Marie Thérèse Metoyer
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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. Her parents, François and Marie Françoise, were enslaved by the post's founder and commandant, Chevalier Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. Their marriage was legitimate and it was recorded in the parish church 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 were trained in pharmacology and nursing. By these skills the women earned a livelihood after gaining freedom through manumission as adults. Their other nine siblings would remain enslaved at various colonial posts from Natchitoches to Pensacola.
Slavery and freedom
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When still young, Coincoin had five children. Some records show that Coincoin's first five children were of full African blood and others suggest they were partially Native American, fathered by Chatta. About 1765 her mistress granted Coincoin to live with the young French merchant, Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer, Coincoin had gained the interest of Métoyer during his many visits to the St. Denis household.
The efforts of a parish priest to break up their union in 1778, by filing charges that threatened 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. As his mixed-race children matured and married, Métoyer manumitted the eldest five of the ten children whom he had held in slavery after he purchased Coincoin and their children.
As a free woman, Coincoin exploited a variety of economic enterprises. She manufactured medicine, planted tobacco, and trapped wild bears to the local market and shipping peltry and oil along with indigo that she sourced from the bear skins 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 in order to protect them from others in the parish purchasing them. Most were related to Coincoin or close friends, she labored alongside of them until her own health began to fail.
Surviving records document her ownership of 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, Coincoin 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, where she established a vacherie (cattle range) and hired a Spaniard to operate it for her. In 1807, she bought 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. Coincoin has been credited with the founding of Cane River's fabled Melrose Plantation. However, this land has been documented as a grant to her son, Louis Métoyer, who built most of the surviving plantation buildings prior to his death.
Coincoin lived frugally and served others, investing all her income into the purchase of freedom for the children from 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 remained enslaved, as their owners refused to manumit or sell them.
Her eldest son Augustin Metoyer donated land for a church at Isle Brevelle, Natchez, Louisiana. 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 constructed 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 original 1780s-1816 farmstead, off Cedar Bend Road (Latitude 31.681271/Longitude -93.018800).
The house is known as "Maison de Marie Therese" and "Coincoin-Prudhomme House". 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. This was o 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 much of 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 in transliterations by French and Spanish scribes) was the name used for "second-born daughters" among those Ewe of coastal Togo who speak the Glidzi dialect.
Historians Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown 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 as discovered by Elizabeth Shown Mills, are being studied by 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.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Isle of Canes, ISBN 9781593313067, is an historical novel that follows Coincoin and the Metoyers across four generations.
- 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, pp. 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.
- 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): pp. 183–204.
- 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" (a four-generation genealogy of the offspring of François and Marie Françoise, focusing on the Metoyer line), National Genealogical Society Quarterly 70 (September 1982): pp. 163–89
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown and Gary B. "Missionaries Compromised: Early Evangelization of Slaves and Free People of Color in North Louisiana", Cross, Crozier, and Crucible. Glenn R. Conrad. ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Historical Association and Archdiocese of New Orleans, 1993, pp. 30–47.
- Mills, Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills. The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color (revised edition), 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", 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, May 12, 2002.
- "The Louisiana Metoyers: Melrose's Story of Land and Slaves", 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 (HABS), in cooperation with Cane River National Heritage Area et al., “Coincoin-Prudhomme House (Maison de Marie Therese)”, HABS No. LA1295, National Park Service, p. 1; the report is undated but its content suggests it was created after 2004.
- Klier, Betje Black. Pavie in the Borderlands (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), p. 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.
- 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.
- 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, pp. 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 Wisconsin–Madison, as reported in Mills, Forgotten People, pg. 3.
- MacDonald to E. S. Mills, February 19, 2008.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Historic Pathways website - offers a cache of published studies and papers relating to the Cane River National Heritage Area, Natchitoches, and the local Créoles of color.