Jean Noel Destrehan
As one of the most prominent Mississippi River plantation owners of colonial Louisiana, Jean Noel Destrehan built a prosperous farming operation around the stately River Road manor that still bears his family name.
As one of the most prominent Mississippi River plantation owners of colonial Louisiana, Jean Noël Destrehan built a prosperous farming operation around the stately River Road manor that still bears his family name. Like his father and grandfather before him, the French-speaking Destrehan involved himself in governmental affairs in addition to attending to the family business. He occupied political positions both before and after the Louisiana Purchase transferred the territory from France to the United States, including a brief tenure as a US senator after Louisiana gained statehood.
The Destrehan Family in Colonial Louisiana
The father of Louisiana’s Destrehan family was Jean Baptiste Destrehan (ca. 1670–1740), councilor to King Louis XIV and treasurer of all the arts and crafts guilds in Paris and its environs. Jean Baptiste Destrehan’s son, also named Jean Baptiste (1716–1765), came to Louisiana as a clerk in the ofﬁce of ordonnateur, a position responsible for the ﬁnances of the colony; his signature appears on an ofﬁcial document in 1739.
In about 1745 Destrehan married Catherine de Gauvry, whose father had been the French commandant at Natchez, more than a hundred miles upriver from Louisiana’s capital of New Orleans. For the next twenty years, until his death in 1765, Destrehan accumulated substantial land holdings and survived scandals in the ofﬁce of ordonnateur. Jean Baptiste and Catherine had ten children. When Catherine died, Destrehan sent all of the children except the eldest son to France to live with their aunt, Marguerite Marie Destrehan, who had never married. Jean Baptiste Noël Destrehan des Tours (hereafter, Jean Noël Destrehan), the youngest, would eventually return to Louisiana and carry on the family name.
Between the death of Destrehan père and the settlement of the estate, three of the daughters—Jean Noël’s sisters—married into prominent Louisiana families: Boré, Marigny, and D’Aunoy. The marriages served to protect the Destrehan sisters’ inherited assets through prudent and experienced management. These alliances also helped to forge economic, political, and social ties in the Creole community, where these families were highly esteemed.
Emancipated at seventeen years old upon the death of an older brother, Jean Noël inherited a plantation and slaves in St. Charles Parish near the present Destrehan Plantation. Though his father had landholdings throughout the area on both sides of the Mississippi River, Jean Noël’s residency in St. Charles Parish solidiﬁed the family’s name with the area of the river known as the German Coast (because of its early settlement in the 1720s by farmers from Europe’s Germanic states). Jean Noël’s plantation fronted twenty-three arpents—one arpent equals approximately 192 feet—on the Mississippi River and extended to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, more than eight miles distant. Not all of the land was arable; as the tract receded from the river to the lake into marshland, it became more liquid than solid. For the next decade, Jean Noël operated an indigo plantation. By this time, he was the only surviving male Destrehan—all of his brothers and uncles had died.
In 1786 Jean Noël married Marie Céleste Robin de Logny, the daughter of a neighbor, and they lived on Jean Noël’s plantation in St. Charles Parish. The couple remained in residence there until the end of 1792, when Destrehan’s father-in-law died. In mid-December 1792, Jean Noël purchased Robert Antoine Robin de Logny’s plantation at auction along with some of its household furnishings, livestock, and farm equipment. With three children—Célestine, Eléonore, and Jean Etienne—and a fourth, Nicolas Noël, soon to be born, they moved into the house in 1793. The Destrehans had a total of fourteen children, but only eleven survived infancy. The father of this large family resided in the home for the remaining years of his life, and it is this property and manor house that are known today as Destrehan Plantation.
Agricultural and Political Transition
Until the early 1790s, Louisiana’s (and Destrehan’s) major cash crop was indigo. Plantations not only grew the plants but also engaged in the labor-intensive process of manufacturing indigo dye. Earlier in the eighteenth century, attempts had been made to cultivate and process sugar in the region, but these met with little predictability or success. In the early 1790s crop failures and indigo blight in Louisiana, along with the disruption of the lucrative sugar production industry on the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue—where a slave insurrection led to a full-scale revolution—prompted Louisiana’s planters to give sugar a second look; some planters began to pursue sugar production in Louisiana with renewed zeal. Success was ensured through the introduction of enhanced granulating techniques, which prevented spoilage in sugar shipped over long distances. Louisiana’s sugar production helped ﬁll a commodity vacuum left by the void in Saint-Domingue. Destrehan, the man and the plantation, embraced sugar as indigo’s replacement and rode this wave of prosperity from the end of Louisiana’s Spanish period, through the brief transition of Louisiana to France, and into the era signaled by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. By this date, Destrehan was one of the largest sugar-producing plantations in the parish and Jean Noël a leading citizen of the region.
Jean Noël’s good character and reputation were corroborated by credible testimony from people who met him. These included William Dunbar of Natchez, a friend of Thomas Jefferson’s, and Pierre Clément Laussat, the French colonial prefect who resided in Louisiana from 1803 until early 1804. Though Destrehan did not speak English and had little formal education, those involved in orchestrating the transition of Louisiana from a Spanish to a French colony and then to an American territory sought his advice and opinion on a variety of matters. During the brief French governmental period in December 1803, Laussat appointed him ﬁrst deputy; Destrehan’s brother-in-law Etienne de Boré was appointed mayor. Once transfer of Louisiana to the United States occurred on December 20, the youngest son of Louisiana’s last French treasurer returned to his plantation.
But Jean Noël was not entirely ﬁnished with politics. Initially a spokesman for the Creoles on issues of slavery and an immediate path to statehood for the new American territory, Destrehan served in the ﬁrst Legislative Council (1806) for the Territory of Orleans, a portion of the Louisiana Territory roughly corresponding to today’s state of Louisiana. Destrehan ultimately recanted his early position on immediate statehood; his reason for delaying admission to the Union was the government’s failure to establish an educational system. Gov. William C. C. Claiborne was often at odds with the Creoles and liberally used his veto to thwart legislation passed by the council, causing Destrehan and fellow legislator Pierre Sauvé to resign in protest. Destrehan remained out of politics until 1810, when James Madison, by then the president, appointed him to a second Legislative Council.
The Tumultuous 1810s
The following year, the German Coast experienced an event that reverberated throughout the region—a revolt by plantation slaves. On January 8, 1811, the insurrection began at the plantation of Manuel Andry in St. John the Baptist Parish. A group of slaves on the Andry plantation attacked the owner, wounding him and seizing weapons stored there. Other slaves were organized and began to march downriver toward New Orleans, recruiting additional slaves for the cause and creating havoc as they advanced. By the morning of January 9, the group had traveled six miles to St. Charles Parish. Word of the action had begun to reach downriver plantations, and residents either ﬂed to safety—often aided by their own slaves—or tried to resist. A detachment of United States troops from Baton Rouge under the command of General Wade Hampton ﬁnally met the improvised army in the present Jefferson Parish city of Kenner early on the morning of January 10. Tired, outnumbered, and outgunned, the slaves ﬂed into the surrounding countryside and marshes. Many were captured and tried, and 157 were identiﬁed as participants in the revolt. Jean Noël Destrehan was a member of the tribunal appointed by Judge Pierre Bauchet St. Martin that ruled death by ﬁring squad an appropriate punishment for the forty-five found guilty of insurrection. Destrehan’s plantation was the site of the trial. Among the executed slaves, three were from Destrehan’s plantation; a fourth had been killed in the skirmishes of January 8 and 9. In the end, the revolt changed little on either side: slavery in the United States persisted for half a century and slave-dependent plantations, including Destrehan, continued to operate.
The 1810s did bring about changes in other areas of life in Louisiana. Destrehan brieﬂy returned to politics following Louisiana’s admission to the Union as the eighteenth state on April 30, 1812. He ran for governor but lost to Claiborne, who had served as appointed territorial governor; however, Destrehan did win a US Senate seat. Although he soon resigned that position, he served in the Louisiana state senate until 1817. A second run for governor in 1820 netted the same result as his ﬁrst: he ﬁnished last in a ﬁeld of four.
January 1815 saw the ﬁnal days of the War of 1812 played out near New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson’s American force defeated the British troops intent on capturing the city. The ratiﬁcation of the Treaty of Ghent, formally ending hostilities, soon followed. Jean Noël’s three sons served as mounted troops in the conﬂict, and he himself was named to the short-lived Committee of Defense.
Against this backdrop of political tumult and ﬁnancial success, personal tragedy visited Jean Noël during the second decade of the nineteenth century. His oldest daughter, Célestine Trudeau, died in 1811, and about four years later a second daughter, Eléonore Macarty, died. Of Destrehan’s eleven children surviving infancy, only ﬁve were alive at the time of his death on October 4, 1823. Two sons preceded him in death—Etienne and Guy, who had died only the month before. The inheritors of Jean Noël’s estate, which was valued at nearly $850,000, were Nicolas, René, Eléonore Zelia (Zelia), Louise Odile (Louise), and Céleste. Nicolas’s son, Nicolas Azby Destrehan (Azby), born in 1833, would be the last male bearing the Destrehan name.
Ownership of Destrehan Plantation eventually passed out of the family’s control and the mansion fell into disrepair, but a long-term restoration project in recent decades has elevated the property’s profile as an architectural gem of the Mississippi River’s German Coast and ensured the continued recognition of the Destrehan legacy throughout southeastern Louisiana.