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Women in Colonial Louisiana

For Women’s History Month, I’d like to share with you a paper I wrote for a Colonial Louisiana Class in 2013, about the mark that Louisiana women have made on the landscape. I have made a couple of little notes in the body of this work to reflect some changes since then, which can be found inside parentheses.  Enjoy!!

Women in Colonial Louisiana

After searching all over the internet, looking for women from the colonial era of Louisiana, one might believe that there simply were not many women here during this time period.  These of course were the days before photography and few women were painted in the colony, with the exception of work by Josè Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza, a Mexican painter. [1] While many women’s likenesses were not captured on paper, their legacy lives on in the buildings dotting the landscape of the Louisiana colony.

Ursuline Convent – Chartres Street, New Orleans

Ursuline Convent- loc.gov

The earliest and most famous of these buildings run by women is the Ursuline Convent built in 1752.  In 1727, the Ursuline Nuns arrived in New Orleans. Their arrival was arranged by the Company of Indies and included a contract signed between the members.  In return for the costs of the trip and a place to live, the nuns would run the hospital and provide education for the town’s females. Interestingly, the nuns were able to negotiate this contract as is evidenced by an article stating that the hospital had to be next door to the convent, as one of the nuns’ rules would not allow them out around the city.[2] Their convent was ready for them in 1734. From the Ursuline sisters, young women would be taught “reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, Latin, and religion…sewing, art and music when musical instruments were available.”[3].The nuns taught all girls regardless of race, which is a pretty progressive idea for the times.

The woman in charge of the Ursulines was Mother St. Augustin Tranchepain. She was directly responsible for negotiating the contract with the Company of the Indies and recruiting members of the Order to go on the journey. She was a very strong woman, proving many times that she would not back down when she felt her associates were being taken advantage of. In one of these instances, the Capuchins tried to appoint a priest over the Ursulines. This action went against their rules which allowed them to pick their own priest. When other women may have acquiesced, Mother St. Augustin wrote letters to her superiors even going so far as to make plans to leave the colony if her demands weren’t met.[4] The Capuchins relented and a Jesuit priest was selected by the nuns. Mother St. Augustin Tranchepain’s  strong resolve set a precedent that allowed the nuns speak out when they felt that their needs were not met. This is later shown when the nuns sent a letter to the President of the United States in 1803, concerning their religious freedom.

The site of the Ursuline Convent is on Chartres and the aptly named Ursuline streets. It is the second building in this spot, as the first one, built in 1732, started to fall apart due to the humidity and insufficient building materials.[5] The current building was  completed in 1752 and renovated in 1825 when the nuns moved out and the building became a home to the Bishop. Today it is a museum that attracts many visitors.

Madam John’s Legacy – Dumaine Street, New Orleans

Madame John’s Legacy was built in the late 1700s. It is a significant site because of the style of the

Madame John’s Legacy – photo by me.

house and for its original owner, Elizabeth Real. The house was built in the old Louisiana Creole style, instead of the contemporary Spanish style of the day. The characteristics of this style are a “raised solid brick basement, brick-between-posts construction, wide galleries, and a steep, double-pitched hipped roof”.[6]  The building can tell us much about the architecture of the city before the fire of 1794, as it was unharmed in this event. However, reports conflict about the extent of the damage to the house during the previous 1788 fire that devastated the city. The Louisiana State Museum claims the house is a Spanish Era bulding, as it was rebuilt 1789.[7]Alternatively, the case has been raised by Shannon Dawdy that archeological digs show that the building was not destroyed by the fire, but rather just needed repairs.[8]  In either case, the style is a good representation of how many houses looked before the fire.

Although her former home is named for a house in a George Washington Cable book, it would be more accurate to call it Madame Elizabeth Real’s Legacy. Elizabeth Real was brought over to Louisiana during the John Law period.[9]She married a man named Jean Pascal, the first man given the lot on this street. He was killed in the Natchez massacre and she remarried a man named Francois Marin. When her second husband died, she rented out her home to make money for her family. She is described in Dawdy’s book, Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans, as illiterate herself but having made enough money to send her son abroad for school. She wrote, “Even Madame Elizabeth Real Pascal Marin, who rose from obscure roots to become a respected businesswoman in New Orleans, sent her only son to France for his education, though she herself could not even sign a mark on many business documents she registered with the Superior Council.” [10] Her former home is currently a museum that carries various exhibits.

 

Melrose Plantation – Natchitoches, LA

Melrose Plantation – natchitoches.net.

 The next building of note is outside of the city of New Orleans, in Natchitoches Parish. It is the Melrose Plantation, former home of Marie Therese Metoyer and her children. During the Spanish Period, one of the more pronounced differences pertaining to the treatment of slaves was the Spanish policy of self-manumission, called coartación. Previously, under the French Code Noir, slaves were only allowed to be freed with the permission of the government.[11] This new Spanish law allowed slaves to demand the right to purchase their own freedom, and even involvement in negotiating their value.[12] The status of children followed that of their mother under both countries’ laws. Once free, there were many opportunities for employment for free women of color in New Orleans. According to Kimberly S. Hangar in her essay, Free Blacks at Work in New Orleans, these women worked jobs ranging from repairing clothes to sales attendants.[13] In the country however, ways of making money typically relied on agricultural work such as was done by Marie Therese Metoyer.

Marie Therese was born a slave in 1742 to parents who were the slaves of Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis, the man who founded Natchitoches.[14] When St. Denis and his wife died, Marie and her four children were given to Marie de Nieges de St. Denis de Soto, granddaughter of Louis Antoine St. Denis.[15] It was at this time that she met Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer who “soon persuaded the de Sotos to lease her to him.”[16] Through this lease arrangement, Claude paid the De Soto family to keep her at his home. Claude eventually paid the DeSoto family enough money to grant Marie and 10 of her children freedom[17]. Claude gave her land and promised to pay her a small stipend every year. Marie Therese still had two children from a previous relationship that were still in slavery, so she started farming to raise the funds to free them. She grew tobacco, hunted animals for furs and even trapped bears to make and sell bear grease.[18]She succeeded in purchasing not only her two daughters, but also two of her grandchildren from slavery.

She acquired more land and started what became the Melrose Plantation, which according to Gary Mills, “distinguished itself for several decades as one of the most prosperous cotton plantations in the region.”[19]The large plantation house was built by Marie Therese’s son in 1833. It was constructed in a French Colonial style with a hipped roof, and deep gallery. Subsequent owners have made many additions to this home.  Today the Melrose Plantation is a top attraction in Natchitoches, and speaks to the determination of Marie Therese Metoyer.

 

Musee Rosette Rochon – Pauger Street, New Orleans

Musèe Rosette Rochon
Cottage – .frenchcreoles.com

The next landmark of interest is the former home of Rosette Rochon, a free woman of color who bought this building in 1806. This home is a typical creole cottage, and was probably built after the fire of 1788, based on its position on the lot (right up against the sidewalk).

In 1767 Rosette was born to a white man and an enslaved woman in Mobile, Alabama.[20] As her status follows that of her mother, she was also born a slave, but her father freed her while she was still a child. Rosette’s family relocated to New Orleans, where she later met Jean Baptiste Hardy de Bois Blanc, with whom she had a son. The Rochon Musee website declares that she made her own money, in businesses ranging from groceries to real estate.[21]  She became very wealthy and purchased this land in the Marigny before other developers were in the area. This house is currently a museum dedicated to her memory, a woman who made it from slavery to prosperity.

(I do want to note that the Rosette Rochon Museum has been transferred to the National Food and Beverage Museum, due to Rosette’s involvement in developing chain grocery stores, butchers, etc. New info on the museum can be found here.)

Pontalba Buildings – Jackson Square, New Orleans

(Although this article is about colonial Louisiana, you can’t talk women and architecture and not mention Micaela Almonester. You just can’t).

There is no other woman in New Orleans history that has made such a large impact on the design of the city, than Micaela Almonester Pontalba. She is the person responsible for the two stately brick buildings flanking Jackson Square. She also influenced the change of the Place d’Armes from a military marching ground to the beautiful garden park that can be seen today.

Pontalba Apartment, Taken by me.

Micaela Almonester was born in 1795, daughter of Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, who was a wealthy Spanish administrator who charitably donated his money to many projects in the city, such as  rebuilding the Cabildo after the fire, funding Charity Hospital, and opening a leper’s hospital.[22] He owned the land flanking the Place d’Armes as it was called back then. He died in 1798, leaving Micaela (at the age of 3) the heir to his fortune. The young heiress’s mother arranged her marriage to Joseph Xavier Celestin Delfau Pontalba when she was 16.[23] They married and she left New Orleans to live with him on his father’s estate in France. Micaela soon found out that the Pontalbas were money hungry and both families fought over her inheritance. After 23 years of arguing over her money, her father in law, Joseph Pontalba shot Micaela, hoping her death would lead to the transfer of her wealth into his family’s hands. Miraculously, she survived. He committed suicide that evening.

After a long treatment that involved bloodletting (a popular treatment of this period) Micaela was discharged from the hospital. She was awarded her property by the French courts and got to work building a new home, the Hôtel de Pontalba, the current home of the American Ambassador in Paris.

In 1848, she came back to New Orleans to oversee her properties in the city. Her major achievement during this trip was building her namesake structures that flank Jackson Square. Architects Gallier, Howard and Stewart were involved in the construction.[24] According to Sally Reeves, Micaela’s new buildings inspired the City Government to make improvements on Jackson Square. This included adding a floor to the Cabildo and Presbytere and renovations to St. Louis Cathesdral that were so extensive that some consider it a whole new building.[25] Soon after, the statue of Andrew Jackson was added to create the park that is seen today. Her beautiful buildings are currently owned by the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans. Built in the fashion of Creole Townhouses, there are commercial areas on the bottom floors and apartments on the next three floors.

Conclusion

While all of these women came from different diverse backgrounds, they all have contributed to Louisiana in the form of historic landmarks. Anyone can visit any of these sites to see how women lived in Colonial Louisiana. In fact many people do visit, just to see these remarkable buildings.

 

Bibliography

  • Dawdy, Shannon Lee. Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Garvey, Joan B., and Mary Lou Widmer. Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans. Gretna: Pelican Pub, 2013.
  •  “NOLA History: The Old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter.” GoNola, Accessed April 08, 2013.http://www.gonola.com/2011/03/30/nola-history-the-old-ursuline-convent-in-the-french-quarter.html.
  • Hangar, Kimberly S. “Almost All Have Callings: Free Blacks at Work in Spanish New Orleans.” Colonial Latin American Historical Review. no. 2 (1994): 141-164.
  • Irvin, Hilary. “Madame John’s Legacy.” In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published October 1, 2012. http://www.knowla.org/entry.php?rec=1253.
  • Johnson , Jera. Colonial New Orleans. Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. Edited by Arnold R.Hirschand Joseph Logsdon. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992
  • “Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza.” Louisiana State Museum. Accessed April 12,2013. http://www.crt.state.la.us/Museum/collections/visual_arts/artist/Mendoza_Jose.aspx
  • Lester , Sullivan. Musee Rosette Rochon, “The Story of Rosette Rochon.”Accessed April 09, 2013. http://www.rosetterochon.com/rosette-r2.html.
  • “Madame John’s Legacy,” Louisiana State Museum. Accessed April 11, 2013. http://www.crt.state.la.us/museum/properties/madame_johns_legacy/.
  • Mills, Gary B. “Coincoin: An Eighteenth Century ‘Liberated woman’.” The Journal of Southern History. No. 2 (1976): 205-222.
  • “NOLA History: The Old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter.” GoNola, Accessed April 08, 2013.http://www.gonola.com/2011/03/30/nola-history-the-old-ursuline-convent-in-the-french-quarter.html .
  • Perez, Lizette I. “Manumission and gender in 18th Century Spanish Louisiana: The Role of
  • Women in the Establishment of a Free Black Society.” SDSU McNair Journal. (2004). www.sci.sdsu.edu/mcnair/ejournal/Volume XI/perez.pd (accessed April 06, 2013).
  • Reeves, Sally. French Quarter.com, “Madame Pontalba’s Buildings.” Accessed April 10, 2013. http://www.frenchquarter.com/sightseeing/PontalbaBuildings.php
  • Siefken, Mary. Marie Tranchepain Saint Augustin. Religious Pioneers: Building the
  • Faith in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Edited by Dorothy Dawes and Charles Nolan. Chelsea, Michigan: Sheridan Books, 2004.
  • Taylor, Dr. Quintard. University of Washington, “Primary Document: Louisiana’s Code
  • Noir (1724). “Accessed April 06, 2013 http://faculty.washington.edu/qtaylor/documents_us
  • Vella, Christina. Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of Baroness de Pontalba. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

Notes:

  • [1] “Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza .” Louisiana State Museum, Accessed April 12, 2013. http://www.crt.state.la.us/Museum/collections/visual_arts/artist/Mendoza_Jose.aspx .
  • [2] Mary Siefken, “Marie Tranchepainde Saint Augustin,” Religious Pioneers: Building the Faith in the Archdiosese of New Orleans, ed. Dorothy Dawes and Charles Nolan (Chelsea, Michigan: Sheridan Books, 2004), 7.
  • [3] Ibid, 13
  • [4] Ibid., 15
  • [5] Edward, “NOLA History: The Old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter” GONOLA, Published 3/30/2011, http://www.gonola.com/2011/03/30/nola-history-the-old-ursuline-convent-in-the-french-quarter.html
  • [6] Hilary Irvin. “Madame John’s Legacy.” In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Published October 1, 2012. http://www.knowla.org/entry.php?rec=1253
  • [7]“Madame John’s Legacy” Louisiana State Museum , Accessed 4/12/13, http://www.crt.state.la.us/museum/properties/madame_johns_legacy/
  • [8] Hilary Irvin, comment on Shannon Dawdry, “Madame John’s Legacy (160R51) Revisited: A Closer Look at the Archeology of Colonial New Orleans”. June 1998. http://www.knowla.org/entry.php?rec=1253
  • [9] Shannon Lee Dawdy, Building the Devil’s Empire:French Colonial New Orleans, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).101
  • [10] Ibid., 60
  • [11] Dr. Quintard Taylor Jr “Primary Documents” University of Washington, accessed 4/6/2013, http://faculty.washington.edu/qtaylor/documents_us/LA_code_noir.htm
  • [12]  Lizette I. Perez, “Manumission and gender in 18th Century Spanish Louisiana: The Role of Women in the Establishment of a Free Black Society,” SDSU McNair Journal, (2004),Accessed 4/06/2013           www.sci.sdsu.edu/mcnair/ejournal/Volume XI/perez.pd
  • [13] Kimberly S. Hanger, “Almost All Have Callings’:Free Blacks at Work in Spanish New Orleans,” originally published in Colonial Latin American Historical Review,3, no.2(1994):141-64
  • [14]Gary B.Mills “Coincoin: An Eighteenth Century ‘Liberated woman’.” The Journal of Southern History. no. 2 (1976): 205-222.
  • [15] Ibid., 206
  • [16] Ibid., 206
  • [17] Ibid., 211
  • [18] Ibid., 213
  • [19] Ibid., 217
  • [20] Sullivan Lester, “The Story of Rosette Rochon.” Musee Rosette Rochon Accessed 04/09/ 2013. http://www.rosetterochon.com/rosette-r2.html.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] Christina Vella, Intimate Enemies: The Tw Worlds of Baroness de Pontalba, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997), 40-69.
  • [23] Joan B. Garvey, and Mary Lou Widmer, Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans, (Gretna: Pelican Pub, 2013) 126-132
  • [24] Ibid, 129
  • [25] Sally Reeves. “Madame Pontalba’s Buildings”, FrenchQuarter.com, Accessed 04/08/2013,
  • http://www.frenchquarter.com/ sightseeing/PontalbaBuildings.php

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