Women Lead The Way At Laura Plantation
Unlike other Louisiana plantations clustered near the mighty Mississippi River, the history of Laura Plantation features generations of female entrepreneurs who took the reins and showed how skillful women could be at business.
In addition to the women’s intriguing role in managing the plantation, a tour of Laura Plantation highlights the Creole heritage and culture of the region and reveals a fascinating chapter in the history of the American South.
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Laura Plantation: Louisiana Creole Heritage Site
The Louisiana River Parishes are home to a number of plantations, many of which offer excellent tours to help capture the flavor of Louisiana plantation life.
Laura Plantation in Vacherie, near New Orleans, is a bit unique because four generations of Creole women managed the plantation business.
Visitors to Laura Plantation along the River Road can tour the house as well as the 1840’s slave quarters and grounds.
Getting to tour a historic Louisiana plantation house like Laura Plantation is a real treat. I learned even more about the family who lived there by reading the book “Memories of the Old Plantation Home” by Laura Locoul Gore, for whom the plantation was named.
Here is one small memory about life at Laura Plantation that a young (and obviously bored) Laura wrote about plantation life:
“I would often stand on the front gallery facing the river, watching the big steamboats pass by, imaging what fun and excitement it would be if an accident could happen to one of them (nothing serious, of course) in front of our place that we might go to the rescue of the passengers aboard and bring them home.”
In contrast to her younger years of wishful thinking, she added:
“Now, being an old and experienced housekeeper, I would worry to think where the food would come from to care for them.”
But this is kind of where the Laura Plantation story ends, so let’s go back to the beginning.
Laura Plantation History
Laura Plantation history reaches back to the early 1700s when a large Acolapissa Indian ceremonial village sat on the property. Located on high ground (which in Louisiana means 19 feet above sea level), the village was called “Tabiscanja,” which means “long river view.”
Sitting 600 feet from the mighty Mississippi, just upriver from New Orleans, it is said that the view from the top of the central temple mounds stretched for approximately six miles down the river. The village huts that sat on the natural levee next to the river extended upriver and downriver for four miles.
In 1785, four refugee Acadian families came to live at the site. And 19 years later, Guillaume Duparc, a French naval veteran of the American Revolution, bought the land and paid the Acadian families to leave.
The natives continued to live on the fringes through the next century and beyond, with the last full-blooded Acolapissa living on the rear part of the plantation until 1915.
Duparc also acquired adjacent parcels from Acadians, so that at one time the plantation (first called I’habitation Duparc) encompassed 12,000 acres. He built the manor house in 1804.
Interestingly, we learned on the tour that the house was essentially prefabricated. The posts, beams and joints of its cypress frame were pre-cut and prepared off-site, and then assembled on the property.
In the basement, you can plainly see the Roman numeral markings builders used to match corresponding beams and joints.
The DuParc Plantation exported indigo, rice, pecans and sugarcane, and at the time of his death in 1808, the residence comprised 10 sizable buildings, including quarters for 17 slaves, a barn, warehouses, and a small sugar mill.
Today, the plantation contains 12 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the dowager house that was built in 1829.
How Were Women Involved In Laura Plantation?
As noted above, the first owner of Laura Plantation was Guillaume Duparc from France, who went on to marry a (white) French Creole woman from Louisiana named Nanette Prue’Homme.
Note: A Creole is any child of an immigrant to Louisiana born there before the Louisiana Purchase, and all their descendants, including people of both European and African descent.
When Guillaume died suddenly in 1808, he left 41-year-old Nanette with three children and the plantation to run.
Because of the intrusions of Americans into the Creole sugar plantations system at the time, Nanette was worried the plantation would be taken from her, so she established a corporation in 1829.
Nanette headed the company, called the Duparc Freres et Locoul Sugar Company, and named her sons, Louis and Flagy, and daughter Elisabeth as board members.
Louis eventually became the plantation’s New Orleans agent where he enjoyed giving lavish parties to promote the business. The other son, Flagy had no interest in management.
That left Elisabeth to manage the plantation when the time came.
Handing Over The Reins To Daughter Elisabeth
At the age of 26, Elisabeth met and married a Frenchman, Raymond Locoul, who was a wealthy wine producer from Bordeaux. She and her husband always planned to move to France, but when her mother retired from running the plantation in 1822, Elisabeth, 33, took the reins.
With Elisabeth now at the helm, the Duparc plantation became the largest wine importer in Louisiana (thanks in part to her husband’s connections). The plantation also continued to produce sugar and various other crops.
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Over the years, Elisabeth and Raymond had two children who would be heirs. Unfortunately, they became bitter rivals for the ownership of the plantation.
One of Elisabeth’s sons, Emile wanted to become a lawyer, but abandoned that desire for his mother and instead married a cousin, Desiree Archinard. Desiree and Emile eventually produced an heir, Laura, who was legally entitled to inherit the plantation. (And, as you probably guessed, was the person the plantation was named for)
Meanwhile, Elisabeth’s daughter Aimee, met and married a French aristocrat in 1855, and made their home in France. They had three children.
The Civil War In Louisiana
When the Civil War began, Elisabeth’s son Emile summoned all the eligible Acadians of St. James Parish, drilled them, equipped them at his own expense, and led them to the front.
Later, fearing that gunboats would run up the River and shell the plantation, Emile obtained a furlough so he could escort his family out of the area. Before he could reach them, the gunboats came up the river bombing. Desiree managed to escape with baby Laura, wrapping her in a tablecloth with the silverware.
The house was indeed shelled, four cannonballs hitting the big house, which shattered all of the windows, glass and china.
Laura later wrote about the Civil War era in her memoirs, saying that her father (Emile) had a devoted servant Lucien, “who followed him all through the War, saving his life on several occasions.”
One account told in the book is that when her Father lay under a tree, burning with fever, Lucien heard the approach of Yankees and knew Emile would be taken prisoner.
“So, hastily grabbing Father in his arms, he helped him to his saddle,” and galloped off to the Confederate lines where he nursed Emile until he was well.
Civil War Life At The Plantation
About 186 slaves worked on the plantation by the time of the Civil War, and the accompanying outbuildings included a slave infirmary, 69 cabins and communal kitchens.
Two families occupied each slave cabin like a duplex unit that shared a central double fireplace. A vegetable garden, chicken coop and pigpen were located near each cabin.
Not much is written about the day-to-day life of the plantation during the war, although Union soldiers set up a large encampment at a nearby plantation called Evergreen.
The plantation was raided by both Union troops and slaves during the war, and cattle, barrels of corn, mules, wagons and supplies were stolen. Fences were also torn down for use as firewood.
(In 1881, Elisabeth filed a claim for the losses and was awarded reparations because she was the daughter and wife of French citizens).
When the Civil War ended, the former slaves did not leave, but continued to work on the plantation. Expenses of house, food and supplies were deducted from the wages, often leaving the workers unable to leave the plantation.
It seemed to be suggested on the tour that this system of payment was out-of-the-ordinary or cruel, when it fact it was no different than the one used in mining and milling towns all across the nation for more than a hundred years.
It was not a fair method, but neither was it limited to Southern plantations as seemed to be inferred.
Even though little changed in the eyes of those at Laura Plantation, the Civil War brought many changes to Louisiana.
In fact, the 17-year occupation of New Orleans and the River Road plantation region by Federal troops during and after the war changed everything…
Creole Culture And Heritage
One of the most fascinating things I learned on this trip to Louisiana was that English-speaking Americans were seen as immigrants and foreigners by the pre-existing Native Americans, Europeans (mostly French and Spanish), and West-Africans (both slaves and free) in Louisiana.
In 1803, when France transferred Louisiana to the United States, the Creole identity grew tighter in reaction to the flood of Americans that poured into the territory seeking opportunity.
This Louisiana Creole identity was based on just three things: Native Birth, Language (French, Creole and/or Spanish languages), and the Roman Catholic Faith.
This identity transcended race or color. It didn’t matter if someone was black or white or of mixed-race heritage, they were still considered Creole. The term also included the descendants of Acadian exiles (known today in English as “Cajuns.”)
The French language was so important to the culture that in 1883, a Louisiana author and physician wrote: “The day when we cease to speak French in Louisiana…there will be no more Creoles.”
This meant that if someone no longer spoke French as their first language, they were simply an “American.”
The Americans Move In
As feared, the Americans stepped in after the Civil War and separated Louisiana’s French and Creole-speaking schoolchildren and forcibly assimilated them into the English language.
Creoles of all backgrounds were pitted against each other by color and race as segregationist laws and policies were imposed. When public education became mandatory in 1916, schools were segregated into white, black and Indian establishments.
In 1921, the new state constitution imposed English as mandatory and labeled French as a “foreign language.”
And so, the standard for identity in Louisiana shifted from language and culture to race and ethnicity.
The Creoles soon lost their heritage, language and customs as they were forced to assimilate into the American culture.
Life Continues: Laura Plantation Gets Its Name
In 1872, Elisabeth retired from her position of running the plantation and divided the property between her son and daughter—Emile (Laura’s father) and Aimee. Emile chose the half with the manor house, and Aimee (now back from France) inherited the property with the sugar mill.
The siblings did not get along and continued to feud, especially since Emile had nowhere to process his sugar. Finally in 1873, he built his own sugar mill on the property.
The name of the mill and the plantation happened quite by accident. One of Laura’s friends who came to celebrate and christen Emile’s new sugarhouse, brought a huge stalk of sugar cane with a blue ribbon with “THE LAURA” marked in gold letters.
She presented the gift to Laura’s father, who then christened the mill “The Laura.”
The mark for the sugar sold from the plantation became a large gold crescent moon with “LAURA” written within it and the plantation became known as The Laura.
Another Woman Runs Laura Plantation
All these years later, Emile still had the dream of becoming a lawyer, so his wife Desiree stepped into help run the plantation. Emile pursued his dream and was eventually elected to repeated terms as state representative for St. James Parish.
When Emile died in 1879, Laura stepped in to help her mother run the plantation, though she was only 18 at the time.
Laura wrote about her father falling ill in her book and how the enslaved people reacted when he had to be taken to New Orleans by boat to see a doctor.
“As soon as the news spread in the quarters, all the negroes came to the levee and with bowed heads and tears streaming down their faces, bade him goodbye, some even kissing his hand as a last farewell.”
Unfortunately, times had changed so drastically by the time Emile died that sugar was no longer the commodity it once had been.
By 1891, the plantation became unprofitable and it was sold with the stipulation that the name could never be changed.
Laura married Charles Gore and moved away. She writes:
“The last Christmas on the old plantation was so memorable that, to my dying day, it will be vividly impressed upon me…”
She continues: “The old plantation was sold on the 14th of March, 1891 for a mere song…We visited it for the last time to move out the contents and I left alone on the steamer Whisper. I waved my last farewell from the boat and closed my eyes and cried.”
Laura Plantation’s Lasting History
Laura’s book really helps to bring Laura Plantation history back to life. I wish I would have read the book before my visit so I could have envisioned some of things she writes about. Like this:
“There was a white fence around the big house to keep the animals out, but Mother had a second fence put up inside of that, closer to the house, where flowers and shrubs were planted. In those days, friends would visit and admire the garden, frequently asking for a cutting, which they could grow.”
Laura relates the story of handing out violets to members of the family to pin on their coats and then attending church services at the old St. Louis Cathedral. “Soon, the perfume spread through the warm air of the church and heads turned to see from where the lovely fragrance was coming.”
She also tells some funny stories about the visitors that would come to Laura Plantation:
“Every traveler stopping overnight at the house, unless he were a tramp, was admitted to the table for meals and seated near the gentleman of the house. [Some] were a great amusement to us, especially the old mule man who came to sell mules. He was very chatty but had not the nicest smell about him.”
Most importantly, Laura gives information about daily life on a Louisiana plantation, writing that the garden furnished vegetables of all kinds and the chicken house never had less than a hundred or more chickens.
“Three barrels of sugar and one of molasses was the supply kept for the year. Lard or cured hams and shoulders of bacon hung in the cellar, to say nothing of the large quantity of preserves and jellies made each summer which were enjoyed principally by guests.”
She also gives information about making butter.
“Every evening, huge pails of milk were brought in and poured into large yellow bowls and allowed to clabber. The next morning, the cream was skimmed off to make butter. It had been the custom since slavery to give the negroes the surplus milk and clabber every morning…”
“Then the cream was put in a tall, old-fashioned wooden churn. I loved to be allowed to take the hand and jump as I churned singing, ‘Come, come, come butter, come.’ But I didn’t like the home-made butter and always wanted the yellow, rancid butter from the country store.”
Laura also wrote about the old deserted slave hospital that stood in the yard near the quarters. It hadn’t been used since the Civil War.
“We liked to go there with our nurse, creep up the steps slowly and walk around until we heard noises, or imagining we did. Then we would tear down the steps as fast as we could go.”
She remembered that on special occasions, the negroes asked permission to use the hospital for parties or weddings and “Mother furnished the candles and gave them coffee and the ingredients for cakes.”
I like the following entry because it shows how we take things for granted in our younger years that we long for later in life:
“And, I thought, if ever, when I was grown and had a home of my own and saw fig preserves and cream cheese in a heart-shaped mold, with thick yellow cream, I would throw it out or run away. But, oh, how I would like to have it now.”
Recap Of The Women Of Laura Plantation
Since the history of Laura Plantation encompasses four generations of women, it can get a little confusing.
It started with the death of the original owner, Duparc, when his wife Nanette stepped in and took the reins.
It then went to Duparc and Nanette’s daughter Elisabeth, who relinquished hold to her son Emile. His wife, Desiree eventually took over, followed by Laura, their daughter.
Here are the four women who were in charge of Laura Plantation throughout its history:
- Nanette: Duparc’s wife
- Elisabeth: Duparc and Nanette’s daughter
- Desiree: Wife of Emile, Elisabeth’s son
- Laura: Daughter of Emile and Desiree
Background: Laura Plantation vs. Oak Alley
Although located just four miles apart, Laura Plantation and Oak Alley could not be more different. The design of Oak Alley is what most people think of when they picture a Southern plantation.
The Greek Revival architecture of this picturesque Louisiana plantation features massive columns and gives the impression of grandeur and opulence.
This mansion, completed in 1839, is renowned for the double row canopy of Southern Live Oak trees that stretch from the house to the River Road.
The exterior of Oak Alley also features massive 28 columns, a maze of stately oak trees and gorgeous gardens.
Laura Plantation, on the other hand, is a restored historic Creole plantation, built in the fashion of a typical 19th-century working plantation. The raised big house sits beneath the boughs of centuries-old trees, and totals about 24,000 square feet.
The cypress superstructure of Laura Plantation was inlaid with locally fired brick plastered inside and stuccoed outside, with a brightly painted exterior, typical of a Creole manor house.
Two slave cabins, as well as several other surviving outbuildings, give insight to the complex pieces of Laura Plantation’s history. The role of strong women is just a slice of Laura Plantation history revealed during the tour that contrasts the Creole Heritage Site with Oak Alley Plantation.
I loved my Oak Alley Tour for the beautiful oaks and photography opportunities, but Laura Plantation’s Creole history made an interesting and memorable tour.
Both of these Louisiana plantation houses are on the National Register of Historic Places and are worth a visit for both their beauty and their history.
Also located in the Louisiana River Parishes region is the Houmas House Plantation.
FAQs About Laura Plantation
Who Built Laura Plantation?
Guillaume Duparc, a French naval veteran of the American Revolution, built the manor house in 1804.
Why Is The Plantation Called Laura?
Laura Plantation was known as the Duparc Plantation until Guillaume Duparc’s great grandchild Laura Locoul entered the scene.
What Other Notable Things Happened At Laura?
The popular book “Bier Rabbit” is said to have been written at Laura Plantation.
Who Owns Laura Plantation Today?
Laura Plantation is owned by Norman and Sand Marmillion, who acquired the property in 1993.
They were able to purchase the property from developers because of the discovery of a geological fault line. The run-down property had been slated for demolition to make way for a new bridge.
How far is Laura Plantation from New Orleans?
The distance from Laura Plantation to New Orleans is less than 50 miles and takes about an hour to drive. It makes a great day trip along with touring Oak Alley Plantation which is only four miles away.
You can book transportation and a tour of Oak Alley or Laura Plantation for one price HERE.
Where is Laura Plantation?
2247 LA 18 (Old River Road), Vacherie, Louisiana.
How Long is the Tour at Laura Plantation?
The guided walking tour at Laura Plantation in Vacherie includes the main house, gardens and slave quarters, and lasts about one hour and fifteen minutes. Leave time to spend in their large and well-stocked gift shop!
The Fire of 2003
The Plantation house was nearly destroyed by fire back in 2003, but it was rebuilt to the original design using building materials from antique homes.
Last Descendants of Laura Plantation
The last living relatives in the United States of Nanette and Guillaume Duparc are descendants of their son Flagy and an enslaved Creole woman named Henriette.
Laura Plantation Tours and Tickets
Guided tours last between 75 and 80 minutes and involved considerable walking throughout the house, grounds, gardens and slave quarters. Seating is provided in designated areas.
Regular admission tickets are $25 for adults; $15 for teens (13-17) and $10 for children (6-12).
Group rates are available at $18 for 20 or more by appointment.
Transportation to Laura Plantation
Unfortunately, Laura Plantation is located outside of Taxi, Uber and Lyft service areas. Do not take a Taxi, Uber or Lyft to Laura Plantation unless the driver has agreed to stay in the parking lot and return you to your accommodations after your tour is complete.
You can book transportation and tours HERE.
WHEN: Guided tours are available daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Last tour starts at 3:20). Tours in French are also available.
Where To Stay Near Laura Plantation
The Hotel Provincial in the French Quarter New Orleans
Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans (Go ahead and splurge!)
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Compare Hotel Prices In The Area At Booking.com
Other Things To Do Near Laura Plantation
New Orleans Food Walking Tour in the French Quarter of New Orleans
New Orleans Swamp Boat Ride and Plantation Tour
St. Louis Cemetery Guided Walking Tour (On my Bucket List)!