Whitney Plantation

Whitney Plantation, not far from New Orleans, is one of the best preserved plantations in Louisiana. Telling the story of slavery in Louisiana, Whitney Plantation is well worth a visit.

It was March 1, 1721 when Ambroise Haydel landed in the port of New Orleans, Louisiana, France’s newest colony in the New World. The air was no doubt cool with the biting nip of wet humidity that never fails to linger in a New Orleanian winter; the bustling sounds of the small, burgeoning city no doubt were a welcome greeting after the many months aboard the ship Les Deux Freres.

Ambroise Haydel arrived with his brother Mathieu and his sisters, Barbe and Catherine. Of over 200 passengers on the ship, the Haydels were of only forty survivors who had survived the Trans-Atlantic crossing from their departure point in Lorient, France some months before in November.

To the Haydels, the prospect of New Orleans was synonymous with the prospect of hope and wealth. But it was simply not to be. Not immediately, at any rate.

John Law and His Bankrupt “Bubble”

Although French colonization in Louisiana began at the turn of the 17th century in 1699, it was not until 1718 that New Orleans proper was founded by Jean-Baptise Le Moyne, Sieur d’Bienville. He and his brother, Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, had traveled from the region today known as French Canada. Sailing down the Mississippi River, they had come with expeditioners, soldiers and very few others—what they lacked, however, were great numbers of people to populate the new colony for France.

Ownership of Louisiana exchanged hands many times during those early years of the 1700s, before finally becoming part of the Company of the West Indies, which was managed by Scotsman John Law. In theory, John Law was an economist who pushed the idea of ridding society of minor monopolies while opening the field for private farming of taxes. Though he’d proposed various plans for new banks based on his ideology all throughout Europe, Law’s “big break” (if you will) did not come until the death of the French King Louis XIVth.

Law was a personal friend of the Duke of Orleans, who was not only the new regent of King Louis XVth but who had also invested greatly in the budding city of New Orleans. (Law and Orleans were also high-stake gambling friends, which perhaps should have foreshadowed the financial outcome for the Company of the West Indies). The Duke named John Law Controller General of Finances in 1720 (which gave Law control of all internal and external commerce) and ordered the economist to make a success out of Louisiana.

Up until this time in 1717, Louisiana’s population was scarce. Early colonists were prey to wrecking diseases, little support from the Crown in terms of goods and necessities for life, and Native American attacks. The land was an unkind, mosquito-infested swamp that made life difficult for those seeking survival within its wild wilderness. Desperate to make Louisiana financially worthwhile, France needed colonists. And so they began deporting people: prisoners, the destitute, prostitutes. A police force was installed in Paris to gather more people to be deported, but as each arrest was rewarded with extra pay, the banduoliers du Mississippi were willing to grab anyone—adult or child—and throw them on a ship headed for the New World.

But it was not enough. So, John Law began to spread the word about the wealth of Louisiana all over Europe. Most were not interested in heading to that “dreaded swamp,” except for a few particular groups, including the Germans of the Rhine. The Germans, who had not only been suffering under religious persecution but also extreme famine, were promised prosperity in the form of land, secular freedom and unfathomable wealth.

While it is suspected nearly 4,000 Germans made the first wave of Atlantic crossing in 1719, approximately only 1,500 survived the journey. When the French government mandated in 1720 that French citizens were no longer allowed to be forced to colonize Louisiana, John Law once again turned to the Germans and its neighboring regions to cultivate the land and populate the colony.

Unfortunately, the Company of the West Indies had gone bankrupt by this time and when Ambroise Haydel and his family arrived in the port of New Orleans in 1721, it was to nothing. The so-called “Mississippi Bubble” of fortune and new beginnings had popped.

The Beginnings of the Plantation

At the time of the first census in 1724, Ambroise Haydel was recorded as living in the small village of Hoffen along with his new wife, Marguerite Schoff and their children (and his one pig). Hoffen was situated north of New Orleans along the Mississippi River; this 70-mile strip of unpaved path winding from New Orleans to Baton Rouge was called River Road, but later earned the nickname “Plantation Row” for the great number of plantations seated upon prime riverfront property. The Haydel family settled along the Des Allemands, or German coast, where most of the German immigrants had chosen to put down roots after arriving in Louisiana and realizing John Law had nothing to give them.

Though Ambroise originally arrived in Louisiana with little means, he would soon amass a much prosperous holding of land and wealth—largely on the shoulders of African slaves who had been “imported” by the Company of West Indies to provide a labor source. By the time of the 1731 census, Ambroise was listed as living with his wife, two children, three slaves and one engage (indentured servants).

For a period of years, Ambroise’s early plantation was moved twice before settling on a six-arpent lot of land in 1752 that he purchased from the Widow Bernard Wigner. It is this land that the Whitney Plantation stands upon today. Two of Haydel’s sons would marry women from the neighboring Houbre plantation—this plantation would later be known as Evergreen which still brackets one side of the Whitney Plantation today.

After the first generation of German and English settlers, plantations along this tract of Plantation Row would be bonded not only by business but by blood as well. In keeping the business within the family, any fortune earned continued down through the generations. For Ambroise Haydel, the crop that initially earned the Haydel family their prosperity was indigo.

The last census taken during Ambroise’s lifetime showed that in 1766, Ambroise’s plantation had grown to 11 1/2 arpents and the number of slaves working the land to twenty. Indigo had clearly done well in supporting the Haydel family, but in 1774 Ambroise’s widow sold off the holdings after his death.

On either side of the original tract, Haydel descendants would own neighboring plantations. To the north was Nicolas Haydel, Ambroise’s second-born son, and to the south was Jean Jacques Haydel, Sr., Ambroise’s youngest son.

From Indigo to Sugar: The Habitation Haydel Passed Down Through the Generations

Jean Jacques Haydel, Sr.: The Son

After Ambroise Haydel’s death around 1770, his son Jean Jacques Haydel, Sr. would control the property. He married the French Creole, New Orleans-born Marie Magdelaine Bozonnier Marmillon in 1774 and also made the initial shift from indigo to sugar, though it would not be until the early 1800s that sugar would become the plantation’s main source of revenue.

It was Jean-Jacques Haydel, Sr. who would build the so-called “Big House.” The fourteen-room, two-story dwelling is today considered one of the best examples of a raised Creole Cottage in the South. The Spanish Creole architecture also suited the Haydel family just fine: a large gallery on both sides of the house provided circulation of wind and air throughout the home, and the interior woodworking was constructed so finely that little improvements were needed to keep the house up to par with changing architectural preferences. Jean-Jacques Haydel, Sr. would ultimately live in the familial home until his passing at the age of 1826.

He was known, however historically accurate, as the “Godfather of the Parish Church.” He welcomed foreigners like Yves Louis Jacques Hypolite Mialaret, a schoolteacher and a refugee from France, to even marry his granddaughter Emma Becknell, despite the fact that at the time of her marriage she was fourteen and Yves forty-one.

A Bitter Dispute Between Brothers: The Grandsons

But once again, the plantation would pass down into yet another set of hands after Jean-Jacques Haydel, Sr.’s death: his sons, Jean-Jacques Haydel, Jr. and Jean Francois Marcellin Haydel.

Jean-Jacques Jr. and Marcellin were not great fans of each other. Jean-Jacques owned two-thirds of the property while Marcellin owned just one-third. Enslaved people were not counted among those numbers in the plantation’s reports. Disputes between the brothers must have escalated so highly because two decades later, Marcellin, it seems, was done with the situation and with his brother. He filed a lawsuit against Jean-Jacques, the main shareholder in the family plantation business; Marcellin wanted a more reasonable partition of the property. He had been neglected and abused, Marcellin told the Court.

Jean-Jacques Jr. refused to acquiesce to his brother’s demands, not without selling the whole plantation itself to another bidder. Fortunately for Marcellin, the court swayed in his favor, for in February of 1840 the final judgment was delivered.

Unfortunately, Marcellin Haydel was already dead. He had passed away in his house in November of 1839.

Jean-Jacques Haydel, Jr., the richest of all the Haydels, did not apparently need the Habitation Haydel as he might have previously thought. He owned other plantations, where sugarcane was its primary source of income; sugarcane had similarly become integral for the success of all other family businesses along Plantation Row, south of Baton Rouge where the soil took to the crop. (North of Baton Rouge, Cotton, as they say, was King).

Jean-Jacques Haydel, Jr., did not pass away until 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. He had lost his wife Marie Laure Haydel to the ravaging 1855 yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans, as well as thirty-two of his slaves. After that, Jean-Jacques did not return to the plantation started by his grandfather; instead he remained in New Orleans at one of the many townhouses he owned in the old Vieux Carre.

To Marie Azelie Haydel: The Widow

Perhaps Marcellin Haydel got the last word, however, because when the Habitation Haydel was auctioned off in 1840 after the Court’s passed judgment, it went to Marcellin’s widow Marie Azelie Haydel. She and Marcellin had been married for thirty years but had never had children. Still, they had adopted Alphonse Becnel, who was Azelie’s nephew—it is likely, although difficult to prove, that Alphonse was Marcellin’s natural son, begotten on his wife’s sister, Josephine. After Josephine Haydel passed in 1844, her other child, Marthe Becnel, also joined the household.

By 1860, Azelie would be recorded as one of the largest slaveholders in all of Louisiana. The Habitation Haydel was valued at 187,000 piastres, or dollars, and a reported number of 101 slaves worked the plantation. The property must have been so valuable, even, that Azelie was commissioned famous 19th century painter, Dominici Canova, to paint the murals in the interior and exterior of the Big House during the 1840s. (Canova was also responsible for the altarpiece and fresco at the St. Louis Cathedral and wall-work done at the Louisiana San Francisco Plantation.

After the Haydels

Marie Azelie Haydel was the last of the direct line to own and manage the Habitation Haydel. Post-Civil War, the property came under the ownership of Bradish Johnson, who named it the Whitney Plantation after his grandson, Harry Whitney. He operated a distillery business in New York, growing his fortune to such a large degree that he became a millionaire—quite a feat at that time. Before the Civil War, he had inherited a separate Louisiana parish plantation from his brother, and after the War had finished, he moved on to purchase other plantations, including the Haydel’s, along Plantation Row.

The Haydel Family in Correlation to the Whitney Plantation Museum Today

Although other hands would own and operate the Whitney Plantation over the next century and a half until it was purchased by New Orleans lawyer, John Cummings, it is the Haydel family that the Whitney Plantation Museum focuses.

“Focuses,” however is a loose term. The Whitney Plantation Museum spends little time on the Haydels, except in explaining the way in which the family members interacted and supported the institution of slavery in antebellum Louisiana. The tour of the “Big House”—so called because of the “Master” who lived inside, and not necessarily because of its size or architecture—took ten minutes to tour as opposed to the forty to fifty minutes in which we wandered the grounds with Director of Operations, Ashley Rogers.

The uneven time ratio is integral to understanding the purpose of the Whitney. For centuries, it was the Haydels who were considered the most important and worthy— though their “importance” was founded on the backs of the enslaved—but the Whitney Plantation seeks to give voice to the thousands of enslaved peoples who created that prosperity for the Southern Planters, the Haydels included.

As Ashley Rogers explained to the Discover Historic America team as she took us on a tour of the property, the Whitney Plantation Museum is not a “beautiful house” tour, but a wider look of slavery within the South and especially within the boundaries of Louisiana plantations.

So, I look at it this way: I have now provided the “house” tour portion of Discover Historic America’s exploration of the Whitney Plantation and slavery. From now on, we will not return to the “Big House,” unless it is to discuss the Haydels’ interactions and influences in regards to enslavement as a whole.

Have you enjoyed learning some of the history about the Whitney Plantation Museum? Check out our first installment about visiting the Museum here and be sure to stick around for our next article!

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