Apr 25, 2021 – The Southern Renaissance

For our visit to Natchitoches, we stayed at the new Grand Ecore RV Park on the Red River. Sites were concrete with much space between them. And laundry was free!
Google Maps cannot keep up with the new RV parks that seem to be popping up everywhere, including here on the Red River.

As we travel across the country, most striking to us are the stories of the extraordinary persons that come out of the locations we visit. These are often stories of individuals who endured or overcame unthinkable hardships or horrible circumstances. And here in the deep south of Louisiana, there are plenty of stories to go around.

While in Natchitoches, we visited a couple plantations, including Oakwood at the Cane River Creole National Historic Park. This was the home of the planters, the Prud’hommes. Spanning several generations, the family lived in the home from 1821 until 1998.
From the Prud’homme house, one can overlook the plantation, including the tiny cabin on the left. This was the home of the Helaire family who lived on the plantation for several generations as slaves and eventually sharecroppers for the Prud’hommes until 1952.
Within the homes of the Prud’hommes on the left and the Helaires on the right.

Case in point, meet Marie Therese CoinCoin (‘CoinCoin’ means second daughter), born a slave in 1742 into the household of Natchitoches’ founder, Louis Juchereau de St Denis. We were introduced to Marie’s story from our tour of Melrose Plantation located in the Cane River region within Natchitoches Parish.

Downtown Natchitoches on a Monday morning. We drove through here on Sunday and the place was crowded with tourists.

But before I introduce you to Marie Therese CoinCoin, allow me to get Natchitoches out of the way. Natchitoches is Louisiana’s oldest settlement (not to be confused by Texas’s Nacogdoches) and I’ll tell you more about this quaint historical town at the end of this blog through photos. But first, how DO you pronounce Natchitoches? From what we learned, it depends on who you speak to, – it could be ‘Nack-i-tish’, might by ‘Nag-i-dish’ or possibly ‘Nack-i-tosh’. And how quickly it rolls off the tongue also depends on who is speaking. Hearing a few Louisiana-born residents say it reminded me of my visit to Baltimore and hearing the 3-syllable word ‘Bal-ti-more’ become a 2-syllable word – ‘ball-mer’.

The Melrose Plantation house where CoinCoin’s family lived and eventually where Cammie Henry lived from 1899 to the time she died in 1948.

Back to Marie Therese CoinCoin. At the young age of 25, Marie was leased as a housekeeper to Frenchman, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer. By this time, Marie had given birth to five children (all slaves). The father was believed to have been a Native Indian by the name of Chatta. Young Marie began her time at Metoyer’s home and thus began an open 19-yr relationship that resulted in 10 children. At the time, a strict Spanish priest held harsh reign over the Parish and he did not like CoinCoin and Metoyer’s relationship. To appease the priest and maintain his status as a planter, Metoyer had to end the relationship and continue his life in a proper way; that is to acquire a European-born wife – which he did. Out of love or obligation or who knows why, Metoyer purchased Marie, emancipated her and their 10 children. And he gave her some land.

The St Augustine Church was established in 1829, by CoinCoin’s eldest son, Nicolas Augustin Metoyer. It is the first church in Louisiana to be built by and for free people of color. It is also the location for the wedding scene in the film Steel Magnolias.

Marie Therese CoinCoin, a free woman with children to support became a farmer. Think about this for a moment. By now, she is over 40 yrs old and has given birth to 15 children in a time when the life expectancy was at best 36 and for women, death by pregnancy was all too common. Beating the odds, CoinCoin began a new life by raising tobacco, cattle and harvesting bear grease. Over time, her fortunes grew as she and her sons received land grants and purchased slaves including her first five children. It was likely necessary for freed slaves to acquire their own slaves to sustain and grow a farm, but it may also have been to protect them from others in the parish who would purchase them. CoinCoin herself labored alongside her slaves until her health began to fail and she eventually died in 1816. Her children and their children became the leading family of Isle Brevelle, a population of free people of color thriving as business owners.

Nicholas Augustin Metoyer or Grandpere as he was called by his grandchildren, is buried behind the church he founded.

Through poor business dealings, an heir of the Metoyer’s plantation was forced to sell it in 1848 for a pittance of what it was once worth, thus ending generations of Metoyer’s plantation ownership that began with CoinCoin. Over time and following the reconstruction era, the plantation became known as Melrose and eventually owned by Joseph and Cammie Henry. After her husband’s death in 1918, Cammie continued to maintain and renovate Melrose, and turned it into a well known retreat for artists, contributing greatly to the Southern Renaissance. And it is for this reason yet another remarkable story comes our way.

The home of Clementine Hunter as an artist.

To Melrose, a 12-yr old field hand came with her family from a nearby plantation. For decades, Clementine Hunter, born to sharecroppers in 1887, worked at Melrose, and among her many jobs was one she enjoyed most – and that was picking cotton. It is written that 5-ft tall Clementine went into labor after picking 78 lb of cotton, left to find a midwife, gave birth and within two days was back out picking again.

Clementine Hunter the artist. A forger of Hunter’s work was caught partly because Hunter’s paintings had paint smudges on the back because she never used an easel, while the forger’s paintings did not.

One day, she discovered some discarded paints left by one of the visiting artists. Clementine never had a formal education and she never learned to read or write. Yet, she became a self-taught artist. Over the years, she created thousands of work and when her husband died in the 1940s, she began making income by selling her work. Her best friend at Melrose, Francois Mignon helped supply her with art materials and widely promoted her work.

Inside Hunter’s cottage where she created much of her art.
Regarding one of her paintings, Hunter was asked why she made the chicken so large. Her answer, “so it could pull the wagon”.
Funerals were a common theme among Hunter’s paintings. She made her funeral paintings bright and colorful because to her, a funeral meant happiness or the end of misery.

Clementine Hunter became renowned for her colorful and primitive paintings that provide the viewer an insider’s look into plantation life and tells stories from the community of workers. In 1986 at the age of 99 and 2 years before her death, Hunter received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Northwestern State University of Louisiana; the same university that in the 1960s, did not allow Hunter on campus to see her own exhibit because of segregation laws at the time.

Clementine Hunter, not having learned to read or write, considered her signature to be as significant as her painting.
Also buried at St Augustine Church is Clementine Hunter and her friend Francois Mignon. Her funeral was the event of the century in Natchitoches.

Traveling has presented some of the most fascinating stories from America, each of which contribute to its authenticity. And it is these stories that will continue to shape our travel itineraries. Soon, we will visit a place where another one of America’s famed artists found inspiration in its rocks. But first, we got Texas to get through!

Below are several more photos from our short time in Natchitoches. Enjoy!

A magnolia in downtown Natchitoches, location for the filming of, you guessed it, Steel Magnolias.
The American Cemetery, oldest in the Louisiana Purchase is in Natchitoches and is the location of yet another scene from Steel Magnolias.
Steel Magnolias tour or the Christmas lights festival are two reasons that bring tourists to Natchitoches, but it is also famous for its meat pies which is basically Louisiana’s version of Michigan’s pasty or Florida’s empanada.
Sunrise at our campground, Grand Ecore.

4 thoughts on “Apr 25, 2021 – The Southern Renaissance

  1. You came across some interesting characters! You don’t read much about African-Americans owning their own slaves, but we’ve encountered it a few times along our journey. I’ve always wondered about the dynamics of that. Coincoin and Clementine Hunter were two tough, and talented ladies! Clementine’s story reminded me of the Highwaymen of Florida. Non-trained, but highly talented artists. Natchitoches sounds like a very interesting place to visit. Btw, how was the meat pie? What is the clump of food next to it in your picture?

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    1. One day when I stop traveling around in my home and actually have a place to hang artwork on a solid wall, will own a painting by the Highway Men. BTW, the glob next to the meat pie is dirty rice and a side of beans.

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  2. Fascinating stories and information Constance. Pat C sent this to me and I loved reading it and will pass it on to my son, who is moving to Baton Rouge this summer. Thank you!

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