Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Location: Natchitoches, Louisiana

Webpage: National Park

General Description: The Cane River Creole National Historical Park serves to preserve the cultural landscape of the Cane River region.  The park covers 63 acres split between two preserved French Creole cotton plantations, Oakland and Magnolia.  Both plantations are complete in their historic settings including plantation home, outbuildings, structures, and furnishings and are the most intact French Creole plantations in the US.  In total, there are 65 historic structures.  In colonial Louisiana, Creole was used to distinguish New World products from Old World stock and could be applied to people, architecture, and livestock.  With regards to people, Creole referred to people descended from the French and Spanish periods, regardless of ethnicity.  This included European ancestors, enslaved Africans, and mixed heritage.  The Prud’hommes of Oakland and LeComtes of Magnolia were French Creole.  Oakland Plantation began as a land grant from the Spanish government in the 1789 by Emanuel Prud’hommes.  At that time he was one of the few growing cotton and immediately began buying additional land and enslaved workers to toil in the fields.  In 1818, Emanuel began construction of the plantation home.  As with all plantations of the time, Oakland was a self sufficient community growing and constructing everything they needed.  Cotton continued to be the cash crop, however, they grew many other produce to supply food for the people and animals.  An example of this is the pigeonnière where pigeons were raised to be enjoyed as a delicacy.  The Civil War brought destruction to the region when in 1964 during the Red River campaign, both Union and Confederate troops caused wide-spread damage to crops. livestock, and buildings.  At Oakland, only the cotton gin was burned, leaving the plantation home and outbuildings untouched.  Following the war, Phanor’s two sons, Jacques and Pierre split the plantation and Jacques renamed the plantation east of the Cane River to Oakland.  He adapted to freeman labor hiring the former slaves as tenant farmers to continue working the land.  Thus the plantation remained in family ownership until the National Park Service obtained it.  Magnolia had a similar history with origins traced back to the mid 18th century when the French LeComte family received grants from the French.  LeComte began with a small farm he called Shallow Lake focusing mainly on tobacco as the cash crop.  The small farm slowly grew, especially when they switched over to producing cotton by the early 19th century.  In the 1830s, Ambrose LeComte II acquired the land that would become Magnolia Plantation.  By the 1850s Ambrose and his wife retired to their Natchitoches townhouse where he could focus on his lucrative race horse business.  By 1852, the management of Magnolia was turned over to his son-in-law, Matthew Hertzog.  The Civil War brought the prosperous period to an end with the main home burned during the Red River campaign.  After the war the family rebuilt their home and continued to manage their plantation using sharecropping farmers, most of which were former slaves.  During the 20th century, the sharecropping system was slowly replaced by mechanization and the last family left the plantation in 1968.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) There is no formal Visitor Center for the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, however, the small bookstore at the Oakland Plantation serves this purpose.  If you can time it right, you can get a tour of the plantation home at Oakland.  Otherwise, they provide a map of the outbuildings which you are free to explore.  While not the plantation mansion you see at other places in the south, the home is of modest size with a nice live oak entry way to the front porch.  Most of the outbuildings have survived and some of them are open with exhibits explaining their use.  From this you learn what life was like for the enslaved workers, which was different from other plantations in the deep south.  The history of enslaved workers, both from African and American Indian ancestry, stemmed from the French Code Noir that was suppose to ensure the well being of enslaved workers while keeping them under control.  Thus treatment of the slaves was in many ways better then elsewhere in the south.

2) While most of the preserved structures were expected on a self-sufficient 19th century plantation, the most surprising was the pigeonnière.  This two story structure was devoted to the raising of pigeons to provide a local delicacy.

3) In many ways, the Magnolia Plantation was more impressive then Oakland.  The original plantation home was destroyed during the Civil War, which was replaced following the war.  However, this home is not part of the Historical Park.  However, there is still a lot to explore.  From the country store to the overseer home/hospital to the multiple slave homes built of brick.  There is even a large barn devoted to the production of cotton.  Inside you see the remains of the last steam powered cotton gin and even a 30 foot tall cotton bailer that was very impressive.  It is the largest remaining example of a mule driven bailer that would compress the cotton fibers into bales.