African Earthen Structures in Colonial Louisiana: Architecture from the Coincoin Plantation (1787-1816)
MacDonald, Kevin C., Morgan, David W., Antiquity
North American plantation archaeology, since its inception in the late 1960s, has largely concentrated on the East Coast, with some outlying studies in the sugar planting areas of the Gulf Coast (Singleton & Bograd 1995: 22). The archaeology of the interior of French colonial Louisiana has been comparatively neglected and with it some surprising material aspects of a creolised frontier society. One such aspect is that of the local earthen architecture and questions concerning its derivation from European and/or African sources (Edwards 1994, 2002, 2006). Our current research at a unique colonial-era plantation in north-western Louisiana--owned by a woman of African descent--provides new evidence concerning West African technological contributions to the wider corpus of Creole architecture.
Marie-Therese Coincoin is one of Louisiana's legendary historical figures. An enslaved African woman who found freedom through a lasting liaison with a French bourgeois, she founded a local land-owning dynasty through her many descendants (see Mills, G. 1977; Mills 2009). Since 2001 we have undertaken a programme of archaeological research on the Cane River properties of Coincoin and her children. In part, the goal of this research has been to document the degree to which plantations owned by individuals of African descent differed in material culture and built environment from French-owned plantations. The initial findings of out work at Melrose plantation are detailed elsewhere (MacDonald et al. 2006a, 2006b; Morgan & MacDonald 2011). Here we outline the salient aspects of our more recent work at Coincoin's initial plantation, occupied between 1787 and 1816 and featuring earthen constructions with marked West African attributes (Figure 1).
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Coincoin was born in Natchitoches in 1742 to African-born parents, slaves of the post commandant St Denis (Mills 2009). In the past, it has been asserted that she may have been of Glidzi (Ewe, Togo) ancestry, but a current reinvestigation of naming evidence strongly suggests Kongo ancestry for Coincoin and her four siblings. All names find probable matches in Bakongo, including for Coincoin herself--'Kwakwana' or 'Kwankwa' (Roger Blench pers. comm.). In 1766, at the age of 24, she was 'rented' to a wealthy French bachelor, Pierre Metoyer, and became his concubine. Coincoin lived with him for 20 years and together they had 10 children (Mills, G. 1977). Metoyer manumitted Coincoin and she remained with him until shortly before he took a legal wife in 1788 (Mills 2009). This is a critical juncture in the archaeological narrative, because it was at this point, in 1787, that he gave Coincoin a tract of land, about 67 acres (27ha), adjacent to his own plantation (1787 Natchitoches Census, Mills 1981: 46). So it was at the age of 45 that Coincoin embarked on a new career as a plantation owner.
Sometime shortly after 1790, when tax records show she owned no slaves, Coincoin appears to have acquired a small labour force to help work her plantation (Mills 1981: 71). Alternatively, she may have simply borrowed enslaved labourers from Metoyer, with whom cordial relations appear to have been maintained: extant records indicate that she was farming tobacco and shipping. It down river to New Orleans in conjunction with Pierre Metoyer in 1792 (Mills, G. 1977: 30). Eventually, she was to own 12 to 13 slaves over the three decades she ran her plantation, including one adult of Kissi origin, two adults of Kongo origin, and their nine Louisiana-born children (MacDonald et al. 2006a). By 1806 Coincoin apparently had retired from farming and turned over her 67 acres to her newly freed son, Pierre Metoyer, Jr. (Mills 2009: 22). In 1816 Coincoin settled the rest of her estate, principally her slaves, via property transfers to her children and sold her plantation. From an archaeological perspective, we thus are examining the material and architectural remains of a working plantation occupied over a 30 year span by some 13 to 24 people--counting Coincoin, all net known slaves, and some of Coincoin's children. …