Of all the cemeteries in Savannah, Georgia, Bonaventure Cemetery is probably the most aesthetically pleasing. In fact, it’s generally considered to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the entirety of the United States—quite a feat!
Now operated by Savannah’s Department of Cemeteries and 100-acres in total, Bonaventure once belonged to the Tattnall and Mullryne families of the late eighteenth century. The plantation consisted of 9,920-acres, an enormous plot of land that today would comprise most of the Savannah Region.
However, drama ensued from here. You see, Tattnall and Mullryne were Loyalists, and once the Revolutionary War erupted, the state of Georgia (like many other newly installed states) stripped all Loyalist supporters of their land. Tattnall and Mullryne were no different.
What followed then was a long-term back-and-forth saga in which Tattnall and Mullryne were booted out and John Habersham purchased Bonaventure. The plantation’s name was decided upon by the original owners, who perhaps saw good fate in naming a working plantation “Bonaventure,” which means “good fortune” in Italian. It’s tough to say whether either Tattnall or Mullryne saw any good fortune in having their land be stolen away, but Tattnall’s son was able to repurchase the estate from Habersham in 1788.
Good fortune, indeed.
Until 1846, Bonaventure remained within the Tattnall family, before being sold to Peter Wiltberger. It was Wiltberger who agreed to care for the family plot on the plantation, and who would ultimately lay out the beginning foundation for Bonaventure to become the large-scale graveyard that it is today.
Which are the must-see tombs in Bonaventure for those visiting? Find out below!
19 Academy Award Nominations. 4 Oscars. Over 1,500 written songs. Founder of Capitol Records.
Could this be anyone else but American songwriter Johnny Mercer? Johnny was actually born in Savannah, Georgia, and hailed from a long line of important Savannahians. His mother Lillian Elizabeth was descended from a merchant seaman who navigated a Union blockade during the Civil War. If that heroic feat was not enough, Johnny Mercer also claimed Confederate General Hugh Weedon Mercer as his great-grandfather and American Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer as well.
Oh, and Johnny also happened to be somewhat distantly related to General S. Patton.
As you can see, the Mercers in Savannah were very well connected.
From a very young age, Johnny’s parents fostered a musical environment. His father would sing Scottish songs, or his mother would bring him to vaudeville shows, even at the shockingly young age of six months. With no musical education behind him, Johnny joined his church’s choir at age six, and by age twelve had amassed hundreds of memorized songs in his head.
His talent was unprecedented, but so too was the fact that as good as he was a singer, he was an even better composer and songwriter. He snuck into speakeasies and listened to ragtime and jazz, all the while writing songs and practicing his craft. When his father’s business crashed, Johnny was expected to help as much as he could—his need for escape grew from there.
His escape came in the form of New York City, to which he moved in 1928 at nineteen years old. Harlem, Broadway—they were both his inspiration and the founding source of his drive. His first lyric appeared in a musical, The Garrick Gaieties, in 1930. He traveled to California and met Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, two of his biggest idols.
For the next few years, in addition to marrying Ginger Meehan, Johnny threw himself into his work—he made a recording debut, he wrote dozens of songs that did not make it anywhere, he won a contest to perform with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. But it was not until the 1930s that Johnny truly found notoriety for his work.
He moved to Hollywood, began writing music for the movie industry, and as they say: that was that. After a few flops, his “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande” was the final nail he needed to cement his place in the music world. He continued on the top of the game until his death in 1976.
Despite a rather successful career in life, as well as a more tumultuous personal life, Johnny’s level of success after his passing reached even greater heights. He became the inspiration for Barry Manilow, as some of his unfinished lyrics were given to him by Johnny’s widow, Ginger; Johnny was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; in 2009, Clint Eastwood released a documentary about Johnny in celebration of the centennial anniversary of his life.
And in that same year, the city of Savannah did Johnny Mercer one more honor: they created a statue for him in Savannah’s Ellis Square.
For a man who was born in Savannah, who traveled the world and put his stamp on music, Johnny Mercer returned to his birthplace after death. His tomb can now be found in Bonaventure Cemetery.
The tomb of Johnny Mercer’s great-grandfather, General Hugh W. Mercer’s, can also be found at Bonaventure Cemetery.
Born in Frederickburg, Virginia, Hugh W. Mercer also had big shoes to fill—after all, his grandfather, the original Hugh Mercer, had fought under George Washington during the American Revolutionary War.
In looking at his history, it seems that Mercer did a reasonably good job of keeping up. “Reasonable” because his early military career saw a few hurdles.” He’d entered West Point Academy in 1824 but found himself—along with 167 other cadets—involved in the Eggnog Riot of 1826.
It should be noted that alcohol and any level of intoxication was outlawed at West Point. (Unless you hoped to be expelled, of course).
It should also be noted that while the annual West Point Christmas party had normally offered eggnog prepared with alcohol, word came out just before Christmas that the eggnog for that year’s party was to be alcohol-free.
No one was amused, and the announcement ultimately led to one of the biggest scenes of rebellion that West Point had ever witnessed. Liquor was smuggled into the barracks, leading to nearly one-third (give or take) of the cadet’s imbibing way too much. From there, only mayhem ensued. Windows were broken; cadets wandered the grounds in drunken stupors; brawls broke out among the men.
The total damage would have equaled to nearly $4,000 in today’s US currency. The damage to the cadet’s military careers was worse. The lucky few, men like Jefferson Davis and Hugh W. Mercer, were remitted to the academy after being initially expelled and court martialed. Mercer finally graduated in 1828, and his military career continued from there on.
He served as a second lieutenant in the US Artillery and was promoted in 1834. However, a year later Mercer had resigned his commission and retired home to Savannah. It was then that he began construction on the infamous Mercer-Williams House, which would become the crime scene for a murder in the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, no member of the Mercer family ever lived at the Italianate-Revival property, for right after construction began the Civil War broke out and Mercer reenlisted.
He served as colonel and brigadier. In 1862, Mercer’s name became well known throughout the Confederate Army for being the first person to truly work on enlisting slaves to fight for the Confederacy. He later fought at Dalton, Kennesaw Mountain and Marietta—but then illness struck and Hugh W. Mercer returned home.
Banking became his major ambition during the latter half of his life, though his health never recovered. Despite traveling to various spa resorts to ease his pain, Mercer passed away in 1877 and his body was buried in Bonaventure Cemetery.
Poet Conrad Aiken was another born Savannahian, but unlike either Mercer, Aiken’s childhood was fraught with violence and death.
At the age of eleven, Aiken’s father brutally murdered Aiken’s mother, before turning the gun upon himself. There was no known reasoning as to why, at least none that was admitted outside of the family. Following the homicide-turned-suicide, Aiken and his three younger siblings were shipped to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be raised with their mother’s sister.
Between the brutal deaths of his parents, and Aiken’s later enrollment in Harvard University, his path to literary greatness was born of grief, hope and an interest in the psychological. At Harvard, Aiken met T.S. Eliot, who would become one of his most long-lasting friends.
Aiken’s interest in psychoanalysis developed even further. Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung were two scholarly psychologists that Aiken studied profusely—so much so that by the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had actually learned about Aiken’s writings and wished to conduct his own psychoanalysis of Aiken. Aiken was beside himself with excitement, buying a ship ticket and sailing straight for France to meet with his idol.
It was during his time on board that he actually stumbled across one of Freud’s personal disciples, who warned Aiken that taking Freud up on his offer might not be in his best interest. Whether Aiken was upset about this revelation or not, we will never know, but we do know that Conrad never met the man who most influenced his life’s work.
Ultimately, Aiken made his way to England where he divorced his first wife and married his second, painter Mary Hoover. When World War II broke out, Aiken and Mary returned to Massachusetts, where Aiken finally claimed an American audience for his literary work. In his 1952 autobiography, he finally detailed the dark, twisted life he’d experienced during his childhood. But it also included anecdotes about his travels, and the various literary scenes throughout the world.
Conrad Aiken had finally earned international acclaim. In his lifetime, he was awarded the position of Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress; the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, as well as the first Georgia-born author to win the Pulitzer Prize, among many others.
In a weird twist of fate, Aiken and his family returned to Savannah in the 1960s—where he was offered to live in his old childhood home on Oglethorpe Avenue, across from Colonial Park Cemetery. Aiken wasn’t interested in returning to those particular memories, so he instead chose to live free-of-charge next door at 230 Oglethorpe Avenue.
Before his death, Aiken had a marble bench installed next to his parents’ tombstones in Bonaventure Cemetery. On it was etched “Give my love to the world” and “Cosmos Mariner Destination Unknown.”
For Aiken, despite the trials of his childhood and the deeply troubling thoughts that continued to plague him, he had only love the scholarly and literary world. In 2003, he received one last honor: he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Today, while his body is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery, a plaque commemorating his accomplishments can be found outside of his home on 230 Oglethorpe Avenue.
Perhaps the most famous grave in Bonaventure Cemetery is that of Little Gracie Watson. The iron gate surrounding her tomb is often adorned with trinkets and toys left by guests of the cemetery, all of whom wish to offer the little girl a bit of comfort in the Afterlife.
The story of Little Gracie is by no means lighthearted.
Born in 1883 to parents W.J. and Frances Watson, Gracie hailed originally from Boston, Massachusetts. After her father was given the opportunity to manage one of the most popular hotels in Savannah, however, the Watson family made the move to Georgia. After all, one did not say no to the luxurious Pulaski Hotel.
From almost the first moment that the Watson family arrived, Little Gracie’s face became one of the most recognized in all of the hotel. The guests adored her, and it seems that she adored them as well. She would laugh and dance, sing and play for anyone willing to give her a moment of their time. For Little Gracie, it seemed that there was all the time in the world . . . Until there simply wasn’t any longer.
At just six years old, Little Gracie was struck with a high fever, a plaguing cough. Somehow she had caught pneumonia, a sickness that could level any adult and could surely do damage to a little girl. Little Gracie had not the strength to press on, and just days before Easter she finally succumbed to illness.
W.J. and Frances were utterly distraught. W.J. had a beautiful stone carving erected in Bonaventure Cemetery by famed sculptor John Waltz; it was to be an exact liking to his baby girl, and Waltz’s skill surely did Little Gracie justice.
Unfortunately, her parents found it almost unbearable to remain in Savannah after their daughter’s death. Instead, they chose to return to New England, where they lived out the rest of their days. At the time of the respective deaths, they were both buried together in New England . . . while poor Little Gracie remained in Savannah. Alone.
For over a hundred years now, Little Gracie has been a favorite stop for visitors of Bonaventure Cemetery. Although she is not with her family, one could surely argue that her family has since become everyone who makes it a priority to stop by her tomb and leave her toy or just to say hello.
For a little girl who once loved to sing and hold the attention in a room, we can only imagine that Little Gracie’s spirit revels in the spotlight.
by Maria Pinheiro
“Duelling at the present day has fallen into disrepute; it never did settle any point of honor and sensible discard if compatible with the spirit of the age; yet peculiar circumstances [ . . . ] drive men to such hostile meetings, and it would be fortunate to all parties if the issue was equally favorable.”
– “My First Duel” by M. M. Noah
Savannah Daily Republican, August 10, 1842
Between the years of 1740 and 1877, Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, played host to not only the already deceased but those who were rapidly headed toward that fate.
The art of dueling, as it happened, was not the best practice to involve oneself if a person wished to keep their limbs intact and the number of holes in their body the same as they were at birth.
In Savannah, however, dueling was an incredibly common practice that oftentimes took place at none other than Colonial Park Cemetery. With the number of buried tallying around 11,000 people, Colonial Park Cemetery’s number of “dead duelists” (if you will), in no way is staggering in its overall total.
At Colonial Park Cemetery, yellow fever epidemics, other fits of disease, fire and war were the edge of evil that crept into society to steal the babes from their cribs and proud men from the battlefield. And yet, duelists in the cemetery are more often than not marked by green placards describing the scene of the duel; others simply provide the most basic information for those who lost their life in the midst of a prideful fight.
Who were some of these famed duelists? First, let’s take a quick moment to truly understand the art of dueling and how it came to be in Savannah.
From the start of time—or at least the start of man’s pride—dueling was a method of conflict engaged in by men who hoped to settle the score. A cutting remark or a slight to one’s honor were instigating actions that ultimately paved the way to “meeting at dawn.”
(Generally, dawn proved the best hour to commence with dueling as the authorities were still abed and unlikely to put a stop to anything).
But if it was not one’s own honor that was called into question, it was probably a wife’s, sister’s or mother’s reputation that had been slandered. And thus, the only thing worse than receiving an insult yourself was to have a woman in the family be on the receiving end instead.
Here is an 18th Century sketch of a British Duel–if you look closely, you will see that they are making fun of the American South and their dueling “habits.” [Source: Library of Congress}Established originally in Ireland, in 1777, the Code Duello prescribed the necessary rules to the art of dueling. For example:
“The first offense requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult.”
In other words: if a cutting insult was delivered, then an apology was integral to settle the matter. If the apology was rejected, then the challenger’s “second” was meant to ease the situation. But if this step was ignored, then the Code Duello mandated:
“As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. [ . . . ] If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.”
European practice dictated that the duel was expected to happen, no matter if a change of heart occurred or there was an attempt to yield a more favorable outcome without firing a pistol or stabbing each other with swords.
Blood was to be drawn and the subject of “honor” restored.
Although the United States followed the well established Code Duello, things were a mite different down in the American South.
The European Code Duello was the law of the land until 1838, when former South Carolina governor John Lyde Wilson wrote the accompanying “The Southern Duello” or, more professionally known as, “The Code of Honor; or Rules For the Government of Principles and Seconds in Duelling.”
Much like the European Code Duello, the American Southern version listed all the need-to-know information. Which insults constituted a challenge for a duel, where dueling should be conducted, the roles and responsibilities of seconds, who were generally friends of the challenged and challenger. And a particular good one: physicians and surgeons were not necessary during the duel unless both parties agreed that they were. In short, many duelists were left to bleed out thanks to a lack of medical support.
Informally, duels were sometimes referred to as “pistols for two, coffins for one.” A morbid image to be sure, especially as it brings to mind that not everyone would leave such a confrontation the same as they entered it.
Despite the gruesome imagery, dueling in Savannah did not always come to pass as it did in the more traditionally stringent Europe. Dueling Savannahians were known to mark their paces, turn to face one another and then aim their pistols up into the air. Bang! Bang! the shots rang out, and yet both men remained standing and unhurt. The score was settled with a firm shake of the hand and perhaps a word or two volleyed back and forth about who would have won had they decided to go for it.
But the insults that launched a thousand duels (or perhaps dramatically less than this)—oh, the insults remained the same. Challenges were issued in the local newspapers or sometimes tacked on posts or storefronts throughout town, and thus earned the nickname “postings.” And sometimes they got incredibly saucy in their verbiage. A few of the best:
“I do proclaim Richard Henry Leake, Attorney-at-Law, to be an infamous liar and vile defamer. Fathers of families, if you value the reputation of your daughters, suffer him not to enter your doors.” – John Miller
Or, better still:
“. . . I therefore pronounce General James Jackson an assassin of reputation and a coward.” – Jacob Waldburger
Frequently the challenger’s missive was answered in kind, even in the newspaper, and by that point . . . Well, it was unlikely that the instance would simply be glossed over. Instead, the challenger and the challenged picked their seconds, and the challenged was granted the luxury of choosing the location and the preferred weaponry.
Naturally, not everyone in Savannah particularly favored the act of dueling, like Mr. M. M. Noah who spoke so disagreeably of it in the local newspaper. From the early nineteenth century on there was a strong movement to outlaw the practice from all of Savannah society.
For example, following a rather political duel when the Governor of Georgia David Mitchell killed his opponent, William Hunter, at the Old Jewish Burial Ground, Mitchell went on to sign legislation in 1809 that aimed to stop dueling. It was thereafter illegal to accept a challenge, especially if the challenged was a member of the government.
The Revolutionary War saw both American and British officers dueling—sometimes against each other, sometimes within themselves—at what is now Fort Pulaski. Another anti-dueling law was established in 1828 by Governor John Forsyth, who made all civil and military officers swear an oath that they would have nothing to do with dueling.
And then an even more exacting law followed, which ruled that no one in the state was allowed to publish a challenge in the newspaper that initiated a duel by calling the challenged “a coward.” If someone did, they were to be imprisoned and fined one thousand dollars—a fee so exorbitant at the time that one would think potential duelists would have been scared off by the mere prospect of being poor for the remainder of their lives.
This was not the case, not even when it was then ordered that if death was the outcome of a duel, then the “killer” and his seconds were deemed guilty for manslaughter.
The city of Savannah and the state of Georgia sought every measure to curtail the bloody practice that resulted in more deaths than a simple acceptance of “let us agree to disagree.”
As one article stated in the Savannah Morning News on March 9, 1876 (just one year before the final duel in the city): “And now the Young Men’s Literary Association have decided that dueling is never justifiable. So, now keep your challenges in your pocket.”
For as many men agreed to keep said challenges tucked away, there were just as many men, if not more, who could not do that. And many of them were then buried in Colonial Park Cemetery.
As has been mentioned, many of the duelists who are interred at Colonial Park Cemetery have placards that mark their burial and the cause of their death.
One of these such National Register state markers revolves around Lieutenant James Wilde who was unfortunately killed in a duel against Captain Roswell P. Johnson. Both men served in the 8th Regiment U.S. Infantry. The reason for the argument is unknown, which the placard even notes. (No further information could be recovered from local newspapers, either, to solidify or expand upon what the marker already states).
What is known, however, was that the duel transpired on January 16, 1815, near the city of Savannah. Somehow both Wilde and Johnson survived three wound-free rounds before the tragedy of the fourth occurred. Lieutenant James Wilde took a bullet through the heart, stealing his breath and life in one fell swoop.
Wilde’s epitaph indicates that Captain Roswell P. Johnson was “a man who a short time before would have been friendless but for [Wilde].”
Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the duel between the two military men was that Wilde’s younger brother, who was both a poet and a statesman, wrote a significant poem about the campaign against the Seminoles . . . though some wonder if he was not referring to his own brother’s life being cut dramatically short.
The opening stanza reads:
My life is like the Summer Rose,
That opens to the morning sky;
But ere the shades of evening close,
is scattered on the ground — to die.
The next pair of Savannahian duelists can actually be found less than a stone’s throw away from each other at Colonial Park Cemetery.
The first McIntosh to engage in the “pistols for two, coffin for one” battle was General Lachlan McIntosh against Button Gwinnett, who just so happened to be one of the men to sign the Declaration of Independence.
As the story goes, McIntosh had established his credibility within the military and political sphere at a young age. He had high hopes, and even higher ambitions, about scaling the ranks within the colony of Georgia. Button Gwinnett, alternatively, had no military experience to speak of and yet found himself in the position of Governor of Georgia during the Revolutionary War.
As one might expect: Lachlan McIntosh was not amused. But neither was Gwinnett. Button Gwinnett’s envy only escalated after McIntosh was placed in the charge of all of the Continental troops in Georgia.
Gwinnett had wanted that exact same position.
Soon enough McIntosh and Gwinnett began issuing orders to the troops that completely contradicted—or just flat or disputed—what the other had said. Matters became so terrible between the men that under one of Gwinnett’s orders when the British invaded, McIntosh and his men were left roaming the Floridian swamp.
McIntosh returned to Georgia in a flurry of anger. That flurry swirled even faster after discovering his brother had been arrested for treason by none other than Button Gwinnet.
McIntosh had had enough. The insults came next, naturally, and naturally, Gwinnet issued a challenge to a duel. They decamped to the still-unknown location and faced off with their seconds at the reader. Normally, the men would have positioned themselves with their backs turned, but McIntosh was keen to see his opponent’s face.
McIntosh aimed at Gwinnett’s thigh; Gwinnet did the same. But Gwinnett’s fire glanced off McIntosh’s leg, leaving only a superficial wound. The same could not be said for the Governor. Gwinnett was felled by the force of his wound.
He died three days later. McIntosh, alternatively, was tried for murder but released under the grounds of the Code Duello.
And both men, enemies in life and one can only assume so in death, too, are found nearly side by side at Colonial Park Cemetery. Till this day, their duel remains one of the most famous of such skirmishes in Savannah’s history.
As an intriguing side note: Lachlan McIntosh was not the only McIntosh to fight in a duel. His nephew, Lieutenant-Coloneal John McIntosh, fought against Captain Elholm because of a dispute over military conduct. The duel itself was incredibly gritty, with Elholm’s arm nearly being severed and McIntosh’s being severely mangled. Both men survived, luckily, though their limbs remained somewhat disfigured following the battle. They, too, were buried in Colonial Park Cemetery at the end of their lives.
In 1831, poor Odrey Miller fought in a duel and became the victim. Who he dueled? That answer has been lost to history.
From his tomb slab in Colonial Park Cemetery, it’s clear that at one point in time his killer’s name was etched on the marble. Perhaps Odrey’s last wish was for all to know who had stolen his life—after all, as the story goes, he ensured that his friends did this one last thing for him.
However, one morning Odrey’s friends headed down to the cemetery . . . only to find that the duelist’s name had been completely scratched out.
Was it Odrey’s opponent who wished to keep his identity a secret for the rest of time? Or was he simply nervous to face the potential consequences with the Savannah government should anyone discover that he had taken a life?
Whatever the case, Odrey Miller’s tomb no longer gives the whole story and we can only imagine what occurred on that early morning when the two men marked their paces and commenced with salvaging their honor and reputation.
Dueling grounds can be found all throughout Savannah, but strangely enough most of the preferred meeting spots tended to be the city’s cemeteries. Colonial Park Cemetery was only one of the many graveyards where men once faced off in the name of honor.
But Colonial Park Cemetery is one of the only places where the duelist’s are named and marked for all to see who wander through. If you’re considering visiting the cemetery, be sure to go during the park’s opening hours from dusk to dawn.
For those of you hoping to learn more about dueling in Savannah and the particular graveyards and the old “dueling site” at Colonial Park Cemetery, consider taking our Cemetery Tour where you’ll learn all about Colonial Park Cemetery’s history as well as its secrets.
We hope to see you there!
Savannah, Georgia is routinely rated one of the most beautiful American cities—and why wouldn’t it be?
It boasts the country’s largest Historic District, with one of the highest percentages of historic homes per square capita. Its landscape is incomparable, thanks to its positioning within Georgia’s Low Country. Spanish moss flutters in the breeze, and the city’s historic squares bequeath endless green space throughout the downtown area. Additionally, the city’s proximity to the Savannah River allows for stunning waterfront property and scenic walks.
Savannah’s historical value, in addition to its endless charm, therefore make this Colonial and Antebellum city a hotspot for travelers and locals alike.
But within the boundaries of Savannah, some of the most awe-inspiring places to visit are its cemeteries and graveyards.
Indubitably cemeteries provide an opportunity for close insight into a city’s past. Cemeteries in Savannah might not look anything like those of New Orleans, which in turn look nothing like the graveyards found in Kansas or California. They are often a symbol or display of a city’s culture and tradition.
More importantly, these graveyards offer a glimpse into the circumstances of Savannah’s history during its nearly three-century-old haul. From the American Plague of yellow fever to the death of innumerable Civil War soldiers, Savannah’s cemeteries are not only beautiful because of their architecture or countless oak trees but because of their ability to allow visitors to recapture the past, even for just a small moment in time.
While there are countless cemeteries to choose from, here are our choices for the most beautiful cemeteries in Savannah, Georgia:
Of all of the cemeteries in Savannah, Laurel Grove might have one of the most intriguing pasts—intriguing but also telling of the social state of Savannah during the nineteenth century.
By the late 1840s, there was something of a problem in Savannah: there were simply not enough burial plots to keep pace with the number of dying people in the city. Prior to the maximum capacity issue of the mid-1800s, Savannahians had been buried in Old Cemetery (Colonial Park Cemetery), Potter’s Field, the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Old Negro Cemetery.
The necessary land was acquired from the Stiles family who owned the Springfield Plantation, and it thereafter became the first and foremost burial ground for the city of Savannah for the rest of the nineteenth century.
Prior to Laurel Grove’s establishment, the cemeteries in Savannah had been racially segregated. This continued in the city’s new cemetery—although not just yet.
The year 1850 saw the first burial at Laurel Grove, which would later be known as the North plot. It was exclusively meant non-African Americans. Magnolias, live oaks, pine and dogwoods dotted the green. In comparison to Colonial Park Cemetery, which predated Laurel Grove by more than five decades, Laurel Grove North was a haven of beautiful trees and tranquility.
It was not until three years later that a companion cemetery opened to allow for black people to be buried. Fifteen more acres were acquired in addition to the fifteen that had already been purchased, so that “free persons of color and slaves” could be buried—at this point in Savannah history, the Old Negro Cemetery (as it was historically termed) had not only reached capacity . . . but the land itself was to be used for new housing developments.
Hundreds of bodies were thus dug up from their final resting place at the Old Negro Cemetery. Famous men such as Reverend Andrew Bryan (1737-1812) and Reverend Henry Cunningham (1759-1842) were exhumed and then reinterred at Laurel Grove South. Some evidence suggests that Bryan, who had been born a slave and had also founded the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, was not one of the fortunate people to have their remains actually transferred out of the old cemetery. Alternatively, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that this isn’t true so we must believe—and hope—that the marker in Laurel Grove South does actually hold the remains of one of the most important men in Georgia history.
Historical records suggest that more free persons of color were buried in Laurel Grove South than in any other cemetery in the American Southeast.
By the 1860s, Laurel Grove North’s plots were selling off quick. The number of dead who returned from the Civil War did not allow for much choice. By the end of the War between the States, nearly 1500 Confederate Soldiers were laid to rest in a section of the cemetery devoted exclusively to the deceased veterans of the war.
Eight generals were buried in Laurel Grove North, including Gilbert M. Sorrel and Francis Bartow.
Laurel Grove North also holds the gravesite of Juliet Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, “Jingle Bells” composer James Pierpont, twenty-four Savannah mayors, and one US Supreme Court Associate Justice.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Laurel Grove too had reached capacity—and today is known to hold have the highest concentration of Victorian period cemetery architecture in the Southeast, as well some of the largest number of burials per site.
Today, Laurel Grove Cemetery stands as a blatant reminder of Savannah’s racially contested past: North and South, white and black. It speaks to the city’s past, but also offers a juxtaposition between the integrated present. As well, the trials and strength needed to get to the city’s current social position in the last century.
Should feel compelled to visit the cemetery, Laurel Grove North and South are open from dawn to dusk.
Bonaventure Cemetery has a few claims to fame: its old and is also considered one of the most beautiful cemeteries in America, making it a perfect addition to this list.
For all of its beauty and stately architecture, Bonaventure’s origins are quite dramatic. Seated just three miles from Savannah on St. Augustine Creek, the land once belonged to John Mullryne and his son-in-law Josiah Tattnall. When they were granted the land in 1771 it was nearly 9,920 acres and, because of its size and location, they named it “Bonaventure.”
In Italian, “bonaventure” means “good fortune.” A small cemetery plot was established for family members in 1773. Unfortunately, it’s safe to say that the good fortune of Mullryne and Tattnall would not last much longer.
The Revolutionary War erupted just a few years later, but when it did the Mullryne and Tattnall families were not quiet in whom they supported. Their loyalties lay with England and George III, and both families were deemed traitors. Disloyal. They were subsequently banished from Georgia. In 1782, the newly recognized state of Georgia began disbursing land like Bonaventure to those who had supported the infantile United States.
Men like John Habersham, who purchased Bonaventure. However, the history of Bonaventure turned only stranger from here: for a time during the Siege of Savannah it operated as a hospital for French and Haitian troops. Then, in 1788, only six years after the original families had lost the plantation, Josiah Tattnall, Jr. returned to claim what he deemed his.
Habersham agreed to resell the plantation and the land, and so the land was welcomed back into the family of the Tattnalls. The old burial ground that they had established in 1773 continued to be of use, first for Tattnall’s wife in 1803 as well as six of their nine children.
By 1846, the Tattnall family (Josiah III) sold the then 600-acre plantation to Peter Wiltberger—on one condition. Tattnall III requested that the small family cemetery be kept up and not allowed to fall into ruin. Wiltberger agreed and in 1847, he acquired 70 more acres of land to which he established the Evergreen Cemetery of Bonaventure.
It remained a public burial ground, and still is, until 1982 when the city acquired the cemetery. Today, it still remains active and sits at 100 acres.
Over the years, it accrued some of the most important members of Savannah society, including Savannah founders Noble Wimberly Jones and Edward Telfair. So too are singer Johnny Mercer, countless Civil War Generals, and other poets.
Sweeping Spanish moss, colorful azaleas, dogwood and magnolias create an air of tranquility at Bonaventure Cemetery. Due to its incredible size, we certainly recommend visiting Bonaventure Cemetery with a cemetery tour.
Luckily enough, we at Discover Historic America offer such a tour and would love to have you on board!
The second oldest cemetery in Savannah can be found at the cross-section of Abercorn and Oglethorpe Streets in the Historic District. Its entrance boasts a large stone Roman Arch with a bald eagle overhead—a grand welcoming gesture if there ever was one.
Colonial Park Cemetery is not only a sight to behold, but its historical significance within the city of Savannah is one of trial, tragedy and restoration with over 10,000 people buried within.
Established in 1750 as the burial ground for the Christ Church Parish, Colonial Park Cemetery was expanded some thirty years later in 1789 to include all religious faiths. For the following century, Colonial Park remained the primary burial ground for all of Savannah—and plenty of famous people were therefore interred inside. One of which was Button Gwinnett, a man who signed the Declaration of Independence but who also died fighting a duel against Continent Army Commander Lachlan Macintosh.
However, despite the number of notable people buried in Colonial Park Cemetery (or the Old Cemetery), it was the innumerable yellow fever victims that are often discussed today on tours throughout the city.
Savannah, like many other cities in the American South, was afflicted with several horrific epidemics of what historians often call the “American Plague.” The disease of yellow fever was such that there was not much that could be done if you found yourself exhibiting the early symptoms. Spiked fevers, failing organs, the threat of a coma—the only cure to the disease was simply to survive it.
If one could, of course.
In the year 1820, Savannah suffered one of its most disastrous bouts of yellow fever, killing nearly 700 people. The exact number, if it is to be believed, was 666 victims. The threat of yellow fever did not stop in death, however. Many victims who were afflicted by yellow fever succumbed to a deep coma, sometimes lasting a matter of days. Believing the victim to be dead, family members commenced with the burial process—only for the so-called “yellow fever victim” to emerge from their coma in a dark, dank wooden coffin underground with no way to escape. A fate that most would not wish upon even their worst enemies.
Duels were also commonplace at Colonial Park, with the first occurring in 1740 (or so they say) and the last transpiring around 1877. Search for the “dueling ground” when visiting Colonial Park and visitors will quickly find this plot of land which played host to masculine honor and pride—“too much pride” some might even say.
By the Civil War era, Colonial Park Cemetery had been closed to further burials with the citizens of Savannah being put in Laurel Grove North and South. Even so, when General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in Savannah on his March to the Sea campaign, the Union Army set up camp inside of Colonial Park Cemetery.
Rumors spread that the Union soldiers were scratching out dates on some of the headstones and putting in others—some poor souls found immortality and lived to be over 1,000 years old. These vandalized headstones can still be found at the cemetery, a true testament to a period in which the Savannahians were too fearful of retribution to say anything and the Union soldiers too bored to refrain from some fun.
Since 1896, the cemetery was converted into a city park and is open to visitors from dawn to dusk. It’s a frequent stop on ghost tours thanks to its eery background, but is also a fantastic spot for a historical cemetery tour as well. If you’re hoping to take a historical cemetery tour of Colonial Park, be sure to check out our walking tour! You don’t want to miss out.
It seems that the beauty of Colonial Park Cemetery, as opposed to Bonaventure or Laurel Grove, comes from its ruin and tragedy. But just like Savannah’s other cemeteries, is no less beautiful.
Strange as it may seem, one of the most common tourist attractions in New Orleans are the city’s cemeteries. Author and steamboat captain Mark Twain once referred to them as the Cities of the Dead, and the nickname has stuck over a hundred years later.
You see, the nickname simply makes sense. The cemeteries of New Orleans are not commonly found elsewhere in the United States. For one, they aren’t dug six feet under the ground’s surface. Thanks to New Orleans’ high water table, below ground graves were quickly discarded by early colonists after they realized that, more often than not, those coffins popped back up after a heavy rain shower.
No doubt that seeing their deceased relatives after the burial caused quite a scandalous shock.
So necessity made it so that the deceased were placed inside aboveground tombs, safe from the treacherous water under the top soil—but, also showcasing Colonial French and Spanish tradition. If you were to find yourself over in Europe, many of the cemeteries would appear just the same as those here in the Crescent City.
There are nearly forty cemeteries in all of the New Orleans Metro Area, but perhaps the most famous is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Located on the cusp of the French Quarter on Basin Street, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. claims famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau as one of the most famous people interred within, as well as architect and pirate Barthelemy Lafon, and (supposedly) the remains of Madame Delphine LaLaurie.
Despite these rather famous names, there are a few other top tombs that must be seen when visiting St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
Here are our Top 5 Tombs to See in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (in no particular order):
Although Etienne de Bore is generally a name not bandied about anywhere else than in high school classrooms, his was a name that everyone knew in eighteenth century Louisiana.
Born in the Illinois Territory of Louisiana, Etienne was a descendant of old Norman nobility. Etienne was treated to the custom of French Creole boys in the French colony and shipped off to France for an education. In fact, his ancestry was so well-off that upon completing schooling Etienne was named one of the King of France’s Mousquetaires (guardsmen).
Since the title of Mousquetaire was off-limits to those not of the nobility, you can imagine the prestige that came with the position. (And probably the wealth, too).
When Etienne returned to Louisiana in 1768 it was only to realize that nothing was as how he’d left it. For one, it was no longer French as the Spanish had purchased the territory.
And secondly, it was no longer French.
As Etienne was a French Creole to his very core, he purchased a ticket and made his way back to Paris where he then became Captain of Cavalry. (Another illustrious title, but would we suspect anything else?) It was only after Etienne’s marriage to Marie Marguerite, who was the daughter of D’Estrehan des Tours and the French Royal Treasurer of New Orleans, that he decided to come back to Louisiana once more.
The de Bore family settled on Marie Marguerite’s inherited plantation six miles upriver from the French Quarter. (Today, Audubon Park comprises the original plantation). Although Etienne attempted to make a go of cultivating Indigo, he realized that it was sugarcane which would make him wealthy.
Which is how Etienne de Bore, once the King’s Mousquetaire and Captain of Cavalry in France, successfully granulated sugarcane in the year 1795 and changed the production of sugar and plantation life forever.
His first batch sold for $12,000, a ridiculous sum of money that solidified Etienne’s station in Louisiana. (And for the reason he is now mentioned in those high school classes). When the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803, Etienne was named the first Mayor of New Orleans by the American Governor William C.C. Claiborne.
But once again, Etienne’s distaste of anyone not French (i.e. those uncouth Americans in particular) had him resigning in 1804 after only months in office. He claimed his resignation was due to private affairs, but it was known about town that Etienne had not invested that much effort in building a bridge of tranquility with the newly arrived Americans.
Today, Etienne de Bore’s name is synonymous with the granulation of sugarcane in Louisiana. Upon visiting his tomb, you’ll have the chance to glimpse history in the making—and unfortunately for Etienne, he doesn’t quite have a say as to who is doing the visiting in the afterlife.
A native of Virginia, William C.C. Claiborne would ultimately find great success as the first American Governor of Louisiana. In the years leading up to his position as Governor, he had already served on the Tennessee State Supreme Court and as the Governor of the Mississippi Territory. Even prior to Louisiana’s recognized statehood in 1812, Claiborne had stepped into the role of Governor of the Territory of Orleans from 1804 to 1812.
Still, throughout all of this time Claiborne was never able to pick up the intricacies of the French language.
(You can imagine that meetings between Etienne de Bore and Claiborne must have been one for the books with translators and miscommunications everywhere . . . enough that Etienne through his hands up in the air and quit, anyway).
Even so, Claiborne is perhaps most well known for his utter hatred and disgust at none other but New Orleans’ beloved privateer Jean Lafitte.
By 1807, Lafitte and his merry band of pirates had been making quite the scene in the French Quarter. So much so that Claiborne was determined to see Lafitte locked up and jailed for not paying his proper taxes, in addition to just doing as he pleased.
Claiborne ordered every citizen of New Orleans to ignore the blasted pirate.
Jean Lafitte was said to have strolled down the streets of the French Quarter with a fashionable walking cane, a hat perched devilishly on his head and a confident swagger.
The ladies all swooned. (From lust, not fear).
Claiborne stewed. (From anger, not resignation).
Claiborne’s next method in taking down the piratical Lafitte came in the form of a Reward. Listed in newspaper was a notice advertising a reward of $500 for Jean Lafitte’s capture.
Not to be outdone, Lafitte posted his own advertisement claiming $5,000 (some sources argue $2,500) for whomever could capture Governor Claiborne himself.
As one might imagine, Claiborne was not pleased by this change of events.
Unfortunately, it was not Jean Lafitte who was ultimately caught but his brother Pierre. One has to wonder if Claiborne figured any Lafitte brother would do. As it happened, Pierre Lafitte escaped the Old Parish Prison on September 7, 1814, and another newspaper ad was posted, this time offering a $1,000 Reward for the capture of Pierre.
When the Battle of New Orleans broke out in 1815, Jean Lafitte was propositioned by the British to become one of their sea captains. But Lafitte had alliances to Louisiana and so after telling the Redcoats that he needed time to “think,” he traveled from his smuggling operation base in Barataria Bay to New Orleans. He hoped to speak with Claiborne and offer his own services.
Claiborne had had enough and rejected the offer immediately.
As the more popular aspect of the story goes, Lafitte was then approached by General Andrew Jackson and agreed to lend his pirates to the cause. As they say, without the pirates the Battle of New Orleans would not have been won.
And as for Governor Claiborne, he continued to serve out his term of Governor until 1816 when he then was elected to the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, less than a year later Claiborne passed away from a liver infection and was interred in a tomb in the Protestant Section of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
There’s a bit of speculation as to whether his body was later moved to Metairie Cemetery with the rest of his descendants, or whether his remains have stayed in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Either way, his tomb can still be found in the back of the cemetery and is well worth a stop.
If Etienne de Bore was a born-and-bred French Creole, and Claiborne was an American living in a city that was decidedly French and Spanish, then Daniel Clark was perhaps a blend of the two.
Born in Ireland in 1766, Daniel Clark made his first trek to Louisiana at the young age of twenty. Upon his arrival, it soon became apparent that Clark would know much success in the Louisiana Territory. He was fluent in Spanish and French; had connections with the Governor’s office; and, after a few short years in which his merchant business thrived, he became one of the wealthiest men in town.
During the mid-1790s he was bestowed the title of Vice-Consul for the United States. Not only was he personably responsible for convincing Spain to lessen their grip on trade in the port of New Orleans, but he also had a hand in (or so they say) convincing Thomas Jefferson that it was a brilliant idea to purchase the Louisiana Territory.
The Louisiana Purchase was signed at the governing seat, the Cabildo, in 1803. As for Clark, his work within the political and economic field was not over in New Orleans.
But when William Claiborne was elected governor in 1804, Clark was furious. He felt as though the position belonged to him, that he should have been elected in Claiborne’s stead. His anger was demonstrated by the fact that he “left” the Americans to side with the French Creoles as they fought for political control of Louisiana.
Then, matters became only more convoluted when rumors spread that Daniel Clark had involved himself in the conspiracy to separate the southwest from the United States with Aaron Burr. It’s not known how involved Clark was with Aaron Burr’s traitorous plans, but his political career was effectively over due to the rumormongering all over the city.
Allegedly Governor Claiborne verbally accused Clark of this involvement, and the hot-tempered Clark took great offense. What ensued was a very public duel in June 1807 with Clark shooting his biggest foe. The Louisiana Gazette wrote of the event: “A duel was fought on Monday last, near Manchac Fort, between his Excellency Governor Claiborne and Daniel Clark, Esq. The first fire the Governor received Mr. Clark’s bell through his right. His Excellency has reached town, and is out of danger.”
It’s safe to assume that one’s career does not make it past shooting a man referred to as “His Excellency.”
By 1810, Daniel Clark had completely retired from the political sphere in New Orleans and passed away in 1813.
Ironically enough, Daniel Clark’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. can be found just a few paces away from the Claiborne family tomb.
As they say: Enemies in life, neighbors in death.
(They don’t say this, but they ought to for these two men).
Plessy vs. Ferguson is a US Supreme Court case generally known throughout the United States. It was referenced in 1954 when the US Supreme Court passed the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education.
But who was Homer Plessy?
A New Orleans native, Plessy was born in 1862 to two “white” parents. In the Crescent City he would have then been called a gen de couleur libre, or a free person of color. His great-grandmother had been brought to Louisiana from Africa, making him 1/8th African. And, more importantly, 1/8th that was not white.
Like many other gens de couleur libres in New Orleans, Homer Plessy’s family passed as white but Homer refused. By trade he was a shoemaker, but he was more than just that. From a young age, Plessy involved himself in social activism groups. In 1887, he served as the Vice President of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club, whose mission it was to reform the city’s public education system.
However, it was in 1896 that Plessy’s determination to create a wholly equal environment attracted national awareness.
Just a few years earlier in 1890, the Louisiana government had given the green-light for the Separate Car Act. The Act relegated separate cars for those who were white and those who were black. Plessy, on behalf of the Citizens’ Committee, purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad in 1892 and sat down in the “whites only” section of the car.
The conductor began checking tickets and apparently thought nothing of Homer Plessy seated there. Based on appearances alone, Homer looked just like the fellow seated beside him or the woman two rows up. It was then that Plessy announced that he was indeed 1/8th black.
The conductor demanded that Plessy move to the “appropriate” car. Homer adamantly refused.
Homer Plessy was thrown out of the train and was subsequently imprisoned for the remainder of the night. The next day he was released on a $500 bond.
Plessy protested the violation of his 13th and 14 Amendment Rights and promptly found himself in court against Judge John Howard Ferguson. Ironically, it is said that Judge Ferguson agreed with Plessy’s arguments but caved under the pressure of his peers. Plessy was deemed guilty, and the case rose all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896.
There the infamous Separate But Equal Law was pushed and instated by Justice William Billings Brown. It argued the legality of segregation, as well as the Jim Crow laws, as long as each race’s public facilities were made equal.
Following the national case, Plessy returned to New Orleans wherein he worked as an insurance salesman. He passed away in 1925, but it was his determination and steadfast courage that inspired the formation of the NAACP, the Civil Rights Movement, and the later turning of the case during Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.
His tomb can be found in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1., and shouldn’t be missed.
Better known as the unofficial World Champion of Chess, Paul Morphy literally changed the game of chess during the nineteenth century, and he did so before the age of twenty.
At just nine years old, Paul Morphy sat with his father and uncle in their home in New Orleans (the current location of Brennan’s Restaurant) as the two older gentlemen played chess. After a few hours, the elder Morphy’s declared it a day and went to put the chess pieces away. Paul, however, reached out a hand and began to explain how and all the ways his uncle could have won had he played differently.
Paul Morphy had never once played chess before but his natural talent for the game was unheard of.
When Major General Winfield Scott came to stay in the Crescent City before continuing on to the Mexican War, he demanded to play against the city’s best chess player. He was brought Paul Morphy—who, as it happened, was wearing a lace shirt and velvet knickerbockers. Murphy ended the game in just ten moves.
Paul Morphy’s aptitude for the game of chess swept the country and he was deemed a prodigy. Hungarian political refugee Johann J. Lowenthal arrived in New Orleans to play Morphy, as well. Lowenthal was well known in Europe as being a fantastic chess player, but like everyone before him, was no match for the unbeatable Morphy.
After attending school at Spring Hill College in Alabama, Paul returned to New Orleans with the hopes of attending the University of Louisiana for law. As he wasn’t even twenty-one, the university did not allow him to enroll yet.
Naturally, Paul Morphy returned to the game of chess. Not, however, because he had any particular liking for it but because he hoped to continue trouncing his opponents. He did so with Louis Paulsen, who frustrated Morphy by taking nearly 75 minutes on just a single move, and then hoped to tackle the legendary Howard Staunton next.
An Englishman, Staunton refused to travel to New Orleans for the match as it was too far—even with the lucrative deal of an all-expense paid trip and a thousand dollar bonus should he lose to Paul. The rejection annoyed Morphy, but no matter, he would simply travel to England.
Staunton continued to ignore Morphy’s invitations. One month turned into two, and two turned into three. Completely exasperated, Morphy traveled to Paris to continue with his European Chess Tour. He even competed in a blind tournament, in which Morphy sat in a room facing the wall, and his eight opponents all sat together in a different room. In order to make a play, he would call out his moves. He did so in French, to boot.
The tournament lasted ten long hours, and Morphy did not eat or drink the entire time. Still, he was declared the winner against all eight other men.
The name “Paul Morphy” became internationally synonymous with the game of chess.
When he returned to New Orleans, it was only to find that the Civil War had broken out. He traveled to Richmond, Virginia to speak with his family friend, General P.G.T. Beauregard about contributing to the cause. But Morphy was slim in frame and only 5’4”. With little evidence, it’s been assumed that Beauregard turned Morphy away.
Morphy never quite recovered. While he traveled Europe and continued to play chess, his heart was not in it and he felt extreme anxiety. He’d since attempted to open a law office but potential clients were always more interested in playing a game of chess. His offices were then shut down.
Soon, he began to fear being poisoned; being watched. Sometimes, if he caught sight of a woman he particularly fancied, he would follow her for hours . . . though always at a distance. He would not eat food unless it had been prepared by his mother or sister.
And then, in the late 1870s, Paul Morphy allegedly ran through the streets of the French Quarter with an axe clutched in one hand. He threatened to kill the first person who crossed him, and he did so all without wearing a single stitch of clothing.
The chess prodigy had succumbed to madness, and it was while taking a bath in 1884 that Paul Morphy suffered a stroke and passed away.
For all chess fans out there, you may fight Paul Morphy’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1., in which you can pay your respects.
New Orleans is a city known for its endless stream of parades, festivals and second lines. (In fact, the City Council mandated in 2015 that the festival calendar had already reached its max and no more could be organized!). Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest and Southern Decadence are only a select few of the countless festivals which take place in the Crescent City each year.
And yet, no festival or parade can trump Mardi Gras—because Mardi Gras? Well, Mardi Gras just isn’t one parade, it’s a compilation of 70-75 different parades that take place over a matter of weeks.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to New Orleans to stake out their spots on the route as early as humanly possible, and by Fat Tuesday (the day before Lent and the last day of Carnival Season) it’s not uncommon to see people holed up in tents as they camp out over night.
How exactly did Mardi Gras become the extravagant celebration today? In honor of the upcoming Mardi Gras season, we’ve decided to review the history of Carnival before the Super Weekend arrives. So sit down, grab a cup of cafe au lait or a slice of King Cake, and let me tell you the story of Mardi Gras . . .
The origins of Mardi Gras actually have nothing to do with Lent and everything to do with the winter solstice. In ancient Rome, young men intent on being merry donned disguises as they partook in grand festivities all throughout night. The revelry was held in celebration of Saturnalia, or the winter solstice. By the 3rd century A.D., the Roman Emperor Aurelius decided to make December 25th, which was the official date for Saturnalia under the new Julian calendar, the birthday of the Invincible Sun.
For a time, this worked reasonably well. But as Christianity began to spread across Europe over the next few centuries, such pagan holidays were deemed incredibly dangerous. Traveling monks and ruling government councils alike were determined to convert the so-called “barbarians” from their heathen ways. A celebration like Saturnalia on December 25th no doubt posed a bit of a problem.
Not to worry, the Church declared the day of the Invincible Son to be the birthday of the Son of God and Man, “Christ Mass” (Christmas). (Really, what better way to convince the pagans to convert than to show them that their traditions had been incorporated into the new Christian faith?) The Epiphany was then celebrated on January 6th, twelve days after Christmas, when the three wise kings visited Jesus.
By the Middle Ages, the Twelve Days of Christmas had become an all-out party. The Lords of Misrule—the kings of the revels—passed out tokens to the festival-goers and encouraged an atmosphere of good fun and good cheer. (And perhaps a bit of debauchery, as well).
It was during the Renaissance in Italy that Twelfth Night truly reached its apex, especially when masked balls became all the rage of high society. The Lords of Misrule still held court, and Twelfth Night truly was the biggest party of the year. Over the next few centuries, the celebration of Mardi Gras—the season before Lent—traversed west and mingled with the culture of the French House of the Bourbons.
Carnival Season arrived early in the New World. So early, actually, that when Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur Bienville, sailed down the Mississippi River to found the French Colony in 1699, he arrived on the gulf on March 2, 1699 . . . which just so happened to be the eve of Mardi Gras.
What better way to honor the holiday than to bestow its name on the plot of land he’d stumbled across? Indeed, New Orleans’ founding father named that strip of land Pointe du Mardi Gras. The rest, as they say, is history.
Not quite, actually, as it would be a few more years until the first celebration of Mardi Gras was held in the new colony. After establishing Fort Louis de la Louisiane (Mobile) in 1702, Bienville and his men held their own small Mardi Gras celebration just a year later. The first Krewe (or secret society) was formed the following year, known as the Masque de la Mobile; and by 1710 the Boeuf Gras Society had formed and continued to parade each year until 1861. Their mascot was the fatted calf, which would ultimately become the Krewe of Rex’s symbol at the end of the nineteenth century.
During its years in Mobile, the Boeuf Gras Society’s some sixteenth members would push a massive bull’s head down the street on wheels. (Although not the floats as we think of them today, there’s something to be said of a massive calf’s head being rolled down the street to hollering and excitement).
It wasn’t until 1718 that Bienville established the port city of La Nouvelle Orleans, and Mardi Gras celebrations followed not too long after. The 1730s saw the initial revelries, though they lacked parades, and in the 1740s, the governor of Louisiana formulated the first Mardi Gras balls. The Marques de Vaudreuil was known to all as a man who liked extravagance and even a touch of scandal, so it seems quite appropriate that he would be the first to create the balls that are still held today.
Despite these early happenings, it was not until 1781 that Mardi Gras was officially mentioned in any sort of documentation. The Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Association was the first organization, like the Masque de la Mobile, to begin forming various groups and societies interested in performing in Mardi Gras parades.
During the course of the next fifty or so years, early New Orleanians grew more and more interested in growing the Carnival Season. Revelers rode on horse and buggy, calling to the citizens and eliciting excitement from both young and old; in the cover of darkness, people carried flambeaux (torchlights) to illuminate the path for the krewe members. And matters apparently grew so drunkenly debauched that sober citizens called to the Council to put an end to the madness.
The “madness” only continued as the krewes more in number and the party that more beloved by locals and visitors.
The Krewe of Comus was the first official New Orleanian krewe, though funnily enough, it was six Mobile men who started it along with a few select New Orleans locals. They were to be masked at all times to disguise their identities—just like the Romans had done while celebrating Saturnalia—and rode on tableaux cars, or floats.
It wasn’t until the second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, established themselves in 1870 that krewes in New Orleans brought back the medieval custom of throwing tokens into the crowd as the Lords of Misrule had done nearly four hundred years earlier.
But it is the Krewe of Rex that helped to solidify New Orleans as a Mardi Gras center. In 1872, it just so happened that the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff had plans to visit New Orleans during Carnival Season. (Apparently he’d fallen for actress Lydia Thompson and sought to make their relationship slightly more permanent). To celebrate the Grand Duke’s arrival, New Orleanians did what they did best: they set up his very own parade. Unlike Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, the Krewe of Rex was a daytime parade and named for the Latin word for “king.” They used the colors of the Grand Duke’s family—purple, yellow and green—as their own, and arrived on a river boat at Canal Street.
Today, the Krewe of Rex is one of the largest and longest parades of the entirety of Carnival Season and the Grand Duke’s colors are now the official colors of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
In the century-and-a-half that has passed since then, multiple of parades were added to the Carnival Season. In 2015 alone there were some 21,000 float riders and 822 floats. (This number doesn’t include the amount of dance teams, organizations and bands that are incorporated into each parade as well).
It’s safe to say that Mardi Gras in New Orleans really is one of the largest outdoor parties in the world!
After over a century of holding large festivities each year, it’s no surprise that the Mardi Gras season now has a number of customs to go along with it! Here are just a few traditions that make the Carnival Season what it is today:
“Throw me something mister!”
This might be the most frequently heard phrase during Mardi Gras. Since the Twelfth Night Revelers reinstated the idea of throws in the nineteenth century, all of the krewes now take part in the custom as well.
What are the sort of objets you might catch while on the route? Beads (plastic and glass), flowers, stuffed animals and spears, medallions or even brightly painted shoes. Shoes, you ask? Yes, shoes. The all-female Krewe of Muses is notorious for throwing high heels—make sure to duck!—just as the Krewe of Nyx is partial to purses and the Krewe of Zulu has the tradition of throwing coconuts out into the crowd.
(Disclaimer: A Zulu coconut is a prize not easily won, so if you happen to see one flying your way, make sure to stick your arms in the air and grab it!)
Kids are known to sit on decked-out ladders along the parade-side street, making them easy targets for krewe members throwing beads or stuffed animals. Don’t be fooled, though, because catching throws is an all-ages activity during Carnival Season!
The masked balls of Renaissance Italy made their way to New Orleans during the nineteenth century, thanks to the Marques de Vandreuil in the 1740s. Since then, many of the krewes hold invitation-only balls, while others allow the public to purchase tickets if they so choose.
These balls are generally quite lavish affairs, where black tuxes and ball gowns are an absolute must. But it is often during these balls that the Kings, Queens and the presiding court are announced to the rest of the krewe members. Though some of the court chooses to remain anonymous on their floats, you can always spot the reigning monarchs because their floats are always in the front of every parade. And for the Super-Krewes (Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus) the Kings and Queens are generally A-List celebrities!
The original concept of the King Cake was brought to the French Creoles from their French ancestors. In the early days, the cake was a custard-filled pastry with a crown on top; inside there would be a bean or a coin. For the Twelfth Night Revelers, whoever got the slice with the golden bean was deemed Queen; the women who got silver beans became the Queen’s maids.
Today, King Cakes are a staple in New Orleans. They go on the market on the twelfth night after Christmas and can be purchased all the way up until Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent. Over the years, the beans have been replaced with a little baby Jesus, and whoever gets the little figurine in their slice of cake is responsible for purchasing the next King Cake.
(Fun Fact: in 2015, 500,000 king cakes were sold within New Orleans, and another 50,000 were shipped out of state!)
While we might be partial to celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Carnival Season is tremendously popular in other areas of the world. Each set of festivities has their own flare and uniqueness, and here are just a few places where the parties rival that of the Crescent City’s.
This island offers the biggest Carnival in all of the Caribbean. Festivities begin at 4AM on the Monday before Ash Wednesday in the dark of the night. Festival goers gather together to honor J’Ouvert, which honors the island’s history and folklore. (Emphasis on the folklore!) The revelers cover themselves in mud, oil, chocolate and paint, as they dance through the early morning like monsters and demons. Following this, the party rages on for the rest of the day.
Carnival in Italy is a sight to behold, especially since it’s where the traces of Mardi Gras began all those centuries ago! Partiers don beautifully intricate masks, for both the masked balls and the gatherings out on the street. (And for those wondering, Venice is allegedly the hotspot for Carnival).
If there was ever a Carnival Season to rival that of New Orleans’, it would no doubt be Rio de Janeiro’s. More than 2 million locals and tourists are known to filter into the city for the celebration, and the streets are lit up in brilliantly vibrant colors. Carnival in Rio would be nothing without the sambadromes, or samba school students, who dance among the larger-than-life floats.
Sometimes it can be difficult to plan vacations during the Mardi Gras Season in New Orleans, when plane tickets go sky-high and hotel rooms fill up at a rapidly alarming rate! Here are our top two suggestions that you must visit if you want a taste of Mardi Gras in New Orleans all year around.
Located by the Port of New Orleans, Mardi Gras World is exactly what it sounds like: a huge convention center-sized building that houses many of the Mardi Gras floats. Tour guides will explain the history of Mardi Gras before showing guests the studio in which the floats are built from start to finish.
Although tours average about an hour in length, visiting Mardi Gras World will certainly be a highlight for families traveling with children or any other Carnival enthusiasts. Plus, the tour also includes a slice of King Cake, even during the months when King Cake is not in production.
For that alone, I would visit Mardi Gras World ten times over.
This French Quarter restaurant opened in 1918; since then, it has become one of the most respected and enjoyed fine dining locations in New Orleans. It’s also especially known for its French 75 Bar, which Enquire Magazine named “One of the Top Five Bars in the Country.”
A visit to Arnaud’s Restaurant should be on any person’s list upon visiting New Orleans, for the excellent French Creole food but also because tucked away upstairs is a little known museum honoring Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Officially titled the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum, the museum is named after Germaine Cazenave Walls who was the daughter of Count Arnaud. As you might have already suspected, Count Arnaud was the founder of the restaurant, and his daughter was Arnaud’s successor.
During her lifetime, Germaine was crowned Queen of various Mardi Gras krewes for a total of 22 times between the years 1937-1968. Germaine was incredibly well-known during her life, and today the Mardi Gras Museum continues the legacy. Thirteen of her Queen’s costumes comprise the Museum’s exhibit, as well as one of her mother’s and sister’s and another four costumes worn by Count Arnaud when he reigned King. Six more costumes were worn once by children participating in the krewes.
The exhibit also included vintage photos, various jewelry worn during the Carnival Season and other artifacts.
For free of charge, visitors can take in the magnificence that is the Mardi Gras Museum throughout the week. Be sure to join in for Arnaud’s Sunday Jazz Brunch before heading upstairs! (Although that might just be our particular recommendation).
It was March 1, 1721 when Ambroise Haydel landed in the port of New Orleans, Louisiana, France’s newest colony in the New World. The air was no doubt cool with the biting nip of wet humidity that never fails to linger in a New Orleanian winter; the bustling sounds of the small, burgeoning city no doubt were a welcome greeting after the many months aboard the ship Les Deux Freres.
Ambroise Haydel arrived with his brother Mathieu and his sisters, Barbe and Catherine. Of over 200 passengers on the ship, the Haydels were of only forty survivors who had survived the Trans-Atlantic crossing from their departure point in Lorient, France some months before in November.
To the Haydels, the prospect of New Orleans was synonymous with the prospect of hope and wealth. But it was simply not to be. Not immediately, at any rate.
Although French colonization in Louisiana began at the turn of the 17th century in 1699, it was not until 1718 that New Orleans proper was founded by Jean-Baptise Le Moyne, Sieur d’Bienville. He and his brother, Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, had traveled from the region today known as French Canada. Sailing down the Mississippi River, they had come with expeditioners, soldiers and very few others—what they lacked, however, were great numbers of people to populate the new colony for France.
Ownership of Louisiana exchanged hands many times during those early years of the 1700s, before finally becoming part of the Company of the West Indies, which was managed by Scotsman John Law. In theory, John Law was an economist who pushed the idea of ridding society of minor monopolies while opening the field for private farming of taxes. Though he’d proposed various plans for new banks based on his ideology all throughout Europe, Law’s “big break” (if you will) did not come until the death of the French King Louis XIVth.
Law was a personal friend of the Duke of Orleans, who was not only the new regent of King Louis XVth but who had also invested greatly in the budding city of New Orleans. (Law and Orleans were also high-stake gambling friends, which perhaps should have foreshadowed the financial outcome for the Company of the West Indies). The Duke named John Law Controller General of Finances in 1720 (which gave Law control of all internal and external commerce) and ordered the economist to make a success out of Louisiana.
Up until this time in 1717, Louisiana’s population was scarce. Early colonists were prey to wrecking diseases, little support from the Crown in terms of goods and necessities for life, and Native American attacks. The land was an unkind, mosquito-infested swamp that made life difficult for those seeking survival within its wild wilderness. Desperate to make Louisiana financially worthwhile, France needed colonists. And so they began deporting people: prisoners, the destitute, prostitutes. A police force was installed in Paris to gather more people to be deported, but as each arrest was rewarded with extra pay, the banduoliers du Mississippi were willing to grab anyone—adult or child—and throw them on a ship headed for the New World.
But it was not enough. So, John Law began to spread the word about the wealth of Louisiana all over Europe. Most were not interested in heading to that “dreaded swamp,” except for a few particular groups, including the Germans of the Rhine. The Germans, who had not only been suffering under religious persecution but also extreme famine, were promised prosperity in the form of land, secular freedom and unfathomable wealth.
While it is suspected nearly 4,000 Germans made the first wave of Atlantic crossing in 1719, approximately only 1,500 survived the journey. When the French government mandated in 1720 that French citizens were no longer allowed to be forced to colonize Louisiana, John Law once again turned to the Germans and its neighboring regions to cultivate the land and populate the colony.
Unfortunately, the Company of the West Indies had gone bankrupt by this time and when Ambroise Haydel and his family arrived in the port of New Orleans in 1721, it was to nothing. The so-called “Mississippi Bubble” of fortune and new beginnings had popped.
At the time of the first census in 1724, Ambroise Haydel was recorded as living in the small village of Hoffen along with his new wife, Marguerite Schoff and their children (and his one pig). Hoffen was situated north of New Orleans along the Mississippi River; this 70-mile strip of unpaved path winding from New Orleans to Baton Rouge was called River Road, but later earned the nickname “Plantation Row” for the great number of plantations seated upon prime riverfront property. The Haydel family settled along the Des Allemands, or German coast, where most of the German immigrants had chosen to put down roots after arriving in Louisiana and realizing John Law had nothing to give them.
Though Ambroise originally arrived in Louisiana with little means, he would soon amass a much prosperous holding of land and wealth—largely on the shoulders of African slaves who had been “imported” by the Company of West Indies to provide a labor source. By the time of the 1731 census, Ambroise was listed as living with his wife, two children, three slaves and one engage (indentured servants).
For a period of years, Ambroise’s early plantation was moved twice before settling on a six-arpent lot of land in 1752 that he purchased from the Widow Bernard Wigner. It is this land that the Whitney Plantation stands upon today. Two of Haydel’s sons would marry women from the neighboring Houbre plantation—this plantation would later be known as Evergreen which still brackets one side of the Whitney Plantation today.
After the first generation of German and English settlers, plantations along this tract of Plantation Row would be bonded not only by business but by blood as well. In keeping the business within the family, any fortune earned continued down through the generations. For Ambroise Haydel, the crop that initially earned the Haydel family their prosperity was indigo.
The last census taken during Ambroise’s lifetime showed that in 1766, Ambroise’s plantation had grown to 11 1/2 arpents and the number of slaves working the land to twenty. Indigo had clearly done well in supporting the Haydel family, but in 1774 Ambroise’s widow sold off the holdings after his death.
On either side of the original tract, Haydel descendants would own neighboring plantations. To the north was Nicolas Haydel, Ambroise’s second-born son, and to the south was Jean Jacques Haydel, Sr., Ambroise’s youngest son.
After Ambroise Haydel’s death around 1770, his son Jean Jacques Haydel, Sr. would control the property. He married the French Creole, New Orleans-born Marie Magdelaine Bozonnier Marmillon in 1774 and also made the initial shift from indigo to sugar, though it would not be until the early 1800s that sugar would become the plantation’s main source of revenue.
It was Jean-Jacques Haydel, Sr. who would build the so-called “Big House.” The fourteen-room, two-story dwelling is today considered one of the best examples of a raised Creole Cottage in the South. The Spanish Creole architecture also suited the Haydel family just fine: a large gallery on both sides of the house provided circulation of wind and air throughout the home, and the interior woodworking was constructed so finely that little improvements were needed to keep the house up to par with changing architectural preferences. Jean-Jacques Haydel, Sr. would ultimately live in the familial home until his passing at the age of 1826.
He was known, however historically accurate, as the “Godfather of the Parish Church.” He welcomed foreigners like Yves Louis Jacques Hypolite Mialaret, a schoolteacher and a refugee from France, to even marry his granddaughter Emma Becknell, despite the fact that at the time of her marriage she was fourteen and Yves forty-one.
But once again, the plantation would pass down into yet another set of hands after Jean-Jacques Haydel, Sr.’s death: his sons, Jean-Jacques Haydel, Jr. and Jean Francois Marcellin Haydel.
Jean-Jacques Jr. and Marcellin were not great fans of each other. Jean-Jacques owned two-thirds of the property while Marcellin owned just one-third. Enslaved people were not counted among those numbers in the plantation’s reports. Disputes between the brothers must have escalated so highly because two decades later, Marcellin, it seems, was done with the situation and with his brother. He filed a lawsuit against Jean-Jacques, the main shareholder in the family plantation business; Marcellin wanted a more reasonable partition of the property. He had been neglected and abused, Marcellin told the Court.
Jean-Jacques Jr. refused to acquiesce to his brother’s demands, not without selling the whole plantation itself to another bidder. Fortunately for Marcellin, the court swayed in his favor, for in February of 1840 the final judgment was delivered.
Unfortunately, Marcellin Haydel was already dead. He had passed away in his house in November of 1839.
Jean-Jacques Haydel, Jr., the richest of all the Haydels, did not apparently need the Habitation Haydel as he might have previously thought. He owned other plantations, where sugarcane was its primary source of income; sugarcane had similarly become integral for the success of all other family businesses along Plantation Row, south of Baton Rouge where the soil took to the crop. (North of Baton Rouge, Cotton, as they say, was King).
Jean-Jacques Haydel, Jr., did not pass away until 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. He had lost his wife Marie Laure Haydel to the ravaging 1855 yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans, as well as thirty-two of his slaves. After that, Jean-Jacques did not return to the plantation started by his grandfather; instead he remained in New Orleans at one of the many townhouses he owned in the old Vieux Carre.
Perhaps Marcellin Haydel got the last word, however, because when the Habitation Haydel was auctioned off in 1840 after the Court’s passed judgment, it went to Marcellin’s widow Marie Azelie Haydel. She and Marcellin had been married for thirty years but had never had children. Still, they had adopted Alphonse Becnel, who was Azelie’s nephew—it is likely, although difficult to prove, that Alphonse was Marcellin’s natural son, begotten on his wife’s sister, Josephine. After Josephine Haydel passed in 1844, her other child, Marthe Becnel, also joined the household.
By 1860, Azelie would be recorded as one of the largest slaveholders in all of Louisiana. The Habitation Haydel was valued at 187,000 piastres, or dollars, and a reported number of 101 slaves worked the plantation. The property must have been so valuable, even, that Azelie was commissioned famous 19th century painter, Dominici Canova, to paint the murals in the interior and exterior of the Big House during the 1840s. (Canova was also responsible for the altarpiece and fresco at the St. Louis Cathedral and wall-work done at the Louisiana San Francisco Plantation.
Marie Azelie Haydel was the last of the direct line to own and manage the Habitation Haydel. Post-Civil War, the property came under the ownership of Bradish Johnson, who named it the Whitney Plantation after his grandson, Harry Whitney. He operated a distillery business in New York, growing his fortune to such a large degree that he became a millionaire—quite a feat at that time. Before the Civil War, he had inherited a separate Louisiana parish plantation from his brother, and after the War had finished, he moved on to purchase other plantations, including the Haydel’s, along Plantation Row.
Although other hands would own and operate the Whitney Plantation over the next century and a half until it was purchased by New Orleans lawyer, John Cummings, it is the Haydel family that the Whitney Plantation Museum focuses.
“Focuses,” however is a loose term. The Whitney Plantation Museum spends little time on the Haydels, except in explaining the way in which the family members interacted and supported the institution of slavery in antebellum Louisiana. The tour of the “Big House”—so called because of the “Master” who lived inside, and not necessarily because of its size or architecture—took ten minutes to tour as opposed to the forty to fifty minutes in which we wandered the grounds with Director of Operations, Ashley Rogers.
The uneven time ratio is integral to understanding the purpose of the Whitney. For centuries, it was the Haydels who were considered the most important and worthy— though their “importance” was founded on the backs of the enslaved—but the Whitney Plantation seeks to give voice to the thousands of enslaved peoples who created that prosperity for the Southern Planters, the Haydels included.
As Ashley Rogers explained to the Discover Historic America team as she took us on a tour of the property, the Whitney Plantation Museum is not a “beautiful house” tour, but a wider look of slavery within the South and especially within the boundaries of Louisiana plantations.
So, I look at it this way: I have now provided the “house” tour portion of Discover Historic America’s exploration of the Whitney Plantation and slavery. From now on, we will not return to the “Big House,” unless it is to discuss the Haydels’ interactions and influences in regards to enslavement as a whole.
Have you enjoyed learning some of the history about the Whitney Plantation Museum? Check out our first installment about visiting the Museum here and be sure to stick around for our next article!
As always, feel free to comment below–we at Discover Historic America want to turn our tour at the museum into discussion about slavery and the ramifications the institution had on for those in the 19th century and the ramifications that are still felt today.
Want to visit the Whitney Plantation yourself? Follow this link for more information.
And if you questions for us at Discover Historic America feel free to call us toll-free at 1-888-859-5375 or contact us here!
When people visit New Orleans, going to a plantation museum generally ends up on the “to-do” list, fitted somewhere between hitting up Bourbon Street, attending a few historical tours and gorging on po’boys or jambalaya. Up until this past year, the local plantations which ended up on a visitor’s short-list probably would have been Oak Alley or Laura, Nottaway or Houmas House. Within good reason, of course–these old-Creole homes are beautiful examples of Antebellum Louisiana architecture. While sipping mint julep and listening to your guide, who is styled in 19th century clothing at Oak Alley Plantation, it is easy to be mentally transported back a century. It is so easy to imagine that you are receiving the full story of the Antebellum South.
The reality is that you are receiving the full story, but solely one side of it: the master of the plantation and his family’s story, which may have been fraught with drama and tragedy but is only one-half of the very complicated puzzle of 19th century Louisiana and the rest of the American South.
The Whitney Plantation, which is located in Wallace, Louisiana, along Louisiana’s scenic River Road, seeks to deliver that full message.
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Having always been a fan of house tours, “the more ornate the better” has always been my motto. In the United States, no set of houses can probably top the Newport Mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. The mansions–because they can’t even be described purely as “houses”–were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the Gilded Age. Owners were powerful families like the Vanderbuilts and Rockefellers, and most of these properties were strictly seasonal homes. During the rest of the year, the properties sat vacant, apart from the servants who were always on the clock.
From properties built entirely of marble to a Victorian-style abode, visitors of the Newport Mansions experience a sense of overwhelming awe as each property is revealed to be even grander and more lavish than the previous. And while wandering through, two questions always percolate: who had the money to build this? and, more importantly, who lived here?
Audio headsets allow guests to meander through the mansions at their own pace. The story unfolded over the audio tour is one about the illustrious paintings decorating the silk-damask walls, the dining room set that can fit, it seems, 100 people, and the various families who have called these properties “home.” Perhaps “awe” is not a strong enough word to replicate the sensation of personally seeing such grandeur. Only at The Elms is there a chance to understand the striations of society in a different light through a guided tour called, “Servant Life Tour.”
The “Servant Life Tour” reflects upon how the other half lived during this era. A visitor is shown how the servant’s entrance was concealed by a huge circular-shaped tree, so that owners glancing outside windows on the upper floors wouldn’t be burdened by the sight of the bustling activity below. The tour visits the servant’s quarters on the mansion’s most upper floor, where there is not a single touch of gilded-fireplaces or intricately detailed ceiling moldings, and also the mansion’s rooftop, which was a designated place for servants in need of catching a fresh breath of air. (The walls of the mansion hid the servants from view of anyone promenading in the gardens below).
Readers might be wondering why I have entered such a long expose about a set of homes that are no where near the Louisiana region.
It is for this reason: I visited the Whitney Plantation on a company field trip. On the fifty-minute scenic drive from New Orleans to Wallace, we passed the eery cypress trees of the swamps, the open expanse of green fields and the sugar cane plants that once vitalized the entire southern half of Louisiana with prosperity. Our tour set for 11:30am, I imagined a slightly similar experience to the “Servant Life Tour” in Rhode Island, at least in terms of the museum’s deliverance of the material. I prepared myself to write an article about the Whitney as the antithesis to the Oak Alleys or Nottaways.
After spending nearly two hours walking the grounds of the Whitney Plantation, I can say this: the Whitney is not comparable to the “Servant Life Tour” of the Newport Mansions, nor is it the antithesis of other Louisiana plantations.
In reality, the message that the Whitney delivers is so much more.
Pulling into the parking lot of the plantation, a white sign with red painted letters reads: Welcome to the Whitney Plantation: the Story of Slavery.
The Whitney Plantation Museum opened its doors to the public in December of 2014. It is owned by John Cummings, who has been a trial lawyer in New Orleans for decades. Look up a picture of him and the first thing one notices is that Cummings is a white man in his late seventies. For most, the first question to leap to the tongue is, “What is a white man doing operating a museum on slavery?” It’s a question that has been directed at Cummings many times in the past year since the museum’s opening. According to Ashley Rogers, the Whitney’s Director of Operations, John Cummings likes a good underdog story.
When Cummings purchased the old plantation in 1999, he did so initially as a real estate investment. Quickly he realized that he knew very little about slavery, save that in schools slavery is defined as “horrific” or by other, similar connotations. But the question nevertheless remains: what was slavery? What was the nature and the reality of it without all of the century-old defenses and walls that have been erected by (white) society since slavery was officially abolished in 1865 under the 13th Amendment?
The Whitney attempts, and succeeds, in giving a voice and name to some of the 12.5 million enslaved people in America who remained voiceless and nameless for centuries. The experience begins by an admissions associate in the museum’s Visitor’s Center handing over a white card strung on a black cord. Each card is emblazoned on one side with a photo of one of the Children of Whitney, sculptures created by Ohio-artist Woodrow Nash intended to represent former enslaved people at the time of emancipation when they had been children; on the other side of the card is a name of an enslaved person, his or her age, and an oral quote they once told the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936 about life on a plantation before slavery was abolished. Every card is of a different person.
For the length of my tour, I am Albert Patterson, 90 years of age, with my own story to tell:
“I remember our plantation was sold twice befo’ de war. It was sheriff’s sale, de white peoples dey stand up on de porch an’ de black men an’ women an’ children stand on de ground, an’ de man he shout, ‘How much am I offered fo’ plantation an’ fine men an’ woman?’ Somebody would say so many thousand . . . an’ after while one man buy it all.”
It did not escape my notice that the black cord of the card hung around my neck in much the same fashion that the iron shackles once wrapped around the necks of those who were enslaved.
Discover Historic America is not only a tour company, but an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing our nation’s history. When our founder, Tim Nealon, informed our office staff and tour guides that we would be taking a trip to the Whitney Plantation Museum, he was met with many an enthusiastic yes! He, and our General Manager, Gretchen, wanted us to not only be able to experience the story of the Whitney for ourselves, but to also share our experiences with guests on tours and our followers across social media. We have Ashley Rogers, the Director of Operations at the Whitney, to thank for the most fulfilling and informational personal tour that she gave us during our time at the plantation.
John Cummings has been reported as saying that unless people educate themselves on the complexities and horror of slavery, then there is little chance of moving forward as a nation. There is no getting over “it,” he has said in interview after interview, because we (those who are not of African-American descent) have not suffered “it.”
“It” refers specifically to the matter of slavery.
With that in mind, Discover Historic America will feature various aspects of the Whitney’s history and its message over the next two months through a series of articles about the history of the plantation, different facets of the museum and its delivery, and the importance of what the Whitney Plantation Museum is doing. Although other museums in the United States have attempted to discuss the subject of slavery, none have had the success of the Whitney. Today, the Whitney Plantation is the only museum in the country (out of 35,000 museums) that is dedicated solely to telling the story of slavery.
The Whitney Plantation is perceived as many as being controversial, but as Ashley Rogers points out, the museum wants to push those boundaries and force visitors to truly think about what slavery meant to the millions of people who suffered in it shackles and the ramifications the slavery system still has today.
Until next time, I will leave you with this pertinent quote that is used in the Whitney’s mini-film at the start of their tour:
“Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is–’tis he who has endured.”
-John Little, a man who had been formerly enslaved; he escaped the bounds of slavery for Canada, and in 1855 reflected back on when he had been a slave.