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back to index A Brief Ethnography of Magnolia Plantation: Planning for Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Chapter 1: Introduction

Location of Magnolia

Magnolia Plantation is in northwest Louisiana in Natchitoches Parish or “county.” It is situated near Derry and, some 18 miles south of the Parish center, a small city also called Natchitoches. Located on the banks of the lower Cane River, the plantation neighbors the town of Cloutierville in southeastern Natchitoches Parish (see Figure 1). The nearly nineteen acre park under National Park Service (NPS) management is in the plantation’s southern end, fronting on Highway 119 and near of 119 and Highway 1. The larger plantation consists of several thousand acres of arable flat lands along with the main plantation house and owners’ residence, the “Big House” with its broad avenue or alley of 150 year-old live oak and magnolia trees. On the other side of the tree-lined alley is the National Park Service area with the pigeonnier (pigeon house), small field, and the farm operational center. This section also contains the overseer’s house, an ample 19th century structure once used as a slave hospital. The quarters are here too. Originally constructed to house enslaved workers, eight of the original two-room red brick structures remain standing. Tenant laborers occupied them from abolition until the late 1960s. Tenant farmers, the sharecroppers, had lived north of the Big House, beyond the NPS holding.

Geographically and historically, Cane River Creole NHP has been nested in the complex cultural landscape known as the Cane River National Heritage Area. The law creating the park had established the heritage area as well. It includes dispersed 18th and 19th century structures linked through their past contributions to Cane River’s political, social, cultural, and economic system. The structures are in mixed ownership, most held privately and some publicly, especially by the state. Establishing the Cane River Creole NHP added Federal holdings to the mix. The lands and structures cut an inverted “V”-shaped swath starting about 50 miles southeast of Shreveport.

The city of Natchitoches is found at the center of the “V,” near the banks of Cane River Lake. The Natchitoches Historic District is there too, with town houses formerly owned by important planters, along with a complement of civic and commercial structures. Some of these properties could be included in the heritage area if their managers and the NPS mutually sought the arrangements known as cooperative agreements. One wing of the “V” runs to the southwest and includes three State Commemorative Areas. One is the early French settlement and precursor of Natchitoches, the reconstructed Fort St. Jean Baptiste. A second is the Spanish mission post and Caddoan Indian settlement, Los Adaes. The third is Fort Jesup, the reconstructed American Frontier post, at the tip of this wing. The other wing runs the course of the Cane River lake and Cane River, to the southeast, with antebellum plantations such as Oakland and Magnolia on its banks, and Cloutierville at its tip. Although the heritage area legislation identifies no specific American Indian resources as such, the potential for identifying and interpreting indigenous groups and places is high.

Why This Study Was Conducted

In 1994, Congress added Cane River Creole National Historical Park (CARI) to the system of parks managed by the National Park Service (U.S. Congress 1994). The park acknowledges the special architectural and other cultural qualities the Cane River area contributed over the centuries to the nation’s heritage. Resources from two antebellum plantations comprise the park. First, the National Park Service acquired the Magnolia resources via donation from Museum Contents, Inc., a local heritage organization. The Hertzog family, which owns Magnolia, had previously donated that section to Museum Contents. Then, the NPS purchased the second section of the park, which includes Oakland, the Prud’homme family home, and adjacent resources. Both plantations are nationally recognized as outstanding in several ways. Each is a Bicentennial Farm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture so-designated them in 1988 because of their continuous cultivation by the same families since at least 1787, the year of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Each plantation is a National Register site, and in 2001 the National Park Service also recognized each as a National Historic Landmark.

Consistent with the National Park Service planning process, a General Management Plan (GMP) is being prepared by the Denver Service Center (DSC), the agency’s major planning facility (NPS 2000). By formulating broad guidance on interpretation and cultural and natural resource management, the GMP will help set the stage for managing and developing park facilities and programs over the next several years. Interest in the people traditionally associated with Magnolia is basic to planning. It is also a basic National Park Service policy to consider the present-day peoples whose ways of life and cultural identity are traditionally linked to park cultural and natural resources. Systematic ethnographic or anthropological investigation is the expected vehicle for gaining insights into contemporary peoples and concerns (1988 Management Policies, Chapters 2, 5; Directors Order #28, Chapter 5: Ethnographic Resources 1997).

Limited social science information existed about the historic Cane River area and its people (e.g., Mills 1977, Cohen 1984), particularly about Magnolia. To fill that gap, the park arranged for planning-oriented studies on Magnolia’s archeology (NPS 1999a), history (Malone 1996), and cultural landscapes (Lawliss et al. 1996). A study of Creoles of color in the nearby Isle Brevelle farming community in the heritage area was underway (e.g., Gregory and Moran 1996). But information about the people who once lived and worked at Magnolia itself remained meager. This data gap, coupled with the evident social complexity of Magnolia and the need for community input into planning, troubled the planners, the former Cane River Creole superintendent, the Jean Lafitte staff associated with establishing the new park, and the Washington office ethnographer. They recognized the need to consult people whose traditional and varied associations to Magnolia would contribute rich and potentially hidden dimensions to the planning dialogue. Too often, community people who are not specialists in historic preservation or related professions avoid the public meetings that offer opportunities to participate in the planning process. As a result, their voices tend to remain muted and both they and the resources they value invisible. These considerations prompted the decision to conduct a rapid cultural anthropology or ethnographic study that would find and reach out to the otherwise silent or absent players.

The Study

This report addresses the people associated with the resources now under National Park Service management. Whether they are the Hertzog family of owner-managers or tenant laborers and farmers, they have important stories to tell. Their different voices speak of their own pasts, community and work in the mid-20th century, and survival in the face of political, natural, economic, and technological challenges. This work, however, is a modest “starter” ethnography. Its aim is to sketch the context for life at Magnolia and make certain voices more audible and traditionally valued places more visible. We hoped the outcomes would advance the ethnographic research on living communities called for in section 304 (e) of the park legislation. To accomplish this within our limited funds and time, we sought peoples’ perspectives on their past and present lives, and their views on park planning and interpretation. People experience, interpret, and report events in different ways because they occupy different places in the social and ethnic or racial hierarchies and play correspondingly different economic or political roles (cf. Bond and Gilliam 1994). This reality prompted us to meet a range of people who might share their varying perspectives, or constructions of the recent past, and expectations of the National Park Service. Trying to be inclusive, we sought African American, or “black” people as they usually said, and Creoles of color, or they might say Creoles, who traced their ancestry to African and French people, possibly to American Indian, and perhaps to Chinese immigrants, as well. Other interviewees were white people, including the Hertzog family, who traced their ancestry to French Creole.

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