Historic Structures

History of the Plantation Part 1 Laurel Valley Sugar Plantation, Thibodaux Louisiana

Settlement of the Bayou Lafourche region came late in the eighteenth century under Spanish direction. In 1763 Spain took control of the Louisiana colony from the French; soon thereafter, Spain tried to establish control over the sparsely populated province. It looked with favor on French Acadians recently expelled from Nova Scotia by the English and having a reputation as "hard working, experienced, industrious farmers." Spanish authorities allowed the Acadians to settle first on the lands above New Orleans. In the 1770's Acadians began to move down into Lafourche Parish, establishing farms side by side, along the bayou; the farms averaged five arpents (one arpent equals 192 feet) front and 40 arpents deep.

The first permanent settler on the lands that would be called Laurel Valley was Etienne Boudreaux, and Acadian, who received a land grant from Spanish authorities in the early 1770's. Like many of the other grants, Boudreaux's included five arpents of land fronting Bayou Lafourche to a depth of forty arpents. Little is known about the activities of the family, but the 1810 census lists thirteen persons at the Boudreaux residence, nine males and four females. They had a loom, no doubt an indication that the family grew cotton so Mr. Boudreaux and her daughters could weave blue cottonade for the family. Bv 1819, the year of Boudreaux's death, he had additional tracts of land and frontage of fifteen arpents.

More than likely, the Boudreauxs followed the lifestyle of other Acadians who resettled in Louisiana. Once on their lands, they unpacked their cultural baggage and tried to reconstruct the familiar sights, smells and sounds they had known in Canada. They built simple cabins and cleared and tilled the soil with the help of their families. Generally, there were no large landholders, each family having only what it needed to survive. They relied on such standby crops as corn and rice and learned new ones like cotton and possibly okra, an African vegetable. Cattle and other domesticated animals were left to roam unattended at the swamp's edge. And for those needs beyond their farm, these petits habitants cut and marketed swamp cypress and Spanish moss. Some Acadians turned away from subsistence agriculture and engaged instead in hunting trapping, fishing or lumbering. But, for the most part, they were small farmers who raised what they needed to maintain their families.

The Acadians might have succeeded in re-creating their former Canadian lifestyle in Lafourche Parish had not Etienne de Bore crystallized sugar. Since the 1820's, South Louisiana had been besieged by cotton planters and small farmers from the lower South looking to get ahead. The boom and bust cycles of cotton had caused many newcomers to turn to sugar as an alternative. With its fertile natural levees and a waterway linking the Mississippi River with the Gulf of Mexico, Bayou Lafourche became a center of resettlement activities. In 1827, no less than $50,000 worth of its woodlands were purchased by planters from the Natchez, Mississippi, area. one New Orleans newspaper noted that each week, saw the arrival on the bayou of prospective purchasers "to examine the country with the view of purchasing and settling therein." For the petits habitants the offers were indeed tempting. Many sold their lands. Thus, an area once densely settled by French-speaking white yeoman farmers, was soon transformed into plantations occupied by a few wealthy Americans with many black slaves.

Like their neighbors along the Bayou, the Boudreauxs sold their land. On December 12, 1834, the family accepted $35 for fifteen front arpents from Joseph William Tucker, a young Mississippi planter. Why the Boudreauxs sold their land so cheaply is not known. It may have been a combination of factors. After Etienne Boudreaux's death in 1819, the land was probably vacated by his sons, who married and established their own farms elsewhere in the Parish. Perhaps one or two of his sons could have purchased the lands for themselves and planted cane on the 500 acres. Already, in 1828, Lafourche had 34 mills producing more than 100 hogsheads of sugar weighing 1,100 pounds each. But to profitably grow cane required an outlay of capital which the petits habitants did not have and, according to one authority, refused to borrow, not wanting to go into debt. What undoubtedly made land-holding a burden was the high of maintaining fifteen front arpents of levee along the bayou, an expense presumably beyond their means.

Joseph Tucker established Laurel Valley Plantation. He cleared the land, expanded the acreage, constructed a mill and introduced sugar cane to its fields. He arrived in Lafourche Parish from Natchez near the end of 1831 and quickly settled on about 815 acres that he owned in partnership with Thomas Barnard, also a Natchez planter. Their land was described as being about three miles south of Thibodaux bounded by front lands owned by Etienne Boudreaux. Tucker bought Barnard out in 1832 and, over the next fifteen years, acquired nearly 5,000 additional arpents. These purchases included the fifteen front arpents from the Etienne Boudreaux estate for $35 and several sections from the federal government for about $1.25 an acre. ' Most of the latter swamp land at the back of the plantation and valuable for its cypress stands and cordage. Tucker raised the money for these purchases in a number of ways. In 1835 his wife, Marcelline Emma Gaude, received $3,250 from the settlement of her father's estate. And, in 1838, he sold a half-interest in the plantation to Barnard's wife for $12,000. But most of the money came from mortgages drawn of New Orleans banks and commercial houses. Tucker mortgaged his half interest in the plantation for $10,000 to the Union Bank of Louisiana for one year at 10 percent. Almost three years later, in 1844 he again mortgaged his one-half interest for $15,000 to the commercial firm of Bogart and Foley. Little, if any money, was involved in these transactions, for Tucker sought credit.

The expansion of Tucker's landholdings suggests that he was an able, enterprising planter. In the years before his death in 1852, Tucker established Laurel Valley as a parish leader in the manufacturing of sugar cane. There were about 76 mills in Lafourche Parish during the years for which his production records exist, 1849-1851, and Laurel Valley led all other parish mills in the total number of hogsheads of sugar. Furthermore, the legacy of his managerial abilities kept the plantation in the top four, six out of the eight years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Although specific details about the operations of Laurel Valley under Tucker are unavailable, it appears that out of the nearly 5,000 acres of land he owned, there were never more than 1,000 in cultivation. When he applied for a loan in 1844, he listed 600 acres in sugar cane. Considering the fact that a large number of mules, oxen and horses were needed to cultivate this much acreage, he had to have an almost equal number of acres in corn and forage crops. Moreover, he no doubt used a variety called Ribbon Cane. Introduced into the state by a Georgia planter, John J. Coiron, in 1817, Ribbon Cane got its name because red, green and yellow stripes extend from joint to joint. But more significantly, this variety helped to trigger the expansion of the sugar cane cultivation because it had an earlier maturation date than other varieties and a thicker stalk which provided some protection against early frosts. In spite of many late nineteenth century attempts to find a substitute, Ribbon Cane was such a good variety Chat Louisiana planters continued to rely on it until the 1920's.

About the only information that provides an insight into the antebellum abilities of Laurel Valley to earn a profit came in the year immediately after Tucker's death, from July 1852 to August 1853. George Washington Tucker, Joseph's brother, served as administrator for the estate and produced 685 hogsheads of sugar and 1,458 barrels of molasses which he sold for $42,006.46. The plantation's expenses for the year totaled $11,129.53, leaving a net profit of $30,876.93. Expenses varied by included such items as $312.24 in freight charges to steamboats, $800 to the sugar maker, $750 to an overseer for nine months, $39 to slaves for extra work, $75 in taxes on the sale of sugar and molasses, and $1,042.06 for meat, salted pork and bacon to feed the plantation's slaves. The largest recorded expense was paid to George Tucker himself, $2,616.60 for ten slaves that he hired out to work on the plantation.

Throughout his lifetime, Joseph Tucker relied on slave labor. Upon his arrival in the Lafourche interior in November 1831 he had twenty-two slaves, ranging in age from fifteen months to thirty years. Over the next twenty years their numbers increased significantly. In 1841, 61 on the plantation, and in 1852 the number was 130. This increase come through slave purchases as well as the birth of children. Each year Tucker usually added a slave or two, but in 1844, about the time he erected the mill, he purchased twenty-three slaves from brokers in New Orleans. The number of slave children is almost impossible to document, but in 1850, the Slave Census recorded thirty-nine youths under the age of ten on the plantation Interestingly, creditors never had to seize Laurel Valley slaves to collect, payment of their loans. About the only time there was any significant reduction in the slave population before emancipation came in 1863, when about twenty-five took off for nearby lines.

Tucker was no southern aristocrat. Nevertheless, he did provide his family with comfortable Quarters. They lived in a fifteen-room house with four fireplaces, brick kitchen and a wash house addition.