|Destrehan Plantation was built upriver from New Orleans about 15 miles.|
To experience what life was like in Southern Louisiana 200 years ago, one only needs to travel up River Road less than 25 miles from New Orleans to Destrehan Plantation. In ruins three decades ago, the Greek Revival manor has been restored to its 1840s architectural style. A new collection of colonial artifacts on loan from the Historic New Orleans Collection, the experience of visiting Destrehan is made even more culturally rewarding.
“These rare documents chronicle ordinary aspects of life that help us reconstruct what living in the period was really like,” said Alfred Lemmon, HNOC curator.
Eighteen historic documents are on display in the Herbert J. Harvey Legacy Room, a wing newly renovated by the Azby Fund, a private foundation endowed by Herbert J. Harvey, Jr., a descendent of Marie Louise Destrehan.
The plantation regularly hosts demonstrations of open-hearth cooking, indigo dying, bousillage (mud brick and wood timber construction), sugar cane production, carpentry, weaving and African-American herbal remedies.
“This isn’t just Destrehan’s history, it is New Orleans’ history,” said Nancy Robert, executive director of the River Road Historical Society.
The historical additions complement extremely valuable artifacts already integral to the plantation’s permanent exhibit. Documents on loan include personal and business letters, purchase receipts, baptismal records, expense reports, medical records, a college report card and pen-and-ink sketches of buggy and boat designs. Housed in light and climate-controlled rooms with airtight display cases imported from Germany, these heirlooms provide rare insights into early colonial life.
The plantation home’s story began in 1782, when Robert Antoine Robin de Logny, retiring Spanish commandant, hired a free person of color, most likely named Charles Paquet, to build him a French Creole house. The original, handwritten building contract, signed on Jan. 3, 1787, is permanently displayed at the plantation. Charles was a free black man whose father Jean Paquet owned his own plantation and slaves, according to Creole tradition, and who was a master builder.
The house specified in the contract was typical of the West Indies and well suited to Louisiana’s climate. The Creole raised cottage would be 60 feet wide and 35 feet deep with a 12-foot balustrade gallery encircling the house, supported by 10-foot brick pillars.
Jean Noël Destrehan acquired the home from the estate of his father-in-law after his death. Destrehan became a successful cotton plantation owner, politician and investor. When a successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) destroyed the island’s sugarcane industry, it created an opportunity for Louisiana producers. By 1803, Destrehan Plantation was the premier sugar-producing plantation in St. Charles Parish.
At his death in 1823, Jean Noël was one of the wealthiest men in Louisiana with an estate worth close to a million dollars. He and his wife Marie Céleste de Logny and their 11 children lived at Destrehan Plantation from 1793 to 1823.
Jean Noël’s grandfather, Jean Baptiste Destrehan, had been Councilor to King Louis XIV of France and his father, also named Jean Baptiste, was the colony’s treasurer. Jean Noël and six siblings were sent to France after their mother’s death.
Jean Noël returned to Louisiana at age 16 to settle his family’s estate after his father passed away. At the time, the colony was under Spanish rule, but the young man inherited enough wealth to purchase plantation land and slaves on the German Coast of St. Charles Parish. The Spanish adopted a laissez-faire approach to governing the French.
Though Jean Noël Destrehan had his plantation residence, he bought a city home in 1802 at the corner of Conti and Chartres Streets where the family lived after the sugarcane was harvested and ground. His sister Jeanne Marguerite and brother-in-law, Etienne Boré, a wealthy businessman and New Orleans’ first mayor, lived on the opposite French Quarter corner.
“In the 1850s, the river was like Interstate 10,” Lemmon said. “Over 100 ships could be in the port on any given day.”
Everyone came to New Orleans to buy and sell goods, Lemmon said. The colonists also kept close ties with Europe, as evidenced by the exhibit’s receipts for jewelry, rifles, shotguns and a flute. Jean Noël took his son Nicolas Noël to France in 1818 to renew family and political connections. His grandson, Nicolas Azby, took a two-year grand tour of Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor in 1855.
In the mid-19th century, there were more millionaires in the area between Natchez, Miss., and New Orleans than anywhere else in Northern America, according to John H. Lawrence, HNOC director of museum programs.
“Destrehan Plantation has an unequaled setting for understanding not only the story of the early settlers, but also that of the enslaved Africans who provided the manpower that made the great wealth possible,” Lawrence said.
The approximately 50 enslaved workers on the Destrehan Plantation each kept a garden and field to grow corn and raise pigs and poultry, which they could sell at the markets in town. They worked until 3 p.m. five days a week and a half day on Saturday, so there was time to earn additional pay to be able to buy their freedom.
Hundreds of German immigrants settled in Southern Louisiana in the 1700s, becoming the food producers for New Orleans. “We were far more multicultural than you would imagine,” Lemmon said. By the mid-1850s, tens of thousands of Germans arrived in Louisiana annually, establishing banking institutions, bakeries, breweries and restaurants.
A fascinating item in the plantation’s new exhibit is a school notebook, handwritten in German, by Nicolas Azby Destrehan, who attended the College of St. Mary of the Lake in 1847 in the new city of Chicago, Ill., and Georgetown College in Washington D.C. It was important for businessmen to read and write the German language, Lemmon said. Azby’s report card, showing excellent performance in English and French, is among the displayed documents.
Azby maintained a life-long habit of letter writing, particularly with his sisters, Louise, Eliza and Adele. The collection includes a Christmas poem he wrote Louise and a letter written him by Eliza, as well as receipts for a flute and jewelry he purchased in Paris. Azby was the last male to bear the Destrehan name.
Already on exhibit at Destrehan Plantation are the original Jefferson Document and exact replicas of the Louisiana Purchase agreement and the Treaty of San Ildefonso. The Jefferson Document officially appointed in 1806 four landowners, including Destrehan, to serve on the Legislative Council of the Territory of Orleans to prepare Louisiana for U.S. statehood. The Jefferson Document, signed by President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, preserved the system of civil law in Louisiana and established church parishes, rather than counties, as legislative districts.
“What Jean Noël did with the council made Louisiana really unique. The Napoleonic Code came out of the Louisiana Council,” Robert said.
The Treaty of Ildefonso, also displayed at the plantation, ceded Louisiana back to France in 1800. Spain had controlled Louisiana since 1762.
The River Road Historical Society began restoration of Destrehan Plantation 40 years ago, after decades of abandonment and neglect. When the Mexican Petroleum Company acquired the property in 1914, it tore down many ancillary buildings to put up an oil refinery and housing for workers. Amoco closed the refinery in 1959, leaving the house vacant for 12 years, then finally donating the buildings to the historical society. A matching grant from the Division of Historic Preservation of Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, helped the society sign a contract with Eugene D. Cizek, a preservation architect, to devise a master restoration plan and to begin stabilizing the house.
“We were able to save it,” said Robert who has been involved with the plantation’s restoration for almost 20 years. “It’s not just a home, but a lifestyle,” she said. “The African-Americans who were here as slaves were part of the success. It sets us apart.”