A pioneer planter in what is now West Feliciana Parish, Rachel O'Connor wrote more than one hundred letters describing antebellum plantation life in southern Louisiana.
A pioneer planter in what is now West Feliciana Parish, Rachel O’Connor wrote more than one hundred letters describing antebellum plantation life in southern Louisiana.Following the deaths of her husband and two sons, O’Connor managed the large plantation she called Evergreen for twenty-six years. Written between approximately 1823 and 1845, the 157 surviving letters—part of the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Collection housed at Hill Memorial Library at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge—provide an informative glimpse into early community life, the legal status of antebellum women, and the experiences of a slave-holding widow managing a large cotton plantation.
Born Rachel Swayze on March 13, 1774, near Bayou Teche, O’Connor was the second child of Stephen Swayze and Rachel Hopkins Swayze. Though the details of her childhood are unclear, O’Connor’s father died early in her life. Her mother then married William Weeks and, around 1778, the family relocated to the Feliciana district where Weeks established a sugar plantation. In addition to her older brother, William, O’Connor had three half-siblings: Pamela, Caleb, and David Weeks, the last of whom she corresponded with frequently throughout her life.
In 1790, O’Connor married Richard Bell and soon had a son, Stephen. Finding herself a widow just two years later, O’Connor and her son moved back to her stepfather’s home, where they remained for five years. In 1797, O’Connor married Hercules O’Connor, a recent immigrant from Ireland. Shortly after their marriage, Spanish governor Manuel Gayoso granted Rachel O’Connor 276 arpents of land in Feliciana, where the couple established a cotton plantation named Evergreen. The plantation thrived, growing to more than one thousand acres, and in 1807 they had a son, James. By the early 1820s, following the deaths of her husband and two sons, O’Connor found herself managing the large estate on her own and trying to pay off her deceased son’s debt.
As she struggled for her plantation’s survival, O’Connor frequently wrote her half-brother David Weeks and his family. Weeks, a wealthy sugar planter, owned Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia. O’Connor’s letters are filled with news about the health and activities of her neighbors and family, including those of her nearest neighbors Lucretia Alston Pirrie, mistress of Oakley Plantation (now Audubon State Commemorative Area in St. Francisville), and Pirrie’s daughter Eliza. Oakley Plantation, adjacent to the O’Connor’s land, provided a temporary home for bird and wildlife painter John James Audubon, who arrived in 1821 to tutor Eliza. In her letters, O’Connor documents the web of social and family connections, including the marriages, births, deaths, and travels, among her neighbors.
O’Connor’s correspondence also reveals the challenges women faced as plantation managers. She writes about her care of and affection for her slaves, as well as her distrust of overseers who might abuse them. In addition, she describes disease outbreaks, including yellow fever and cholera, afflicting the region and threatening the lives of her slaves. Although she used overseers and sought the advice of family members about plantation matters, O’Connor actively engaged in the management of agricultural production on the plantation. Her correspondence provides regular reports on the plantation’s cotton production, as well as her personal labors in the vegetable and flower gardens.
O’Connor’s legal difficulties reveal important differences between common law, operative in most other parts of the United States, and the Louisiana Civil Code. Under common law, most states did not allow women to own and manage separate property, but Louisiana’s 1825 Civil Code held the opposite. Hence, when O’Connor’s son Stephen died in 1820, she legally accepted his heavily indebted estate, making it part of her separate property under marital property laws. When Stephen’s debt threatened Evergreen’s survival, however, O’Connor later claimed that she had accepted her son’s property and debts without the consent of her husband and was, therefore, not liable for her son’s debts.
In 1830, the state supreme court agreed with creditors, maintaining that O’Connor legally accepted the succession. Because the property became part of her separate property, her acceptance of her Stephen’s debts did not require her husband’s signature. Creditors threatened to seize Evergreen Plantation in payment of the debts. In an effort to protect her assets, O’Connor agreed to sell her plantation and slaves to her brother David Weeks shortly after the court’s decision. The deed of sale guaranteed O’Connor life-long residence and management rights to the plantation, and she remained at Evergreen until her death on May 22, 1846.
While Rachel O’Connor’s life and letters reflect a unique perspective and situation, in many ways her situation was typical of antebellum widows. West Feliciana Parish records indicate that other women in the community found themselves managing plantations and slaves. Though they were certainly in the minority, female planters represented a significant percentage of early-nineteenth-century planters in West Feliciana Parish and the South in general. O’Connor’s letters provide valuable insight into their lives.