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; 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.
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 casket or casquette 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," 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.)
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 denied 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. 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 attractive women that they were called Les Sirènes or the sirens.) 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, and a certain manner of living had emerged to be followed by each generation. It was common 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, but some of them, particularly during the Spanish colonial era, were relatives that the placées wished to manumit at a later date.
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 occurred, 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. She could also bring up her own daughters to become placées. It was also possible for her to marry or to cohabit with a Creole man of color and produce more children.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, placées were not and did not become prostitutes, but 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. For many decades, they outnumbered free black men. 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. 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. 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.
Marie Thérèse dite Coincoin, who has become an icon of black female entrepreneurship in colonial Louisiana. She was born at the frontier outpost of Natchitoches on Cane River in August 1742 as a slave of the post founder, the controversial explorer Louis Juchereau, Sieur de St-Denis. She would be, for twenty years, the placée of a French colonial merchant-turned-planter, Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer, two years her junior. At the onset of their plaçage, she was already the mother of five children; she would bear ten more to Métoyer. In 1778, he freed her after the parish priest filed charges against Coincoin as a "public concubine" and threatened to have her sold at New Orleans if they did not end their relationship. As a free woman, she remained with Métoyer until 1788, when his growing fortune persuaded him to take a wife who could provide legal heirs. (He chose another Marie Thérèse, a white Créole of French and German birth.)
In setting Coincoin aside, Métoyer donated to her his interest in 80 arpents, about 68 acres (280,000 m2) of unpatented land, adjacent to his plantation, to help support their free-born offspring. On that modest tract, Coincoin planted tobacco, a valuable commodity in the struggling colony. She and her children trapped bears and wild turkeys for sales of meat, hide, and oil locally and at the New Orleans market. She also manufactured medicine, a skill shared by her freed-slave sister Marie Louise dite Mariotte and likely one acquired from their African-born parents. With this money, she progressively bought the freedom of four of her first five children and several grandchildren, before investing in three African-born slaves to provide the physical labor that became more difficult as she aged. After securing a colonial patent on her homestead in 1794, she petitioned for and was given a land concession from the Spanish crown. On that piney-woods tract of 800 arpents (667 ac) on Old Red River, about 5 mi from her farmstead, she set up a vacherie (a ranch) and engaged a Spaniard to tend her cattle. Shortly before her death in 1816, Coincoin sold her homestead and divided her remaining property (her piney-woods land, the three African slaves, and their offspring) among her own progeny.
As often happened among the children of plaçages, Coincoin's one surviving daughter by Métoyer, Marie Susanne, became a placée also. As a young woman, apparently with the blessing of both parents, she entered into a relationship with a newly arrived physician, Joseph Conant from New Orleans. When he left Cane River, soon after the birth of their son, she formed a second and lifelong plaçage with a Cane River planter, Jean Baptiste Anty. As a second-generation entrepreneur, Susanne became far more successful than her mother and died in 1838 leaving an estate of $61,600 (equivalent to $1,500,000 in 2009 currency).
Modern archaeological work at the site of Coincoin's farmstead is documenting some of the aspects of her domestic life. A mid-nineteenth century dwelling, now dubbed the Coincoin-Prudhomme House although it was not the actual site of her residence, commemorates her within the Cane River National Heritage Area. Popular lore also has, erroneously, credited her with the ownership of a Cane River plantation founded by her son Louis Metoyer, known today as Melrose Plantation, and its historic buildings Yucca House and African House. Her eldest half-French son, Nicolas Augustin Métoyer, founded St. Augustine Parish (Isle Brevelle) Church, the spiritual center of Cane River's large community of Creoles of color who trace their heritage to Coincoin.
There were many other 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, 22-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 French-Irish clan in 1796, in an alliance that resulted in five children and lasted almost fifty years.
Macarty, like some white Creoles who were already fulfilled in their relationships with their placées, did not care to marry a white woman and produce suitable heirs.
(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.)
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.
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. 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.
Sebastopol This plantation house and property was built and cultivated by Don Pedro Morin in the 1830s in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. It was bought twenty years later by Colonel Ignatius Szymanski a Polish American who later served in the Confederate Army, and renamed Sebastopol. At his death, Colonel Szymanski willed this estate to his placée Eliza Romain, a free woman of color, and to their son John Szymanski.
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). 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 female population. 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 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.
According to Guillory, the system of plaçage had a basis in the economics 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.
- 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
- Katy F. Morlas, "La Madame et la Mademoiselle," graduate thesis in history, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2003.
- Joan M. Martin, "Placage and the Louisiana Gens de Couleur Libre," in Creole, edited by Sybil Kein, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2000.
- 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.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. "Marie Thérèse Coincoin (1742–1816): Slave, Slave Owner, and Paradox," Chapter 1 in Janet Allred and Judy Gentry, ed., Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2009), chap. 1, pages 10-29; <http://books.google.com/books?id=R4KXWIdbqToC&pg=PA15&dq=Coincoin&hl=en&ei=7HJkTfu1JcrcgQfr29SJBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CFoQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=Coincoin&f=false
- Mills, Gary B. The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. "Which Marie Louise is 'Mariotte'? Sorting Slaves with Common Names." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 94 (September 2006): 183–204; archived online at Historic Pathways .
- Morlas, ibid.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Property, by Valerie Martin. Novel from the point-of-view of a white slaveowning widow who obsessively pursues the former slave lover/placée of the husband she loathed.
- Saratoga Trunk, by Edna Ferber. Ferber was hampered by stereotypes, by how much she really knew and what she could reveal about Creole women of color in this novel regarding a placée's daughter, a near-white Clio Dulaine, who returns from exile in France to wreak revenge on her father's white family and to marry a rich man in the 1880s (and thus, pass into whiteness). The book was later made into a film starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper. But it, like the film, falls apart after the action and the heroine move on to Saratoga Springs, New York.
- The Grandissimes, A Story of Creole Life by George Washington Cable. He also wrote the short stories, "Títe Poulette", "Madame John's Legacy" and "Madame Delphine" that were sympathetic to the placée as societal outcast.
- The Feast of All Saints, by Anne Rice. A coming of age novel about a young man making his way in Creole New Orleans. A film was also made of this novel.
- The Benjamin January Mysteries, by Barbara Hambly. This series of novels involves Benjamin January, a free man of colour, in New Orleans in the 1830s. His half-sister Dominique appears prominently in the novels and is a placée.
- The Island Beneath the Sea, by Isabel Allende. A novel about a mixed race slave who is brought to Saint-Domingue and is eventually brought to New Orleans with her master's family and quadroon daughter, Rosette who is introduced to society as a placée.
- Shadows on the Bayou, by Patricia Vaughn. An African-American historical romance following the life of Sylvia Dupont, a young woman raised to be a placée by her mother in order to take revenge on a system that failed her. Instead Sylvia changes course to marry a freeman of color and struggles with the consequences.
-  Mon Cher, Creole genealogical newsletter, dated June 20, 2003, on the genealogy of Marie Laveau, also related to the Trudeaus, page 5.
-  Information about the life of Marie Thérèse Coincoin Metoyer.
-  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.
-  Website of Louisiana Creoles of color.
-  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.