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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!