Coincoin, Marie-Thérèse , (1742?–c. 1820), slave, agriculturalist, and head of a dynasty


Citation:

Handley, Fiona J. L.. "Coincoin, Marie-Thérèse." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e2255 (accessed Thu Feb 26 14:03:55 EST 2015).


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Coincoin, Marie-Thérèse (1742?–c. 1820), slave, agriculturalist, and head of a dynasty, was probably born in Natchitoches, Louisiana, near what was then the border between Spanish Texas and French Louisiana, although it is possible that she was born in Africa and came to Louisiana as a young child. Her name definitely originated in Africa, but no convincing argument has been made that traces it to one particular location. She was baptized in 1742 as the slave of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the founder of Natchitoches which was the first permanent settlement in Louisiana. In 1756 she was inherited by the widow of St. Denis, and then became the property of the widow's son, Pierre Antoine de St. Denis Jr., in 1758, ending up the slave of the de Soto family. Between 1761 and 1766 she had three black children—Marie Thérèze Don Manuel, Françoise, and Jean Joseph. In 1767 a white French merchant, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, known as Pierre, arrived in Natchitoches and Coincoin was loaned to him by her owner. They quickly entered into a relationship. Between 1768 and 1784 they had ten children including Augustin Metoyer and Louis Metoyer.

 

Relationships between black women and white men were semi-authorized, given a customary rather than legal status, through the Louisianan system of placage, in which white men provided for free women of color in return for sexual favors. A white man living openly with a black slave as a common-law wife in a shared household was more unusual, and aroused the disapproval of the Catholic Church. In 1777 Father Luis de Quintanilla, the local priest, complained to local authorities about their relationship. While this caused a scandal at the time, the intervention of Madame de Soto, and then Pierre's purchase and manumission of Coincoin in 1778, eased the situation. The children that Coincoin bore Pierre when enslaved remained the property of her owner, and between 1776 and 1780 Pierre set about buying his enslaved children from the de Soto family.

Coincoin, Pierre, and their children lived together for the next decade. This was a period of financial and familial stability, although Coincoin's three oldest children remained enslaved. As well as occupying herself with her children, Coincoin was probably in charge of running the plantation household, and given that Pierre was one of the wealthiest men in Natchitoches Parish, she probably had enslaved servants to undertake the heavier housework, and had very little or no contact with agricultural work.

However, this phase of Coincoin's life was soon to end. In 1786 Pierre succumbed to pressure to marry a suitable white French woman, and his relationship with Coincoin ended. It was apparently an amicable split, as upon her departure from their household, he gave her a plot of land close to his plantation on the Cane River, south of Natchitoches, and an annuity of 120 piastres. Here, Coincoin, now at least forty years old and the mother of thirteen children, finally became completely independent. She built a house, and earned a living through agriculture. In 1793 Coincoin petitioned for and was granted more land by the Spanish government. It seems likely that she undertook the cultivation of tobacco and indigo on these plots, both requiring intense production and skilled processing, although her later purchase in 1807 of three sheep suggests she was also raising animals. Those amongst her children who were born after her liberation and were therefore free accompanied her, and she welcomed other family members into her home. Tradition has it that Coincoin was knowledgeable about native medicinal plants, and she may also have been involved in bear trapping for skins and grease. Archaeological excavations at the location of her home reveal a quantity of pots made locally by Native Americans, which were associated with the bear oil trade.

Initially, Coincoin must have undertaken most of the work at the plantation herself, as she is not recorded in the 1787 Slave Census as owning any slaves, and at the time the free children who accompanied her were just ten, four, and two years of age. Her other children with Pierre were still owned by him (although he eventually liberated them all), but her oldest children, born before her relationship with Pierre, were still enslaved, as were the other close members of her family. In 1790 Coincoin began the process of remedying this situation through loaning her daughter Thereze and Thereze's son Joseph from their (and her former) owner. She bought them in 1797, by which time she had bought and freed Catiche, the illegitimate daughter of her son Louis Metoyer in 1794, who was already living in her household. In 1795, she bought, and presumably freed, her own sister Marie Louise.

As well as buying family members to liberate them, Coincoin also bought slaves to work the land she owned. In the 1795 Slave Census she is recorded as owning five slaves and, by 1816 when she divided her property amongst her children, she had twelve slaves, six women and six men. These slaves—Jean Baptiste, Harry, Marguerite, Marie Jeanne, Constance, Louis, Froisine, Marianne, Marcellino, Jean Noel, Marie Louise, and Hilaire—appear in earlier records, so we can trace some family ties between them. Oral tradition in the Cane River Creole community has it that Coincoin was a good owner who never hit her slaves, and although we cannot be certain of this, the presence of family groups and equal numbers of men and women suggests that the slave community at her plantation was settled and stable.

As well as dividing her slaves amongst her children in 1816, Coincoin also sold her main plot of land on the Cane River to a white neighbor. Her decision may have been influenced by her closest neighbor, another free black called Nicholas Doclas, who sold his plantation and died that year. Coincoin and Doclas were at one time two of only a handful of free people of African descent in Natchitoches Parish, and lived next to each other for fourteen years. Traditional accounts report that she moved to live with her son Louis at his nearby plantation, but it is probable that she moved to another community of free blacks, as she appears in the 1820 census living with another free woman of color aged over forty-five, and a free man of color aged over forty-five. She may of course have moved in with Louis at his large plantation home at a later date, when she must have been extremely old. There is no record of the date or location of her death, though it is presumed that it must have been fairly soon after 1820.

Coincoin was an independent black woman in a world dominated by white men. She adapted successfully to all the situations that life presented to her; from being the concubine and housekeeper of a rich white man, she became a profitable agriculturalist and businesswoman in her own right. She retained her African identity in her name, and used her earnings to liberate many members of her family and provide for their future. She raised her children to become some of the wealthiest and most respected people along the Cane River, and amongst the richest free people of color in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many of Coincoin's descendents remained in Natchitoches Parish where they retained a distinct identity. At the beginning of the twenty-first century they were known as the Cane River Creoles. They played a key role in preserving the story of Coincoin, as have several historical novels, including Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills (2004). Coincoin's exceptional life survives in local archives and Louisiana oral traditions, embodying the hard work, versatility, and family values shared by many black women of the colonial era.

Further Reading

Surviving records of Coincoin's life are in the Natchitoches Parish Courthouse, Natchitoches, Louisiana, and at the Cammie G. Henry Research Center, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches.
  • Kein, Sybil, ed. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color (2000).
  • MacDonald, K. C., D. W. Morgan, F. Handley, A. L. Lee, and E. Morley. “The Archaeology of Local Myths and Heritage Tourism: The Case of Cane River's Melrose Plantation.” In S. Shennan, R. Layton, and P. Stone, eds., The Future of the Past: Papers in Honour of Peter Ucko, 127–142 (2006).
  • Mills, Gary B.. The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color (1977)
  • Morgan, David, Kevin MacDonald, and Fiona Handley. “Economics and Authenticity: A Collision of Interpretations in Cane River National Heritage Area, Louisiana.” In The George Wright Forum, 44–61 (2006).

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