Monday, June 14, 2004

The Cane River Creoles of Color

I just finished reading a romantic, historical novel about the Cane River creoles of color by Elizabeth Shown Mills, an imminent genealogist. She must have studied these people for years, so rich is her book in details of their lives in the late 18th and all of the 19th century. If you aren't aware of the Cane River creoles, they were a mix-raced group in the northern part of the neutral zone. Their mix was French and African for the most part, with a dose or two of Indian thrown in for good measure. Unlike ourselves, they never claimed to be Indian rather than part Black. They were descendants of a very impressive and determined woman who made her own way out of slavery, and was able through sheer determination to get 8 of her 10 children born into slavery out of slavery. She also had 5 kids who were born free. Jeez, can you imagine? Fifteen children. If you owned a slave, it was to your interest to see that your slaves were fruitful and multiplied. This woman rescued all but two of her children from slavery. Sounds almost Redbone to me, but no, she was not one of us. She was an African born into slavery. Her name was Coincoin, or Marie Thereze to White people.

Her focus had been to get her children and grandchildren out of slavery. Her sons and their children went on to become wealthy, much like the children of James and Keziah Ashworth. The kids were all tight with each other, helped each other out, had a strong sense of community. Just like our people.

These Cane River creoles differed from Redbones in several very important ways. One, they were literate. Our Redbone ancestors weren't idiots, but neither could they read and write from what I can tell of reading the records. I'm surprised Redbone names don't have an "x" at the end like the 'Cajun names. You know why 'Cajun names so often end in "X" don't you? It was because none of them could write and so many records had their names followed by their mark of "x" that the Anglos thought that's how the name was spelled.

The Cane River creoles were rich. It is obvious from the record that the White father of Coincoin's last ten, mixed-race children, Pierre Metoyer, helped his mulatto children a lot and often.

Although there is Indian blood in the Cane River creole lines, it's mostly insignificant. Their racial story is about French and African.

I finished Elizabeth Shown Mills' book, and now I'm reading another book on the same subject by Gary B. Mills, former husband of Ms. Mills who is now deceased. He draws a few conclusions she avoids in her book. She prefers to romanticize the relationship between Coincoin and Pierre Metoyer. He points out that Pierre's generosity to Coincoin and her children was specifically and legally designed to ensure her Black children did not prosper from his generosity.

Here's the one thing I notice immediately. These people never challenged their racial classification. They were what they were. When one of the women lived with a White person, they did so by contract which provided for them and their children from the placage, as it was called. The men never married anyone except other creoles. The Ashworths in Texas, on the other hand, were indicted over 15 times in the 1840s and 1850s in Jefferson County for illegally marrying outside their race.

In my reading and writing on the subject, I have continually pointed out my contention that we never saw ourselves as anything but White, no matter what the law said. I believe we made people enforce the law on every level. We never cooperated with it.

Within one generation following the Civil War, the Cane River creoles were no longer rich, were no longer literate, but were still Colored. Contrast that with the Ashworths, who one generation after the Civil War were beginning to be literate, were still poor, but were no longer Colored.


Briggitte said...

I am Briggitte Antoinette LeDe', born at birth that was the name I was given. My grandmother was Marjorie Metoyer, she married David LeDe, Her father was only known to me as PaPa Frank. My grandmothers family are part of the Cane River people. They spoke a broken French/Spanish language. My grandmother made it clear to her children and grandchildren that we must only speak English. I believe that it was a bad thing to not know my own family's language. But, today I am educated, in grad, school at the University of South Alabama. My family migrated to Texas before my birth. My mother is African American and Native American, I am a redbone, I have 3 sons, all three has the same father who is also of creole decent. All three of my sons do not look like African Americans, one looks like he is of middle eastern decent, the other two look like they are of spanish decent. My mother raised me different, I was taught that I was no better than any one else just because of my skin color and hair texture, and at this time in my life I am trying to loc my hair (it's not working as well as I would like but it is coming along). I am proud of all the different ethnic groups I belong to. I even have a blood deficiency inherited from Mediterranean ancestry. I guess my question is just who am I? Where do I belong? The best answer I have is I am American. Love your site though.
Bridgette A. Senigar

Houston said...

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your feelings and observations. We are a people born on this continent. We have no memory of Europe, just as we have no memory of our non-White ancestry.