor, she jumped at the chance.
For those bewitched by Coincoin's story, the great frustration is that no visual image of her exists. What must she have looked like, this woman of such legendary beauty, intelligence and strength of character?
We'll never know, of course, but hanging in Melrose is the portrait from the 1830s of one of Coincoin's granddaughters, believed to be Marie Therese Carmelite Anty Metoyer. Something in the eyes seems to repeat itself 170-odd years and multi-generations later in the eyes of Kitchery La Cour and Betty Jo Metoyer. It's most evident when Metoyer stands proudly in the sunset before Melrose and delivers her Coincoin monologue.
"I feel I've achieved my life's ambition in helping my children gain their freedom," she says with a moving smile. "And I'd like to think that 200 years from now my descendants will still be here to welcome you into this house