Louisiana’s grand plantations – remnants of a tumultuous period
The extraordinary wealth that built this stretch of grandeur, along with the African slave labor that made it possible, have receded farther and farther into history
“From Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the great sugar-plantations border both sides of the river all the way. A most homelike and happy-looking region. And now and then you see a pillared and porticoed great manor-house, embowered in trees.”
So wrote Mark Twain, in “Life on the Mississippi.” As anyone who has driven the River Road can attest, the picture Twain painted remains alive today. But the extraordinary wealth that built this stretch of grandeur, along with the African slave labor that made it possible, have receded farther and farther into history.
Today, many of the plantation estates are open to the public. Visitors can walk in the footsteps of Southern belles and African slaves, English overlords and Creole captains of agriculture.
Among the most opulent plantations remaining today are Nottoway in White Castle, Oak Alley in Vacherie and San Francisco in Reserve. The concept of plantations emerged from Western European colonialism. As European powers went about the business of conquering the world, they needed two things: settlers to hold and exploit their takings and workers to extract the wealth of the land. To attract settlers to Louisiana, the French and the Spanish provided land grants along maritime highways, including the greatest maritime highway of all: the Mississippi River. To provide sufficient labor, they tapped into the African slave trade and helped turn it into a big business unto itself.
Eventually, English, Scottish and “American” settlers moved into Louisiana and gained possession of a number of these estates. With slave labor providing a more efficient system than family farming, plantations became more and more lucrative. As the 19th century ushered in a transition from colonial domination to statehood in the United States, the planters’ wealth multiplied. Looking to exalt in their affluence, the planters moved away from the Caribbean style of traditional Créole plantations and began emulating the grandeur of European country estates. They borrowed from the Créole style, however, with adjustments (such as broad verandas and tall windows) for the warm climate.
The havoc that the Civil War wrought on the plantation economy ended the ascendency of the River Road planters. As time passes, the days of grandeur appear as a brief window of decades prior to the Civil War. But these were formative years. Their recollection evokes a tragic vision of paradise lost, made all the more poignant by the institutional cruelty upon which that paradise depended.