French Plantation Life on the Mobile River

Throughout the Port City’s long colonial century (1702 – 1813), there were plantations all around the Bay area. These were not like the enormous cotton farms of the antebellum South, with row crops stretching to the horizon, but rather small-scale, diverse operations. Among their undertakings were light farming, raising cattle and hogs, tanning hides, making bricks, logging, gardening and hunting. Many of these early plantations were located along the Mobile River’s west bank, from the city north to Nannahubba Bluff (where the ThyssenKrupp steel plant is now located). It is difficult for a modern traveler to imagine what this world was like as he or she zips past major industrial developments, small towns and rumbling freight trains. But fortunately, through a combination of historical documents and recent archaeological investigations, a pretty clear picture can be reasonably reconstructed. 

At Twenty-One Mile Bluff Plantation (near the “Dolly Parton” Bridge), shown on an anonymous c. 1725 map, an infantry captain named Sieur de la Tour Vitrac and his wife, Marie Le Sueur (one of Bienville’s cousins), produced naval stores. They lived with several orphan children, three servants and more than 24 black and Native American slaves. Labor on such plantations would have consisted of clearing and breaking land; cultivating rice, corn and beans on the flat Delta across the river; wood-cutting; making tar; raising cattle and hogs; tanning hides; maintaining the buildings; hunting for food; and generally tending to sundry light chores. Some slave men became skilled at trades such as blacksmithing, barrel-making and carpentry. Shirking or misbehavior could have serious consequences such as beating and branding. Slave women engaged in their share of heavy work, including farming and handling the animals. Midwifery, child-rearing and cooking were also important roles for females. The smells emanating from those plantation kitchens must have been mouthwatering, especially the distinctive localized dishes — succotash; corn; gumbo filé seasoned with bay leaves, pepper, onion and thyme; oysters; venison; and squirrel — that were so ingeniously prepared and served piping-hot in pottery, wooden or pewter bowls.

Slave housing was small, plain and rough. Most cabins had a chimney and a hearth for cooking, and some had two rooms with a little loft. The scarcity of white women remained an issue throughout the history of French Louisiana, and many plantation owners took slave women to their beds, raising large families with them. Some of these women were freed by their masters and settled with considerable property. This gave rise to Mobile’s Creole population.

An excellent description of a French-era plantation comes from “American State Papers, ” in an advertisement for a sale in 1756. The property, near the Barry Steam Plant, was located on Seymour Bluff, or the Grand Ecor des Mobiliens (Great Bluff of the Mobilians), as it was called until the end of the French period when the natives relocated. The Native Americans lived in close proximity to the plantation proper, trading with and helping the French, mixing with the slaves and colonials (adding more racial variants to the area) and providing a handy early-warning system if hostile tribes approached, giving the family time to either shelter on the place or flee downstream to Mobile. The advertisement listed the main house as “thirty feet long, on twenty wide posts in the ground, covered with bark, clayed between said posts, with six windows and two doors, with a clayed chimney … and a piazza on one side, to the gable end wherof is an appentis [lean-to or shed roof addition], with a chimney, serving as a kitchen.” Other structures included a big barn,   “a fowl house” surrounded by a light paling and a 60-foot-by-13-foot “negro house” set on posts and “bark covered” (these were likely barracks meant to sleep many hands). 

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Life held plenty of rough edges for the planters as well as the slaves, but the former certainly enjoyed a greater degree of domestic comfort than their chattel. Something of the quality of daily planter life may be gleaned from the inventory of Joseph Pierre Chastang’s worldly goods. Chastang (1736 – 1815) and his wife lived with their 11 children on St. Louis Plantation, a 640-acre property with eight cabins near Three Mile Creek. His inventory of belongings included furniture such as a bureau, two bedsteads, two cypress tables, seven straw-bottomed chairs and a mahogany table “with falling leaves.” Kitchen and dining utensils documented were a gridiron frying pan, a coffee pot, a marble mortar, 12 silver spoons and two ladles. Other assets consisted of farm implements such as an old plough, four iron wedges, a couple of “old cross cut saws” and miscellaneous tools; three pirogues; a gun; two dozen candle moulds; two “worn saddles;” and some “smoothing irons.” The catalog makes it clear that these items saw heavy usage. Although no clothing is listed, just the intriguing entry for the smoothing irons, observations made of British Mobile’s residents hold true for the French, Spanish and early-American periods as well: Climate dictated dress. Men wore “a slight waistcoat of cotton, a pair of trousers of the same and often no coat.” In cooler weather they threw on “a kind of surtout, made of a blanket, and a pair of Indian boots.” Women also dressed in lightweight garb. Slave clothing was even simpler, sometimes rags, but on the best farms it included shoes and for the women “a petticoat, and a jacket.”

Waterfront access was all-important to these people, for the Mobile River was the highway into and out of their world. Consequently, their plantations sat on long and narrow parcels that stretched from the river east or west across rich Delta or through pine-studded uplands. Even today, traces of these land divisions are visible, and the rich medley of upriver family names — Chastang, Andry, Dubroca — bespeak a colorful and distinguished heritage.

John S. Sledge is the author of “A Fine, Large River: The Mobile in American History, ” to be published in 2015 by the University of South Carolina Press. 

Text by John S. Sledge

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