Much of the history of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, and the American South is written in the Magnolia big house and the agricultural landscape it occupies. Magnolia Plantation has been the site of over 250 years of human experience on Cane River, from prehistoric settlement through European colonization, the Louisiana Purchase, the expansion of cotton and slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, sharecropping, depression, world war, farm mechanization, and the agricultural and technological changes of the twentieth century. In addition to a view of planter society, Magnolia also offers insight into groups that would otherwise leave little record of their passing. The buildings and landscape form a physical record of the daily lives of slaves, field hands, domestic labor, sharecroppers, children, the sick, and the elderly, who lived, played, worked, and died, there. The natural history of the Red River valley and its tributaries is intertwined with the human history, explaining much about the creation and endurance of the Cane River plantation landscapes.
Geography and the natural abundance of the northwest Louisiana river valleys attracted the earliest human settlers to areas like the Cane River. Cycles of deposition and erosion produced a dynamic landscape of soil and water, seen in shifting channels, bayous, and the rich alluvial soil. The rivers, bayous, and levees supported dynamic wetland and upland ecosystems with a diverse flora, and abundant fish, shellfish, birds, and fur-bearing animals. The sub-tropical climate, with hot, humid summers, abundant rainfall, and mild winters created a hospitable environment for insects and insect-borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. The depositional environment yielded building materials in the mud, clay, and sand, while the riverbanks and swamps produced fibers and cypress wood. The moist bottomlands and fertile terraces contrasted sharply with the adjacent piney woods, where water was scarce. Rainfall percolating through the sandy upland soils left deposits of mineral salts sought after by wildlife, domesticated animals, and humans.
Archaeological remains indicate human activity in Natchitoches Parish around 10,000 to 8000 B.C. Those early people hunted, fished, and gathered along the rivers, bayous, prairies, and piney woods. More complex cultures developed in the area beginning around 2000 B.C., with the Caddo culture recognized in the area by A.D. 1000. Remains of several Caddo settlements in Natchitoches Parish indicate a complex society based on farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering. They lived close contact with the riverine environment, farming the alluvial terraces, building shelters from the sturdy riverbanks grasses, and burying their dead in ceremonial mounds on the natural levees overlooking the rivers.
Early inhabitants of northwest Louisiana traded extensively in the region through a network of trails. The area that became the town of Natchitoches sat at the crossroads of the Caddo and Ouachita paths, major Native American trade routes to the north and south. A third trail to the east linked Natchitoches to Natchez Mississippi, where it intersected the Natchez Trace. Other major trails led west and south into Texas and Mexico.
After the European discovery of the New World, explorer Hernando DeSoto passed though Louisiana around 1540. Roberto de LaSalle journeyed the length of the Mississippi River in 1682, claiming all of the land drained by it for the King of France. On LaSalle's second journey in 1687 he encountered a native village at the present site of Natchitoches. His associate Henri de Tonti made reference to the Natchitoches Indians in 1690.
The period of French colonization left its mark on Louisiana and the Cane River region in the language, culture, architecture, and landscape. King Louis XIV of France issued the first colonial charter for Louisiana in 1712, granting rights to trade and governance, and pledging financial support to develop agriculture and the fur trade. The French explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis established the settlement of Fort St. Jean Baptiste near the Spanish frontier in 1714, four years before the founding of New Orleans. The town of Natchitoches formed around the fort as a frontier trading post and river port. The fort sat at the eastern terminus of El Camino Real, a major overland trade route west to the Spanish settlement of Los Adaes, and from there, on into Texas and Mexico. Natchitoches sat at the northernmost navigable point in the Red River, below a 160-mile long logjam that had existed for two centuries.
France established a system of land grants in the Louisiana colony in 1716. The grants provided a river frontage to as many landowners as possible, creating the distinctive pattern of long, narrow lots perpendicular to streams. Along the sinuous channel of the Cane River, the system produced a landscape of irregular field shapes still visible in fence rows and tree lines. Grants stipulated that the land had to be cleared within a specified period of time, beginning the area's great transformation into an agricultural landscape and initiating changes unparalleled in the previous eight thousand years of habitation. Settlers typically built their homes on natural levees near the river, above most minor floods and close to river transportation and communication. Breezes blowing across the water offered some relief from the summer heat.
French colonists typically arrived in New Orleans before moving into the hill country and river valleys to the north and west. They sought the relatively moderate and healthful climate and fertile farmlands. There they practiced subsistence farming, raising corn, poultry, hogs, and cattle. As transportation systems developed on the rivers, they shifted to tobacco, sugar cane, cotton, indigo, and pecans, and harvested cypress and pine lumber for markets. Many early French settlers arrived in the New World after military service in Louisiana or other French colonies, such as Haiti. Jean Baptiste LeComte I (d.1784) completed military duty at Fort St. Jean Baptiste. In 1753 he received a land grant on both sides of the Red River, which formed the core of what eventually became Magnolia Plantation. In 1756 Jean Baptiste LeComte I married Marguerite Leroy (d. 1811), who had been living on the military post at Natchitoches since the 1720s. Their son Ambroise LeComte I (1760-1834) was the first of three children born on the plantation. He married Helene Cloutier (ca.1766-1825) in 1783.
The New World became the stage upon which Europe played out its disputes. French losses in the Seven Years War, carried on in America as the French and Indian War, gave Spain control of all French lands west of the Mississippi in 1763. Spain recognized Jean Baptiste LeComte I's 1753 French land grant in 1787. During the Spanish era, the LeComtes pastured cattle at Yanacoocoo Prairie, now the Sabine Wildlife Refuge in the Toledo Bend area in Sabine Parish. The LeComtes reportedly had a deal with the Spanish authorities to check the credentials of anyone crossing the Sabine River. The Spanish resumed the slave trade, which, along with the introduction of the Whitney cotton gin in the 1790s, encouraged the expansion of the cotton plantations in Natchitoches Parish.
The Spanish also instituted an effective system for manumission of slaves. A complex caste system had developed in the area since the introduction of African slaves in the 1720s, in which the degree of whiteness largely determined legal and social status. Colonists adopted terminology to distinguish the degrees of whiteness, including "Negro" or "Negress" for persons of African heritage, "Mulatto" or "Mulattress" for persons half Negro and half European, "Griffe" for the offspring of a Negro and a Mulatto, and "Quadroon" for the offspring of a Mulatto and a European.
The Cane River area became home to a number of free persons of color, who were former slaves or the descendents of freed slaves. The most notable of these was Marie Thereze Coincoin, slave of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the founder of the settlement at Natchitoches. After the death of St. Denis, Marie Thereze gave birth to ten children fathered by Pierre Metoyer, the Frenchman who gave her freedom and helped her apply for her own land grants. She went on to acquire substantial land and slaves of her own, becoming one of the wealthiest tobacco planters in the area, and subsequently freed all of her children from slavery. The LeComte plantation was located in the area known as the Riviere aux Cannes, just south of the area known as the Isle Brevelle where many of the manumitted slaves of the Metoyers settled. Records indicate that a number of LeComte slaves of mixed French and African ancestry were freed and subsequently married into the Isle Brevelle colony.
The king of Spain ceded Louisiana back to the French in 1800, and negotiations were soon underway for the American purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803.
The period between the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War saw the expansion of large-scale cotton cultivation and slavery on the Cane River. During that time, the Americans expelled the Caddo Indians from the area. Yellow fever and cholera epidemics found victims in Cloutierville and among the Magnolia slaves, and possibly the LeComtes. In 1833, General Shreve began the dismantling of the logjam that had blocked navigation of the Red River above Natchitoches. Those and subsequent efforts changed the dynamic of the Red River, resulting in the shift of the main channel from the Cane River to a channel east of Natchitoches. Natchitoches was left as a 40-mile long oxbow lake, while Shreveport inherited the lucrative Red River traffic.
After American recognition of LeComte's land grant in 1811, Ambroise LeComte I (d.1834) and his son Jean Baptiste LeComte II (1786-1825) added to their landholdings on Cane River. Through the 1810s and 1820s they made purchases from neighbors, primarily Gasparite and Pierre Lacour. Jean Baptiste II married Marie Cephalide Lambre (1793-1811) in 1806. The young bride gave birth to a male heir, Ambroise LeComte II (1807-83), before her premature death. Young Ambroise II grew up quickly, losing his mother at age four and his father at eighteen. When his grandfather died in 1834, Ambroise II inherited the family plantation at age twenty-four.
Ambroise further expanded the plantation, including the acquisition of 960 arpents from the Lacour's, valued at $29,000, in 1835. That purchase, along with residence and buildings, marked the founding of Magnolia Plantation. Ambroise IPs wife, Julia Buard (1809-45), gave him four daughters, but no surviving male heirs, before her own death at Magnolia in January of 1845. The Lecomte's owned three plantations in the area during that time, Magnolia, Vienna plantation, and Shallow Lake plantation, and several lots and buildings in Natchitoches.
European and American settlers continued to arrive during the early American period. The brothers Richard William Hertzog and Jean Francois Hertzog (1782-1842) came to northwest Louisiana from Bordeaux after service in the military. Jean Francois married Marianne Prudhomme in Natchitoches in 1809 and they had nine children. Their son Matthew Henry Hertzog (1829-1903) married Ursula Atala LeComte (1830-1897), daughter of Ambrose II and Julia Buard. Matthew and Atala received a 40 percent share in Magnolia when they were married in 1852. Matthew and Atala also owned a number of slaves on a nearby plantation known as Magnolia Point.
By 1860, LeComte was the largest producer of cotton and held the largest slave population in the parish. A total of 235 slaves lived in seventy cabins on the all LeComte plantations. The big house at Magnolia Plantation had been built several years earlier using slave labor. With its oak alley, two-story brick construction, and surrounding Tuscan columns, the house would have been one of the finest outside of the River Road. In addition, the brick slave quarters at Magnolia were among the finest in the South. Matthew and Atala assumed management of the plantation, while Ambroise LeComte II lived in his Natchitoches townhouse and focused on breeding, training, and racing horses. LeComte owned racetracks and training grounds in Natchitoches Parish, and raced locally and in New Orleans. His winning horses became sporting legends among nineteenth-century racing fans.
Horseracing was but one example of the sporting life, which, along with riding and hunting was a prominent feature of masculine culture in antebellum planter society. While men's lives revolved around work, business, and sport, Cane River women of means focused on childbirth and the intellectual, spiritual, physical, and social well-being of the family. The LeComtes sent their daughters to convent boarding schools to educate and prepare them for marriage into other wealthy planter families. Marriage constituted a contractual relationship, with mutual financial obligations and an emphasis on producing a male heir and marriageable daughters. Many men and women found themselves widowed at a relatively young age, and second or third marriages were common.
Natchitoches Parish was home to an elite planter society, centered on the wealthy cotton plantations, Natchitoches town homes, and shopping trips to New Orleans. In addition to the LeComtes and Hertzogs, Cane River was home to the Metoyers and then Hertzogs at Melrose, the Prudhommes at Oakland plantation (called Bermuda then), and a number of wealthy free persons of color in the Isle Brevelle and Cane River area. Many members of the new landed class built mansions overlooking the river, fronting fields and forests that seemingly stretched to the horizon. Cane River architecture borrowed heavily from the half-timber construction brought from the colonists' French homelands and from the experiences of slaves and settlers who came to Louisiana from tropical French colonies in the West Indies.
That amalgam of influences produced a vernacular architecture along Cane River based largely on bousillage, a half-timber construction of cypress wood in-filled with mud, moss, and animal hair. Plantations along the Mississippi River also used briquette-entre-poteaux (brick between posts), half-timber construction with brick infill. A typical plantation home on Cane River built between 1800 and 1840 was a Creole cottage, raised off the ground on a brick basement story (or less often brick piers) to avoid damage from insects and moisture. The bousillage upper story raised the living spaces into cooling breezes and away from flood waters and mosquitoes. The facade and floor plan were asymmetrical, with exterior stairs, and windows placed according to internal need rather than external appearance. The ground floor rooms were used for storage, although sometimes included a parlor and dining room. Steep, hipped roofs deflected the sun while broad overhangs shaded the loggias from sun and rain. The Creole cottage evolved over time, incorporating more Anglo-American influences after 1803, such as the central hall, symmetrical floor plans and facades, wider galleries on front and back, gabled roofs, and classical revival decorative styles. Bousillage remained the favored building system on Cane River as late as 1850, when tastes and expertise began to shift to wood framing and brick masonry.