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Story Archives: Slaves, indentured servants and women in French Natchez; Dunbar & Molly
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|Slaves, indentured servants and women in French Natchez; Dunbar & Molly|
(Seventh in a Series)
Slavery existed in every ancient civilization on earth. It began for many reasons -- to pay a debt, for punishment or as a result of war where the conqueror enslaved the vanquished.
The institution has never had a race bias. Children and women have never been exempt.
The Aztecs, the mighty nation to the south in Mexico that was conquered by Cortez five centuries ago, enslaved numerous Indian tribes. They sacrificed untold numbers on altars and forced other captive Indian nations to provide them tributes in the form of gold, silver, animal skins, agricultural products and fisheries.
In no case has slavery been a kind institution in which the enslaved were somehow better off because they were dominated by masters whose intelligence and so-called purer birthrights made them superior.
The French brought the first African slaves to Natchez in the early 1700s, and historian Jack Elliott, in our continuing series on the Natchez fort, reminds us this week that the French didn't bring the first slaves here. The Natchez Indians began enslaving other Indians in the years before the French arrived and traded captives from weaker tribes to the English out of Carolina in exchange for weapons and European goods.
Slavery in Natchez flourished beginning with English possession, especially in the 1770s. It continued during the Spanish days in the 1780s and 1790s and skyrocketed during the American territorial days when cotton became the economic center of the South requiring much labor secured through African slaves.
One large slave-holder during these days was William Dunbar, the great explorer, scientist, farmer, star-gazer and surveyor. Dunbar may have contributed as much to the growth and vitality of Natchez as any man in its history.
He surveyed boundaries in the wilderness, served as a Justice of the Peace, sipped wine and entertained guests from across the country at his Forest Plantation and gazed into the nighttime sky with a telescope he designed and had custom built in London.
Dunbar came to America from Scotland and early on became a slave owner. Before moving to Natchez in 1792, he resided at Manchac and Baton Rouge. In all three places, he treated his slaves as well as any slave-owner, maybe better. They usually had Sundays off, were well-clothed and well-fed.
But not once did he ever seem to consider them as human beings in that world not so long ago. Instead, he considered slaves as property, like an investment in land which had to return a profit.
Dunbar routinely had his slaves punished with the whip and in other ways and never expressed a bit of regret about it. When Molly, a slave on a neighboring plantation, killed a white woman Dunbar was part of a jury that handed down a hideous sentence. Slaves outnumbered whites, and slave uprisings terrified slave-owners and any slave transgression was dealt with harshly.
From all accounts Molly was guilty as charged and her fate, no one doubted, would be death. Dunbar was a jurist in her trial which was little more than a formality. She was found guilty and she was sentenced to death.
As if that was not enough, Dunbar and others on the jury added one wicked twist. With all of the slaves from the plantations gathered round the hanging tree, her sentence was made known -- Molly was first to "have her hand cut off and afterward hanged until she is dead."
Imagine! How could Dunbar be a part of that?
To follow are Jack Elliott's answers to our questions about the arrival of African slaves in Natchez as well as indentured servants and women from France.
SLAVERY -- FROM INDIAN TO AFRICAN
ELLIOTT: The first slaves were Indians. When the French first arrived in Louisiana they found an intertribal system of slave trade in operation in which Indians captured by enemy tribes would be sold as slaves. For example, about 1715 André Pénicaut found that the Natchez Indians had several slaves from the Chaoüachas tribe who were to be sold to English traders operating out of Carolina. Acquired from the Indians themselves, Indians served as the earliest slaves in Louisiana where they worked in homes and fields.
Shortly after arriving in Louisiana in 1718, but before his settling at Natchez, Le Page du Pratz purchased a young female of the Chitimacha tribe. She was intelligent and resourceful and probably became his common law wife.
Indian slavery proved unsuccessful in the long run. Indians were not good agricultural laborers and were prone to escaping into the wilderness. One colonist observed that "negroes are more laborious than Indians who desert when hard pressed." Furthermore, dealing in Indian slaves often conflicted with the French policy of promoting alliances with tribes.
FIRST AFRICAN SLAVES ARRIVE
ELLIOTT: The number of slaves greatly increased under the policies of the Company of the Indies (1717-1731) which promoted for the first time the development of agriculture with great attention placed on tobacco. Because of the colony's perennial labor shortage, new sources of labor were required. Several schemes were attempted to recruit labor including the use of convict labor, indentured servants, and the use of African slaves. Africans were better agricultural laborers than Indians, while the blacks were less likely to escape for fear of being captured by Indians. However, there were only 10-20 blacks in Louisiana as late as 1717.
This changed in June 1719 when two ships -- le Gran Duc du Maine and l'Aurore -- arrived in Louisiana carrying a combined cargo of 450 blacks. Other shipments would follow. Most were probably destined to serve in farms along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. By 1731 there were 2500 to 3000 black slaves in the colony.
During the entire history of French Louisiana 23 shiploads of slaves arrived; of these 22 arrived between 1719 and 1731 during the administration of the Company of the Indies. The 23rd ship arrived in 1743. So the slave trade in Louisiana largely occurred through the efforts of the Company. After the Company passed from the scene so too did the slave trade and, for that matter, virtually all immigration -- black or white.
Many of the Africans wound up in Natchez with large numbers owned by the concessions (plantations) while the small farmers, the habitants, often had a few. Representative of the latter was Le Page du Pratz. He related the story of his trip to Natchez.
In preparation for the trip, he purchased two black slaves in New Orleans in 1719. They were a husband and wife, each about 20 years old. After loading supplies in a large canoe, Du Pratz, his Indian woman, and the two Africans set out for Natchez where he purchased a cabin and about six acres of cleared ground from a Natchez Indian. He constructed another cabin for the blacks and established a garden and tobacco plantation.
Larger farming operations required considerably more slaves. In 1721 Faucon Dumanoir, director of the St. Catherine Concession, while heading to Natchez to establish a plantation, stopped in New Orleans and purchased 30 slaves which he carried upriver to be added to the number already at the plantation.
In 1723 there were 110 African slaves at Natchez compared to 7 Indian slaves. Forty-five of the blacks were on the St. Catherine Concession (near Natchez High School) while 28 were associated with the Terre Blanche Concession (on St. Catherine's near the old paper mill).
Very few slaves arrived in Louisiana from the Caribbean where they were simply too much in demand to be exported. Almost all arrived directly from Africa. The first two shiploads already mentioned arrived in 1719 from the African port of Juda (Ouidah) located on the Gulf of Guinea in modern Benin. The two slaves acquired by Du Pratz in 1719 and carried to Natchez were probably from these shipments.
Four more shiploads between 1721 and 1728 also originated from Judah. In 1721 the ship la Nereide arrived from Cabinda, Angola with 294. This was the only shipment from Angola. Most ships from 1720-1743, however, originated from the Senegal area of northwest Africa. The French Senegal Company had a monopoly on the French slave trade.
Africans were captured inland by warring tribes then taken to be sold at trading centers such as Gorée Island from whence they were shipped out. Many died during the ocean crossing, and many died after arriving in Louisiana. While approximately 6,000 Africans arrived in Louisiana between 1719 and 1735, the population of blacks was only about 3,400 by the latter year, reflecting a high death rate comparable to that of the European colonists.
DU BOUGOU, CHOUCOURA & MADAME
ELLIOTT: Only a few African slaves can be identified by name. These include one named du Bougou. He was with five other slaves cutting wood for the St. Catherine Concession on October 22, 1722 when they were fired on by Indians. Du Bougou was killed while his unnamed brother was shot in the thigh.
Another incident involved an unnamed male African who had escaped and joined an Indian settlement. There he gained considerable power and reportedly agitated against the French and led attacks on friendly Indians. At the conclusion of the Third Natchez War in late 1723, the terms of the peace treaty included that the Natchez bring in the heads of the black man and an Indian chief named Old Hair. The heads were brought three days later.
Another was a male named Choucoura (an African name) who was punished in an abusive manner in 1727. An African man named Madame at the Terre Blanche Concession was killed by his comrades because they feared he would inform on the plot to massacre the French.
INDENTURED SERVANTS AT NATCHEZ
Indentured servants were termed engagés in French. These were people, often skilled workers, who agreed to work for a period of time, usually three years, to pay for their passage and upkeep. From a total 7020 French colonists who arrived in Louisiana between 1717 and 1721, 2462 were indentured servants, over 1/3 of the new arrivals. According to the 1727 census there were 45 indentured servants at Natchez out of a total of 230 recorded Europeans. Of course indentured servants didn't stay indentured servants; many others in 1727 might have come to Natchez as indentured servants.
WOMEN IN FRENCH LOUISIANA/NATCHEZ
If French Louisiana suffered from a shortage of humans in general, it suffered even more from a greater shortage of European women. This shortage understandably meant that there were numerous unions between Frenchmen and Indian women. In 1713 Governor La Mothe de Cadillac described the largely male population of Louisiana as "the dregs of Canada, jailbirds...addicted to vice, principally with the Indian women whom they prefer to French women [not that there were any French women to engage in vice with!]." The importation of women was intended to provide a taming effect on these jailbirds. Years later in 1727 Governor Périer could still note that there are "many workmen who will settle down if they find it possible to get married."
The first European women were the "casket girls" called thus because of the boxes in which they carried their belongings. They usually were young orphans from church-sponsored orphanages and made ideal wives. The first of these -- 23 in number -- arrived on board the Pélican in 1704. Others arrived in 1719 and 1728.
Between 1717 and 1721, 7020 colonists arrived in Louisiana, largely because of the Company of the Indies's attempt to build an agricultural colony -- 1215 were women, and 502 were children. Of the children perhaps half were girls, so the total number of females was probably about 1500.
Of the new arrivals there was approximately one female for every four males. Although many of these new arrivals were undesirables such as convicts and even prostitutes who were given the choice of either Louisiana or jail, yet many others were simply the jobless and the destitute. In fact many of the women who arrived were already married with children. Of note there were at least two free black women among them. The female passengers on board the La Loire that sailed in 1720 included one tailoress, one knitter, two dressmakers, three bakers, one cook, two laundresses, etc.
A similar ration of approximately one woman to four men can be found at Natchez. In 1723 there were 34 women for about 120 men with 11 children. In 1729 there were approximately 80 women to about 225 men. While the population of women and men had both doubled, the number of children had skyrocketed; there were about 150 children. The number had multiplied by 13.6!
During the 1729 massacre at Natchez, most of the men were killed. Although the majority of the women and children were taken captive by the Indians, yet 35 women and 56 children were killed. These included four pregnant women who were cut open and their unborn infants killed.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|