Marie Thérèse Coincoin
Marie Thérèse Coincoin was born into slavery in French Colonial Louisiana then gained her own freedom and the freedom of many of her children.
Marie Thérèse, called Coincoin, a freed slave in colonial Natchitoches, is an icon of American slavery and Louisiana’s Creole culture. As a bondswoman who became a free planter and entrepreneur, she symbolizes female self-determination in a world that imposed economic, legal, and sexual subservience on all women. As the mother of two diverse sets of children born between 1759 and 1785, she personifies the way slavery undermined the stability of slave families. Her successes and those of her offspring reflect the critical skills needed by free people of color to navigate political and racial currents in antebellum Louisiana. Two of their institutions—Melrose Plantation and St. Augustine’s Church on Isle Brevelle, founded by her sons Louis Metoyer and Nicolas Augustin Metoyer—are historical landmarks that preserve Cane River’s Creole culture.
Coincoin’s life straddled three political regimes: French, Spanish, and American. Each significantly affected her. At her birth in 1742, Louisiana was a French colony in which the Code Noir governed Africans and their offspring. The code’s respect for families allowed her African-born parents, known only by their baptismal names François and Marie Françoise, to marry in a Catholic ceremony in 1736. It also enabled them to keep their family intact through twenty-two years of marriage. However, the economic interests of slaveholders, also protected by the Code, offered few opportunities to escape servitude. Thus, economic realities split Coincoin’s birth family after the deaths of her parents and her master’s widow, Mme. Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, in an epidemic when Coincoin was sixteen. While the ethnic African origins of Coincoin’s parents go unstated in extant records, the African names they gave to her and four siblings (Coincoin, Dgimby, Choera, Chocra, and Yancdose) provide clues that linguists are now exploring.
Life in Slavery
French colonial social policies condoned Coincoin’s sexual exploitation, and the subsequent transfer of Louisiana to Spain subjected her to the age-old practice of punishing female victims of that abuse. She would use both violations of her person as a pathway to freedom. In 1767, Coincoin’s new mistress (and godmother) rented her to a French bachelor, Pierre Claude Thomas Metoyer, by whom she bore another ten children. Prosecuted for these pregnancies by the parish priest, who branded her a “public prostitute,” she was sentenced to the lash and public humiliation. In the wake of this punishment, which was not exacted upon the man she sexually served, Metoyer bought her freedom. When he eventually set her aside for a legal wife, he deeded her his unpatented interest in a small tract of sixty-seven acres, as an economic start for her and their younger, free-born children.
Life as a Freedwoman
As a freedwoman, Coincoin created an existence that now seems both emblematic and enigmatic. Contrary to modern expectations, she displayed no antipathy for the institution of slavery. Like many other freedwomen in Spanish Louisiana, she accepted slavery as an economic and social exigency and used it to create a legacy that has endured across two centuries. Toward this end she was aided by Spain’s legal code, Las Siete Partidas, which granted free land, encouraged manumissions, and mandated compulsory emancipations for slaves when kinsmen or benefactors offered a fair price. Manipulating these legal and economic systems, Coincoin purchased the freedom of six children and grandchildren; she also obtained a land grant that was vast in acreage though poor in quality.
With the help of her younger children, Coincoin operated a modest tobacco farm on her original homestead. She trapped wildlife to sell its byproducts at market and manufactured medicines, a skill—apparently learned from her African-born parents—for which she and her freed sister, Mariotte, were noted at the post. Eventually, she employed a Spaniard to oversee a vacherie (cattle ranch) on her piney-woods grant. As her children matured and began their own enterprises, and her advancing age and the physical effects of fifteen childbirths limited her ability to labor, Coincoin bought a young African woman to assist her—and ultimately, two African males. The relationship that developed between her and her enslaved “property” perhaps reflected her ambivalence between the culture she had embraced as a Louisiana native and the African traditions her parents would have taught her to respect. As a seemingly devout Catholic, Coincoin made certain that each child borne by her bondwoman was baptized the next time a priest visited their outlying plantation. However, contrary to the practice of other Catholic slaveholders of her region, she did not force her African slaves to convert to Christianity. The Congolese Louis chose baptism two years after he arrived at the post, the Congo-born Marguerite waited at least twelve years, and the Quissay Harry was never baptized at Natchitoches.
By the eve of Coincoin’s death in 1816, under a far more restrictive American regime, she had accumulated an estate of more than a thousand acres and sixteen slaves—thirteen of them the children and grandchildren of Marguerite. Coincoin’s own offspring, in the decades that followed, built upon her foundation, creating an agricultural empire that made them the wealthiest free family of color in the nation.
Coincoin’s legacy is commemorated at historical sites along Natchitoches’ Cane River, the seat of an enduring Creole society preserved by her Metoyer offspring. Melrose Plantation, developed by her son Louis Metoyer but often erroneously attributed to her, was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1974. St. Augustin Parish, whose original church was built by her son Augustin Metoyer in 1829, with Louis’ help, is the site of an annual October fair that celebrates Creole heritage. A mid-nineteenth century structure on Coincoin’s homestead has been misidentified as her personal home by a recent Historic American Building Survey. However, ongoing archaeological studies of that property have located the site of an earlier residence. Its material remains, which date to her lifetime and likely represent the relics from her occupancy, are richly documenting aspects of the African Diaspora.