Archive for the ‘African Americans’ Category

Much has been documented about William Clark’s ownership of slaves, including the famous York who accompanied him on the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Clark, while generally considered by his white contemporaries to be a kind man, comes off as a harsh master in his own letters when he describes punishing his lazy slaves and “trouncing” York for his discontent after the Expedition’s return. Less has been written about Meriwether Lewis’ attitude toward slavery, but he too was a slave owner.

Overseeing the slaves

Overseeing the slaves

Lewis’s father William died in 1779, leaving his 5 year-old son Meriwether as the primary heir to his estate. This included his plantation at Locust Hill in Albemarle County, Virginia (about 1600 acres) and other property, including 24 slaves. Until Meriwether Lewis reached the age of majority, his guardians and an overseer managed the slaves at Locust Hill.  After the death of his step-father John Marks in 1791, Meriwether ended his schooling, helped his widowed mother move back from Georgia, and somewhat reluctantly took on the job of the day-to-day running of the plantation. He was 18.

By this time, wheat had become the primary agricultural crop at Locust Hill, a crop that was less depleting to the soil than tobacco – but also less profitable. It was also more complicated to grow and harvest than tobacco, and required more training of slave labor. The cultivation of wheat required permanent, plowed fields, including the need to periodically manure the fields and rotate the crops to maintain the fertility of the soil. The use of plows meant that you needed draft animals and slaves trained in their care. The need to transport grain to the mill, and fodder and manure to your farm, meant you had to maintain wagons, horses, and a blacksmith shop. Lewis had a lifetime of agricultural learning ahead of him, as well as getting used to managing the day-to-day task of assigning work and supervising the slaves.

Little is known about Lewis’s feelings about the slaves in his employ. No doubt slaves would have worked in the home at Locust Hill, as well as in the fields, so he would have gotten to know them well. The slaves would have required food, clothing, and medical care. Lewis’s mother Lucy Marks was an extremely capable woman and a skilled herb doctor, and it is known that she treated the Lewis slaves humanely, played the primary role in their supervision, and cared for their medical problems herself. Evidenced by a letter written to Lucy by one of her former slaves, at least some of them had been taught to read and write.

19th century cartoon, "Little Lewis Sold"

19th century cartoon, "Little Lewis Sold"

What is also clear is that Meriwether Lewis was ill-suited to the role of country planter and slave owner. In 1794, when the Whiskey Rebellion broke out, Lewis left his life and Locust Hill and joined the Virginia militia and then the regular army. He never looked back.

Although army officers were allowed and frequently did take a slave manservant into the field to cook their meals, clean their quarters, brush their uniforms, polish their boots, and groom their horses, Lewis apparently never did. An inveterate loner and rambler, Lewis seemed not to want the baggage and overhead of having to supervise and provide for a slave. He did, however, agree to let Clark take York along on the Expedition in 1803, as long as Clark believed that York could withstand the trip.

York by Charles M. Russell

York by Charles M. Russell

Although Lewis no doubt got an up-close and personal look at the contradictory attitude towards slavery held by his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, he seems to have given the matter no deep thought. “With regards to blacks, he made no distinctions between them, made no study of them, had no thought that they could be of benefit to America in any capacity other than slave labor,” Stephen Ambrose wrote about Lewis in Undaunted Courage. This attitude likely held true for York as well as the other slaves Lewis had dealt with in his life. Clark was in charge of York during the expedition, and aside from assigning work to York like any other enlisted man, Lewis left any supervision or discipline of York to Clark. Nevertheless, York was allowed the special privilege of carrying a gun, and when they reached the Pacific Coast, Lewis did allow York (along with Sacagawea) to vote in the poll of where to make their winter camp. Clearly York had proved himself, and Lewis’s world view could expand enough to concede that even a slave deserved basic rights.

Lewis returned to Locust Hill for a visit after the Expedition, but he had no desire to take up his old role as plantation owner. Upon his arrival in St. Louis as governor of Upper Louisiana in 1808, Lewis once again showed his reluctance to take on the daily supervision of a slave, choosing not to take any of the slaves from Locust Hill with him. Instead he hired a free black man, John Pernia (or Pernier), to be his manservant. Lewis was no doubt aware of Clark’s conflict with York and the thrashing York got at Clark’s hands. It is unknown whether Lewis might have tried to intervene on York’s behalf or moderate Clark’s anger at York … if he did, he did not succeed.

Unfortunately, though their relationship was not one of master and slave, Lewis was destined for conflict with John Pernia. Financial problems led to him getting seriously behind in paying Pernia’s salary. Pernia was with Lewis on the Natchez Trace at the time of Lewis’s death, and some have speculated that Pernia may have played a role in Lewis’s shooting or at least robbed him of the cash he was carrying after his demise. Pernia did travel all the way to Monticello to seek out payment of the $240 in back pay that Lewis owed him, but was rebuffed by Jefferson, as well as Clark, Madison, and Lewis’s family.

In despair, John Pernia later committed suicide. The tradition that prior to his death he was confronted by a Lewis family member in his native New Orleans, supposedly carrying the gold presentation watch given to Lewis by Jefferson, is apocryphal.

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Location: The French Quarter in New Orleans

Highly desired for gracious living today, the courtyards in the French Quarter homes of the Creoles were more practical affairs, where you would find carriages parked and slaves working on household tasks.

In 1801, when Thomas Jefferson became president and Meriwether Lewis joined him at the White House as his private secretary, few could have imagined the dramatic turn that history was about to take. The United States was still a fragile experiment in representative democracy, and France dominated the North American continent, in possession of the entire central portion between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, a place they called Louisiana. Not only that, but Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, was on his way to conquering all of Europe, and planned to rebuild Louisiana as a breadbasket to service his empire with meat, wheat, leather, and fur.

What a difference a couple of years makes. By 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana to Jefferson’s envoys for the bargain basement price of $15 million (just $215 million even in today’s dollars — less than the cost of the new Batman movie!). And the United States found itself in possession of the most exotic city on the North American continent — the port of New Orleans. It was here that the deal finalizing the Louisiana Purchase was signed on December 20, 1803. Representing the U.S. were William C.C. Claiborne, former governor of the Mississippi Territory, and our old friend General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson and his colorful, checkered relationship with New Orleans figure prominently in our novel To the Ends of the Earth (yeah, click Buy Now at the top of the page. You know you want to).

Jefferson worried about assimilating New Orleans into the United States, and for good reason. New Orleans and the district surrounding it (the present-day state of Louisiana) brought over 50,000 new citizens to the United States who were French-speaking, Catholic, and last but not least, racially mixed. Free blacks and mixed couples abounded, with expectations of rights unheard of in the rest of the United States, such as going around armed and serving in the militia. The relations between the races were governed by an elaborate cultural code that was all but impenetrable by the Americans who arrived to take over governance. American ideas about separation of the races did not completely take hold in New Orleans until after the Civil War.

Creole woman with maid, by Edouard Marquis (1867)

Recently, we enjoyed a fantastic vacation in the Crescent City and had the opportunity to immerse ourselves for several hours in the lost world of Creole New Orleans. There are a lot of walking tours in the French Quarter, but Le Monde Creole (the Creole World) specializes in history tours focusing on the old Creole culture of the city through the lives of one family, the Locouls. As was typical, this family spent the growing and harvest seasons at their sugar plantation outside of town, then kicked up their heels all winter in their French Quarter townhomes.

Our tour guide was Bill, who is also the owner of Le Monde Creole Tours. The first thing we learned was worth the price of the tour, because Bill explained to us what a Creole actually is — something I’ve never understood.

As Bill explained, the confusion over the word Creole and the people it applies to arises because “Creole” has actually had three different meanings over the years. In the early 18th century, when Louisiana was first being settled by French and Spanish colonists, creole (from the Spanish criar – “to breed” or “to raise”) meant anyone or anything that was born in the New World. A person of French, Spanish, or African descent born in the New World was a creole. It was as simple as that. A horse or a dog or even a plant could be a creole as well. Over the decades, a caste system began to develop in which creoles were denied plum positions of leadership over newcomers sent from the mother country; this was one of the factors that led to revolutionary wars in Central and South America.

When the Louisiana Purchase rolled around, the meaning of creole shifted. The Creoles of Louisiana had developed a culture that was utterly unique, an amalgam of music, food, lifestyle, marriage customs, and social mores that bore no resemblance to that left behind in France, Spain, or Africa, let alone the brash American culture that abruptly descended on them. At that point, the word Creole came to mean anyone of any race who had been in Louisiana before the Purchase and followed the old lifestyle.

This lifestyle included a degree of racial mixing that left the Americans speechless and set the stage for the tortured race relations that still plague Louisiana today. As Bill took us through shady courtyards and down every little street you can imagine, we learned how elite white Creole men traditionally had two families: a white family headed by a white wife, and a black family headed by a mistress of mixed race. These arrangements were formal and worked out in detail, generally by the girl’s mother, who ensured that the daughter was provided for materially with a home, clothes, jewelry, and support for any children born to the marriage. An entire vocabulary described the children born to these unions: mulatto (half white and half African), quadroon (one-fourth African), octoroon (one-eighth African), griffe (one-fourth white), and sacatra (one-eighth white).

Creole men of New Orleans in a vintage photograph

If the mother of one of African families was a slave, it was common for the children of the relationship to be freed. As you can imagine, Americans were generally horrified by the presence of these free blacks, as it was impossible to know how to treat them. Many of them were the children and grandchildren of elite ruling families and expected to be treated with similar courtesy as that accorded to whites. Even more unnerving from the American point of view, it was often impossible to tell whether someone was of African descent just by looking at them. The danger of intermarrying with a black person was viewed with such distaste that eventually, an entire legal code was written to try to prevent that from happening.  Bill told us about extremely elaborate laws that involved having to produce birth certificates going back for generations to prove that you were white.

I was surprised to learn that Canal Street, the major New Orleans thoroughfare that divided the French Quarter from the Garden District, had its roots in the hostility between the Creole world and the American newcomers. Americans were blocked from building anywhere in the city (today’s French Quarter) and had to establish their own settlement next to it, which they called Lafayette or “the American Quarter.” There was very little assimilation or intermarriage between the two peoples until after the Civil War.

After that point, with massive German and Irish immigration into the city and military occupation, the old Creole culture faded — except for one group that strongly upheld the old Creole ways. These were the descendants of the Creole black families. Faced with a racially divided world in which they could never be white, yet abhorring the notion of mixing with the throngs of freed slaves flocking into the city, they clung to their unique culture for dear life, thus preserving it for future generations to discover again. For this reason, when most of us hear the world Creole today, we think of the French-speaking black families of New Orleans and their culture.

We spent several hours in the delightful company of Bill, learning about the multi-cultural origins of voodoo, jazz, and New Orleans’ infamous Storyville. A huge highlight was getting to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1, the famed above-ground cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of the Creole families.

So as not to give away the tour, I’ll refrain from gushing about the storytelling thread that ran through the entire trek about the Locoul family and the many secrets, lies, and tribulations that emerged to illuminate these fascinating historical times. But as you can probably tell, I highly recommend that you spend a morning with Bill the next time you are in New Orleans (you might even get to meet a parrot), and also take a ride out to Laura Plantation, where the tour of the house and sugar plantation of the same family will illuminate the other side of the story.

Le Monde Creole Tours

Laura Plantation

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