ASECS Paula Backscheider Archival Fellowship Report
Elizabeth Neidenbach, College of William and Mary
October 22, 2011
With the generous support of the Paula Backscheider Archival Fellowship, I spent one month at the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer (ANOM) in Aix-en-Provence, France this
summer. Using the ANOM’s colonial Saint-Domingue holdings, I conducted research for my
dissertation on Marie Justine Cirnaire Couvent. Enslaved as a child in the 1760s and shipped to Saint-Domingue, Couvent died a free and wealthy slaveholder in New Orleans in 1837. She was one of thousands of free women of color who fled Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution and eventually resettled in Louisiana between 1791 and 1810. Using Couvent as a focal point, my project examines how these free black women utilized social networks and property ownership to rebuild their lives in New Orleans and contribute to the development of a French-speaking free people of color community between 1791 and 1840.
My goal was to find out more about Marie Couvent’s life in Saint-Domingue, as well as
other free women of color who relocated to New Orleans. Unfortunately, I was more successful in the latter than the former. Consulting notary records, censuses, and the Consulats Americaines
collection, I did locate several of the individuals I hoped to find. This information provides me with more details on their former lives in Saint-Domingue, as well as their experiences during the tumult of the Revolution that eventually brought them to Louisiana. Most importantly, this research allows me to analyze Couvent’s actions in New Orleans from a different perspective
and confirms the value of viewing the lives of these free black women through a transnational lens.
Searching for specific individuals proved challenging, and I was disappointed that I did not locate any documents that contained explicit information on Marie Couvent. There were a few records in which the individual mentioned could have been her, but without supporting evidence there was no way to tell for sure. The fact that Couvent spent most of her time in Saint-Domingue as a slave certainly reduced her inclusion in some sources. The ANOM’s document
retrieval system also proved to be a limiting factor. Access to records is restricted to a certain number per person per day. This made it difficult for me to move through the large quantity of notary documents in the short time that I had. Therefore, I do not believe I exhausted all of my resources at the ANOM.
Although my research fell short of filling in the gaps of Couvent’s life, I did discover
several records that involved a family to which she had significant ties. Evidence from New Orleans indicates that François Maurau owned Couvent’s son in Saint-Domingue and possibly
her, as well. His brother, Jean, resettled in New Orleans, where Couvent remained in contact with him and his family. In censuses and notary records, I discovered references to a merchant named Jean Maurau and a tailor named François Maurau in Cap Français. The dates of the documents, the location, and the men’s occupations suggest that they are the same individuals in
the New Orleans records. With this confirmation, I can form new hypotheses about Couvent’s life as a slave in Cap Français on the eve of the Haitian Revolution.
Notary and census records proved useful in other ways. I successfully located several women who eventually ended up in New Orleans in these sources, including Rosalie Chesneau, Catherine Beauchamp, Marie Louise Tonnelier, and Jeannette Azulima. Each of these women recorded at least one testament in New Orleans, documents rich in details on property ownership and familial and social networks. For example, Jeannette Azulima recorded her will in 1811 shortly after arriving in New Orleans. In this document, she described the property she owned in Cap Français’ Petite Carenage neighborhood. I found multiple notary records at the ANOM pertaining to Jeannette Azulima, including land and slave transactions. I also found her listed as wine and retail merchant in an 1803 census of the city. Another census of abandoned plantations near Jean Rabel, taken in 1795, listed Rosalie Chesneau among the owners. Records from New Orleans indicate that Chesneau owned a plantation in the area. The census provided details about the property and clues about Chesneau’s movements during the Revolution. These pieces of
evidence allow me to map the lives of several specific free women of color in both Saint-Domingue and New Orleans and to better understand what they left behind when they fled the island.
Due to a lack of records and the often indirect routes taken, it is difficult to trace the trajectories of individual women from Saint-Domingue to New Orleans. The Consulats
Amèricaines collection, however, is an important source for following the movement of free black women and their social contacts during the Revolution. The collection is a set of documents recorded by refugees upon their arrival in various destinations in the Caribbean and the United States. Although only a handful of documents related to New Orleans directly, the documents recorded in Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa, Cuba, Charleston, SC, Baltimore, MD,
and Philadelphia, PA included wills, acts of notoriety and power of attorney, slave sales and emancipations, and declarations and testimonies about the refugee experience. These documents, recorded in the moment of flight, reveal familial and social connections that stretched throughout the Atlantic. They also point to the types of information Saint-Domingue inhabitants deemed important to chronicle in their place of refuge. Many documents pertained to property ownership and ranged from legally placing someone who remained on the island in charge of a refugee’s
property there to individuals attempting to reclaim a slave that was confiscated en route by privateers. Beyond the general picture of refugee emigration these records provide, I also found specific individuals with New Orleans connections. I plan to use these details for a chapter which traces the movement of free women of color from Saint-Domingue through various Atlantic locales before settling in New Orleans.
Overall, my research trip to the ANOM was successful. Although I did not find information specific to Marie Couvent, the records I found for other free women of color provide a better understanding of these women as a group. Most importantly, the material I gathered has pushed my dissertation in new directions. For example, I noticed that philanthropic bequests were common in wills recorded by free people of color in Saint-Domingue. This stands out in comparison to free black testaments in New Orleans where Couvent’s legacy of the school is one of the earliest examples of such a bequest. Thus, by taking into account their Saint-Domingue background, I can place the actions of Couvent and other refugee women in New Orleans in a new, broader context. I am very grateful to the ASECS for supporting my research through the Paula Backscheider Archival Fellowship.