National Native American Heritage Month

The records of the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office, which date back to the 1700s, represent the rich history of New Orleans and its diverse communities. Our archives can be used for property, family history, architectural, and landscaping research.

In celebration of National Native American Heritage Month, the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office would like to highlight some of our records, including notarial acts and a Plan Book Plan, that help to document the history of Native Americans in Louisiana.

Origin of Houmas House Plantation

The history of Houmas House Plantation in Ascension Parish dates back to the 1770s. Its origin as a plantation began with an act of sale before notary, Andres Almonester (Acts 1770-1782), on October 3, 1774.  The vendor on behalf of the Huma (Houma) and Baiagula (Bayogoula) tribes was Chief Calafaué, the leader of both tribes, while the vendees were Irish merchant Maurice Conway and his partner Alexandre Latil. The act is written in colonial Spanish.

As we review these documents, the reader may observe interesting changes in the ink and its effect on paper over time. Iron gall ink is used in the notarial acts featured in this post. Historically, iron gall ink was the most widely used medium dating back to the Roman Era and the Middle Ages. From a preservation and conservation standpoint, the use of this type of ink is problematic. The reader will see that the ink has caused degradation through both sides of the paper. This is known as “iron gall corrosion,” which is caused by many factors including harsh ingredients in the ink.1

In earlier decades, the Bayogoula had camped along Bayou Lafourche and in present-day Iberville Parish. The tribe’s name is thought to be derived from the Choctaw word for “Bayou or River People.” Other spelling variations of the tribe’s name include Bayougoula and Bayagoula. The French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, encountered the tribe in 1699 during his first excursion up the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico. According to John R. Swanton’s Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the Bayogoula lived in cabins made of logs and cane on “deserts,” or open country as it is translated. During Iberville’s encounter, the explorer noticed in his journal that there were few women and children and approximately 200 men.2 Diseases, such as smallpox, and war with adjacent tribes had greatly reduced the population.  Eventually, remaining tribal members were absorbed into other tribes, such as the Huma.

The Huma Tribe, also referred to as Houma, Homa, and Oumas, was believed to be a branch of the Choctaw Nation who lived in close proximity to the Bayogoula. However, Swanton refers to both tribes along with several others as “Muskogean Tribes Proper.”2 A red pole marked the hunting grounds boundary between the tribes, which Iberville called the “Baton Rouge,” which became known as “the present-day capital of Louisiana.”3 As with the Bayogoula, the Huma Tribe’s numbers declined as a result of disease and war. Because of this decline, subsequent alliances, and an eventual lack of tribal distinction by the Europeans, both became recognized as the Houma Nation.3

The piece of land to be sold in the colonial act was half a league wide on the east bank of the Mississippi, twenty-two leagues above New Orleans. According to the act, the land was bounded on the upper side by Juan, a master blacksmith, and on the lower side by the ranches (rancherias) “inhabited at the present time by the two said Indian nations and on the other side of the river, a true line on the property of ‘un Acadiano viejo nombrado Pedro,'” or an old Acadian named Pedro.  

The manuscript discloses that the land had been owned for about fifteen or twenty years previously by a man named Liton who was a secretary of Spanish Governor Luis de Unzaga, but the property had been abandoned. With the permission of the governor, the two nations had established the property as their own.

The land was sold for 150 pesos, a sum verified as accurate by both the sellers and the buyers.

Sale of Property: Calafaue, Indian Chief to Maurice Conway, et al., New Orleans, 5 October 1774. Almonester Y Roxas Vol. 4, Folio 257.

Juan Bautista (Jean Baptiste) Rousseve and Pedro Larto, signed the act as interpreters for the transaction; and witnesses Don Manuel Monteagudo, Don Pedro Cortez, and Don Fernando Rodriguez. Both Conway and Latil signed above the signature of the notary.  The likely signature of Chief Calafaue was a marking written at the end of the act and the bottom of its final page, thus:

This portion of land, combined with adjacent property, would eventually become known as the Houmas House Plantation, which is located in present-day Darrow, Louisiana. The original building, which was constructed shortly after the purchase from Chief Calafaue, was a “…modest home that reflected both the French and Spanish architectural influences that still define Louisiana’s heritage.”4  

Front façade of Houmas House. https://houmashouse.com/photo-gallery/

“The smaller residence that also houses the kitchen and is now connected at the back of the Mansion by a carriageway was, indeed, the original Latil House.”4

The original structure built by Alexandre Latil. https://houmashouse.com/photo-gallery/
The original structure built by Alexandre Latil. https://houmashouse.com/photo-gallery/

Emancipation of Maria Page, “Indio Mestiza”

In the act of emancipation below executed by notary, Raphael Perdomo, on May 6, 1790, an “Indio Mestiza” named Maria Page received her freedom. The term “indio mestiza” in the Spanish language is “mixed Indian” and refers to the ethnic identity of Spanish and indigenous lineage.5 There are other variations of this ethnicity, including white European and indigenous American,6 and there was no fixed meaning during the colonial period.7

Act of Emancipation of Maria Page. Perdomo, Raphael. 6 May 1790. Vol 15, Folio 243.

The act continues by stating that according to the law, owning Native American slaves was illegal. Maria Page was enslaved by Francisco de Cruzat, the former Spanish Lieutenant Governor of “Upper Louisiana.”8 Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, the territory was divided into Upper and Lower Louisiana. Upper Louisiana was located in the present-day Midwest, and Lower Louisiana became the modern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.9

On April 22, 1789, a judicial proceeding was carried out and determined that it was against the law to enslave Maria Page because of her Native American ethnicity. The proceeding refers a decree issued by the Spanish Governor, Alejandro O’Reilly, in 1769. The decree declared the enslavement of Native people illegal and “said owners must also make declaration of their slaves with the Clerk of Court, giving the name and nation of all said Indians and the price at which the owner valuates them.”10

Cruzat did not emancipate his Native American slaves during his lifetime even though it violated O’Reilly’s decree. Maria Page obtained her freedom through the act of emancipation, signed by Francisco Collell, the executor of Cruzat’s estate.

Further research shows that judicial proceedings, which are housed at the Louisiana Historical Center of the Louisiana State Museum, feature the civil suits that were brought against Francisco Cruzat’s heirs by Maria Page’s half-brothers, who were also enslaved. The proceedings reveal that she and her half-brothers, Pedro (Pierre) Morsu and Baptiste Bourguion Morsu, were born to a Native American named Catalina who was from the Chise Tribe.11 Page’s brothers eventually obtained their freedom.12

Receipt – Maria Page

In the act following the emancipation, Maria Page acknowledges receipt of 150 pesos from Cruzat’s estate for her good works and services.

Receipt. Perdomo, Raphael. 6 May 1790. Vol 15, Folio 244.

“Figurative plan of the river on which we have indicated the parts of its bed obstructed by obstacles”

An 1827 Plan Book Plan indicates the fields and village of the Chitimacha tribe. The plan was created in December of 1827 by Arpenteur General (land surveyor) L. Bringier.   

Plan Book 15, Folio 02

The plan was created to identify obstructions in the river, such as log jams. These obstructions are denoted in red within the Atchafalaya River.

Detail of title. Plan Book 15, Folio 02
Detail of plan where obstructions were identified (in red) in the Atchafalaya River. Plan Book 15, Folio 02.

“Champ des Chetimachas” refers to the fields or crops. Notice that they are plowed in different directions below. The small red squares on the different sides of the river indicate the village and dwellings. As previously mentioned, “desert” is referenced as open country in Swanton’s research. It is interesting to note that the village and crops are located on different parts of the river. This could be an indication of flooding or differences in soil.

Detail of the village and crops of the Chitimacha. Plan Book 15, Folio 02

The river and bayous appear to have changed over the past two hundred years. The section of the Atchafalaya as indicated on the plan was not easily identifiable on the river. It is likely that this section of the river was south of the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge and north of the Attakapas Island Wildlife Management Area.

Possible location of the Chitimacha village and crops

Two of the red arrows below indicate Bayou Chene and Bayou Sorrel, which are labeled on the Plan Book Plan above.

Bayou Chene and Bayou Sorrel indicated. Lakes that may suggest approximate location of village and crops.

Keeping in mind that the compass is pointing north, the shape of the lakes seemingly matches the lakes (red arrows above) in the Google map.

Detail to show lakes and bayous near the Chitimacha village and crops (located within the red square.) Plan Book 15, Folio 02.

The Chitimacha avow that they are the only tribe in Louisiana that still live in their original homeland today.13

The Clerk’s Office has a rich amount of history pertaining to the Native American community. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn more about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist.

Sources:

  1. https://irongallink.org/
  2. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uva.x001726207
  3. http://www.dickshovel.com/bayo.html
  4. https://houmashouse.com/architecture/
  5. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/little-coverage-attention-u-s-indigenous-latinos-n390436
  6. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/10/mestizo-and-mulatto-mixed-race-identities-unique-to-hispanics/
  7. Rappaport, Joanne. The Disappearing Mestizo: Configuring Difference in the Colonial New Kingdom of Granada. Duke University Press, 2014. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/68824.
  8. Blackbird, Leila K., “Entwined Threads of Red and Black: The Hidden History of Indigenous Enslavement in Louisiana, 1699-1824” (2018). University of New Orleans Theses and Dissertations. 2559. https://scholarworks.uno.edu/td/2559
  9. https://www.lewis-clark.org/article/332
  10. Blackbird, Leila K., “Entwined Threads of Red and Black: The Hidden History of Indigenous Enslavement in Louisiana, 1699-1824” (2018). University of New Orleans Theses and Dissertations. 2559. https://scholarworks.uno.edu/td/2559
  11. https://www.crt.state.la.us/dataprojects/museum/blackbook/Black_Book_147_1790_May-Jun.pdf
  12. Blackbird, Leila K., “Entwined Threads of Red and Black: The Hidden History of Indigenous Enslavement in Louisiana, 1699-1824” (2018). University of New Orleans Theses and Dissertations. 2559. https://scholarworks.uno.edu/td/2559
  13. http://www.chitimacha.gov/history-culture/tribal-history

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