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Plaçage was a recognized extralegal system in which white French and Spanish and later Creole men entered into the equivalent of common-law marriages with women of African, Indian and white (European) Creole descent. The term comes from the French placer meaning “to place with”. The women were not legally recognized as wives, but were known as placées; their relationships were recognized among the free people of color as mariages de la main gauche or left-handed marriages. Many were often quarteronnes or quadroons, the offspring of a European and a mulatto, but plaçage did occur between whites and mulattoes and blacks. The system flourished throughout the French and Spanish colonial periods, and apparently reached its zenith during the latter, between 1769 and 1803. It was not limited to Louisiana, but also flourished in the cities of Natchez and Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; St. Augustine and Pensacola, Florida;[1] as well as Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). Plaçage, however, drew most of its fame—and notoriety—from its open application in New Orleans. Despite the prevalence of interracial encounters in the colony, not all Creole women of color were or became placées.



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[edit] History and development of the plaçage system

The plaçage system grew out of a shortage of accessible white women. France needed wives for the men it had sent overseas, if its colonial population were to grow. Persuading women to follow the men was not easy. First, the motherland recruited willing farm- and city-dwelling women, known as cassette or casket girls, because they brought all their possessions to the colonies in a small trunk or casket. Then France also sent females convicted along with their debtor husbands, and in 1719, deported 209 women felons “who were of a character to be sent to the French settlement in Louisiana,”[2] so desperate were the colonial administrators for women to help create settled families in the colony. (See filles du roi for other ways the French encouraged women to go to the colonies.)

A print by Dupin after Watteau depicting ‘comfort women’ (not to be confused with Asian comfort women during WW II) embarking unwillingly for the Americas. Whether as ‘comfort women,’ ‘casket girls’ or noblewomen, white women were ill-disposed to settle in the French colonies, thus prompting men to seek relationships elsewhere.

However, historian Joan Martin maintains that there is little recorded proof that the ‘casket girls’, considered the progenitors of white French Creoles, were even brought to Louisiana (the Ursuline order of nuns that supposedly chaperoned the arrivals until they married deny that they ever did so). Furthermore, Martin suggests not only that interracial relationships occurred almost the moment Europeans set foot in the New World, but that even some Creole families who today consider themselves white actually began with black or mixed-race forebears.[3] Native women were either traded, sold, or stolen or captured in raids or battles. The only constant was that there were African female slaves, who tended to live longer than either white or Indian women, and who had been imported against their will to labor in the field and settlement. Marriage between the races was forbidden according to the Code Noir, but French and Spanish explorers had become habituated to choosing native women in Asia, Africa, and the Americas as their consorts. European men during this period were not expected to marry until their early thirties, and premarital sex with an intended white bride, especially if she was of high rank, was inconceivable.

African women soon became the concubines of white male colonists, who were sometimes the younger sons of noblemen, military men, plantation owners, merchants and administrators. (There was a particular precedent they came to follow from Saint Domingue, where the French carefully chose their consorts, eventually producing such allegedly beautiful women that they were called Les Sirènes or the sirens.[citation needed]) So it became acceptable behavior for a white man to take a slave as young as twelve as a lover. And possession over time had a way of changing the original premise of a relationship. When the women produced children, they were sometimes emancipated along with their children, and were allowed to assume the surnames of their fathers and lovers. When Creole men reached an age when they were expected to marry, some were content to keep their relationships with their placées. Thus, a wealthy white Creole man could possess not just one, but two (or more) families. One with a white woman to whom he was legally married, and the other with a light-skinned Creole woman of color, a placée, who was faithful to him until death. Their mixed-race children became the nucleus of the class of free people of color or gens de couleur in Louisiana, to be replenished with waves of refugees and immigrants from Haiti and other Francophone colonies. The descendants of the gens de couleur also constituted a part of what later became known as the black middle class in the United States; however, most Creoles of color deem themselves as neither White nor black and constitute a nation within a nation.

By 1788, 1,500 Creole women of color and black women were being maintained by white men,[4] and a certain manner of living had emerged to be followed by each generation. It was not unusual for a wealthy, married Creole to live primarily outside New Orleans on a plantation with his white family, with a second address to use in the city for entertaining and socializing among the white elite, while the placée and their children would live primarily in the house he had built or bought for her in New Orleans, and participate in the society of Creoles of color. The white world might not recognize the placée as a wife legally and socially, but she was recognized as such among the Creoles of color. They even owned slaves and plantations, although some of them, particularly during the Spanish colonial era, were relatives that the placées wished to manumit at a later date.

Placée’s Caribbean-style house in the French Quarter made famous by George Washington Cable‘s short story, “Madame John’s Legacy.”

While in New Orleans, the man would cohabit with the placée as an official ‘boarder’ at the Creole cottage or house near Rampart Street–once the demarcation line or wall between the city and the frontier–or in either the Faubourg Marigny and the Tremé neighborhoods that slowly became the traditional enclave of the New Orleans Creoles of color. Sometimes, if he was not married and wished to keep up social appearances, he kept yet another, separate residence, preferably next door or in the same or next block, housing not being as stringently segregated in New Orleans as they were in other American cities. He also took part in and arranged for the upbringing and education of their children, which meant that both boys and girls were educated in France, as there were no schools available to educate mixed-race children, and it was illegal to teach blacks to read and write. Naturally, the ideal plaçage arrangement(s) ran into the thousands of dollars per year.

Upon the death of her protector and lover, the placée and her family could, on legal challenge, expect up to a third of the man’s property. Some white lovers attempted—and succeeded—in making their mixed-race children primary heirs over other white descendants or relatives. But expectation and fulfillment are two different concepts. If a white lover abandoned her or died without provision, which usually did occur, the former placée found other ways to keep herself against these possibilities. She acquired property, ran legitimate rooming-houses, or tried her hand as a hairdresser, as a marchande (female street or country merchant/vendor usually selling Creole cheeses, herbs, pastries, condiments, jams or other dry goods) or as a seamstress. She could become placée to yet another white Creole. Or she could bring up her own daughters to become placées. It was also possible for her to legally marry or to cohabit with a Creole man of color and produce more children.

Creole woman of color with maid, from a watercolor series by Édouard Marquis, New Orleans, 1867.

Creole women of color out taking the air, from a watercolor series by Édouard Marquis, New Orleans, 1867.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, placées were not and did not become prostitutes, although the New Orleans sex industry as well as opponents of plaçage (embittered white wives, children, relatives; even former male participants, celebrity travelers, and religious and social activists) attempted to capitalize on or to promote this view of the placées. Creole men of color seemed to be of two minds. While they deplored the practice as denigrating the virtue of Creole women of color, some of them were also the products of liaisons with white Creole males. While many have condemned Creole women of color for seeking liaisons with white men, in reality, the women had no other choice.[citation needed] For many decades, they outnumbered free black men.[citation needed] As a subclass, they were not considered to have honor or morals respected by white social or legal custom because of their African origins. So they sought another way within the bounds of decency and even humanity.[citation needed] As Martin relates, “They did not choose to live in concubinage; what they chose was to survive.”

The white Creole historians Charles Gayarré and Alcée Fortier also wrote revisionist histories more accommodating to prevailing theories of Southern white supremacy.[citation needed] They held that little race mixing had ever occurred during the colonial period, that it was the placées who had seduced or led white Creole men astray (Gayarré, when younger, had apparently taken a woman of color as his placée and who had borne him children to his later shame; he ended up marrying a white woman late in life and wrote of his experience in the novel Fernando de Lemos); and that Creoles were wholly pure-blooded whites who were threatened by the spectre of race-mixing like other Southern whites. As a result, placées were viewed through a stereotypical and often racist and romantic prism that presented little of the reality regarding mixed-race women and about New Orleans itself.[citation needed]

[edit] Noted placées

Coincoin or Marie Thérèse, who through such a liaison gave birth to twins; one of whom, Nicolas Augustin Métoyer, became patriarch of the large Cane River community of Creoles of color located in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Born in 1742 as a slave in the household of the controversial explorer Louis Juchereau, Sieur de St-Denis, the founder of Natchitoches, Coincoin was the placée of a French colonial administrator, Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer for over 25 years. Coincoin already was the mother of five children and was two years older when she met Claude Métoyer; however, she bore him ten more children. By 1778, Métoyer had freed Coincoin, but she continued to run his household until he decided to marry a suitable Frenchwoman–another Marie Thérèse–in 1788. Earlier, Métoyer had gifted Coincoin with 68 acres (280,000 m2) of land on which she grew indigo and tobacco–deemed valuable commodities in the struggling colony. Despite having lived most of her life as a house servant, Coincoin learned how to trap bear and other animals, and accumulated a small fortune in the fur trade. With this money, she progressively bought her children’s freedom from Métoyer and slaves to help her in the business. Later, on Métoyer’s instigation, she petitioned and won a land grant from the Spanish crown, and created a prosperous dairy farm. Her 666-acre (2.70 km2) estates on the Cane and Red Rivers came to include the properties Melrose Plantation, Yucca House, and African House, the only African dwelling extant in North America, built in 1796. She died around 1817.

There were also examples of white Creole fathers who raised and then carefully and quietly placed their daughters of color with the sons of known friends or family members. This occurred with Eulalie de Mandéville, the elder half-sister of color to the eccentric nobleman, gambler and land speculator Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandéville. Taken from her slave mother as a baby, and partly raised by a white grandmother, twenty-two year old Eulalie was “placed” by her father, Count Pierre Enguerrand Philippe, Écuyer de Mandéville, Sieur de Marigny with Eugène de Macarty, a member of the famous FrenchIrish clan in 1796, in an alliance that resulted in five children and lasted almost fifty years.[5]

Portrait of Bernard de Marigny, flamboyant Creole millionaire, also the half-brother of Eulalie de Mandéville de Macarty.

Macarty, like some white Creoles who were already fulfilled in their relationships with their placées, did not care to legally marry a white woman and produce suitable heirs.

Portrait of Augustin de Macarty, military man, mayor of New Orleans, and brother of Eugène de Macarty.

(In comparison to the Macartys’ steadfast devotion to each other, Eugène’s brother, Augustin de Macarty, although married, was said to have had numerous, complex affairs with Creole women of color; so much, that at his death, there were five or six Augustin de Macarty heirs from several different mothers making claims against his will.)[6]

On his deathbed in 1845, Eugène de Macarty married Eulalie and then willed her all of his money and property then worth $12,000; both actions were later contested by his white relatives, including the notorious Marie Delphine de Macarty LaLaurie, his niece. But the terms of the will favoring Eulalie was upheld by the courts, and after she died, their surviving children were able to beat back a second attempt to claim an estate that had ballooned to over $150,000. At one point, Eulalie even lived next door to Rosette Rochon (below). Eulalie de Mandéville de Macarty was a successful marchande, and she also ran a dairy. She died in 1848.


Sketch of Rosette Rochon: banker, speculator, entrepreneur, and placée.

Rosette Rochon was born in 1767 in colonial Mobile, the daughter of Pierre Rochon, a shipbuilder from a Québécois family (family name was Rocheron in Québec), through his mulâtresse slave consort Marianne, who bore him five other children. Once Rosette reached a suitable age, she became the consort of a Monsieur Hardy, with whom she relocated to the colony of Saint Domingue. During her sojourn there, Hardy must have died or relinquished her, for in 1797 during the Haitian Revolution, she escaped to New Orleans, where she later became the placée of Joseph Forstal and Charles Populus, both wealthy white New Orleans Creoles.

Rochon came to speculate in real estate in the French Quarter; she eventually owned rental property, opened grocery stores, made loans, bought and sold mortgages, and owned and rented out slaves. She also traveled extensively back and forth to Haiti, where her son by Hardy had become a government official in the new republic. Her social circle in New Orleans once included Marie Laveau, Jean Lafitte, and the free black contractors and real estate developers Jean-Louis Doliolle and his brother Joseph Doliolle.

In particular, Rochon became one of the earliest investors in the Faubourg Marigny, acquiring her first lot from Bernard de Marigny in 1806. Bernard de Marigny, the Creole speculator, refused to sell the lots he was subdividing from his family plantation to anyone who spoke English. While this turned out to be a losing financial decision, Marigny felt more comfortable with the French-speaking, Catholic free people of color (having relatives, lovers and even children on this side of the color line); consequently, much of Faubourg Marigny was built by free black artisans for free people of color or for French-speaking white Creoles. Rochon remained largely illiterate dying in 1863 at the age of 96, leaving behind an estate valued at $100,000 (today, an estate worth a million dollars).

Marie Laveau (also spelled Leveau, Laveaux), known as the voodoo queen of New Orleans, was born between 1795 and 1801 as the daughter of a white Haitian plantation owner, Charles Leveaux, and his mixed black and Indian placée Marguerite Darcantel (or D’Arcantel). Because there were so many whites as well as free people of color in Haiti with the same names, Leveaux could also have been a free man of color who owned slaves and property as well. All three may have escaped Haiti along with thousands of other Creole whites and Creoles of color during the slave uprisings that culminated in the French colony’s becoming the only independent black republic in the New World.

At 17, Marie married a Creole man of color popularly known as Jacques Paris (however, in some documents, he is known as Santiago Paris). Paris either died, disappeared or deliberately abandoned her (some accounts also relate that he was a merchant seaman or sailor in the navy) after she produced a daughter. Laveau was styling herself as the Widow Paris and was a hairdresser for white matrons (she was also reckoned to be an herbalist and yellow fever nurse) when she met Louis-Christophe Dumesnil de Glapion and in the early 1820s, they became lovers.

Marie was just beginning her spectacular career as a voodoo practitioner (she would not be declared a ‘queen’ until about 1830), and Dumesnil de Glapion was a fiftyish white Creole veteran of the Battle of New Orleans with relatives on both sides of the color line. Recently, it’s been alleged that Dumesnil de Glapion was so in love with Marie, he refused to live separately from his placée according to racial custom. In an unusual decision, Dumesnil de Glapion passed as a man of color in order to live with her under respectable circumstances–thus explaining the confusion many historians have had whether he was truly white or black.[7] Although it is popularly thought that Marie presented Dumesnil de Glapion with fifteen children, only five are listed in vital statistics and of these, two daughters–one the famous Marie Euchariste or Marie Leveau II–lived to adulthood. Marie Euchariste closely resembled her mother and startled many who thought that Marie Leveau had been resurrected by the black arts, or could be at two places at once, beliefs that the daughter did little to correct.

[edit] The quadroon balls

The term quadroon is a fractional one referring to a person with one white and one mulatto parent, someone courts would have considered one-fourth Black. The quadroon balls were social events designed to encourage mixed-race women to form liaisons with wealthy white men through a system of concubinage known as plaçage. (Guillory 68-9). The history of the balls epitomizes White America’s exoticizing fascination with light-skinned individuals of mixed race. It is a fascination that can seem condescending, pernicious, and even sordid. Monique Guillory writes about quadroon balls that took place in New Orleans, the city most strongly associated with these events. She approaches the balls in context of the history of a building the structure of which is now the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. Inside is the Orleans Ballroom, a legendary, if not entirely factual, location for the earliest quadroon balls.

In 1805, a man named Albert Tessier began renting a dance hall where he threw twice weekly dances for free quadroon women and white men only (80). These dances were elegant and elaborate, designed to appeal to wealthy white men. Although race mixing was prohibited by New Orleans law, it was common for white gentleman to attend the balls, sometimes stealing away from white balls to mingle with the city’s quadroon beauties. The principal desire of quadroon women attending these balls was to become plaçee as the mistress of a wealthy gentleman, usually a young white Creole or a visiting European (81). These arrangements were a common occurrence, Guillory suggests, because the beautiful, highly educated, socially refined quadroons were prohibited from marrying white men and were unlikely to find Black men of their own status.

A quadroon’s mother usually negotiated with an admirer the compensation that would be received for having the woman as his mistress. Typical terms included some financial payment to the parent, financial and/or housing arrangements for the quadroon herself, and, many times, paternal recognition of any children the union produced. Guillory points out that some of these matches were as enduring and exclusive as marriages. A beloved quadroon mistress had the power to destabilize white marriages and families, something she was much resented for.

The system of plaçage demands consideration of economic implications of mixed race. The plaçage of black women with white lovers, Guillory writes, could take place only because of the socially determined value of their light skin, the same light skin that commanded a higher price on the slave block, where light skinned girls fetched much higher prices than did prime field hands (82). Guillory posits the quadroon balls as the best among severely limited options for these near-white women, a way for them to control their sexuality and decide the price of their own bodies. She contends, “The most a mulatto mother and a quadroon daughter could hope to attain in the rigid confines of the black/white world was some semblance of economic independence and social distinction from the slaves and other blacks” (83). She notes that many participants in the balls were successful in actual businesses when they could no longer rely on an income from the plaçage system. She speculates they developed business acumen from the process of marketing their own bodies.

[edit] References

  1. ^ Chained to the Rock of Adversity, To Be Free, Black & Female in the Old South, edited by Virginia Meacham Gould, The University of Georgia Press, 1998
  2. ^ Katy F. Morlas, “La Madame et la Mademoiselle,” graduate thesis in history, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2003.
  3. ^ Joan M. Martin, “Placage and the Louisiana Gens de Couleur Libre,” in Creole, edited by Sybil Kein, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2000.
  4. ^ Monique Guillory, “Under One Roof: The Sins and Sanctity of the New Orleans Quadroon Balls,” in Race Consciousness, edited by Judith Jackson Fossett and Jeffrey A. Tucker, New York University Press, 1997.
  5. ^ Morlas, ibid.
  6. ^ Violet Harrington Bryan, “Marcus Christian’s Treatment of Les Gens de Couleur Libre,” in Creole, edited by Sybil Kein, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2000.
  7. ^ Caryn Cosse Bell, “The Real Marie Laveau,” review of Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau, by Martha Ward, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2004.

[edit] Recent books

  • The Free People of Color of New Orleans, An Introduction, by Mary Gehman and Lloyd Dennis, Margaret Media, Inc., 1994.
  • Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
  • Creole New Orleans, Race and Americanization, by Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
  • Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans,, by Kimberly S. Hanger.
  • Afristocracy: Free Women of Color and the Politics of Race, Class, and Culture, by Angela Johnson-Fisher, Verlag, 2008.

[edit] Contemporary accounts

  • Travels by His Highness Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach through North America in the years 1825 and 1826, by Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach; William Jeronimus and C.J. Jeronimus, University Press of America, 2001. (The Duke relates his visits to quadroon balls as a tourist in New Orleans.)
  • Voyage to Louisiana, (An abridged translation from the original French by Stuart O. Landry) by C.C. Robin, Pelican Publishing Co., 1966. (Robin visited Louisiana just after its purchase by the Americans and resided there for two years.)

[edit] Fiction

[edit] External links

  • [1] Mon Cher, Creole genealogical newsletter, dated June 20, 2003, on the genealogy of Marie Laveau, also related to the Trudeaus, page 5.
  • [2] Information about the life of Marie Thérèse Coincoin Metoyer.
  • [3] History of 918 Barracks Street in the French Quarter, where Eugène Macarty purchased and then built another home for his placée, Eulalie Mandeville (fwc; for free woman of color) and their children.
  • [4] Website of Louisiana Creoles of color.
  • [5] Website of the Musée Rosette Rochon, located on 1515 Pauger Street, Marigny, New Orleans. This house, which survived Hurricane Katrina, is the only extant residence built by Mme. Rochon.


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