Marie Thérèse Metoyer
Marie Thérèse dite Coincoin (August 1742 – 1816) was notable as a free médecine, planter, and businesswoman at the colonial Louisiana outpost of Natchitoches (later Natchitoches Parish). Her freedom was purchased in 1778 by Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer, with whom she had a long liaison and ten children. She and her descendants established a historical community of Créoles of color along the Cane River, including what is said to be the first church founded by free people of color for their own use, St. Augustine Parish (Isle Brevelle) Church, Natchez, Louisiana. It is included as a site on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.
Early life and family
Coincoin was born at the Louisiana French outpost of Natchitoches, the fourth of eleven children of François and Marie Françoise. The parents were both Africans enslaved by the post's founder and commandant, Chevalier Louis Juchereau de St. Denis; they were married in the parish church just three weeks after François' baptism in December 1735. This suggests that their marriage, like their religious "conversion," was dictated by their master. As children, Coincoin and her sister Marie Louise ditte Mariotte were trained in pharmacology and nursing. These skills helped provide livelihoods when the women gained their freedom as adults. Their other nine siblings would remain enslaved at various colonial posts from Natchitoches to Pensacola.
Slavery and freedom
Coincoin became the young mother of five children (born of a union with an American Indian slave, according to unproved tradition). About 1765 her mistress leased Coincoin to a young French merchant, Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer, who made Coincoin his concubine. The efforts of a parish priest to break up their union in 1778, by filing charges that would lead to her being sold away to New Orleans, prompted Métoyer to buy and manumit her. Together they moved from the post, to outlying lands, where their liaison continued until 1788. That year he married another Marie Thérèse, a white Creole widow of German and French extraction; Eventually, as they matured and married, he would manumit the eldest five of his ten children whom he held in slavery after he purchased Coincoin and their offspring.
As a free woman, Coincoin exploited a variety of economic enterprises. She manufactured medicine, planted tobacco, and trapped wild game—supplying meat to the local market and shipping peltry and oil to New Orleans along with her cured tobacco. She became a landowner and a taxpayer. As a pious Catholic, she volunteered labor for the upkeep of the parish church. Like many other freed slaves in colonial Louisiana, she eventually acquired slaves to labor for her as her own health began to fail. By the time she divided her property among her children in Spring 1816, in anticipation of death, her investment in three African-born slaves had grown, through natural increase, to fourteen.
As frequently happens at the intersection of history with local lore, modern writers have interpreted her entrepreneurship in radically different ways. Some accounts shrink her holdings to one small farmstead of 67 acres. Others portray her as the mistress of a plantation empire of 12,000 acres and a hundred slaves. Surviving records document somewhat over one thousand acres. The liberal land-grant policies of the Spanish Crown provided a stake for her first farmstead on the Grand Coast of Red River (now Cane River), about ten miles below the town. That small tract of 80 arpents (67 acres), alluvial river-bottom land adjacent to Metoyer's plantation, was conceded by the local commandant in January 1787 and patented by the Crown in May 1794. It is identified on modern land maps as sections 18 and 89 of Township 8 North, Range 6 West. On the heels of that patent, she applied for a significantly larger concession—800 arpents of piney woods on Old River to the west of her farm—a tract identified today as section 55, Township 8 North, Range 7 West. There, she established a vacherie (cattle range) and hired a Spaniard to operate it for her. In 1807, she expanded her holdings again, buying a third tract of already developed farm land (the northern portion of sections 34 and 98, T8 North, Range 6 West). That third holding, adjacent to her homestead, provided a stake for a younger son who had come of age after the Louisiana Purchase, too late to benefit from the more-liberal land policies of the Spanish regime.
As a popular figure in Louisiana lore, Coincoin has also been credited with the founding of Cane River's fabled Melrose Plantation. However, historians have documented this land as a grant to one of her sons, Louis Métoyer, who built most of the surviving plantation buildings prior to his death. Rather than the life of grandeur that lore once attributed to Coincoin, she lived a life of frugality and service to others, investing all her income into the purchase of freedom for the offspring of the slave marriage of her youth. By the time of her death, she had manumitted three of those children and three grandchildren. Another daughter and many grandchildren would remain enslaved by owners who would not agree to sell them.
The example Coincoin set, and the religious and moral values she instilled in her offspring, were the guiding forces of an exceptional community built by her children and grandchildren on Cane River. Her eldest son Augustin Metoyer donated the land for a church at Isle Brevelle, Natchez. In 1829 he commissioned his brother Louis to build the structure, St. Augustine Parish Church. It is believed to be America's first church built by free people of color for their own use.
Coincoin's grave is no longer marked.
A small Creole style cottage of bousillage (a mixture of retted Spanish moss, animal hair and mud used as infill material in French Creole dwellings) and half-timber still stands on her actual 1780s - 1816 farmstead, off Cedar Bend Road (Latitude 31.681271/ Longitude -93.018800). The house carries the names "Maison de Marie Therese" and "Coincoin-Prudhomme House". The old house stands on original weathered powdery red brick and lime mortar piers each about 2.5 ft in height (standard colonial elevation). A few of these brick piers were replaced at some point with pyramidal cypress piers. Atop these piers are massive hand-hewn cypress sills and floor joists fixed by pegged mortise and tenon joinery. Ancient flooring planks worn deeply with raised knots remain in place with nails dating to as early as 1807. The walls are structured with vertical and diagonal hand-hewn timbers also set with pegged mortise and tenon joinery at the sills and plates. Ancient massive bousillage panels fill the walls between the timbers. The ceiling timbers are doubly beaded, and along with the old ceiling planks, are all exposed. The front two rooms are of the Norman asymmetric salle-chamber type with an original red brick double hearth on the internal wall. The second tier of rooms, possibly originally styled as a rear gallery but initially enclosed, consists of two cabinet (additional bed)rooms separated by a central enclosed loggia. (Coincoin had her several children living on her plantation.) There exists an original front gallery and a hipped roof. Some original wrought iron fixtures and shutters remain. Window sashes, panes, some doors, side and rear decks and exterior hand-planed lapboards and a tin roof have been added over the life of the building. The 20th century rear and side decks were rotted and removed. The sub-roofing structure is of a chantignole block and scissored truss system with rafters notched at the wall plates, constructed with hand-hewn timbers set with pegged and mortise joinery. This heavy truss system was in colonial times usually found on large governmental or religious buildings, the style outdated by the mid-1700s. This roofing support system is crude and over-structured for the cabin. The house is listed on the National Historic Register as the house of Coincoin. Whether it is her actual home or a cabin of later vintage (antebellum) is highly disputed within the historical, architectural and archaeological community. Two architectural evaluations reached opposite conclusions. Two archaeological evaluations reached opposite conclusions. The archaeological team which concluded the house was that of Coincoin had recovered 88 pieces of Faience on the 2 acre parcel on which the house sits, and in addition, 33% of all recovered ceramics dated to the lifetime of Coincoin. The other archaeological team was heavily influenced by the error-laiden 2001 HABS Report but discovered a historical refuse pile (midden) approximately only 50 m from the standing structure containing 18th century artifacts. This team did not report their surface findings from the 2 acre parcel on which the standing structure sits, confined their excavations to a circumscribed area to the rear of the house on this same parcel, and did not excavate to within 12 m of the standing structure. This second archaeological investigation did not study the standing structure. Their finding of a hypothesized "missing" Maison de Marie Therese (within 50 –75 m of the extant standing structure) described as a "melted" rammed earth house has yet to be corroborated by an independent team and no trace of such above the surface of the ground exists. French faience tableware, diagnostic of 18th century occupation, ceased to be manufactured c 1790, shortly after Coincoin would have had her first house on the site. Referenced documents in the 2001 HABS (Historic American Building Survey) Report do not support the historical account of the property or the house as detailed in said report. Nails found in the attic timbers were manufactured from 1810 to 1842, not after 1828 as earlier published. Whether the house's roof was renovated or restored in the 1800s is unknown. Colonial houses in Louisiana were in a continuous state of deterioration due to water and insect damage, having hand-made split cypress shakes for roofing. No structural nails are found in the sills, joists or wall timbers. The 1810 U.S. Census and 1816 Natchitoches Parish documents, carrying the mark "+" of Coincoin, support that she lived at the site until she sold it to her French neighbor (Jean Baptiste Ailhaud "JBA" St. Anne) in the spring of 1816. She died later that year or early the following year. (It is unknown if she moved to the homes of her sons Louis or Augustin in the last months of her life, though it is held in oral tradition that her last days were spent at Louis' plantation, known now as the National Historic Landmark Melrose Plantation.) Although the 2001 HABS Report (HABS LA-1295) concluded that the house was built after 1828 by the pure French Creole Gabriel Ailhaud St. Anne Prudhomme (grandson of JBA St. Anne) as his overseer's house or garconierre, no document has to date been located documenting that the St. Anne branch of the Prudhomme family built the house and a 19th-century map of this same family shows their 17 slave cabins actually 3,500 ft away and across the Cane River from the Maison de Marie Therese. Gabriel, in fact, never owned the house or its site. His brother, Jean Emmanuel Prudhomme, did own the site and house, but had no children. No proof exists the house was built as an overseer's house or as a garconierre for the St. Anne Prudhomme family. A Spanish colonial map survey (patent) of Coincoin's plantation in 1794 shows the boundaries of her 68-acre plantation and the general location of her house, represented as a rectangle entitled "Maison de Marie Therese, nigresse libre" or "House of Marie Therese, free negro woman", arguably on the site of the still extant structure. (When ex-mate Frenchman Claude Pierre Thomas Metoyer (who owned the plantation immediately adjacent and upriver) gave Coincoin the property in the 1780s, she was already a free woman. She grew tobacco on her plantation to free her remaining children still in bondage. In fact, c 1791, a record describes Coincoin using a boat of her neighbor and ex-mate Pierre Metoyer to send her tobacco, bear skins and bear oil down the Red and Mississippi Rivers to market in New Orleans. Between the 1760s and 1830s the Cane River was the active main navigable bed of the Red River. Coincoin's plantation dock was steps away from the standing structure.) An 1816 U.S. Survey of her plantation only shows her plantation boundaries, and as with neighboring plantation U.S. Surveys, no buildings were included. Owners of the properties were required to prove residency on the claimed site, a clear incentive to maintain a house on the property. No modern survey had yet been performed to resolve the issue of her colonial plantation's precise borders, and moreover, the exact distance of her house from the borders was not given in 1794. The Prudhomme family kept the land and house in its possession for several generations until the house was "discovered" and promptly sold to Dr. and Mrs. Russell Whittington in 1978. Research and historical preservation efforts remain as ongoing. A critical analysis of the history of the Maison de Marie Therese and all its investigations was published in an extensive series of articles, including all references to original documents and papers, in the multicultural Louisiana newspaper "The Real Views", running as installments throughout the calendar year 2013, entitled "The Humble Maison de Marie Therese" (editor Randy Stelly). The legend to the photograph of the Maison de Marie Therese as found in the Museum of Northwest Louisiana History (Louisiana State Museum) housed within the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches reads, "The Maison de Marie Therese, an excellent example of Creole architectural style, is located on land that was once part of Marie Therese Coincoin's colonial plantation." As initially noted in 1978 by the late historian Gary Mills, the humble Maison de Marie Therese makes a good contrast against the grandeur of Melrose Plantation, or, the visual impact describing the sacrifices of the mother for the benefit of her children and grandchildren.
Buildings (some National Historic Landmarks) associated with the heritage of other historically prominent African-Americans, such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, date to the Reconstruction Era, that is, to many decades after Coincoin's lifespan. Coincoin was manumitted (freed from bondage) more than 70 years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of the Civil War.
Tradition holds that Coincoin's African-born parents retained their culture, and some evidence supports that. No known document identifies the African birthplace of either parent. Coincoin and four of her siblings carried African names as dits. One Africanist historian proposed in the 1970s that the African Coincoin (spelled variously by French and Spanish scribes) was the name used by second-born daughters among those who speak the Glidzi dialect among the Ewe of coastal Togo.
The historians Mills and Mills found evidence that Coincoin was the second-born daughter in her birth family. Other possible origins of the name Coincoin, together with the names of her siblings discovered by Elizabeth Shown Mills, are being studied by the Africanist Kevin MacDonald at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
In popular culture
- German, Norman. No Other World (novel based on Coincoin), Thibodaux, LA: Blue Heron Press, 1992; reprint, 2000, 2011. ISBN 9780962172427.
- Historical Pathways  offers a cache of published studies and papers relating to Cane River, Natchitoches, and its Créoles of color.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Isle of Canes, ISBN 9781593313067, is an historical saga that follows Coincoin and the Metoyers across four generations.
- American jazz saxophonist Matana Roberts is releasing a twelve-part album series entitled Coin Coin. Marie Thérèse ditte Coincoin is featured as the protagonist in the series, which explores African-American culture and life during the last 300 years.
- Burton, H. Sophie. "Marie Thérèze dit Coincoin: A Free Black Woman on the Louisiana-Texas Frontier." In Nexus of Empire: Negotiating Loyalty and Identity in the Revolutionary Borderlands, 1760s–1820s. Edited by Gene Allen Smith and Sylvia L. Hilton. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010." Pages 89–112.
- MacDonald, Kevin C.; David W. Morgan; Fiona J.L. Handley; Aubra L. Lee; and Emma Morley. "The Archaeology of Local Myths and Heritage Tourism." In A Future for Archaeology: The Past in the Present. New York: Routledge Cavendish, 2006. Chapter 13.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. "Documenting a Slave’s Birth, Parentage, and Origins(Marie Thérèse Coincoin, 1742–1816): A Test of 'Oral History'.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 96 (December 2008): 246-66. Archived online at Historic Pathways .
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. "Marie Therese Coincoin: 1742-1816." KnowLa Encyclopedia of Louisiana : posted March 2011.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. "Marie Thérèse Coincoin (1742–1816): Slave, Slave Owner, and Paradox." Chapter 1 in Janet Allured and Judy Gentry, ed. Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2009).
- 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 .
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. "A Reader's Guide to the Study of Cane River Creoles." .(An annotated bibliography of major sources treating Marie Thérèse and her Metoyer offspring.)
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown and Gary B. "Slaves and Masters: The Louisiana Metoyers." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 70 (September 1982): 163-89. Archived online at Historic Pathways . (A four-generation genealogy of the offspring of François and Marie Françoise, focusing on the Metoyer line.)
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown and Gary B. “Missionaries Compromised: Early Evangelization of Slaves and Free People of Color in North Louisiana.” in Cross, Crozier, and Crucible. Glenn R. Conrad. ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Historical Association and Archdiocese of New Orleans, 1993, pp. 30–47. Archived online at Historic Pathways .
- Mills, Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills. The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color. Rev. ed. Louisiana State University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0807137130.
- Mills, Gary B. The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976. ISBN 978-0-8071-0287-9.
- Mills, Gary B. “Coincoin: An Eighteenth-Century ‘Liberated’ Woman”, in Journal of Southern History 42 (May 1976): 203–22. Reprinted in Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in United States History. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1990. ISBN 978-0-926019-14-0.
- Mills, Gary B. "Marie Thérèse dite Coincoin," in Dictionary of Louisiana Biography. Glenn R. Conrad, ed. 3 vols. New Orleans: Louisiana Historical Association, 1988. Vol. 1:189-90.
- Ringle, Ken "Up through Slavery," The Washington Post, 12 May 2002, Life section; archived online .
- "The Louisiana Metoyers: Melrose's Story of Land and Slaves," in American Visions, (June, 2000). Written by the American Visions staff from Mills and Mills, "Slaves and Masters," cited above.
- The identification of Marie Thérèse Coincoin as Marie Thérèse Metoyer is a misnomer. At no point in her life did she use this name. All documents that she created identify her by the surname Coincoin (or a variant spelling of that name). Only one document during her lifetime assigned her the name Metoyer and that document was created by a Washington, D.C. land office official who had no personal knowledge of her. In 1806, her son Pierre Metoyer traveled to the U.S. land office at Opelousas, Louisiana, to file a claim on her behalf, calling her "his mother, Marie Thérèse, free negresse" (no surname). When the paperwork was submitted to Washington, a case label was created for the file, whereon the son's surname was assigned to her. See Claim B2146, Marie Thérèse, free Negresse, 1806 document filed under OPEL: May 1794 (the date of the Spanish patent), Opelousas Notarial Records, Louisiana State Archives, Baton Rouge; and Serial Patent 437,269, Marie Thérèse Metoyer, RG 49, National Archives; Mills, "Marie Thérèse Coincoin (1742–1816): Slave, Slave Owner, and Paradox," discusses these records in greater detail.
- In this context, ditte can be translated as "called". In this society, it meant a nickname used in place of a surname.
- Mills, "Which Marie Louise Is Mariotte?", provides a four-generation genealogy of the slave and freeborn offspring of Coincoin's sister Mariotte and additional information on Coincoin's parents.
- Historic American Buildings Survey, in cooperation with Cane River National Heritage Area et al., “Coincoin-Prudhomme House (Maison de Marie Therese),” HABS No. LA1295, National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/hdp/samples/HABS/coincoin/history.pdf), 1; the report is undated but its content suggests it was created after 2004.
- **Klier, Betje Black Klier, Pavie in the Borderlands (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 15.
- For a detailed delineation of Coincoin’s three separate land acquisitions, see Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Demythicizing History: Marie Thérèse Coincoin, Tourism, and the National Historical Landmarks Program.” Louisiana History 53 (Fall 2012): 402–37; archived online at Historic Pathways (http://www.historicpathways.com/download/Demythicizing-LHfall12-ocr.pdf).
- 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).
- Louis Metoyer Private Land Claim Certificate B1953 (sections 17 and 94, Township 7 North, Range 6 West), Record Group 49, General Land Office, National Archives; Louis Mettoyer claim for 883.60 acres (3.5758 km2), OPEL: May 1796, File B1953, Louis Metoyer, Opelousas Notarial Records, Louisiana State Land Office, Baton Rouge; Boissier et al. v. Metayer, 5 Mart. (O.S.), 678 (1818).
- For the previously unpublished life of one of these, Nicolas "Chiquito" dit Coincoin, see E. S. Mills, "QuickLesson 16: Speculation, Hypothesis, Interpretation, and Proof," Evidence Explained (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-16-speculation-hypothesis-interpretation-proof).
- Note: Independent black churches were founded by free blacks in Philadelphia before this date, but the congregations used existing structures. Some writers assert the church was built in 1803 by Augustin Metoyer, son of Coincoin. But, the historical evidence dates the construction of the building and its dedication as a chapel in July 1829. In 1856 the diocese designated St. Augustine Chapel as a parish church with a resident priest in its own right. See Mills, Forgotten People, 145–50, for an analysis of that evidence. For the first recorded service at the chapel, see Elizabeth Shown Mills, Natchitoches Church Marriages, 1818-1850: Translated Abstracts from the Registers of St. François des Natchitoches, Louisiana, vol. 4, Cane River Creole Series (Tuscaloosa, AL: 1985), p. 38, entry 152.
- Mills and Mills, "Slaves and Masters," identifies four of these dits; Mills, "Marie Thérèse Coincoin (1742–1816): Slave, Slave Owner, and Paradox," documents the fifth of these African names.
- Jan Vansina of the University of Michigan, as reported in Mills, Forgotten People, 3.
- MacDonald to E. S. Mills, 19 February 2008.