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America's History in the Making

Antebellum Reform

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Laura Gates, Peggy Scherbaum, Eric Ford, Rolanda Teal, and Greg Duggan.


Laura Gates, Peggy Scherbaum, Eric Ford, Rolanda Teal, and Greg Duggan are staff at Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Kenneth L. Brown is an archaeologist and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Houston. They were interviewed on site at the park.

Laura Gates:

Q: Tell us about what plantations were like in the mid-1800s.

Gates: Consider that a plantation is much more than a big house. A plantation is not the kind of thing that you see along a river road outside of New Orleans. A plantation is more like a feudal socio-economic system that depends on human labor. And the thing about both plantations within Cane River Creole National Park is all of the buildings we have, including living quarters, setting pens, and plantation stores, which give us a look at the larger concept of plantation.

Q: So how many people lived in the quarters?

Gates: In the mid-1850s here at Oakland Plantation, there were approximately 175 enslaved workers. In addition, there were people living in the overseer's house, and about 25 more who came in and out of the main house. That's a population of nearly 200 people. At Magnolia Plantation, the other unit of the park, there were approximately 275 enslaved workers in the mid-1850s. And so when you add another 25 with overseers and main house occupants, there were around 300 people. So these plantations were really more like large villages. They were fairly autonomous because even though cotton was the principal crop, they diversified to grow grains, corn, oats, sugar cane, and things like that.

Q: What makes these plantations important?

Gates: These are the most intact French-Creole plantations in the entire United States. Here at Oakland Plantation, for instance, we not only have the main house, but many outbuildings where we can tell a more complete story of what a plantation was, and how it operated. We have the quarters first inhabited by enslaved people, and then later by sharecroppers and tenant farmers. We have the plantation store where the sharecroppers were required to go into debt to buy their materials. We have the carpenter's shop here that includes a workbench that was probably used as early as the 1840s. So all of these things help us tell a more complete story.

Peggy Scherbaum:

Q: These buildings are interestingly situated.

Scherbaum: We entered the plantation from the pavilion, so the buildings might look disorganized from this angle. But these buildings are in the correct positions. If you had entered the plantation from the river, you would have come up though the trees and into the main house. Part of the myth that we are trying to break down is the idea that a plantation is all about the big house and the handful of people that lived in there. That is an important part of the story, but here we have the privilege of telling the rest of the story—in this case, 175 enslaved people who would not have approached the house from the front. They would have approached from the back where they were working. Here are the buildings that they lived in and worked in, the fields that they walked across. Today when you are walking with me, you will get a better picture of that experience. Some people say, "I am not walking over there in this kind of heat," but that is part of what it was like to be a worker on a plantation.

Q: Tell us about this unique building.

Scherbaum: This is an interestingly-shaped building, a pigeonnier, is almost iconographic in its shape. For the French who lived in the main house, this building was not only a food source but a status symbol. They didn't care if you saw their chicken houses and turkey pens, but they did want people passing by to know that they had these pigeon houses. You see the holes up there? The pigeons were free to come and go, and inside the building is where they laid their eggs. After the eggs hatched, the fledgling pigeons were harvested and prepared as squab, a delicacy for the French family. These other buildings out here are very enchanting with this worn cypress and bousillage (mudmixed with different kind of fibers such as horse hair and corn husks) used as insulation. People would hang it over the fibers to help build mud walls but it's mostly used as insulation.

Q: (inside the pigeonnier) It looks as if this building has had many repairs.

Scherbaum: Most of the buildings that were built before the 1860s were constructed by enslaved people. And they weren't just common laborers, they were skilled craftspeople, and skilled farmers. But certainly the blacksmith and carpenters represented the more highly skilled people. You figure these structures have lasted up to this point, where we can stand in and look at them today. The craftsmanship is a marvel, everybody working on these buildings, they are amazed by the patchwork that went in to keeping up the structures. You can see from the buildings on this plantation that the rural people didn't go out and buy the exact piece they needed to fix something.They made do with what they had on the plantation. All of these patches give the buildings their character, and they are the same kind of patches that gave the people their character here. They saw the changes unfold. Although in 1863 the slaves were freed, changes were made in a series of patches over decades and decades. It wasn't so long ago that civil rights laws were enacted. We are still trying to reconcile how we moved from a time of French owners and African slave people, to where we are today.

Eric Z. Ford:

Q: What do you do to make sure the plantations are historically accurate?

Ford: We help visitors understand historic preservation by showing examples of some restoration, preservation and rehabilitation processes we go through. Even if we are not there to verbally convey a message, visitors can view signs or compare the physical appearance between the old and the new to will better understand the process.

Q: Could you show us an example of historic preservation?

Ford: We are standing here at the north tenant cabins at Oakland Plantation to see how preservationists make the appropriate choice for preserving a resource. In this case, you can see the damage that was caused by termites. What we have done here is called epoxy consolidation. You tell from the width of this board that this is a nice, solid piece of lumber, which isn't available today. And you can see our intervention, which is the newer board that we primed on all sides. In the future, when another person investigates this resource they will see our intervention. We also date stamp the historic, and replacement fabric. In this case we use paint to delineate the new from the old.

Greg Duggan:

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about you and your role at the Park?

Duggan: My name is Greg Duggan and I am an exhibit specialist here at Cane River Creole National Historical Park, and I am direct descent of the Prudhommes, who started Oakland Plantation in 1821. Part of what I do is help run the preservation crew in restoring the historic buildings.

Q: Can you show us an example of the work you have done?

Duggan: One good example of historic preservation is this chimney, where we literally took it down and rebuilt it, even though several local masons said it couldn't be done. We left the shaft in place by means of wrapping it with plywood and putting two steel beams underneath it. We dismantled the chimney, salvaged the historic fabric, put a concrete footing down so the thing wouldn't roll over. and rebuilt everything below it. You can clearly see the distinction between new and old, and how much work went into preserving this.

Rolanda Teal:

Q: How do these cabins give the visitor an understanding of what life was like here in Magnolia Plantation?

Teal: Often, people have no sense of what it was like to be an enslaved person, and what living quarters actually looked like. By seeing the cabins, not only do visitors get to see the materials on the outside, but they can actually walk inside and get a better sense of how small the space was and relate to it in a different way. A lot of times, families here would have seven or eight people living in a single space. Think about seven or eight people living in a single space, versus the size of a bedroom for the average child today. It gives visitors a whole different perspective on how crowded that space was.

Q: What do you do to make sure visitors appreciate the crowded space?

Teal: Many of the interpretive aspects of this plantation haven't completely been decided. One interpretation could be to show some of the activities that took place within the cabin. For example, at night when people came in from the fields, what happened in those cabins? Well, we know that this is where the quilting might have taken place because they needed covers in the winter. This is where the cooking took place because there was no designated cook for the entire plantation. So that gives a sense of how the space was used other than a space to sleep in.

Q: And how do you interpret what those activities were?

Teal: Many activities are based on are journal entries made by the plantation owners themselves. A lot of times we get information from memories and oral histories. We piece the stories together. You can also look at why resources such as slave narrativeshappened typically inside a cabin in the evenings.

Kenneth L. Brown:

Q: How do you go about reconstructing different behaviors and beliefs?

Brown: We attempt to learn from material remains how Africans became African American; we study the patterns of belief and behavior that they knew in Africa, how that developed here under enslavement and in some cases freedom and changed into a community structure. Historians have lots of written records. But the records don't come complete from the people who lived in these quarters. Enslaved people couldn't write, so they couldn't leave the records. so we find the material remains left behind by different behaviors and beliefs. If we can extract these artifacts in a fashion that allows us to reconstruct which artifacts are associated with what, we can begin to interpret behaviors and beliefs from that culture. We are looking at what enslaved people had, what they used, and how they deposited it to determine how they lived and what they believed from their standpoint, not from the standpoint of people who wrote about them.

Q: What do artifacts tell us that we might not find in historical records?

Brown: One aspect of African American culture as it developed under the conditions of enslavement is that a lot of traditions had to be hidden in plain view. So there were sanctified spaces below floors, to hide behaviors literally in plain view. The most common object that we have with African symbols is a button. We believe these symbols are meant to control spirits and to protect individuals from spirits of ancestors. This looks like a decorated button, it means something very different to the person wearing it. We see the same thing with some metal coins. Below ground, in yards are common areas where people would bury objects to help protect themselves or to cause some harm to somebody . Though we have some historical record, much of the detailed aspects of life was hidden from outsiders.


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